By George Christopher Thomas, Political Reporter
NORTH POLE, AK – Although this sounds made up, or something based on a fairy tale, there is a man named Santa Claus that lives in Alaska. Not only does Santa Claus live near the Arctic Circle, but his official habitation is in the town of North Pole. This is not the official North Pole on a globe, nor is it the magnetic North Pole, but it is a municipality and a small city a few miles from Fairbanks.
Santa Claus lives in North Pole, Alaska and just wrapped up a six-year stint on the local city council. Santa was Mayor pro tempore of North Pole in 2022, he is an elf made man and had that vote wrapped up so to speak, no pun intended. His term ended this past October, and Santa was happy to chat about politics, government, society, and land use issues. (The very heart and soul of local council business). Mr. Claus is proud of his community service, going back decades throughout the lower 48 states and more recently in the last frontier (Alaska).
Santa Claus also ran for the United States Congress this past year during a special election to fill the seat of the late Don Young. With former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin also in the race, the contest garnered a lot of national attention, as well as media coverage. For a beat journalist covering the race, the articles wrote themselves.
Santa did not get enough votes to get sworn into the House of Representatives. Some people this December are getting sticks and coal in their stockings. Santa also ran for President of the United States of America in 2008 and 2012 and appeared on the ballot in 17 states.
From a journalistic standpoint, what makes a person change their name to Santa Claus, move to Alaska, and continually seek and sometimes obtain public office? There is more to this story than a headline in the local newspaper and some sticky land use issues.
Santa Claus granted me an opportunity to interview him, which is not only wonderful for this assignment – I can get my Christmas wish list in early so he can start working on it. Everyone is political, even Santa Claus, it is a human characteristic as old as our species. As Paulo Coelho once said, “Everybody is a political person, whether you say something or you are silent. A political attitude is not whether you go to parliament; it’s how you deal with your life, with your surroundings”. Even when you choose to not vote and not participate, you still are making a political choice.
Santa Claus has held elective office, sitting on the North Pole City Council for two terms. He first won as a write-in candidate with 48 votes. His reelection campaign garnered 100 votes, and his victory made international headlines. Looking at the recent Congressional election in Alaska again, Santa was seeking the lone seat allocated to Alaska. The “Dean of the House” and longest serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives Don Young had died, and there was a special election to fill the seat. Santa was one of 48 candidates in an election that was also debuting rank choice voting. Headlines were guaranteed, Santa Claus and Sarah Palin were running for Congress.
Santa came in 6th, and you needed to come in at least 4th to get into the runoff. He did not solicit or accept donations and spent roughly $300 of his own money on the race. In the crowded field of 48 candidates, this left of center Bernie Sanders supporting democratic socialist had a very impressive showing at the ballot box in the very red state of Alaska.
Santa Claus hasn’t always been so politically active and worked with law enforcement in New York City before moving westward. In fact, Santa Claus is an educated man, holding a bachelors and master’s degree from New York University (NYU). Santa also did post graduate work in education while seeking a doctorate in philosophy. He stopped just short of finishing the last step of his PhD, known in the academic world as “All But Dissertation” (ABD). Santa has found the red tape of the North Pole City Council is a far cry from the politics, glamor, hustle, and bustle of New York City. However, as Speaker Tip O’Neil used to say, “All politics is local” and that rings true ‘from sea to shining sea’.
Santa Claus was not always named Santa Claus. His parents named him Thomas Patrick O’Conner and he was that person until 2005. He was living near Lake Tahoe at the time, on the Nevada side of the border. His name change was not contested in court; however, the recently appointed judge did give the governor a call to double check on the authenticity of the court proceeding. The governor assured him that Mr. O’Conner is a right and honorable upstanding individual in the local area, and to please approve the name change to Santa Claus.
It certainly wasn’t easy traveling as Santa Claus at first, and O’Conner had numerous additional security checks performed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and local authorities. On one of those occasions, a supervisor was called, and Santa was interviewed by six or seven security professionals. However, word got around among airport personnel and after passing numerous question sessions, he began to travel hassle free. In fact, Santa loves to fly on Christmas Day, and will usually get upgraded to first class.
Santa Claus became politically active working on behalf of the children. From volunteering hundreds and thousands of hours for local charities, to traveling the nation on the “Bless The Children” tour, to actually passing legislation through state legislatures, the children top his political agenda. Over time and naturally, the health, safety, and the welfare of vulnerable children became his top priorities. Moreover, Santa Claus does garner a lot of press attention, but he is not doing this merely for the press clips. On occasion, Santa has worked to draft, sponsor and pass legislation. One of his bills consolidated the files for children going through the orphanage and welfare systems of the states. As explained by Mr. Claus, the different state agencies did not communicate or talk with each other. So little Annie for example would have multiple files, for school, for the doctor, for the state agency overseeing her case. Santa worked to create only one file per child and this was part of his nationwide “Bless The Children” tour. This lobbying effort led to numerous meetings with governors and legislators that ended up in passing these important bills.
Santa Claus just finished up his second term on North Pole City Council. This municipality just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska had seven council members, with Santa being one of them for the past six years. He did not seek a third term and asked people not to vote for him as a write-in candidate. At 75 years old, Santa decided to hang up the political sleigh bells and just continue participating in the community as a volunteer and activist. (Santa volunteers over 1,000 hours a year, which is nearly a full-time job itself).
Alaska is one of those rare states because of its population that has more senators than congresspersons. With only 3 electoral votes, the house seat represents all of Alaskans statewide. The other states with the same current set up as Alaska are Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. This manner of governance goes back to America’s founding, and you can thank James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution, and the “New Jersey Plan” for such brilliant intricacies in our federal government.
In his Congressional campaign, Santa was only running to fill the remainder of the term left by the passing of Don Young. He did not file paperwork to run for the full term starting in January.
In Santa’s presidential run he had official votes counted in Maryland and appeared on ballots in 17 states. To qualify for the other 34 elections, Santa needed a running mate. As Santa tells it, Robin Hood would have been a perfect candidate for Vice President, but being a long dead British citizen from Nottingham, it made it a little difficult.
However, the political activism and good-natured fun that surrounds Santa Claus and his aura have resulted in change. Through working within the system, altering privacy laws for minors and having the legislation and tour sponsored by 2 churches, cross pollination happened, and state laws were changed.
Santa Claus is a priest and a monk and graduated from seminary. As Santa tells it, the whole point of it all is to love one another. After all, God is love. Santa is always happy to discuss the Bible and religion with people and is quite capable of holding his own in a political conversation as well. During the Congressional campaign, Santa went on nearly 40 different radio shows and podcasts. Some of them were hosted by individuals that did not see eye to eye with Santa’s Bernie Sanders loving political platform. However, Santa would always focus on how to connect to a person, and find common ground. On one political show, the host was on the red team, and Santa is independent, but would caucus with the blue team if given the opportunity. The interview started out a bit rough, but both Santa and the host had been bouncers in a former life. Yes, before Santa Claus was discussing land use issues on the city council in North Pole, Alaska he was a bouncer in New York City. As a graduate of NYU, Santa is at home as much in Gotham City as he is in the workshop with the elves. Suffice it to say, the interview became more pleasant as they discussed the things they had in common and the life of being a bouncer.
This former life of Thomas Patrick O’Conner has come in handy as an elected official. Certainly, being in public office has its perks, but there can be drawbacks and security concerns as well. As a North Pole city council member, Santa Claus has had a few run-ins in public with irate and angry constituents. One issue was over annexing some property, another over the assault weapons ban, and a third incident over wearing a mask inside a private business establishment. Each time Santa Claus showed the person a picture of him on his phone of when he was a bouncer in New York City, and that diffused the situation. Nobody wants to see “Bad Santa” and his Christian Bishop hand to hand combat moves originally implemented at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
We can thank the Dutch for Sinterklaas but it is the Irish people that gave us Thomas Patrick O’Conner. In another ironic twist of fate, his court order to change his name to Santa Claus went through on March 17th, which in the liturgical calendar is affectionately known as Saint Patrick’s Day. However, remember to not pinch Santa because he is not wearing green, or try and pull his beard to see if it is real. His reflexes are still sharp as a tack, and he’ll grab your hand and give you that look, the one on his phone from his bouncer days in the big apple.
Santa Claus was inspired to change his name when some random lady in Nevada shouted out of her car window, “Santa, I love you”! The epiphany that O’Conner could have an ability to advocate for less fortunate children as Santa Claus came shortly after. He is not the only Santa Claus with that legal name, and none of the other St. Nicolas impersonators showed up at his name change court hearing.
All joking aside, Santa Claus can be a serious dude when it comes to being involved in the community and fighting for what is right. In 1971, O’Conner served as special assistant to the deputy police commissioner and was the founding director of the terrorism research and communications center. At the time, in the early 1970s, he was researching the formation and foundation of terrorist groups for the NYPD. When asked if 9/11 could have been prevented, Santa Claus paused and then said the different levels of government and law enforcement need to work together better. He went on to add that terrorist acts are usually because of government or corporate policies, and not over a religious war.
Santa describes himself as an independent democratic socialist, with an eye for fiscal conservatism. Santa is hanging up the political sleigh bells but would happily serve on a board or commission if appointed by the governor or someone else in high office. Pushing 76-years old and still volunteering thousands of hours a year to the community, Santa is beginning to slow down a little. However, this coming holiday season he will be plenty busy, as is this custom around the birthday of Christ the savior.
Being on the very top of the world, up at North Pole, Alaska gives Santa certain insights into global problems and phenomena, including climate change. Santa has seen a change in the weather patterns in and around Fairbanks and North Pole. The permafrost is melting and there is widespread flooding that used to not happen, and this can affect food supplies for the native Alaskans living in the bush and in villages along rivers and lakes. Santa is also concerned about China and Russia in the Arctic region, and their continued seeking of new energy opportunities as the world becomes warmer.
Santa is no longer a candidate for public office and has asked his local constituency not to write in his name for North Pole city council. Santa cast his ballot and is supporting Mary Peltola for Congress in this election cycle. When asked who will win the contest, Sarah Palin, Nick Begich, or Mary Peltola, Santa says in politics there is no way to tell until they count the votes. A political action committee could come in with lots of big money and flip it all around. Certainly, rank choice voting in Alaska, which debuted this year, has altered the dynamic and landscape of fishing for and capturing votes.
Santa Claus or Thomas Patrick O’Conner, or whatever people were calling him at council meetings sets a great example of how to be a citizen in public life. From bouncing at P.J. Clark’s bar in New York City, to touring the state capitals of America on behalf of vulnerable children, to moving to North Pole, Alaska and running for councilman, Santa takes it all in with a nod and a wink. Maybe he was just fishing for my vote, but it sure was disguised well, from a man in a red fluffy suit that mostly always votes blue.