Note: State Sen. Andrew Brenner apologized for the comments on Thursday afternoon. Updates are being posted to a new story available here. The original reporting from throughout Wednesday is below.
A Republican state senator took to Facebook on Holocaust Remembrance Day to pledge he would not allow the Jewish Ohio Department of Health director to turn Ohio into Nazi Germany.
State Sen. Andrew Brenner, of Powell, made the comment Tuesday evening in response to a post from his wife, Sara Marie Brenner. Her post included a photo of Dr. Amy Acton and was in response to the state government’s shutdown order due to COVID-19.
Sen. Brenner has since been denounced by Gov. Mike DeWine, by the Republican president of the Ohio Senate, by the leader of the Ohio Republican Party and by the Anti-Defamation League. At least one Democratic lawmaker has called for his resignation.
After first defending his comments and later pretending they didn’t happen, the lawmaker apologized Wednesday evening to Dr. Acton on Facebook — but not for what he said, only for the “comments as they were reported.”
“What I actually said was not the same as what is being reported,” Brenner wrote. “I would never, ever say what I am being accused of saying.”
The screenshots below belie that claim.
After receiving backlash, Sara Marie Brenner deleted her Facebook post and with it her husband’s response. Here are screenshots of them:
The post read, in part: “With a German accent, in your head say ‘Show me your papers’ … This actually feels like Hitler’s Germany where you had to have blond hair and blue eyes to be able to function anywhere, and you were damned otherwise. When are people going to say enough is enough?”
Sen. Brenner replied: “We won’t allow that to happen in Ohio.”
Sara Marie Brenner had also posted (and later deleted) a photo of an apparent Nazi concentration camp with this caption: “If people were told to get in cattle cars to be taken to virus protection camps, most of you would rush to get in line…”
The comments came hours after Acton made reference to Holocaust Remembrance Day and her own Jewish heritage. She mentioned that the pandemic “disrupts civil society” that can “turn us against each other.” Just days before, a protest at the Ohio Statehouse featured several instances of anti-Semitism symbols, as reported by cleveland.com.
Acton described feeling “optimistic that we have the grit and resilience to weather a war, especially given the outstanding leadership we have.”
Gov. Mike DeWine had followed Acton by noting his own father’s service in World War II in liberating concentration camps. DeWine recounted how his father witnessed the camps’ ovens first-hand and remembered the images for the rest of his life.
To the Brenners, however, the Nazi Germany comparison rests with the present Ohio leadership. This is not the senator’s first time doing so: he previously likened Planned Parenthood to Nazis in 2018, the Columbus Dispatch then reported.
Sara Marie Brenner doubled down in a subsequent edit of her post before ultimately deleting it. She had called the “attacks” against her a “deflection” and claimed to have not known about Acton’s religion.
The reaction against Brenner has been widespread and bipartisan.
DeWine condemned the comments:
The recent Internet post by Ohio State Senator Andrew Brenner, likening Ohio’s Department of Health Director’s actions to fight coronavirus to those taken by the Nazis in Germany during World War II, must also be condemned.
— Governor Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) April 23, 2020
In a statement, Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said he and the Senate Republican Caucus “strongly disapprove” of Brenner’s comparison to Nazi Germany.
Obhof said he and the Caucus “believe that any such comparisons or analogies are not only absurd but also harmful. This is a time for cooperation, not inflammatory and overblown rhetoric.”
Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights, said on Twitter the comments by Brenner and his wife were “disgusting.” Yuko said Sen. Brenner “needs to be held accountable.”
Jane Murphy Timken, the Ohio Republican Party Chair, said on Twitter that Brenner’s comments were “hurtful and terribly inappropriate.” She stopped short of calling for his resignation:
I cannot condone comments comparing a public official to Nazism. It is incredibly hurtful and terribly inappropriate.@andrewbrenner
— Jane Murphy Timken (@JaneyMurph) April 22, 2020
James Pasch, the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Cleveland office (which serves all of Ohio), said he was “outraged” by the state senator’s remarks.
“These comments only serve to normalize dangerous rhetoric while diluting the true horrors of Nazi Germany and insulting the memories of the millions brutalized and murdered by Nazis,” Pasch said in a statement, which is printed in full at the bottom of this story.
In an interview, Pasch said his organization has noted anti-Semitic protests in Cleveland, Detroit and elsewhere across the country.
“Extremists use these protests against stay-at-home orders to spread messages of hate and anti-Semitism,” Pasch said.
In her own statement, Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, joined State Reps. David Leland, D-Columbus, and Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, in calling Brenner’s behavior “reprehensible.”
“Only sick logic could connect Ohio’s policy of saving thousands of lives during this crisis with Nazi Germany’s final solution of destroying 6 millions lives,” Leland and Weinstein said in the provided statement.
“To make this comparison any day of the year, let alone on Holocaust Remembrance Day, is outright reprehensible,” Sykes said in the statement. “For anyone to think this was acceptable behavior is alarming, most of all a state senator elected to serve Ohioans of all religions and backgrounds.”
Weinstein later called on Brenner to apologize or resign:
— Rep. Casey Weinstein (@RepWeinstein) April 22, 2020
Two Republican state senators have also condemned their colleague: Stephanie Kunze of Hilliard and Matt Dolan of Chagrin Falls.
The greatest risk we face right now is the tyranny of ignorance￼. During this difficult time, we must come together to care for one another. I condemn the remarks of Andrew Brenner. “In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit.” Anne Frank
— Stephanie Kunze (@StephanieKunze) April 22, 2020
— Matt Dolan (@ElectMattDolan) April 22, 2020
On Wednesday, a Republican operative with apparent connections to Speaker of the House Larry Householder, R-Glenford, made a similarly inflammatory remark.
Scott Pullins tweeted on Wednesday that Ohio health officials have “obvious Gestapo dreams.” The tweet has since been deleted, but the Ohio Capital Journal secured a screenshot of it.
Pullins’ law firm helped to file Speaker Householder’s Financial Disclosure Statement in 2016, records from the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee show. Pullins purports on his website to currently be “a top advisor” to Householder.
A spokesperson for Householder and the Ohio House Republican Caucus has not responded to a request for comment as of Wednesday evening.
Sen. Brenner at first defended his comments to the Columbus Dispatch, saying the comments were “meant to show concern about potentially putting in place health standards that are too stringent.” Brenner did not apologize, adding he believed his comments were “smeared into an insensitive political attack on the director.”
Later on his official state senate Facebook page, Brenner claimed the posts didn’t happen at all.
He wrote: “sorry didn’t happen. The left wing bloggers are lying as usual.”
Shortly after that, the statements came from Obhof, DeWine and others condemning him.
At his Wednesday afternoon press conference, DeWine was asked about the recent anti-Semitic protesters at the Ohio Statehouse. The governor said “it was disgusting, it was vile” and that “everyone has an obligation to denounce it.”
Brenner served four terms in the Ohio House of Representatives before winning election to the Ohio Senate’s 19th District, which covers all or parts of Delaware, Knox and Franklin counties in Central Ohio. Brenner is midway through his first four-year term in the Senate and serves as vice chairman of two committees: one on Education; and another on Local Government, Public Safety and Veterans Affairs.
Brenner has received extensive support from the Ohio Republican Party throughout his decade in state politics. The biggest support came when he campaigned for his first term in the Ohio Senate. The Ohio Republican Party contributed more than $130,000 to his campaign, while the Republican Senate Campaign Committee pumped nearly $350,000 into his election effort.
His next election is not until November 2022, but his campaign committee has already begun receiving donations. Contributions thus far include $2,500 from the Ohio Dental Association’s political action committee (PAC); $1,000 from utility company NiSource’s PAC; and $1,000 from the Wholesale Beer and Wine Association of Ohio.
Other Ohio Democrats have added criticism against Brenner. Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper called the Brenner comment “awful,” “uncalled for” and “vile.” State Rep. Janine Boyd of Cleveland Heights called it “bigoted and shameful foolishness.” Rep. Erica Crawley of Columbus wrote that the comments made by Brenner were “purely ignorant and disgusting and NOT in any way representative of a leader.”
Here is the full statement from James Pasch, regional director of the ADL’s Cleveland office:
“We are outraged by Ohio State Senator Andrew Brenner saying that he won’t let Ohio’s health director and governor turn Ohio into Nazi Germany. Likewise, we condemn Scott Pullins’ comments, a top advisor to Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, comparing Ohio leadership to the Gestapo. These comments only serve to normalize dangerous rhetoric while diluting the true horrors of Nazi Germany and insulting the memories of the millions brutalized and murdered by Nazis. Comparing Dr. Acton and Governor DeWine’s critical efforts to save the lives of Ohioans during this pandemic to Nazis is unconscionable. Ohio expects more from its leaders and those who advise them.”
Here is the full statement from State Sen. Andrew Brenner from his Facebook (with screenshot also included):
“Today, it was reported in an online news outlet that I said something inappropriate and inflammatory on social media. What I actually said was not the same as what is being reported. I would never, ever say what I am accused of saying. I understand that while people may differ on policy issues, the manner in which it was reported was upsetting, inflammatory and hurtful.
I apologize to Dr. Acton, because I’m sure she was offended by the comments as they were reported. I have also spoken with leaders from Ohio’s Jewish community, for whom I have great respect, and I appreciate the understanding and support I have received.
I am confident that Governor DeWine and Dr. Acton have Ohio’s best interests in mind, and I appreciate his hard work and efforts in finding a responsible path forward. This is a time for us to work together, and I am committed to doing so for all Ohioans.