Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ohio’s Next Favorite Son?

More and more, young men and women are not selecting elected public service as their career choice.

But I just met a young man, 31 years old, who is a two-term state legislator from Ohio. His name is Joshua Mandel, but everyone calls him Josh. Earlier, he had served on the city council of his suburban Cleveland community. Next year, he will probably be the Republican nominee for Ohio state treasurer and win that post. Barring the unforeseen, this is only the beginning of a remarkable political career.

Most Americans do not remember that Ohio has produced more presidents of the United States than any other state. It used to be called “the cradle of the presidency.” The last Ohioan to occupy the White House was Warren Harding. Before that, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and William Howard Taft hailed from the Buckeye State, and all of them, except for the first Harrison, were born there.

I do not know if Joshua Mandel will someday join that list, but I think it’s safe to say that state treasurer will not be his last political destination.

Mandel has already served two terms as president of the Ohio State University student government, two terms as city councilman, and two terms as a state legislator. In that same decade, he also attended and graduated from law school, got married, and served two tours as a combat intelligence U.S. marine in Iraq. He volunteered for the second tour, working in volatile and dangerous Anbar province. Mandel, like Tom Ridge before him, did not join the armed services as an officer after college. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, was first in his boot camp class, and later first in his class at Marine intelligence school. He holds the rank of staff sergeant. He was awarded two Marine Corps achievement medals during his combat tours.

As a campaigner, Mandel is already something of a legend. He was given little chance to win in any of his races, including the one at Ohio State. He won them all, primarily because he campaigned relentlessly and prodigiously, knocking on tens of thousands of doors and raising large amounts of campaign funds. His legislative district is mostly Democratic. Far left Congressman Dennis Kucinich represents half of Mandel’s district. But Republican Mandel won his most recent race with 71% of the votes. During his first term, Mandel volunteered for his second tour of duty in Iraq, Returning from that tour just in time to campaign for re-election, his Democratic opponent ran as ad saying that Mandel had been an “absentee” legislator. This was exactly the wrong thing to say about a man fighting for his country as a combat marine, particularly someone like Josh Mandel, who returned to win a landslide in a district that normally votes heavily Democratic.

Nor is Mandel bashful about his economic conservatism. While on the city council, he proposed a property tax decrease for suburban Lyndhurst. His colleagues on the council laughed out loud. They didn’t laugh, however, when 500 residents showed up at the next council meeting (usually 5-10 persons attend) and demanded the tax decrease. It passed, and was the first and only municipal property tax decrease anywhere in Ohio in memory. In the legislature, Mandel has taken the lead in several conservative tax and finance issues, including overhaul of workman’s compensation investment, and also serves on the public utilities committee as vice chairman, and on the criminal justice, judiciary and alternative energy committees. Mandel promises watchdog and conservative reform in the state treasurer’s office.

Watching Mandel perform as he tours the country to raise funds for his next race (his goal is to raise a million dollars one year before the treasurer’s race begins in earnest), there is no question that he is already something of a political presence. Bright, aggressive, quite articulate and seemingly fearless, he leaves his audiences with a sense they have met a future political superstar. He has a story to tell, and he knows how to tell it. including about two grandfathers who were the greatest influence on his life, one a Holocaust survivor from Poland, and the other a World War II veteran. Proudly Jewish, Mandel pointedly cites how the Italian Jewish side of his family were saved from the Nazis by the Catholic Church.

These are not good times for the Republican Party in Ohio and the nation. Only a few years ago, Republicans were in charge almost everywhere. Now they are in minorities, and struggling to redefine conservatism for the years ahead. Young talented persons in both parties seem more and more reluctant to enter public service with the brutal state of election campaigns, the preoccupation with fundraising, and the severe restriction on privacy and personal lives.

Josh Mandel is, for now, a contrarian phenomenon, already a model of political energy and conservative pragmatism, with accomplishments way ahead of his years, and a young man apparently going someplace, and soon.

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