HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Michael Santomauro was agitated.
It was about a half-hour into the first forum of this city's mayoral election. As one of seven hopefuls, Santomauro gave a short introduction at the outset, introducing himself as a free speech advocate. But many of the other six candidates spoke for longer — talking about not only themselves but also their platforms.
He fidgeted, took his round-rimmed glasses on and off, pursed his lips. Finally, it was his turn to answer a question.
Instead, he launched into a diatribe on free speech rights and recent state legislation that formally defined anti-semitism. By the end, he was standing, shouting, and his microphone was cut off.
“If none of my opponents will denounce censorship, that alone disqualifies all them for elective office!” he yelled, as the crowd murmured. One man shouted at him to leave.
Santomauro, a three-year resident of Hilton Head who has lived much of his life in New York City, is running on a typical platform for a booming coastal area of South Carolina: better traffic management and a moratorium on new building projects.
He's also a self-described "Holocaust revisionist" and denies several documented facts of the mass extermination of Jews and others that took place before and during World War II.
Santomauro's candidacy already is stirring up controversy on the island. But he's far from the only political candidate this year with fringe views. In Illinois, a former head of the American Nazi Party won the GOP nomination for a congressional seat in a heavily Democratic district. In another deep-blue California district, Republican John Fitzgerald, a Sept. 11 conspiracy theorist, is also on the ballot in November.
For Rabbi Brad Bloom, countering Santomauro has become a personal cause.
"It's more than possible that a guy like that who has a no-growth platform that would appeal to many people who feel like Hilton Head has grown into a mini-megalopolis, that if he can stay under the radar, he might have a shot," said Bloom, who leads Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head.
"We know when people say, 'He doesn't have a chance,' you better watch out," he added, "because history has shown differently."
'I stared hate in the eye'
Santomauro describes his political affiliation as a Libertarian-Republican and said he voted for Donald Trump in 2016, though he might have voted for Bernie Sanders if he had made it to the general election.
"I think this political correctness has gotten out of hand. This is probably why Trump won, with his rhetoric during the campaign," Santomauro said. "I didn't think he'd carry it over to the White House. I thought he’d be more presidential."
Santomauro has never run for public office before, but said he has felt that with "Trump being in the air, that maybe this is my moment."
Santomauro has made headlines in the past, mostly because of his career of publishing and distributing literature that questions or outright denies the Holocaust.
In 2003, the New York Times reported that users of a roommate-matching service founded by Santomauro had started getting emails with Holocaust denial literature. A decade later, the newspaper reported that Santomauro made a stir by accidentally recommending a book debating the Holocaust to an email chain of parents at his son's school in Manhattan.
Santomauro insists that his views are about taking a critical look at established history. But he also told The Post and Courier that he thought an outsized number of Jewish people control banking and the entertainment industry. He sympathized with white supremacist marchers in the 2017 Charlottesville, Va., demonstration who chanted, "Jews will not replace us."
That chant, he said, "doesn't come from a vacuum."
Alleging a global Jewish conspiracy of control is an age-old anti-semitic trope, said Aryeh Tuchman, of the nonprofit Anti-Defamation League.
For Bloom, who leads a congregation of about 300 Jewish families in Hilton Head, ignoring Santomauro is not an option. Some members of his congregation are children of Holocaust survivors, for one thing. For another, Bloom knows well how anti-Jewish sentiment can lead to serious crimes.
He previously led Congregation B'nai Israel, in Sacramento. In 1999, two brothers, Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams, set Bloom's temple and two other synagogues on fire, a string of crimes to which they later pleaded guilty. Nobody was injured in the fires.
The brothers' connection to the arsons was only discovered as they were investigated for the murder of a gay couple in Redding, Calif.
"I stared hate in the eye. I saw these people," Bloom said. "Instead of just reading about them, try facing them in federal court."
Fight for attention
Santomauro is running in a crowded mayoral field that includes two Town Council members. Because the mayor has essentially the same power as any other council member, all of the mayoral hopefuls are auditioning for a job where they mainly serve as the face of Hilton Head, presiding over council meetings and representing the town at public events.
With so many candidates running, it's likely a fight for enough attention to get into a runoff, and Santomauro already has soaked up a lot of that attention.
The other candidates, who all attended Tuesday's debate in the gated Indigo Run community, don't consider Santomauro a serious contender. Barry Ginn, a real estate agent, called him "an idiot." Sandon Preston, a waiter, said Santomauro was "just looking for a soapbox." Councilman John McCann said he expected the outburst, and Councilwoman Kim Likins called it "unfortunate." Banker Alan Perry declined to comment on his most controversial competitor.
Native islander Rochelle Williams, who's making her second run for mayor, had a different response.
In the last race, Williams ran on a platform of bringing sewer service to residents of the north end of the island, one of the few un-gated areas of Hilton Head and home to many native islanders — descendants of freed slaves who settled on the island after the Civil War.
She finished in fourth place, but her run helped push the sewer issue into the fore, as the town since has launched a five-year plan to hook up hundreds of homes to sewer lines.
In an interview in her office with the 12 Jewels of Life Foundation, which runs a free summer lunch program for local needy children, Williams didn't skirt the subject of Santomauro's run or try to move on quickly to another topic.
She offered that she thought Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was successful in uniting people.
“He did what he had to do," Williams said. "He got that many people to follow him. He must have been doing something right.”
Hitler's political rise in Germany was fueled by stoking ethnic resentment against Jews as the country faced difficult economic circumstances and punitive treatment from other world powers in the wake of World War I.
That resentment ultimately resulted in World War II and a network of mass-extermination camps and ghettos that ensnared millions — not only Jews, but also LGBT people, gypsies and others.
Williams said what she admired primarily about Hitler was his ability to control people.
“I like the power part, I guess, the control part,” she said.
On Nov. 6, Hilton Head voters will decide at the polls who will represent their city as their next mayor.
As they make their choice, they have plenty of issues to consider, such as how to handle growth, traffic and a relative lack of workforce housing. None of those topics are foreign to the rest of the Palmetto State's popular coastal communities.
But the addition of Holocaust revisionism has added a unique twist to the contest. Voters' ultimate decision will determine how much related drama the island can expect from here on out.