Lunch With D CEO: Rick Santorum

The presidential candidate and CEO of EchoLight Studios fights the culture wars on two fronts.

If you meet Rick Santorum, or if you hear him speak somewhere, there’s a good chance you’ll hear him talk about how he came in second on the Republican side in 2012. If only a few polls had gone differently. If only a few primaries had happened in a different order. Maybe he would have won the nomination. Maybe he would have won the general. Everything would all be different.

He’s also likely to point out that a lot of the causes that have become popular among Republicans on the campaign trail—the potential dangers of Iran, for example, or the issues surrounding religious liberty—are things he has been talking about for years.

I had the chance to sit down with Santorum at the Flying Fish in University Park a few weeks ago. When I get there, the place is empty except for him and some of his supporters who’d helped arrange the meeting. Santorum is wearing a suit with an American flag pin on the lapel, and black cowboy boots. He’s eating one of the Flying Fish’s incredible fried pies, with vanilla ice cream, and drinking an orange soda. He’s 57, but could pass for 15 years younger. Like any politician, Santorum’s playing a role, like an actor, and he plays the role well.

The only time he could squeeze in was the early afternoon. “I almost never have time to sit down for lunch,” he tells me. 

He’s in Dallas, as he has been just about every week for the last two years or so, because he’s the CEO of Flower Mound-based EchoLight Studios, which aims to make “high-quality films that reflect a worldview distinguished by God’s truths,” according to its website. Essentially, they make action-adventures, comedies with a Christian message, and Biblical epics in the fashion of classics like “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.” So far, they’ve produced an adaptation from the “Left Behind” series, a western called “The Redemption of Henry Myers,” the not-well-reviewed “The Christmas Candle,” and a few others you probably haven’t heard of.

“We’re getting better,” Santorum says. “These things take time.”

This is a modern way of interjecting in the culture wars. He explained that people connect through stories. “You can have a life-changing experience in a movie theater,” he says, working his way into the fried pie. A lot of smart people have also figured out that you can have a lot of financial success making a movie that Christians know is for them. Churches offer mass numbers. They can afford screenings. There is what Hollywood types call a “baked-in audience.” Other studios have tried this in the past, but the movies didn’t slip into the mainstream—mostly, Santorum admits, because they weren’t very good.

“High-quality storytelling is incredibly important,” he says. “We’re always thinking of that in one way or another.” He cites “The Passion of the Christ” as an example of one way to do it right. When I ask him about his favorite movie, though, he surprises me.

“I’d have to say ‘The Godfather,’” he says. A particularly violent mobster saga, but also a movie about power and how it transforms people. “It’s all about the storytelling,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing you can watch over and over and never get tired of.”

He explains that he generally works from Dallas two days a week. His family stays in Pennsylvania, where he’s lived most of his life. There’s something that seems genuinely blue collar about Santorum. It’s not just that he is one of the few people on his side of the aisle talking about what’s good for American workers—something that made him popular in his home state—but there’s something about the way he works. He’s always on the road, but he rarely stays in a posh hotel. He often stays over with friends he’s met through his years in politics. He says he doesn’t travel much for vacation. He has a child who needs a lot of expensive medical equipment, so aside from an annual trip to the Carolinas, Santorum is usually working. 

That work, of course, is what has made him such a controversial figure. He’s been staunchly, vocally opposed to gay marriage for a long time. His stances and rhetoric provoked columnist Dan Savage to declare that Santorum’s name should henceforth be synonymous with, well—something too vulgar to write here. “That comes with the territory,” Santorum says. 

Territory he’s traversing once again. Before we leave, he goes back into why he would make a good president. He would be a different candidate, he says. He has a national organization out there, already established. Plus now he has experience running a business.

“I’m older, but hopefully not too old,” he says. “And I’m wise enough.”  

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