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Folks leaving a recent gathering of the Republican Party in Timonium, Md., found fliers on their windshields that accused a candidate for state office of spitting on the American flag as a young man.

The target of the leaflets, Nikolai Volkoff, denies that charge.

“I never spit on the American flag. Never!” says Volkoff, 59, who is entering politics by trying to win the 7th District state-assembly seat after a long and legendary career in professional wrestling. “I sang the Russian anthem, yes. But I never spit on any flag.”

Volkoff’s press secretary, Andy Vineberg, challenges the anonymous accusers to back up their flag-spitting claims.

“There’s no film of that!” says Vineberg, a former producer of wrestling events and lifelong admirer of Volkoff. “That’s completely untrue! If this were wrestling, whoever [made the charges] would be bear-hugged and body-slammed down for the 1-2-3. But this is very upsetting. Nikolai wants to run a good, clean campaign.”

The race for the state’s 7th District promises to be many things. But “good” and “clean”? No chance. The fliers are but one indication that it’s too late to describe this campaign in those terms.

It should be entertaining, however. It’s doubtful any race at any level anywhere in the country will have characters more colorful than those in this precinct, a Republican stronghold that represents portions of Baltimore and Harford Counties.

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Volkoff defected from the former Yugoslavia in the late ’60s as a teenager to escape Communist rule. He’s taking a break from his campaigning this weekend to return to his former hometown of Split, Croatia, for the first time since his defection. His Soviet-sympathizer character, which he created in 1974—he was born Josip Nikolai Peruzovic; Volkoff is his mother’s maiden name—won a World Wrestling Federation (WWF) tag-team championship and earned top billing at the first Wrestlemania in 1985. He was named to the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame last year; Volkoff’s standard pre-match routine included singing the Soviet national anthem, then crowing “America!” with apparent disgust and spitting. But, he says, that spit always landed on the canvas, never on a flag.

“Spitting on a flag, that’s cheap heat,” he says. “I was a professional. I didn’t work for cheap heat.”

Volkoff truly believes that the anti-Commie mood he helped foment in the West through his un-American activities in the ring hastened the fall of the Wall.

Among those who second Volkoff’s opinion is Vineberg, 32, who says he tried to pattern his life after the wrestler’s ever since Volkoff befriended the then-14-year-old backstage at a WWF show in West Virginia.

“I’m a vegetarian because he’s a vegetarian. He told me to watch my money; I watch every penny. He doesn’t drink, and I’ve never had a drink. He’s the godfather of my child,” says Vineberg. “He’s the most positive influence I’ve ever had in my life. Nikolai came to this country with $50 and one suit, and people bought tickets to see him wrestle, to see him in magazines, on video games with him in them, on wrestling dolls. He was able to live the American dream because of these people. He feels like he owes the people now, and he’s going to go fight for them. And just as Nikolai is running for office to try to give back to America what the country gave to him, I’m working on his campaign to try to give back to him what he gave to me.”

Volkoff, who currently is employed as a code-enforcement officer by Baltimore County and occasionally wrestles in independent promotions, will be one of several candidates in the 7th District running for the three available slots on the general-election ballot. He announced his candidacy earlier this month at BWI Figures, a store within the Plaza Flea Market in Dundalk that sells wrestling dolls and other ring memorabilia. The store promoted the rally on its Web site with a big photo of Volkoff looking menacing in a huge fur hat and a red sweater with “USSR” in yellow letters across the front.

Volkoff’s main nemeses in the field are Rick Impallaria, a former body-shop owner and one-term legislator who got into politics and populism when the state threatened to use eminent-domain rules to take over his business, and Pat McDonough, who along with serving the public has been a longtime radio-talk-show host. According to Volkoff’s campaign, Impallaria and McDonough have formed a tag team to prevent the ring veteran from ever taking office.

The Volkoff camp admits it doesn’t know for sure who Swift Boated their candidate with the damning leaflets. But that’s not going to stop them from guessing.

“The incumbents did that,” says Vineberg.

“That was Impallaria and McDonough,” says Volkoff.

Impallaria and McDonough both deny any connection to the fliers. But they don’t mind echoing the message.

“He was the Tokyo Rose of the 1980s,” says Impallaria. “He made his living spitting on the American flag and singing the Russian national anthem. Now he can say he was just doing a job. Tokyo Rose was just doing a job, too.”

Adds McDonough: “He did spit on the flag. I consider that reprehensible. Anybody can run for office. You can’t go around saying your wrestling career doesn’t matter. Volkoff isn’t even the name on his birth certificate. People need to know everything.”

As any good wrestler would when given a platform, Volkoff leveled some smack of his own at his antagonists. “Impallaria—that guy has 27 arrests,” he says. “How do you get arrested that much?”

Asked to respond to Volkoff’s blast, Impallaria says, “A lot of people are charged with a lot of things, but the real question is: Have you ever been convicted of anything?”

OK, OK, OK. Have you ever been convicted of anything?

“Anybody can look that up,” Impallaria says, declining to answer “the real question” any further. “I’m going to stick to the issues. I’m not going to lower myself to dirty politics.”

The Republican primary will be held in September. Vineberg says that despite his adversaries’ tactics, Volkoff has no intention of hiding his wrestling past as the campaign progresses. In fact, the press secretary has been contacting former ring colleagues to ask them to come to Maryland.

“We’ve been talking to the Iron Sheik,” says Vineberg. “Nikolai and the Sheik made a great tag team. America really hated them. I’m sure he’ll be up here to help.”

—Dave McKenna