Top Ten Outside-the-Box Congressional Candidates

Joint Session of the United States Congress

Let’s face it, most Congressional elections look pretty much the same.  Incumbent Congressman A is challenged by small business owner B or local mayor C.  Veteran Senator X runs for reelection against State Senator Y or district attorney Z.  Races that catch the public’s attention are few and far between.

This year, however, Congressional leaders are hopeful that a number of candidates with unusual resumes or exciting biographies will excite voters across the political spectrum.

In an April interview with USA Today, Democratic Rep. Steve Israel said that a major part of his party’s 2012 strategy was to recruit non-traditional candidates with compelling achievements outside of politics to compete in historically unfriendly districts.  Republicans too have tried to promote a number of atypical candidates.

Below is a list of The Politic’s top ten outside-the-box Congressional candidates running in 2012 (in no particular order… though make sure to read the last one: he is literally unbelievable).


1.  Val Demings (D-Florida 10th)

According to a profile in USA Today, Val Demings, the Democrat running in a conservative Florida Congressional district, “has a biography that reads like a movie script.”  She was the youngest of seven children born in Florida to African American parents, a janitor and cleaning lady.  She was also the first in her family to graduate college.  After an early career as a social worker, Demings joined the police academy in Orlando and was president of her class.  She spent 28 years on the Orlando police force, serving as the Commander of Special Operations and making history when she became the city’s first female chief in 2007.

Demings boasts that under her watch as police chief, Orlando witnessed a 40 percent decline in violent crime, including robberies, shootings and murders.  After three and a half years, she stepped down from her post to pursue “public service in another way” — namely a run for Florida’s 10th Congressional district.  Demings has three sons and a husband also in law enforcement; he serves as Sheriff of the neighboring Orange County.  Although she is running a right-leaning district, Democrats are hopeful that her compelling personal narrative will make the race competitive.


2.  Shmuel “Shmuley” Boteach (R-New Jersey 9th)

If Republicans hope to compete in the heavily Democratic New Jersey 9th Congressional district, they know they need an outside-the-box candidate.  And they certainly found one in Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a well-known author and media personality.

Boteach, an Orthodox Jew from New York City, first rose to prominence while working as a Rabbi in Oxford, England.  There, he founded the Oxford University L’Chaim Society, a group that soon became the second largest student organization in Oxford’s history.  In the 1990s, Boteach became Michael Jackson’s personal spiritual advisor and appeared increasingly on radio and television.  By 2006, when Boteach was given his own television show, Shalom in the House (which ran on TLC for two seasons), he was a regular guest on Oprah and Dr. Phil.  Boteach is also famous for his more than dozens of books and DVDs, which include the provocative “Kosher Sex,” “Kosher Adultery” and “Kosher Jesus.”

On the issues, Boteach is far more socially moderate than most Republicans.  “If I hear one more thing about same-sex marriage, I’m going to eat my yarmulke.  It’s been a massive distraction,” Boteach said to The Hill.  (Interestingly, Moammar Gadhafi owned the house next door to Boteach in Englewood, NJ, and attempted to pitch his infamous bulletproof tent there in 2009.  Boteach was vocal in the efforts to keep out the now-deceased Libyan dictator.)

Boteach, a father of nine, was described as “a cultural phenomenon” and “the most famous Rabbi in America” by Newsweek and has been consistently listed as one of the ten most influential Rabbis in the United States.  Whether he will also be the first Rabbi elected to Congress, however, remains to be seen.


3.  Mia Love (R-Utah 4th)

As a young, dynamic black woman, Mia Love is not the first thing that comes to mind when one hears ‘Grand Old Party.’  But she is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative running neck-and-neck for Congress in Utah.

Love was born Ludmya Bourdeau in Brooklyn, New York in 1975 to Haitian immigrants who (legally) came to the US just two years earlier with $10 in their pockets.  She graduated from the University of Hartford with a degree in fine arts and worked as a flight attendant with Continental Airlines.  After moving to Utah in 1998, she met her soon-to-be husband and converted to Mormonism.

Love first entered politics with a successful run for Saratoga Spings, Utah city council in 2003.  Six years later, she ran for mayor and won that too, although blacks represent just 0.6 percent of Saratoga Spring.  This year, Love faces Jim Matheson, the sole Democrat in Utah’s Congressional delegation and a dogged fundraiser and campaigner.  Republicans believe that her compelling background will help them finally capture the seat, although Matheson has survived spirited challenges in the past.  If elected, she would be Utah’s first black representative and Congress’ first black Republican woman.


4.  Raul Ruiz (D-California 36th)

The Democratic nominee for the Republican-leaning California 36th Congressional district has never worked in politics before.  Instead, Raul Ruiz is a physician and local humanitarian.  Ruiz was born in Coachella Valley, California to parents that worked as farmworkers.  Nonetheless, he worked hard and eventually earned his medical degree.  (He later made history as the first Latino to receive three graduate degrees from Harvard University.)

He returned to Coachella in 2007 to work as an ER doctor in the area’s only nonprofit hospital.  He helped open clinics for underserved communities throughout the Coachella Valley and traveled to Haiti to offer medical assistance after the country’s 2010 earthquake.  Ruiz also founded a pre-med mentorship program in Coachella for underprivileged students who want to become community physicians.

Ruiz is making headline for his fundraising prowess, but has a long way to go in his bid to unseat Republican incumbent Rep. Mary Bono Mack.  National Democrats, however, believe that if anyone can pull off the upset, it is Ruiz.


5.  Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois 8th)

Tammy Duckworth was born in Thailand to Frank and Lamai Duckworth.  Her father was a member of the US military with roots in America all the way back to the Revolutionary War, while her mother was a native of Thailand.  Duckworth was working on her Ph.D. when she was first deployed to Iraq in 2004.  In the Army Reserve, she chose to fly helicopter because it was one of the few combat jobs offered to women at the time.

She was one of the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq until an RPG hit her Black Hawk helicopter.  Duckworth lost both her legs and part of her right arm in the attack.  She became an advocate for her fellow soldiers and declined a military medical retirement to serve as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Illinois National Guard.  In 2009, she was chosen to be President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

A lifelong Democrat, she lost a close Illinois Congressional election in 2006, but is favored in her race against Tea Party favorite Joe Walsh this year.


6.  Martha McSally (R-Arizona 2nd)

Democrats, however, do not have a monopoly on female fighter pilots.  The Republican running against Arizona Rep. Ron Barber (who replaced his boss, Gabrielle Giffords, in a special election earlier this year) is Martha McSally, a former Air Force Colonel and the first American woman to fly in combat since the prohibition of women in combat was lifted in 1991.

Born in Rhode Island, McSally graduated from the Air Force Academy and earned Masters Degrees from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the USAF Air War College (where she was first in her class).  In 1995, she flew into Iraq to enforce the UN’s “no-fly zone,” her first of nearly 325 total combat hours.  She eventually became the first woman to command a USAF fighter squadron and deployed twice back to the Middle East.

McSally rose to some national prominence in 2001, when she sued the Department of Defense challenging the military policy that required servicewomen stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear an abaya, traditional body-covering garments, when traveling off base.  Although she was the Air Force’s highest-ranking female official, McSally was threatened with a court martial if she did not comply with the dress restrictions.  Thanks in part to her lawsuit, the military announced in 2002 that women would no longer be required to wear an abaya.

McSally ran for Giffords’ seat in the 2012 special election, but lost in the Republican primary.  This time, however, she has the blessing of the Republican Party.  The seat went narrowly for John McCain over President Obama in 2008, but the unique circumstances surrounding Giffords and Barber (who was also injured in the 2011 Tucson shooting) make GOP operatives unsure they have a legitimate chance of victory.


7.  Jose Hernandez (D-California 10th)

Jose Hernandez, this year a celebrated Democratic House contender, was born in French Camp, California in 1962.  As a child, Hernandez worked as a farmworker, harvesting crops and moving from one town to another.  He did not learn to speak English until he was 12.

According to his website, “At the age of 9, Jose watched in amazement as Apollo 17 brought men to the moon. … With the support of his parents he laid out a roadmap for getting from the fields to the stars.”

Hernandez worked developing equipment for full-field digital mammography and served as chief of the Materials and Processes branch of Johnson Space Center.  This was not enough for him, however.  Hernandez applied to NASA twelve times, receiving his pilot’s license, becoming a master SCUBA diver and learning to speak Russian in order to make the cut.  In 2004, he was finally accepted into NASA’s astronaut program; he was the flight engineer on Space Shuttle Discovery’s mission to the International Space Station in August of 2009.

After circling the Earth nearly 200 times, Hernandez retired from NASA in 2011 and announced a run for Congress at President Obama’s urging.  The California 10th is a toss-up race, but Hernandez’s atypical credentials (did I mention that he also carried the Olympic torch in England in July?) will likely make him stand out from the field.


8.  Kerry Bentivolio (R-Michigan 11th)

The Republican path to victory in Michigan’s 11th Congressional district was supposed to be easy.  But after quirky incumbent Thaddeus McCotter — a guitar-playing, TV pilot-writing onetime Presidential candidate — failed to submit enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, the GOP was left with Kerry Bentivolio.

Bentivolio, a Vietnam War veteran and teacher, had planned on a quixotic primary challenge to McCotter from the right.  But because McCotter failed to qualify, Bentivolio won the Republican nomination.  (A write-in challenger backed by the Michigan GOP establishment nicknamed Bentivolio “Krazy Kerry” and has refused to endorse him in the general election.)

Today, Bentivolio and his wife live on a small farm where they raise live reindeer trained to pull Santa’s sleigh — Bentivolio usually plays the role of Father Christmas: beard, “ho-ho-ho” and all — in parades and other events.  (They also have a flock of chickens, an apiary of honeybees and a large vineyard.)  In late 2011, Bentivolio also acted in the film “The President Goes to Heaven.”  According to the National Journal, “The satire mocks a George W. Bush-like character who ordered a terrorist attack on New York.  The First Lady in the film supports the killing of a Muslim cleric and kills a person she thinks is her husband.  Bentivolio’s character, a physician, says he would help the president die peacefully but for the punishment given to ‘Dr. Jack’ for doing the same thing.”

Bentivolio’s tenure as a high school teacher has also come under fire.  In mid-August, the Detroit Free Press noted that Bentivolio had been “reprimanded him for intimidating and threatening students by grabbing their desks and yelling in their faces or for slamming his fists on their desks” before resigning.  (He also told students in his English class that his one goal for the school year was to make them each cry at least once.)

Given his unusual biography and across-the-board conservative positions, a Congressman Bentivolio is far from a sure thing in a district that gave President Obama 51 percent of the vote in 2008.  At the moment, however, he may have a slight edge over a largely unknown Democrat.


9.  Linda McMahon (R-Connecticut)

The name McMahon is synonymous with wrestling.  And former World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon is hoping to use that recognition to score an upset victory in Connecticut’s open Senate seat.

As a young woman, McMahon worked as a receptionist and French translator at a Maryland corporate law firm.  She and her husband Vince (who worked in a quarry to make ends meet) struggled with money and were briefly on food stamps.  In 1980, however, McMahon and her husband founded WWE and helped grow the 13-person company into a global enterprise (headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut).  She became President and CEO of the company in 1993 and served as the chief negotiator for the World Wrestling Federation’s lucrative 2000 TV deal with Viacom.

In 2009, Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell appointed McMahon to serve on the Connecticut Board of Education.  Despite this and many honors she has received, critics blame McMahon for the violence and steroid use of professional wrestlers.  (She is most famous — or perhaps infamous — for starring in several televised WWE skits, during which she once kicked her husband Vince in the groin.)

McMahon ran for Senate in 2010, losing decisively to then-Attorney General Dick Blumenthal.  Nonetheless, she is running again in 2012.  Although McMahon has a number of well-publicized liabilities, national Republicans are hopeful that her business experience and ability to self-fund will allow her to remain competitive in heavily Democratic Connecticut.


10.  Richard Carmona (D-Arizona)

Richard Carmona, the Democrat running for Senate in Arizona, has arguably the best resume of any political candidate.  Ever.

He was born in a rough neighborhood in Harlem to Puerto Rican immigrants.  His parents struggled with drugs and alcohol and Carmona was homeless for a time.  (He later lived with eleven others in his grandmother’s apartment in a Bronx housing project.)  He dropped out of high school, but joined the army in 1967 and served in Vietnam.  Carmona eventually earned two Purple Hearts, as well as a GED; he put himself through college, graduate school and medical school.

After completing his education, he worked as a health-care administrator, a trauma surgeon and a SWAT team leader.  In 1992, while Carmona was serving as Pima County deputy sheriff, he rappelled 75 feet from a helicopter to rescue someone stranded on a cliff.  Seven years later, Carmona witnessed a traffic accident and hurried over to offer medical help.  One of the drivers shot at him — the bullet grazed his skull.  Carmona, however, shot back and killed the man, who was wanted for murder.

Carmona went on to serve as the Surgeon General under President George W. Bush, although he now claims he was constantly at odds with the administration over stem cell research and abstinence-only education.  He was a registered Independent until November of 2011, when he announced his candidacy as a Democrat.  “Carmona has yet to leap a tall building in a single bound,” wrote the Washington Post, “but Democrats here are counting on him to provide some political heroics.”

It will indeed be difficult for Carmona to win a Senate seat in right-leaning Arizona.  But given his impressive resume and appeal to Arizona’s ballooning Hispanic population, Carmona may be the right man at the right time.


Honorable mentions:

  • William Enyart (D-Illinois 12th), a lawyer and former Adjutant General of Illinois who served in the Air Force before joining the Illinois Army National Guard, eventually attaining the rank of Major General.
  • Christie Vilsack (D-Iowa 4th), a former librarian, teacher and First Lady of Iowa running against social conservative icon Rep. Steve King.
  • Ted Yoho (R-Florida 3rd), a large animal veterinarian and Tea Party firebrand (who unseated a GOP incumbent in the primary), whose wife told Politico, “He’s not going to go be the brightest guy on the Hill; he’s not coming up with the Ryan budget.  But he’s the right guy for the job.”
  • Aryanna Strader (D-Pennsylvania 16th), a veteran who enlisted after 9/11 and small business owner who was born into a family on food stamps as the youngest of ten children.
  • Daniel Bongino (R-Maryland), a former NYC police officer and Secret Service agent (in the elite Presidential Protection Division under President George W. Bush) who now owns a small business with his wife.
  • Thomas Jefferson (Libertarian-Kansas 4th), formerly known as Jack Talbert, decided to legally change his name to run against Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo.  Jefferson, a part-time comedian and local activist, acknowledged to the Topeka Capital-Journal: “When people see that Thomas Jefferson’s on the ballot, half will think I’m committed to the Libertarian Party, and the other half will probably think I should be committed.”


Published by Eric Stern

Eric Stern, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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  1. Good article, but you left out 3rd party candidates, like me, Anthony Vieyra trying to run in California’s 35th district. Unfortunately thanks to Democratic rules (prop 14) only 2 Democrats will be on that ballot, no Republicans, no 3rd parties.
    I was the better candidate not vowing to money in politics. Unfortunately money paid the way for the Democrats to automatically win the district. So much for fair and honest politics.

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