By Felicia Sonmez and Carol Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 3:55 PM
A GOP nominee for the House of Representatives drew sharp criticism from Holocaust survivors Saturday for having participated in a Nazi reenactment group devoted to a Waffen SS division, and Democrats seized on the Ohio businessman's activities as the latest indication that the Republican Party is backing fringe candidates.
The Atlantic magazine reported Friday that Rich Iott, a member of the National Republican Congressional Committee's "Young Guns" program, participated in the reenactment group for several years starting in 2003, wearing the SS uniform of fellow re-enacters. Iott told the Atlantic he joined the group with his son as "a father-son bonding thing" and left three years ago after his son lost interest.
In a statement Saturday responding to what he called "despicable accusations and distortions of the truth," Iott said he has "immense respect for veterans who served our country valiantly, particularly those who fought to rid the world of tyranny and aggression by relegating Nazism to the trash heap of history."
But by Sunday, some top House Republican officials were condemning Iott as well.
"She knows that I would absolutely repudiate that and not support that," Cantor responded.
"Well, you haven't," Wasserman Schultz said.
"I'm doing that right here," Cantor, who is Jewish, responded. "I'm doing that right here. You know good and well I don't support anything like that."
Iott is trying to unseat Democrat Marcy Kaptur in Ohio's heavily Democratic 9th District.
The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, which represents about 80,000 families, said Iott's "failure to apologize is particularly shameful and desecrates the memory of all victims of the Nazis, Jew and non-Jew."
"Mr. Iott should be reminded that the SS was declared a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials, and that one of its most notorious crimes was the massacre of American POWs at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge," said Elan Steinberg, a vice president of the organization.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer said Republicans' embrace of Iott "sends a chilling message to all Americans, especially to our veterans and to those of the Jewish faith."
Iott's name was removed last week from the "Contenders" section of NRCC's "Young Guns" Web site, which highlights candidates considered to be the GOP's top House challengers. NRCC officials didn't respond to questions about the status of Iott, who has been a favorite of the tea party.
Photos of Iott taking part in the reenactment group show him wearing a uniform with "SS" clearly visible. The group prohibited use of the swastika and the Nazi salute, according to a spokesman for Iott.
The group's Web site says: "All members of this nonprofit group have had a common interest in the German side of the war and want to tell the story of the average combat soldier of the German military. Our reenactment unit is based in the midwest area of the United States and is a chartered group of the World War Two Historical Reenactment Society, Inc."
The Nazi group being reenacted has been the 5th SS division "Wiking," which fought primarily against the Soviet Union.
Matt Parker, Iott's spokesman, said that Iott had also participated in World War I and U.S. Civil War reenactments and is not a Nazi sympathizer. "He is a military history enthusiast," Parker said, adding that Iott and the group performed reenactments "strictly from a military tactics standpoint." Parker also asserted that the Atlantic story was "clearly a hit piece" by Democrats.
Iott came under criticism from Kaptur's campaign after a debate last month in which he would not state directly whether he supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Iott's campaign later clarified that he supports the law.