It’s a sticky afternoon in August and a storm is brewing. Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel is the featured speaker at a rally for Mike Wilson, who’s planning to run for the Ohio general assembly. We’re under a tent, but as the lightning flashes, the crowd eyes the wiring on the speaker system nervously. Still—Mandel is winning them over. When he tells his story, it’s clear he’s wasted no time getting things done.
Mandel looks maybe half of his 33 years, but he’s already accomplished more in his decade-long career in public service than many politicians have in a lifetime. He’s a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq. A former city councilman in Lyndhurst, a suburb of Cleveland, he led the fight for the first property tax rollback in the county’s history. As a state legislator, he won landslide victories in a heavily liberal district. When he ran for state treasurer, he got more votes than Governor John Kasich.
Now he’s set on unseating incumbent U.S. senator and prominent liberal Democrat Sherrod Brown. A career politician, Brown was in the Ohio House of Representatives before Mandel was born. And after 35 years at the top, Mandel says, Brown is out of touch.
By contrast, if you were his constituent in northeast Ohio, Josh Mandel probably has sat in your living room—maybe more than once. Mandel estimates he’s knocked on more than 25,000 doors in various elections, and worn out multiple pairs of shoes doing it. He plans to knock on another 100,000 doors over the course of his Senate campaign. He’s going to have to buy some new shoes.
Mandel tells the crowd how he ended up on stage: In 2000, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. While still in law school, he ran for city councilman. He won in a landslide. Then, shortly before he took office, the Marines called.
Mandel had a “gut check” moment. But he knew what he had to do. In February 2004, Mandel deployed to Iraq as an intelligence specialist attached to a light armored reconnaissance battalion. When Mandel returned to Ohio, he quickly got back to work. Soon, he was leading the charge for a Lyndhurst property tax rollback.
“The other councilmen said, ‘Kid, we’re going to embarrass you on this, we’re going to vote this thing down one to six,’ ” Mandel recalls.
He didn’t back down. He went to the public. Hundreds of people showed up at a city council meeting to support his proposal. The measure passed six to one. It was the first tax break of its kind in Cuyahoga County.
Then, in the middle of his first term, the Marine Corps called again. It was September 2007, and they needed him for the surge in Iraq. “I ultimately decided that my duty to my country came first,” Mandel said. He returned to war, and after his tour he was reelected. Then, Mandel ran for state treasurer.
“When I got into office, there was this guy whose job it was to drive checks from Columbus up to Cleveland to deposit them,” he says. Every month, this person was driving 143 miles on I-71 in an unsecured vehicle with $234 million of taxpayer money. Mandel switched to online banking and saved a hundred thousand dollars a year.
Commonsense changes like ending unused phone lines, lowering minutes on cell phone plans, and ending costly plant-watering contracts allowed Mandel to end his first fiscal year in the treasurer’s office with a $400,000 surplus and a budget reduced by $1.2 million.
That record will be key to the success or failure of his Senate run. Mandel is confident that he can win in 2012. Though other Republicans have expressed interest in the race, Mandel does not anticipate a primary challenge. Brown, he says, is too extreme for moderate Ohioans.
Mandel, on the other hand, has strong crossover appeal: His conservative principles will go over well in southern Ohio, and in liberal enclaves up north, like Cleveland, he’s an admired and well-known figure.
Though the latest Quinnipiac poll shows Mandel trailing Brown by 15 points, it’s still early. Even some die-hard conservatives in southern Ohio aren’t familiar with Mandel yet—which is about to change.
In the last fundraising quarter, Mandel raised 40 percent more than Brown and spent hundreds of thousands less to do it. “Forget fundraising,” Mandel says to the crowd. “What’s important to me is that we’re going to go next year and beat Sherrod Brown. And by beating Sherrod Brown and running strong, we’re also going to help the eventual nominee at the top of the ticket beat Barack Obama.”
That line gets the most applause of the night.
Kate Havard is an intern at The Weekly Standard.