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Toledo-area congressional candidate Rich Iott Monday firmly defended his wearing of a Nazi uniform during past military re-enactments, as area Democrats hurled criticism at the Monclova Township businessman and urged local Republicans to withdraw their support for him.
Mr. Iott - whose involvement with a World War II Wiking re-enactment group came to light last week in an online story in The Atlantic - said he does not in any way sympathize with the Nazis and had worn the uniform of a German SS officer a few years ago as part of efforts to educate people about history. The Waffen SS Wiking Division was a German unit that fought on the Eastern front.
"I think it's extremely important for us to understand and learn about history so we don't repeat it," Mr. Iott said, calling the Holocaust "absolutely one of the most unspeakable events in history."
The candidate said he had participated in the Wiking group's activities because they provided a "truthful and accurate" account of events during World War II.
In an appearance on CNN Monday, Mr. Iott maintained that he also took his son, who was 15 at the time, to the events and that they have each played roles on both sides of World War II history.
Meanwhile, state and local Democratic officials issued strong condemnations of Mr. Iott's involvement with the Wiking group and said dressing as a Nazi bears no comparison to other types of historical re-enactments such as those demonstrating the Civil War era.
Speaking at the Lucas County Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Toledo, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern labeled Mr. Iott's actions "despicable" and said the candidate is not fit to seek office.
"Shocking, I think is the best word used to describe it," Mr. Redfern stated, calling the controversy an embarrassment to northwest Ohio. "Voters should ask themselves, would you dress up as a Nazi? Would you accept your hometown mayor dressing up as a Nazi?"
He called on local Republican leaders to withdraw support for Mr. Iott's candidacy. Mr. Iott, a Republican with Tea Party backing, is running against veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo to represent the Ohio 9th Congressional District.
Other Democratic officials also denounced Mr. Iott, including state Sen. Teresa Fedor (D. Toledo), state Rep. Edna Brown (D., Toledo), Sylvania Township trustee Carol Contrada, and Toledo City Councilman Wilma Brown.
"It shows poor judgment and I wonder if we want to send someone to Congress with that sort of judgment," said Edna Brown, who is running for Ohio's 11th Senate District.
"This is something that crosses a line that no American who has any moral value system should ever cross," chided Ms. Contrada, who is in the running for a seat on the Lucas County Board of Commissioners.
Local NAACP President WilliAnn Moore added her voice to the criticism of Mr. Iott and said the latest revelation adds to her organization's concern that the candidate does not support the Civil Rights act of 1964.
During a Sept. 27 debate with Miss Kaptur, Mr. Iott said he was not sure if he would have supported the act at the time, in that context. However, he did defend a more general right that he said was infused in the Constitution, that all people should enjoy equal rights in public situations.
Rabbi Alan Sokobin, 85, rabbi emeritus of the Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim in Sylvania, Monday called re-enacting Nazi soldiers "a trivialization of evil."
The rabbi emeritus enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 16 during World War II and served in Europe.
"The average American soldier was fighting for an ideal, not to kill," he said. "We were protecting what we thought was something that represented good against evil, and I still believe so."
He said the SS troops were volunteers, not average German soldiers. "They represented an evil empire," he said.
When Americans dress up as Nazi soldiers, "they are giving dignity to the uniform of the Nazis and are diminishing the honor of the Americans who represented good against evil at that time."
Rabbi Sokobin said he considers World War II "too recent" to be labeled as history.
"History will begin after those of us who were in the war are gone, but at this point it is our immediate past."
Mr. Iott dismissed the onslaught of criticism by the Democrats as a political ploy aimed at damaging his reputation.
"This wasn't a story, this was a coordinated character assassination that had been carefully planned," Mr. Iott claimed.
He accused his opponent, Miss Kaptur, and her fellow Democrats of trying to distract voters from more important topics.
"Here we are wasting time this close to the election, talking about something that has nothing to do with the big issues that face this country," Mr. Iott said. "We should be talking about where are the jobs. We should be talking about this health-care bill that is going to bankrupt us. We should be talking about cap and trade. … Why aren't we talking about this? Because my opponent is on the wrong side of every one of these issues."
Jon Stainbrook, chairman of the Lucas County GOP, said his party "in no way, shape, or form" condones the exploits of the Nazis.
However, he dismissed the Democrats' statements against Mr. Iott as a political attack.
"This is a perfect example of dirty, mud-slinging politics, when people take something and spin it into more than what it really is," Mr. Stainbrook asserted. "This is proof that Marcy is scared and vulnerable when the state Democratic Party chairman comes up to the most Democratic county in the state to give a press conference and help Kaptur's campaign sling mud."
Toledo City Councilman Rob Ludeman said he did not support Mr. Iott's Nazi re-enactment activities, but did not know all the details behind it.
He called the Democrats' call for Republicans to withdraw support for Mr. Iott "totally politically motivated."
"They ought to stick to their business and the issues of their campaign," Mr. Ludeman said.
Representatives for the Ohio Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment. However on Sunday, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia - the second-highest Republican in the U.S. House - slammed Mr. Iott's activities during an interview on Fox News Sunday, saying he would "not support an individual who would do something like that."
Mr. Iott dismissed Mr. Cantor during the CNN interview as a "typical career politician" who was making statements "before having all the facts."
Mr. Iott said he is confident his party will continue to support him, and maintained he has no intention of issuing an apology, which Democrats have suggested he do.
Staff writers David Yonke and Tom Troy contributed to this report.
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