The next big thing?
Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel in his office overlooking Capitol Square. Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
Josh Mandel is 33, a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and a Jewish Republican from Cleveland. And he’s Ohio’s new treasurer, a job Mandel won in November by a 520,000-vote margin, seven times the edge fellow Republican John Kasich tallied to unseat Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.
That’s a powerful biography. Plus, Mandel has shown he can raise money (setting a record for an Ohio treasurer’s race) and is willing to do nearly anything to win. Witness the widely criticized campaign ad that falsely linked his opponent, then-Treasurer Kevin Boyce, to a mosque. No wonder people are talking about him as the Next Big Thing in Ohio politics and, by some reckonings, maybe beyond the state, even though he looks half his age.
One thing for sure, Mandel is smack-dab inside the Ohio GOP’s dominant conservative current; he’s not, in the lingo of Republican zealots, a RINO—Republican in Name Only. Mandel’s mentor is the state’s top conservative, House speaker William Batchelder, who, it was said at the time, could get Ronald Reagan’s White House in the 1980s on the phone with one call. “Bill is very, very fond of Josh,” says one friend of both men.
“Josh has a limitless future,” adds Ohio Republican insider Terry Casey. “He’s bright, young and articulate. . . . The person he’s closest to is Bill Batchelder. That shows good judgment—and you know he’s going to get good judgment.”
Mandel and Batchelder were Ohio House colleagues before he was elected treasurer. After they became friends, Batchelder says he and Mandel would often catch up at a Bob Evans in suburban Cleveland. (Bob Evans restaurants are a favored Batchelder rendezvous; in his car, he keeps a map of the chain’s Ohio locations.) “Josh is such a worker,” says Batchelder, himself no slouch in the diligence department; over the last couple of years, he crisscrossed the state to recruit Ohio House candidates, who won the GOP majority in 2010 and elected him House speaker in January.
To Batchelder, it seemed as if Mandel, too, covered the state the same way Sherwin-Williams says its paint covers the Earth. “I was amazed, over and over, to run into him,” he says. “He has incredible dedication and energy.”
The Mandel buzz has gone national among politically active Americans of Jewish heritage, according to Joyce Garver Keller, veteran Statehouse lobbyist for Ohio’s Jewish communities. “They say, ‘Josh Mandel . . . he’s going to be the first Jewish president,’ ” she says. (The treasurer himself says he just wants to be the best steward of Ohio’s money he can be; it’s hard to imagine what else he could say, just a few weeks into his new job.)
Mandel, of Greater Cleveland’s Lyndhurst, is an Ohio State graduate—twice president of OSU’s Undergraduate Student Government. He missed his graduation ceremony because he’d begun Marine Corps basic training. Mandel also earned a Case Western Reserve law degree. He missed that graduation, too: He was active duty in Iraq as a Marine corporal. “My time in the Marine Corps emphasized for me how blessed we are to be Americans,” Mandel says, and not just because of the grinding poverty he saw in the Middle East, but also how women are often treated there. (Mandel’s final Marine rank: staff sergeant.)
The political demographic Jewish Ohio Republican may seem unusual, but Mandel’s not alone. The first Jewish candidate Ohio voters elected to statewide office, Gilbert Bettman, was a Cincinnati Republican who won the attorney general’s office in 1928 before losing his U.S. Senate campaign four years later. He eventually claimed an Ohio Supreme Court seat.
Mandel’s route to statewide success started when he began to knock on almost 6,000 Lyndhurst doors to win a City Council seat there; he was age 26 when he took office in January 2004. Then, as part of a successful 2006 campaign for the Ohio House, Mandel knocked on 19,679 doors in the 17th House District. He won a second House term in 2008. The 17th District is among Ohio’s most affluent. It includes Chagrin Falls, Independence, Pepper Pike and Solon. According to data compiled by the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, the 17th District ranks No. 3 (of Ohio’s 99 House districts) in median household income and median home value. Still, Mandel’s district narrowly supported Democrats John Kerry and Barack Obama for president in the past two campaigns.
Mandel’s margin of victory in November topped not just Kasich, but also the other GOP statewide winners of executive offices: Attorney General Mike DeWine, Auditor David Yost and Secretary of State Jon Husted. Mandel carried 80 of the 88 counties.
But the triumph came at a cost to Mandel’s reputation, at least in some quarters. The mosque ad was an obvious appeal to anti-Muslim prejudice. “Boyce,” the ad’s narrator said, “gave [a lobbyist’s] wife a sensitive job in the treasurer’s office, a job Boyce admitted he only made available at their mosque.” The ad was judged false by PolitiFact Ohio, a partnership of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact website of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times.
“That ad will define Josh Mandel for years to come,” says Democratic state chairman Chris Redfern. He likened it to a baseless commercial run in 1988 by Republican Senate candidate George Voinovich against Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum. The anti-Metzenbaum ad, which boomeranged politically against Voinovich, suggested that Metzenbaum had somehow condoned child pornography. (Voinovich lost that contest, but went on to serve eight years as Ohio governor and two terms as a U.S. Senator.)
Mandel yanked the mosque commercial after a statewide firestorm of criticism. Now, he says he’s contrite: “I regret running the ad. I made a mistake.” Mandel adds that he and Boyce mended fences after the election.
Boyce says he reached out to Mandel by calling him the day after the election to start their transition. “He said, ‘Can I buy you lunch?’ He really made an effort,” Boyce says. “The campaign is over; the campaign is what it is.” He and Mandel talked for hours when they met for breakfast (at a Bob Evans). Their aim, Boyce says, was for “a smooth, professional transition,” which, Boyce says, they achieved.
One Republican who knows and admires Mandel, but who asked not to be identified, says the ad represented risk-aversion on Mandel’s part, not anti-Muslim bigotry. Mandel, the Republican says, was clearly going to win without running the ad, but still felt compelled to do so.
Mandel was a tireless fundraiser for the campaign, his admirer says: If a prospective donor declined to contribute, Mandel, unfazed, didn’t take it personally. He just dialed the next number. His technique worked. All told, news reports indicate Mandel raised a record $4.9 million compared to Boyce’s $1.9 million. “He is a force of nature,” says Franklin County Republican chairman Doug Preisse. “The guy is in constant motion.”
Mandel says his principal goal as treasurer is to “assemble a great management team at the office” and, as keeper of the state’s cash, to base its investment on “one, safety; two, liquidity; three, yield.” In addition, Mandel says, “We’re going to try to build on Treasurer Boyce’s success in the financial literacy area.” Boyce offered Smart Money Choices workshops and conferences for Ohio consumers and businesspeople to promote knowledge of personal and small-business finance.
Ohio’s treasurer also has some duties toward the state’s five state retirement systems. Subject to laws the General Assembly passes, the retirement systems are, practically speaking, self-governing. But state law requires the treasurer to appoint an investment expert to each of the five retirement boards. As it happens, the five systems’ retirement and financial policies are clearly on the General Assembly’s radar because of concerns about long-term liabilities.
Mandel declined to list specific retirement system changes he’d like or seek, saying he first wants to discuss the systems with Kasich and Batchelder. (Full disclosure: As a year-to-year Ohio University instructor, I contribute to the State Teachers Retirement System.)
But Mandel has made up his mind on one retirement controversy: “I think we need to eliminate double-dipping,” the practice by which someone retires on a public pension, then immediately takes another Ohio public-payroll job.
Mandel’s time in the House taught him a thing or two about the politics of Ohio’s retirement systems—and the volatility of Statehouse pension debates. In 2007, as a House freshman, Mandel (with then-Rep. Shannon Jones, a suburban Cincinnati Republican now in the state Senate) sponsored a bill to require the retirement systems to dump investments in certain companies doing business in terror nests Iran and the Sudan. The Mandel-Jones bill appeared a likely legislative slam dunk. But that was before pension professionals started to toss around terms such as “fiduciary duty” (to retirees) and “investment prudence” (with retirement money)—and before the retirement systems mobilized contributors and retirees against divestiture legislation.
The Dispatch editorial page also weighed in sharply against the Mandel-Jones bill, saying it would require the retirement systems “to review billions of dollars of investments to purge some of their holdings, generating significant transaction costs. And to what end? Freeing Ohio’s pension funds of links to Iran will make proponents feel good, but there’s no guarantee it will have any influence on the hard-line Islamists running Iran.” Husted, a suburban Dayton Republican who was then House speaker, fashioned a compromise: The retirement systems agreed to adopt in-house divestment policies, and the House dropped the Mandel-Jones bill.
Two other Mandel legislative moves raised some eyebrows. In 2009, Mandel voted against an Ohio House bill to forbid discrimination against gay or lesbian Ohioans in employment and housing. (The House passed the bill 56-39, but it died in the state Senate). Mandel, as president of Ohio State’s Undergraduate Student Government, had supported domestic-partner benefits for same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples in 2000.
He says he voted against the 2009 bill because it would have been a job-killer for small businesses. (The bill, however, only applied to employers of 15 or more people; in contrast, other Ohio employment discrimination-ban laws apply to employers of four or more people.) Last May, outside a Greater Cleveland country club, protesters picketed a Mandel fundraiser because he voted against the anti-discrimination bill, the Cleveland Jewish News reported.
Also last May, Mandel voted “no” when the House, by 61-37, passed a bill to close loopholes in a 2008 Ohio payday-loan reform law. (Voters overwhelmingly had demanded payday loan reform in a 2008 referendum.) Interestingly, Mandel mentor Batchelder was a fervent “yes” on the cleanup.
Mandel says he opposed the bill (which also died in the state Senate) because families are capable of deciding for themselves what their best financial options are. Additionally, he says legislative hearings showed that many Ohioans need more access to credit, not less, to cover the cost of necessities.
Despite talk that Mandel is on a quick climb up Ohio’s ladder—perhaps, for instance, as the 2012 Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown—Republican insiders know he’d better stay focused on the treasurer’s job.
Since before the Civil War, when a treasury scandal almost derailed the career of Republican Gov. Salmon P. Chase—later Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury secretary and namesake of Chase Bank—Ohio treasury scandals, like cicadas, turn up every so many years. A lobbyist or a treasury employee dreams up a supposedly foolproof idea to make money for (or, likelier, off of) the treasury. When, inevitably, the scheme explodes, debris can hit everyone at the Statehouse, whether guilty or innocent.
Example: the 1970 Crofters scandal, peanuts by today’s standards. Then-Treasurer John Herbert’s office invested more than Ohio law allowed in commercial paper (unsecured loans to businesses). The loans were arranged through a politically connected Columbus money broker, Crofters Inc., whose owners were big contributors to GOP campaigns. Herbert, then an up-and-coming Ohio Republican, hadn’t personally done anything wrong, but the loans sank his 1970 campaign for Ohio attorney general and most of the rest of that year’s statewide Republican ticket.
And in the 1980s, Democratic Treasurer Gertrude Donahey’s treasury cashier, Elizabeth Jane Boerger, and a Boerger co-defendant, embezzled $1.15 million. Donahey was guilty of nothing, but the embezzlement forced her to forego reelection.
“He needs to do a good job as treasurer,” says a key Ohio Republican. “The temptation and pressure would be for Josh to run for U.S. Senate in 2012. If he did run, Josh certainly could be a great candidate against Sherrod Brown, but is it the right time to do it?”
Says another, after watching Mandel’s campaign for treasurer: “His strengths are all political. He was a very, very diligent candidate. He does not know how to sleep. He’s indefatigable. [But] he’s way, way too ambitious.”
Time is on Mandel’s side. If he sought a second term as treasurer in 2014, then ran for governor, Mandel—on Election Day 2018—would be age 41. He’s by far the youngest of Ohio’s current cohort of Republican executive officeholders.
Even before he beat Boyce, Mandel was seen as a comer. For example, when then-Auditor Mary Taylor opted to become Kasich’s running mate as the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor rather than pursue another term as auditor, some Republicans tried to nudge Mandel into the auditor’s race.
Ohio’s auditor, along with the governor and secretary of state (now all Republicans), gets to help draw new General Assembly districts this year—a prize that may guarantee the GOP 10 more years of General Assembly dominance. Apportionment makes the auditor’s office more valuable to the party than the treasurer’s. But Mandel, by choice, stuck to his original plan.
One component of Mandel’s early political success, like that of Voinovich’s, is alliance building with, and within, Greater Cleveland’s Jewish community. Mandel’s advantage: Unlike Roman Catholic Voinovich, Mandel was born into it. He “is very engaged with the [Jewish] community. . . . It’s more than just filling in the ‘faith’ box when you go into the hospital,” says Statehouse lobbyist Keller.
Mandel and his wife, the former Ilana Shafran, had their July 2008 wedding in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. (Mandel says he was reared in Judaism’s Conservative tradition, his wife in the Orthodox tradition.) Mandel’s father, Greater Cleveland lawyer Bruce Mandel, an Ulmer & Berne partner, is active in the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, Keller says. And one of Ilana Mandel’s grandmothers was the late Fannye Ratner Shafran. Shafran and her brothers—Charles, Max and Leonard Ratner—created, from a Cleveland lumberyard, what’s now Forest City Enterprises Inc., the giant real-estate developer. Ilana earned an undergraduate degree at Barnard College and a master’s in social work at Case Western Reserve University. She’s on the staff of the Cleveland Hillel Foundation at Case Western Reserve.
Although politically well-positioned, Mandel will have to learn that the road to political success is paved with risks taken, not risks avoided, says a supporter. This source says Mandel doesn’t like to displease either side when other officeholders or Statehouse lobbyists are divided. “Josh’s approach can be, ‘I have friends on both sides—I’m for my friends.’ ” That’s a formula for short-term Statehouse peace, not long-term Statehouse success. “One of Josh’s great weaknesses is he tends to listen to the last person he talked with,” says Redfern.
Ohio’s state treasurer’s job hasn’t so far led to the governorship or U.S. Senate, though one Ohio treasurer, Marion County Democrat Mary Ellen Withrow, became U.S. treasurer courtesy of Bill Clinton. The state treasurer after Withrow, Cincinnati Republican Ken Blackwell, won the Ohio GOP’s 2006 nomination for governor before losing to Strickland.
Mandel, given his ability and ambition, could well become the first Ohio treasurer to reach Bexley’s Governor’s Mansion or the U.S. Senate. The question at the Statehouse is whether Mandel also has patience—or, at least enough of it—to focus on the state treasury as strongly as he’ll be tempted to concentrate on his own political future.
Tom Suddes is an editorial board member of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, columnist on Ohio politics and adjunct assistant journalism professor at Ohio University.