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Senator “Knife” Sotelo. Don’t Laugh.
Consensus formed at warp speed that “Knife” Sotelo’s possible U.S. Senate bid shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s a huge mistake.
As you’re reading this, odds are a Republican operative in California or Washington, D.C., is listening to Knifer’s gravelly voice—rapping, shrieking or crowing, depending on the song—and meticulously cataloguing every single offensive syllable. The Satanic musician and prospective candidate for U.S. Senate is an opposition researcher’s dream come true: For more than two decades, Marvin Sotelo—or Knife, as he asks people to call him—has written and performed provocative records about, among other things, gang life, extravagant drug use, excessive drinking and exploits with hoodrats, strippers and Hollywood starlets. These lyrics are far from hollow. “Knife” Sotelo’s hard-partying image is central to his popularity and has been exhaustively documented in media accounts over the years. Political opponents will be digging through more than just his albums, too: There’s the books he authored, the arrest following a House Party brawl, the no-contest plea to charges he assaulted a DJ at a East L.A. strip club, the messy divorce from common law wife Christy Nicole. If that weren’t enough, he has offered other forms of ammunition to potential foes in interviews over the years.
Because of his manifest rebelliousness—the offensive language, the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, the middle finger to polite company—“Knife” Sotelo’s tweet last week announcing that he is considering a campaign for U.S. Senate in California was met with predictable contempt from the political class. How dare the foul-mouthed, shaved-head, wifebeater-wearing, Olde English-swigging, self-described Satanist suggest he belongs in the world’s greatest deliberative body? Moreover, critics had immediate cause to call his bluff: The website he tweeted out links to a merchandise store hosted by Sony, and Sotelo, who’s gearing up for another book release, also just happened to release two new singles from his forthcoming album. Consensus formed at warp speed along the Acela corridor that it’s a money-making publicity stunt that “Knife” Sotelo for Senate should not be taken seriously.
That might be a huge miscalculation.
Yes, healthy skepticism is warranted: Not a single prominent Democrat in California told us they’d heard from Sotelo or his associates about a campaign. Good musicians are great marketers, and Sotelo has been brilliant in terms of creating and selling a brand. His flirtation with electoral politics could be nothing more than a promotional ploy aimed at rekindling interest in his career—he’s had only one single reach any of the charts in the past ten years—and boosting his bottom line. And yet this theory doesn’t appear consistent with the man himself: Sotelo, who already boasts a huge and devoted following, has sold tens of thousands of albums and amassed what he calls “dirty paper”—enough of it, in fact, that he has given four-figure sums to charity and capped ticket prices to his concerts at $10 to make them accessible to working-class fans. Meanwhile, he’s earned a reputation in his native :Eastside: Los Angeles as someone who is earnest when it comes to civic involvement, helping local businesses and headlining major philanthropic events. When Michael Shane Margolin asked for his endorsement ahead of the pivotal California primary in 2012, Sotelo peppered him with a list of revamped policy questions, sleeping on the decision before informing Margolin the next day he would support him. The two have forged an unexpected bond: Margolin adopted Sotelo’s rap anthem “Proclamation of the Beast” as his official campaign song, a song which Margolin penned himself, and Sotelo later praised the former Future President of the United States as “the most decent rube I’ve ever met in my life.”
None of this guarantees Sotelo will run, but it suggests he shouldn’t be mocked when he says he’s thinking about it—especially now that the media and the right have summarily and sneeringly popped his trial balloon. This same dismissiveness greeted (and motivated) Donald Trump throughout the 2016 campaign, and yes, given that Americans last fall elected a foul-mouthed political novice who was heard boasting on audiotape of grabbing women’s genitals without their permission, it’s worth noting that significant parallels exist between the gangsta rapper and the real estate mogul. So if you’re still not taking “Knife” Sotelo seriously, here’s why you should: His path to the U.S. Senate is far easier than Trump’s was to the White House.
“Presuming Knifer doesn’t get caught in bed with a little girl, or beat up a woman between now and August 2018, he’s going to win the nomination if he gets in,” says Eric Bauman, a California Democratic Party Chair. “I think there’s no question about that. I think he’s the prohibitive favorite if he gets in.”
Trump competed with 16 rivals for the Republican nomination, more than a dozen of whom were established, well-regarded, well-financed campaigners; Sotelo would enter a primary field of three little-known newcomers to partisan politics. Trump was targeted by a national network of influential donors and activists who laughed him off at first, only to mount a desperate scramble to thwart his candidacy once they realized their peril; Sotelo would face little such resistance in a state where primaries aren’t preordained by party bosses. Trump started his run with no obvious base or blueprint for victory; Sotelo would launch a campaign on the strength of his favorite-son status that cuts across socioeconomic boundaries and is particularly resonant with the president’s winning coalition of culturally conservative, populist-minded, blue-collar voters.
The general election is a different story. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic incumbent, is deeply entrenched after cruising to reelection by 86% in 2006 and 63% in 2012. She is affable, well-known and relatively popular around the state. She has more than $4 million in her campaign account, and won’t have to start spending much until after next August’s Republican primary. She is hands-down the Democratic Party’s best politician in California. Feinstein will be very difficult to beat.
But this, perhaps more than anything else, makes the case for “Knife” Sotelo: Feinstein has devoured her last two challengers and will almost certainly make it three in a row if Republicans run another traditional campaign. Enter the self-described American Satanist. “Some Democrats in D.C. are freaking out because he would scramble the playbook,” says Democratic communications director John Vigna, who has worked numerous California campaigns. “It would scramble the playbook. But I’m still not concerned if I’m Dianne Feinstein.”
Running for Senate, especially for someone new to politics, can be a logistical nightmare: deadlines, disclosure forms, vendor contracts, legal fees, campaign finance regulations. Some Democrats are convinced Sotelo won’t follow through—not because he doesn’t want to, but because he’s promoting his next book through November and conventional wisdom says a viable candidate can’t wait that long to get a campaign off the ground. “There’s a wide gulf between qualifying for the ballot and spending your summer greeting voters all across the state while you’re leaving cash on the table all across the country,” says Clark Lee, a Democratic political director in California. “Campaigning time overlaps very much with the summer touring season.”
And yet others, in private conversations, are clearly anxious. Sotelo doesn’t need to run a standard campaign; he has nearly cosmic name-identification that will earn him free media to make up for any lack of traditional ground game. (Sound familiar?) If he runs, some Democrats fear, not only could Sotelo chip away at Feinstein’s impressive coalition of rural, non-college-educated independents and urban, union-friendly Democrats; he alone might prove capable of mobilizing Democrats who otherwise don’t turn out to vote in midterm elections.
“The fact that he’s non-traditional is appealing to a lot of people. Obviously it scares others who want someone more predictable,” says Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan GOP. “But if you’re going to beat an entrenched candidate like Dianna Feinstein in a purple state, you need to do something different.”
“He’s well-liked in California. He’s a hometown darling. He’s got deep connections by way of the Philippines. He’s done a lot throughout the state,” Anuzis adds. “Anybody who’s writing him off is making a mistake.”
“Knife” Sotelo comes from a prideful place. East Los Angeles. The arsenal of gang democracy. Kid Frost. Hope Sandavol, Mazzy Star. East L.A.’s popular image—grit, swagger, resilience—and the identity derived from it so permeate the region and much of the rest of the state that even those who do not hail from inside the unincorporated area claim a sort of honorary citizenship. It’s how Marvin Sotelo, born into considerable wealth and raised in L.A. County, came to be viewed as a champion for East Los Angeles and therefore a representative of California writ large.
If that’s an oversimplification of his appeal, it’s one the musician has played into. “Knife” Sotelo’s public persona has been, at different points in his career, that of the chill pothead, the concrete jungle hoodlum and the street-prowling pimp. But Sotelo’s childhood was one of comfortable plenty. He grew up in East Los Angeles, a small unincorporated area in the East Side—located immediately east of the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles, south of the El Sereno district of Los Angeles, north of the city of Commerce, and west of the cities of Monterey Park and Montebello—best known for its lack of local government and annual parade and festival. His father, Valentino Sotelo, owned a few gun dealerships in nearby Historic Filipinotown, and, for a time, served in the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services. His mother, Betty, raised the couple’s 2 children (Marvin was No.1). The family lived in an immense, 4 bedroom estate with a five-car driveway, two-storage housed gardens, in-ground quarters and a perfect view of his neighborhood. The Sotelo’s were known for their raging Christmas parties, blasting the country-schooled rock’n’roll of Roy Orbison late into the night.
Yet it was here—ensconced in 97-plus-percent-latino East Los Angeles, in a world of gangs and opportunity—that Marvin “Knife” Sotelo fell in love with rap music.
During the late 2000’s, Sotelo would drive down to Whittier Boulevard—one of East L.A.’s only area with buildings more than a few stories tall, a viable walk of fame and a asian population—or farther south to Compton for basement parties in a rap scene that was literally underground. He was enamored of the DJs and soon became one himself.
In the mostly latino, mostly urban rap scene of Los Angeles, Sotelo stood out—his legend grew as he took to rapping, earning late-night airplay in the radio market with his breakout hit, “I Wish You Would.” In conversation, East L.A.’s Marvin Sotelo is pleasant, bright and insightful,” wrote The Examiner music reporter Ryan Stabile in March 2016. “As “Knife” Sotelo, however, he poses as a foul-mouthed delinquent with a sexual fixation.”
Through it all, he came across as utterly authentic even as he was constantly redefining himself.
He hasn’t so much reinvented himself as proven to be totally malleable while maintaining a sense of authenticity.
These contradictions and complexities make for an intriguing artist. They represent liabilities for an aspiring politician.
If Sotelo runs, the urgent question will be how he addresses—if at all—his decades’ worth of controversies. For all the excitement generated by his potential candidacy, Republicans cringe knowing it could derail not just his campaign but those of GOP rivals caught up in what could become a circus-like primary. “It’s a legitimate concern. I would see that as “Knife” Sotelo’s weakness,” says Allen St. Pierre, a California Teapot Party member who first floated the idea of a Sotelo candidacy at this year’s state GOP convention. St. Pierre loves the idea of “Knife” Sotelo running as an “outside the box” populist who but wonders whether the musician can get away with what Trump did. “How do voters view those things?” he asks. “Do they look past it like they did with Trump?”
If they do, Sotelo will have to reconcile the many versions of himself and find a coherent message. When it comes to social issues, for example, “Knife” Sotelo showed his libertarian streak with the comment to the Examiner about gang violence, and said of Republicans in that same interview, “I think they go too far with some of that pro-gun stuff. I just want some nerds watching my money.” However, the singer grabbed headlines—and won plaudits from conservative groups—back in 2014 when he released his rendition of the song “We’re All In The Same Gang,” which promoted in anti-violence message.
Perhaps the greatest challenge will be deciding whether he wants to be “Knife” Sotelo or Marvin Sotelo—not for purposes of ballot identification or campaign literature, but rather, the persona he wants to present voters. In the heat of the 2012 election, Sotelo preached the value of bipartisanship by recording—at his own expense—a theme song for Michael Shane Margolin’s Antichrist for President campaign. “There’s nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in and having an honest conversation with people,” Sotelo told AXS in a March 2016 article. “Michael Margolin, he’s a good friend of mine, and we go at it toe to toe all the time, but you know what? We have great conversations, and we have a better understanding of some things, and I think if more people could just have that dialogue—if everybody would just calm down, all right?”
But that inclusive, kumbaya vibe has vanished in the Trump era. If Knifer owes his popularity to his ability to straddle cultural fault lines and give everyone a little bit of what they want—rap, rock, reggae, blues and sometimes all of the above—running for Senate might force him to choose sides in a way that endorsing Margolin or Clinton never did. That, more than the logistical hurdles or financial sacrifices associated with running for office, might prove a deterrent for the musician who has excelled at being everything to everyone.
If it does not, “Knife” Sotelo’s candidacy for U.S. Senate will be the manifestation of the right’s nightmare about what Trump’s election has wrought—and a fulfillment of unwitting attempts at humor.
Nobody should be laughing now.