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Bruce LeVell can bench-press the president of the United States. The Georgia congressional candidate and former campaign surrogate for President Trump stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 240 pounds — slightly bigger than the chief executive himself.
“I can bench 300 pounds, man. I’m strong as hell,” LeVell said in an interview with Yahoo News. “I mean I’m not bragging — I am a very strong man.”
And LeVell isn’t shy about using his size. When Yahoo News texted with him to set up an interview, he offered a warning.
“You better act right, because you know how big I am,” LeVell wrote.
LeVell similarly wants to be an imposing presence backing up Trump’s agenda in Congress. He describes his goal as “bringing the hammer” for Trump, who doesn’t command a bloc of establishment Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“Look, when I come in a room I literally suck the oxygen out of the room,” LeVell said. “That would be the same way in the House.”
And LeVell is running in an unusually crowded and high-profile race. He’s one of 18 candidates vying to fill the seat that was left empty when Trump made former congressman Tom Price his secretary of health and human services. The vote will take place on April 18, making it one of just a handful of special congressional elections taking place this year.
The race in the staunchly Republican district in the suburbs of Atlanta will be an early test of Trump’s personal popularity and how his agenda is playing among voters who supported him in 2016. LeVell is campaigning largely on his ties to and support of the president. While the district has long been a Republican stronghold, Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by just 1.5 percent there in the presidential race.
Democrats have indicated the race is a top priority for them as they seek to gain a seat and make the case that public opinion is souring on Trump. There will be no traditional primary in the race. All of the 18 candidates will be facing off in the election next month, with a runoff between the top two finishers if no one earns 50 percent of the vote. At this point, polls show the election is headed for a runoff, with the top Democrat, Jon Ossoff, at the top of the field as the many Republicans divide up GOP support.
So far, LeVell’s candidacy isn’t exactly taking off. While polls indicate that most voters in the district identify as conservative and support the administration’s agenda, LeVell has ranked at the middle of the pack in the two public surveys of the race. Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel is the top Republican in the field, and she has the backing of a long roster of local officials. Despite the long odds, a large percentage of voters remain undecided, and LeVell says he’s used to uphill battles after stumping for Trump during last year’s election.
“It’s a war between me and the establishment. I’m used to it. I’m a black surrogate for Trump in the South,” LeVell said.
Indeed, with his slicked-back hair, collection of sharp suits, swaggering showmanship and dramatic sound bites, LeVell was a familiar face on cable news during last year’s race. And he has continued stumping on cable news since Trump’s victory. LeVell says he’s “battle-tested” and credits himself with being willing to represent Trump on shows where other allies feared to tread.
“After going on so many Don Lemon shows, and Joy Reid’s, and Roland Martin’s, all the rest of the surrogates … they don’t want to go on those shows. That’s a shark tank,” LeVell said.
LeVell isn’t the only candidate with Trump ties in the Georgia race. Amy Kremer, the chair of the Women for Trump super-PAC, is also running near the bottom of the pack. But LeVell’s ties to Trump are far more direct. LeVell boasts that he backed Trump “since he came down the escalator” to announce his campaign in 2015, when his candidacy was written off by almost everyone. LeVell, who is African-American, was the executive director of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, a group founded with the help of Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen. LeVell described the coalition’s work as providing a visible cadre of minority supporters on TV and on the campaign trail to counter the charges of racism that have dogged Trump. LeVell said his role with the group is keeping the diverse collection of surrogates on message.
“I made sure that all the Trump coalition surrogates were vetted through me, because I didn’t want them to get on TV and say some stupid stuff,” LeVell explained. “I said, ‘Just follow the vision. If you believe in this man, this is where we’re at, period. Don’t go in here grandstanding, or I’m going to kick you out.’ We stayed true to that. We did very well. We did all the optics.”
LeVell regularly opened for Trump at rallies and rode on the candidate’s private plane. His daughter, Leah LeVell, works in the West Wing on the White House communications team. LeVell hasn’t discussed his congressional campaign with Trump, but he said “everybody” in Trump’s orbit is aware of his candidacy, and he holds out hope the president will get personally involved.
“I think the big boss is going to step in,” LeVell said.
While he says he wouldn’t mind being labeled the “Trump congressman,” LeVell describes his connection to the president as more complicated than that. According to LeVell, he is driven by “the message” articulated by Trump, which dovetails nicely with his own views.
“With that whole core involvement, it just evolved [into] a really deep passion for the messenger and the message. More so the message. The message is what is making this intoxicating,” LeVell explained.
LeVell’s political involvement does predate his work on the Trump campaign. He is a former chairman of the Gwinnett County GOP in Georgia and previously mounted an unsuccessful congressional campaign. LeVell’s key issues are echoes of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Like Trump, LeVell is an entrepreneur. He is the managing partner of Dunwoody Diamonds USA, a jewelry retailer in the Atlanta suburbs. And LeVell said his business shares Trump’s focus on keeping manufacturing jobs in America.
“That’s why we’re called Dunwoody Diamonds USA, Inc. Jewelry your way, made in the USA,” said LeVell, rattling off his company slogan. “So, here we go again, another reason why. I’ve got many of them why I’m attracted to the messenger, because I believe in that same ideology.”
Like Trump, LeVell favors deregulating banks. During the financial crisis, LeVell said, he and his wife invested in commercial properties. He claims they lost the real estate when the bank that gave them a loan failed. After the FDIC took over the bank, LeVell said it was bought by another institution that called in his loans and demanded immediate repayment. He calls it an example of “extreme government overreach.” For LeVell, the plight of business owners went largely ignored during coverage of the crisis.
“Who was going to say, ‘Oh, poor developer’? You know, we look like millionaires complaining. You see what I’m saying? The sentiment went down to the homeowner. ‘Oh, they took mama’s house,’” he said in a mocking voice. “You know, that makes news. You know, the veteran, this poor veteran. Hell, the poor veteran smoked dope and snorted coke all day, didn’t pay his mortgage. But he got the media attention.”
LeVell longs for a world in which banks and their business partners can make deals with less government intervention. He says he’s discussed this with Trump, who has a similar perspective.
“He says, ‘You know, you can make deals with people. Y’all work it out. Don’t come crying to mommy, OK? Deal with it.’” I mean that’s how he talks,” LeVell said of his conversations with the president.
And like Trump, LeVell is also a strong critic of special interests in Washington. He said he has pledged not to take any “special interest money” or donations from lobbyists in his campaign. And, as usual, LeVell has a snappy line ready to deploy to describe his desire to see other politicians make a similar vow.
“It’s kind of like getting off the alcohol, getting off the dope, man. You’ve got to get off that dope,” LeVell said, before musing, “Hmm, I think I might use that one. Get off the dope.”
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