WWE star runs for office in Trump country

(B/R Mag)

There are three sushi restaurants in Powell, Tennessee, but only Sushi Spot offers a roll named for a pro wrestler. Stuffed with three kinds of crabmeat and baked scallops and served in the shape of a “K,” the Kane roll is a behemoth befitting its namesake. And tonight, Kane himself orders his signature roll.

Outside of the ring, Kane goes by his given name, Glenn Jacobs, and he’s here now as part of an early campaign fundraiser in his bid to become Knox County’s next mayor. Throughout the night, about 50 people pulse through the place hoping to lay eyes on the man they’ve known as The Big Red Machine or The Devil’s Favorite Demon. Although the 50-year-old Jacobs is a novice in political races, he has a veteran entertainer’s knack for remembering names and patiently posing for pictures.

By the time he has a chance to order, he’s hungry. By the time his food is served, he’s starving. But when his plate hits the table, he is chatting with Eli Williams, a Canadian citizen who recently moved to nearby Pigeon Forge. There is no way Williams will be able to vote in this election, but Jacobs still seems eager to debate environmental regulations, park maintenance and whether or not to legalize the use of marijuana.

After more than 25 minutes, he turns to slide back into his booth but is intercepted by Elijah Ortega, who has been waiting behind Jacobs for this entire conversation, wearing his sleeveless WWE NXT T-shirt and hoping to catch a handshake and a photo. After Ortega’s mother-in-law takes the picture, Jacobs finally sits down to eat. He consumes not only the Kane roll but also a bowl of noodles.

“I have to get fuel if I’m going to keep standing for hours straight,” Jacobs later tells his campaign manager, Bryan Hair.

“Remind me,” Hair replies, “didn’t you used to have a job where you’d stand and run and jump for hours on end?”

Glenn Jacobs, known as Kane, takes a photo with fans at a sushi restaurant in Tennessee.(Joe Buglewicz for B/R Mag)

Jacobs hasn’t wrestled since December. Instead, he’s focused on setting a firm foundation for his campaign. The general election to replace term-limited Mayor Tim Burchett isn’t until August 2018, but in Knox County, where Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by nearly 24 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, the real race is to win the Republican primary vote on May 1.

Eventually, Jacobs will need hundreds of thousands of dollars and dozens of volunteers. But for right now, the most important mission is for people in this part of Tennessee to understand the man who, for much of his wrestling career, wore a mask and rarely spoke.

“Most politicians campaign trying to convince folks that they are the people they seem to be on TV,” Hair says. “Our mission is the opposite: We’re trying to show people Glenn isn’t the man they’ve seen on TV.”

Welcome to the final unmasking of Kane.

Billed at 7 feet tall and 325 pounds as Kane, Jacobs is about six inches and 50 pounds shy of that, but he still casts an intimidating presence. He has a gap-toothed smile that for years was used menacingly and now has an air of “aw shucks” friendliness. Although he may not be the kind of politician who could deliver soaring and stirring speeches, in this county, that’s part of his appeal.

Another part is his bootstraps biography. After his father served overseas in the Navy and Air Force, Jacobs and his family—he has a brother and a sister—moved to a farm outside St. Louis, Missouri. For years they lived hand to mouth, until his father found steady work as a rural mail carrier.

His parents weren’t overly political—he called them “Goldwater Republicans,” referring to the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater and his extreme right-wing ideology—but he says they nevertheless instilled him with a sense of civic responsibility.

As he tried to make a name for himself in wrestling—testing out characters like Mike Unabomb and demented dentist Isaac Yankem—he put politics aside. In February 1995, at the age of 27, he made his WWF debut; in August of that year, he married his wife, Crystal, cementing him as a Tennessean. Together they raised her two daughters, Devan and Arista, and they have 11 dogs.

In the late 1990s, the character Kane came into renown. He was beloved by fans in part because of his unpredictability. Unable to speak, his alliances, even to his own brother, The Undertaker, were often mysterious until he held his right hand high in the air to signal the start of a chokeslam.

“Most politicians campaign trying to convince folks that they are the people they seem to be on TV,” Hair tells B/R Mag on Jacobs’ mayoral campaign. “Our mission is the opposite: We’re trying to show people Glenn isn’t the man they’ve seen on TV.”(Joe Buglewicz for B/R Mag)

As Jacobs began earning more money, he became more interested in where his tax dollars were going. “Wrestling is a lot like any other workplace,” he says. “You don’t really talk religion or politics. But we are all independent contractors, so we pay our taxes quarterly. And we talk about taxes.”

In the ring, Kane became one of the primary heels of the company’s Attitude Era. According to the character legend, Kane wore a mask and was mute from having been badly burned when his brother set fire to their childhood home. But as the character Kane evolved—first speaking through an electrolarynx, then talking unaided and eventually unmasking to reveal no scars—so too did Jacobs.

He would leave Tennessee on Saturdays to drive or fly across the country, devouring audio books about Libertarian politics. At night in his hotel rooms, he’d read political news and opinion pieces and watch videos and lectures. When he returned home on Wednesdays, he’d share with Crystal all that he had learned. He had always voted Republican—and continues to do so—but he found an identity in Libertarianism. “I was taught growing up that there are two ends of the political spectrum, left and right,” he says. “But there’s so much more than that. For me, it’s about liberty versus authoritarianism.”

Although the WWE is a nonpartisan organization, Jacobs is hardly the first to emerge from the company with political ambitions. Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota in 1999 as a Reform Party candidate. Terry Gerin, known in the ring as Rhyno, lost a bid for a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives in 2016. And Linda McMahon, the former president and CEO of the WWE and wife of majority owner Vince McMahon, failed in two attempts to to win a seat in the Connecticut Senate as a Republican. She now serves as the Administrator of the Small Business Administration for President Trump.

Most recently, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson told GQ there is a “real possibility” he would run for president in 2020. He doubled down on that statement in segments on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. “Would I run with The Rock?” Jacobs asks. He leans back in his chair and considers the question from B/R Mag. “Probably not.”

“I just want to do a good job as mayor,” he says later. “The local and the state levels are discounted too much. And I’m not devaluing the role of the federal government, but the country is right now in a top-down direction, and I want to be part of the wave that brings it back to a bottom-up nation, starting with the states.”

A Jacobs campaign sticker is only part of the former wrestler’s quest to successfully run for mayor.(Joe Buglewicz for B/R Mag)

About four years ago, Jacobs began daydreaming about a life beyond wrestling. After he and Crystal raised their daughters in Johnson City, they moved to Knoxville in 2013. He became more involved in the community, hosting an annual prom-style dance for chronically ill patients at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and an annual food drive. He regularly speaks at schools as part of an anti-bullying initiative called The Kindness Revolution.

He also began appearing on shows like Alex Jones’ far-right Infowars and on national networks like the Fox Business channel to discuss Libertarian politics. “In the end, Kane will be remembered as a character I played on TV,” he says. “In that respect, I want people to remember me for more than that.”

His name was floated as a Tea Party Senate candidate in 2014, but he says he never seriously considered entering the race. Instead, in December of that year, at his wife’s insurance company’s Christmas party, he decided to run for mayor.

One of the first wrestlers he called after his decision was Gerin. They continued talking throughout his failed campaign in Michigan. Gerin says he believes Jacobs is in the race for “all the right reasons,” and that he’ll succeed where previous wrestling campaigns have fallen short.

“You can just see the excitement in his eyes when he talks about knocking on people’s doors and campaigning,” Gerin says. “I’m going to go down there and knock on doors for him. Can you imagine opening your door and seeing Kane and Rhyno? ‘Do we have your vote or not?’ That’d be pretty hard to say no to.”

By the end of Jacobs’ campaign, it’s a safe bet Rhyno won’t be the only wrestling superstar to make a guest appearance in Knoxville. But they can’t win him an election. Kane will not be on any ballots next May. How Jacobs uses the character will be crucial to his campaign’s success.

“He can’t run from Kane,” Burchett, the Knox County mayor, says. “That’s what brought him to the table. I don’t think he needs to run from it. He should embrace it and go with it. After you get past the novelty of the wrestling, you realize he has some valid points.”

“I just want to do a good job as mayor,” Jacobs tells B/R Mag. “The local and the state levels are discounted too much. And I’m not devaluing the role of the federal government, but the country is right now in a top-down direction, and I want to be part of the wave that brings it back to a bottom-up nation, starting with the states.”(Joe Buglewicz for B/R Mag)

For now, Jacobs is embracing his wrestling persona. The interior of his office is a deep red, and on the walls hang pictures and articles celebrating his long WWE career. His campaign’s slogan is “Lighting the way for our future,” and there’s a flame between his first and last name on his campaign materials—not-so-subtle references to Kane’s reputation as a pyromaniac.

“In politics, perception can be reality,” Jacobs says. “But I’m not interested in people who want to vote for me because they know Kane from TV. I want people to vote for me because of my positions. Name recognition is a door opener, and I use it, but I believe you stay inside only if you have good ideas. All I ask is for a forum to prove that I have those ideas.”

On a Friday night, Jacobs attends an award ceremony for local businesses in Knoxville. In many ways, he already fits the mold of a politician. Dressed in a dark three-piece tuxedo with a sharply dimpled red tie, he is easy to spot. He hobnobs with everyone from schoolteachers to millionaire owners of cybersecurity firms. If they ask why he’s running, he gives a boilerplate answer about how he believes he can improve the community by growing the economy. He also remembers to offer his opinion that the people of East Tennessee are special.

But he is still finding his footing as a self-promoter. The years he wore a mask were his favorite in wrestling; anonymity was never uncomfortable for him. To this day, he tends to avoid the ostentatious. Although he’s a millionaire, Jacobs drives a Toyota Camry. At this event, he more frequently hands out business cards for his insurance agency than for his campaign.

“The presidential election was very long and very contentious, and I think people may need a little break, so I try not to push,” says Kane, who voted for Trump. “And educating people is the most important part of what I do. Even if I don’t change people’s minds, I like to give them a new perspective.”

At the event’s dinner, he regales two 20-something men with tales of his wrestling career—what Superstars were like in person, how it feels to chokeslam someone. He seems to enjoy it. But he’s much more eager to talk about the future of Knoxville’s small businesses. “I’m just a geek about this stuff, I guess,” he says.

Kane posters from Jacobs’ days as a wrestler line the walls of Jacobs Insurance Associates LLC in Knoxville, Tennessee.(Joe Buglewicz for B/R Mag)

About 10 years ago, halfway into his WWE career, Jacobs walked into the man cave he’d built in his basement and noticed the action figures on the shelves, the framed photos on the walls and the WWE blankets and pillows on the couch. He boxed up most of those belongings and put them in storage.

“It was like a shrine to me,” he says. “And I’m just not that into myself.”

Now, though, he admits there is one item he’d like to add to his collection. In 2010, he won the WWE Heavyweight Championship against Rey Mysterio, becoming the first wrestler to have held the WWE Championship, the ECW Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship during his career.

Wrestlers don’t get to keep the belts they eventually lose, but they can order replicas. And he thinks that final WWE belt would look good hanging in the Knox County mayor’s office.

“I know I’ll be the only mayor with a belt he earned hanging in his office,” he says.

But first, he’ll have to win that title.

David Gardner is a staff writer for B/R Mag. Follow him on Twitter: @byDavidGardner.

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the new B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.

comments powered by Disqus