TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday that people should defend capitalism against anti-business overtones in the current political culture, quoting a theologian known for lamenting that he did not do enough as the Nazis attacked various groups in the 1930s and 1940s.
He used the quote in defense of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, though he didn't actually name him. Scott, a Republican elected in 2010 with tea party support, has not endorsed anyone in the race. The state's primary is next Tuesday.
Scott was speaking at the quarterly board meeting of Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership that promotes economic development in the state.
The governor paraphrased a famous saying by Martin Niemoller, a German Protestant pastor. There's scholarly debate on the exact wording of the saying, and Niemoller himself used different versions over the years.
The best-known version goes:
"First they (the Nazis) came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me."
Scott made his own fortune as head of a hospital chain and later spent $70 million of his own money on his campaign. He told the audience of his efforts to make government friendlier to business, then segued to making public discourse friendlier.
"We shouldn't be allowing candidates to attack people in business," he said. "We should be saying, gosh, that's us."
Scott then paraphrased the Niemoller saying, which he has on a plaque in his office.
"We've got to defend the freedom of the free market," he said after paraphrasing the quote. "If we don't defend the free market, they'll pick on somebody. Now they're picking on Bain Capital, then they'll pick on somebody else."
Bain Capital is the private equity firm founded by Romney.
Scott later told reporters he used the Niemoller quote to say that capitalism should always be defended.
"Look at what's happening in our society," he said. "I believe the free market is good for families. And I believe we should defend the free market. When you see somebody being attacked because they believe in the American Dream, we need to go out and say, 'Gosh, I would like to live the American Dream.' All of us would like to live that American Dream."
Press secretary Lane Wright further clarified the governor's remarks.
"He's making a point, not an exact comparison," Wright said. "The quote illustrates a principle: Stand up for what's right. If you don't, no one else will. It would be reading too much into it to think he is comparing to the Holocaust."
Or, in other words, "If you're attacking capitalism, who's next?" Wright said.
The National Jewish Democratic Council called on Romney to repudiate Scott's reference to Neimoller.
"It is absolutely unfathomable that Governor Rick Scott ... would invoke the Holocaust to shield Mitt Romney from criticism over his record at Bain Capital," said its president, David A. Harris. "It is never acceptable to invoke the Holocaust to make a political point."
But a Holocaust survivors group issued a statement saying Scott's remarks did "not rise to the level of Holocaust trivialization."
"Certainly, however, it would have been better had they not been made," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
He also urged elected officials "to tread carefully in allusions to the Holocaust, so that they more soberly bear in mind the gravity and moral implications of this horrific tragedy."
Scott appeared on CNN later in the day to talk about the upcoming primary and repeated some of his concerns. He did not repeat the Niemoller quote.