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Published: Monday, 5/10/2010

9th District GOP nominee says he'll speak for fed-up

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

Richard Iott once kept his political views to himself.

Now, 10 years since he sold the 26-store Seaway Food Town grocery chain, the Monclova Township resident has emerged as a congressional candidate taking on one of Washington's most formidable Democrats.

A boyish 58-year-old who goes by "Rich" on his campaign literature, Mr. Iott won last week's Republican primary for Congress and will face U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) in November.

Miss Kaptur has been in office since 1983, has a reputation for working as hard today as she did when she was first elected, and never has had a really close election.

Mr. Iott thinks he's giving voice to a citizenry that's fed up and ready for a change.

"I think the mood of the voters today is a lot different environment than it has been in the past," Mr. Iott said. "People are concerned about what they see going on in Washington, out-of-control spending, the deficit, and the elected officials not listening to what the voters are saying."

Mr. Iott has already plunged more than $700,000 of his own money into the race.

In last Tuesday's primary, he defeated former Toledo Police Chief Jack Smith for the Republican Party nomination.

He, as well as Mr. Smith, reached out to the newly sprung-up "Tea Party" organizations for support, and he advertised heavily on TV and radio. He said he campaigned in the entire district, which includes Ottawa and Erie counties and almost half of Lorain County.

Mr. Iott has opened a campaign office in an Oregon shopping center that has a closed Food Town, to make it easier for him to reach the eastern part of the district in his red Ford Ranger pickup truck.

With professional political consultants working for him, Mr. Iott's campaign is taking advantage of modern communications. He has a busy Facebook page and a Twitter account.

A "tweet" on Friday said, "thanks so much for help in building followers.

"We're taking on Marcy Kaptur who votes with [Nancy] Pelosi 96% of the time!" in reference to the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives.

Whether the Nov. 2 election is a real opportunity for Republicans to win Ohio's 9th District remains to be seen.

Born in Columbus and adopted by Toledoans Wallace and Jeanette Iott, the candidate attended parochial schools and graduated from what is now Northview High School in Sylvania.

At age 14, he began working summers in the Food Town chain started by his father from a single store in West Toledo and "worked his way up" from carryout clerk to management.

Mr. Iott attended, but did not graduate from, Bowling Green State University. He said he wanted to enter the military during the Vietnam War, but was denied because of a heart murmur. Later, he joined the Ohio Military Reserve, a volunteer, nonarmored auxiliary under the Ohio Adjutant General and is now, after 28 years, a colonel. The reserve, established in the Cold War era as a backup cadre in case of natural or manmade disaster, never has been activated, although its members train diligently at Camp Perry and take courses in military and emergency topics.

Mr. Iott's claims during the primary campaign of a nearly 30-year military career struck some veterans as an exaggeration, and Mr. Iott had to explain repeatedly that he was not claiming veteran status.

Likely, a more serious sore spot with Toledo-area voters is Mr. Iott's handling of the grocery chain he inherited from his father. He said Food Town was a profitable and well-run business with 5,000 employees in 2000 when the board, while he was president and chief executive officer, decided to merge with Spartan Stores Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich.

The intent of the merger was to get bigger quickly to be able to compete in a new era of mega-stores. He stayed on the board for two years to aid in the transition. But the merger failed in 2003, and stores closed and employees lost their jobs. Mr. Iott said employees got severance payments based on their length of service. He blamed the new owners for bad decisions made over his objections. Example: eliminating the popular Food Town Plus Card, which both kept customers and cut down on check fraud. Mr. Iott insists he can relate to the struggles of workers.

"Over the course of years, I've been involved in different companies and with a lot of different employees, and I've seen how the job environment affects people when they get laid off or whatever, and I can empathize with that entirely," he said.

He said he's all for helping people, but "that charity belongs more in the private sector and the faith-based sector than the government sector."

Mr. Iott said his vision is a government that creates the environment for businesses to create jobs, through lower taxes and reduced "meddling in the private sector."

He said he opposed the health-care bill that Democrats enacted this year and he would work to repeal or try to dismantle it. He opposed last year's $52 billion bailout of General Motors Co., which saved thousands of high-paying manufacturing jobs, because he believes letting the market take its course would be better for the economy in the long run.

"When companies don't do what they need to do to run an effective business and remain competitive, then they need to fail. Otherwise, we're just promoting incompetency," he said.

When he was running Food Town, Mr. Iott kept a low political profile. "As a retailer, you gotta not take a position because whatever you do, you're going to upset half of your customers, so politics has never been a big part of my life," Mr. Iott said.

"What got me here is seeing the direction the country was going in. I want my kids to grow up in the country I did, and they're not going to if something doesn't change," Mr. Iott said.

Since selling Food Town, Mr. Iott has gone into other businesses, including real estate, distributing a Mexican salsa nationally, a 3-D imaging business, and a movie company. He's a frequent letter-writer to The Blade.

He said he talked so much about politics that his wife, Christine, encouraged him to run for office. Initially Mr. Iott planned to run as an independent but was encouraged to take his chances in the Republican primary so the conservative vote would not be split in November.

He will face competition for conservative votes from Jeremy Swartz of Oregon, who won the Libertarian Party nomination last week.

The Iotts have a daughter, Devon, 25, who works in the motion picture business in California, and a son, Ian, 23, who attends Ohio State University.

Miss Kaptur said she plans to campaign hard and put her emphasis on rebuilding jobs in northwest Ohio. She declined to guess at what she might have to spend to defend her seat in a year when many believe a conservative, anti-incumbent tide is rising across the country.

"I think that the public is reeling from the economy, from what has happened with job washout, from lack of security in their lives, and I think that they're looking for assurance," she said. "I do think people want representation that reflects concerns about themselves and their country."

James Ruvolo, a former Lucas County and Ohio Democratic chairman who was involved in recruiting Miss Kaptur to run in 1982, said she is "one of the best candidates anybody's ever worked for. She works hard, she connects with people."

He said he doesn't buy the conservative backlash storyline but said it would be wrong to discount Mr. Iott, if only because of his personal wealth. "Anybody who raises money at an ATM is a problem," Mr. Ruvolo said. "I think Marcy's going to be fine, but she will not take it for granted."

So far, Mr. Iott has yet to attract substantial outside support, a recognition that the 9th District is considered a very safe Democratic seat. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which invests in campaigns where it believes it has a chance of winning, has targeted four districts in Ohio, but not the 9th.

"It is a seat we are looking at. We realize that in Ohio 9 it is an uphill climb, given that Democrats have a huge registration advantage and Marcy Kaptur is an entrenched incumbent," said Tory Mazzola, northeast press secretary for the committee. He called Mr. Iott "a good candidate who has a record as a job creator, who is committed to lowering taxes, and who plans to fight and stand up to Speaker Pelosi's agenda."

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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