Josh Mandel steps out of his rented sedan into the bright midmorning sunshine and surveys the parking lot behind Assumption Church in Broadview Heights, looking for a car with his name on it.
The 30-year-old state representative from the 17th District and Iraq War veteran is late to the last of his three Memorial Day appearances.
Marching band members, Little League baseball players and Shriners are milling about, making it difficult for the Marine, who recently returned from a second tour of duty, to spot the vehicle and driver charged with transporting him to the Broadview Center municipal complex in the city’s annual parade.
“We’ve got a Mercedes for you, Josh,” a volunteer announces, clearly pleased that the parade coordinator has procured a vintage luxury convertible to carry him.
Mandel smiles, thanks the man and shakes his outstretched hand.
As the volunteer walks away, Mandel turns to his district director, Jonathan Petrea. “Can you find me another car?” he asks quietly. “My entire life, I’ve always owned American cars.”
And unless he’d like to risk cutting his political life short, he’s not riding in an import now. No public official in his right mind would climb into a foreign-made car for public display in a Rust Belt region like Northeast Ohio.
Petrea works out a trade with a Vietnam veteran assigned to a black Ford Mustang and places a couple magnetic signs emblazoned with the state rep’s logo on each of the doors.
But Mandel doesn’t get in. He gently removes his navy suit jacket, still damp from a rainstorm that struck while he was speaking at an early morning event in Walton Hills, and walks behind the car.
While the Democratic challenger for his seat in the November election, Bob Belovich, rides along in a red Plymouth Barracuda, Mandel shakes hands with the residents lined along the three-quarter-mile parade route.
“I always try to walk when I’m doing parades so I’m able to talk to folks,” he later explains. When I ask why he simply didn’t leave the car behind instead of requesting another one, he replies, “I had you and [an intern] there. I wasn’t going to make you walk.”
Many greet Mandel as if he’s a member of their own extended families, calling out “Hey, Josh! Welcome back!” over the band’s patriotic marches. They hold out their arms to embrace him. Even some of the children seem to recognize the smiling young man towering above them.
Maybe that’s because with short-cropped hair and a thin, chiseled face, Mandel looks more like a high school freshman than a freshman state lawmaker. But then again, Mandel isn’t your average politician.
A Marine Corps reservist who served a tour in Iraq in 2004 as an intelligence specialist attached to an infantry battalion, Mandel volunteered for a second stint in Iraq last summer.
In 2006, he knocked on 19,679 doors — he actually kept an exact count — during a 10-month campaign for his Ohio House seat, wearing out three pairs of shoes in the process.
“Most people just don’t do that,” observes longtime Pepper Pike Councilman Allan Krulak, a Democrat who has known Mandel for the better part of a decade.
Dubbed byThe Plain Dealer as “a rising star in Ohio Republican circles,” Mandel seems almost too good to be true: A clean-cut, impossibly fresh-faced guy who preaches the importance of fulfilling duty to community and country, and actually practices it; a public servant who Krulak says truly believes his purpose on this planet is to help others.
“The guy is real,” insists Mandel’s predecessor, former 17th District state Rep. Jim Trakas, now running against incumbent Dennis Kucinich for his 10th District U.S. House seat. “But you have to see it to believe it.”
Less than two weeks after he returns from Iraq, Josh Mandel has resumed his door-to-door forays into the 17th District. On this cool, rainy May afternoon, he’s on Iroquois Avenue, a street of tidy middle-class homes in Mayfield Heights. Although Mandel is up for re-election in November, the Republican says he canvasses year round, whether he’s on an upcoming ballot or not. When the Ohio House isn’t in session, he, Petrea and a dozen or so interns and volunteers knock on doors six days a week.
Mandel’s presence elicits a wide range of reactions. Some have seen the guy in the gray fleece pullover and khaki pants on their front porches before and take his appearance in stride. Others have read about his return from Iraq in the local newspapers and greet him with the respect due a military veteran. A few treat him like a celebrity.
“I can’t believe I got to meet you,” a raven-haired woman exclaims as she hugs him goodbye. “I’m so excited!”
Those who still don’t know who Mandel is are often stunned to find a state representative at their door, asking if there is anything he can do for them. One senior bluntly tells him that she doesn’t believe he’s old enough to hold public office.
“I look like I’m almost ready to get my driver’s license,” he jokes as we walk away from the house.
Another woman who’s just pulled into her driveway mistakes him for a door-to-door salesman and doesn’t get out of her car until he finally gives up on waiting for her to do so and crosses the street.
When he returns to introduce himself, she exclaims, “I don’t want any of what you’re selling!”
“Lots of people say that Josh is the first elected public official they’ve ever really met,” says Meredith Albright, a 19-year-old college intern from Brecksville accompanying Mandel.
During the next hour and a half, Mandel listens to a middle-aged man who just lost his job, a widowed retiree struggling to maintain her home and a disgruntled neighbor complaining about the overgrown lawn next door.
At the end of each visit, he pulls a notepad from his Old Navy bookbag and invites them to call if they have any further questions. The number printed on the card is for his cell phone, not his office. He then checks their names off a list pulled from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and notes any action to be taken on questions or problems he can help them solve.
Nothing requires a follow-up call or visit this time around. But Petrea says he’s done everything from contact the Cuyahoga County Auditor’s Office and request a property value reassessment to serve as an on-site mediator between First Energy workers trimming tree limbs and Lyndhurst residents trying to preserve the foliage shading their yards.
Yet Mandel’s charisma and bootstrapping political work ethic don’t mean he’s easy to get to know. Krulak says Mandel’s too modest to talk about himself. Trakas attributes his reticence to his military training as an intelligence specialist. His job was to collect information about the enemy, not give it out.
Ask even something simple like “What kind of a kid were you?” and you’re likely to get a long, almost painful silence followed by a frustratingly unrevealing answer: “I was an average kid.”
Josh Mandel was your average Beachwood High School student — if you consider student council vice president, three-sport letter winner, varsity quarterback and intern for 14th District U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette the norm.
And if that’s your definition of average, try this story from his father, Bruce: “The guys on the football team used to tease him because he would go up and introduce himself to kids who weren’t popular and try to become their friend.”
Yes, Josh is more like your average after-school TV special.
Mandel didn’t develop a serious interest in politics until his sophomore year at The Ohio State University, when the communications major successfully ran for student-body president — a position he held until he graduated in May 2000. He worked on issues such as reinstating season football tickets for freshmen (who were limited to attending a single game at the time), obtaining free night parking for students, and installing blue “safety lights” with 9-1-1 call buttons off-campus.
During that time, he also developed a decidedly Republican orientation as he started pondering issues such as tax rates, national security and economic growth. But the biggest life decision he made at Ohio State was joining the Marine Corps Reserves in his senior year.
His grandfathers had instilled in him a strong desire to serve. His paternal grandfather, Harold Mandel, was in the Army Air Corps during World War II; his maternal grandfather, Josef Friedman, was a Polish immigrant, the only member of his family to survive the horrors of Auschwitz.
“They would always talk about how proud they were to be Americans, how we all had a duty to serve our community and serve our country,” he remembers.
“I looked myself in the mirror and decided that if I was going to serve my country, now was the time,” Mandel says. “Every Marine I knew had a strong backbone, was very motivated and had unwavering integrity. I respected that and wanted to be a part of it.”
His father, proud of his son’s decision but concerned for his safety, spent the next several months trying to convince him to serve his country in some other way — or at least in a branch of service other than the Marines.
“He said, ‘Dad, you always told me when I do something, strive to be the best. The Marines are the best,’ ” Bruce recalls.
Mandel graduated first in his class from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., and first again the following summer at the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center in Dam Neck, Va. Military intelligence resonated with him because “it sounded like an interesting field, and one where I could make an impact.”
After returning from boot camp, he enrolled at Case Western Reserve University School of Law and continued training with the Marine Reserve unit in Brook Park. “I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to continue my education,” he explains. “I thought getting a legal education would be helpful in a lot of different professional arenas.”
He also began volunteering at Cuyahoga County Republican Party headquarters for Jim Trakas, then 17th District state representative and chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party.
Trakas and Mandel had become friends during Mandel’s senior year at Ohio State, after the university’s government affairs director called the legislator and asked if he’d have lunch with “a real eager beaver” who wanted to meet him. As a volunteer, Mandel was more passionate than ambitious, with a deep respect for veterans, the elderly and those in unfortunate circumstances, Trakas says.
Eventually Trakas hired Mandel as his district director, where Trakas continued to be impressed with Mandel’s work on his 2002 re-election campaign. He’d call volunteers to discuss campaign strategy at 3 a.m. And on another evening, he continued to canvass a Solon neighborhood in a heavy rain two hours after Trakas and the other volunteers decided to go home.
Longtime Brecksville Mayor Jerry Hruby, who worked with Mandel on U.S. Sen. George Voinovich’s re-election campaign, was so impressed with Mandel’s intelligence, polish and understanding of the issues that he offered to be his campaign co-chair during his first run for the Statehouse.
As he got to know Mandel better, he saw how freely he gave of his time, how lovingly he treated his parents and how he talked to seniors “like he was talking to his grandparents.”
“He lives his religion,” Hruby declares, referring to Mandel’s Jewish faith, then adds, “He won’t meet you on Saturday nights — Saturday is a solemn day for him. And he respects other people’s religions.”
During his third year of law school, in 2003, Mandel learned that a city council seat was open in Lyndhurst, where he lived. When he applied for the spot but was not appointed to fill it, Mandel decided to run for one of three at-large positions.
“I thought I could do the job well,” he says.
Krulak, who helped plan and coach him through the campaign despite his Democratic affiliation, says Mandel was concerned about his age. “People thought he was a little too young,” he explains, “until they got to meet him.” And of course, they did. Mandel easily won the election.
“Josh was like a tsunami,” Trakas says with a chuckle. “He just went through town, knocking on doors three times. People were like, ‘Uh, I think I’ve already talked to you.’ ”
But just days before he was sworn into his first public office, the newly elected city councilman was notified that he was being activated to serve in Iraq. He attended his first council meeting in January 2004, then shipped out to Al Anbar Province, located along the Syrian border.He started as a corporal and was promoted to sergeant during his eight-month deployment.
He says he never questioned or complained about the interruption in his fledgling political career.
“Something I have no tolerance for is people in the service who complain about having to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan,” he says firmly, his brows knitted in irritation. “There hasn’t been a draft in this country in over 30 years. And every single person knew when they volunteered that at some point in time they could be called to serve in a war or a combat zone. When that time comes, you should serve proudly and not try to get out of it.”
Mandel’s first term as a state representative was similarly disrupted in mid-2007, when the Marine Corps called and expressed a need for intelligence specialists in Iraq. Mandel volunteered to serve again, even though he wasn’t on active duty. He returned to Al Anbar Province on Sept. 11 and served for another seven and a half months, living in an old Iraqi school in the city of Haditha, on the Euphrates River.
“I didn’t join the Marine Corps to say no when my country called,” he says.
Over tuna salad sandwiches at Corky & Lenny’s in Woodmere, Mandel says his first experience in Iraq was a “shock to the senses,” a three-day journey from Kuwait to the village of Al Qaim in a convoy that carried the 1,000-plus men in his battalion to their first quarters: a train station.
“When you’re in the middle of the desert, it looks like you’re on the moon,” he marvels.
In villages and cities, local reaction to the convoy ranged from dirty looks to waves and thumbs-up signs. Occasionally, children ran alongside the Humvees and clamored for chocolate.
But later, when I talk to Mandel on the telephone early one evening while he’s waiting to return to the Statehouse floor and vote on the 2008 capital budget, he isn’t as eager to talk about his time in Iraq. He says his experiences made him realize that material possessions aren’t all that important, that the military discipline he employed in Iraq now helps him manage time and maintain focus at the
And, he admits, he’s had some minor problems readjusting to life back home. “In the Marine Corps, we treat Marines firmly and fairly,” he explains. “In the civilian world, you can’t always be firm with people — you need to be a little bit more delicate in handling certain personalities.”
Still, he flatly refuses to discuss his military activities in Iraq beyond the lack of any day-to-day routine; the same goes for his opinion of the war. “As a Marine,” he says tersely, “I never have felt comfortable opining on it.”
His good humor is restored when the conversation turns to his work as a city councilman and state representative, track records that have obviously been abbreviated by his service in Iraq. In his absence, Mandel says, his assistant in Columbus and Lyndhurst-based district director tended to constituents’ needs or referred them to people who could. He says most people in his city and district were understanding and supportive during his two deployments, although there were a few who charged that he “was AWOL” from the Statehouse. In one message posted during his first tour of duty on a Web site for Jewish military personnel and their families, one man writes, “I had high hopes for Josh but frankly he has done nothing in his ... years of Lyndhurst service.”
Mandel replies that in 2005 he “led the charge” to pass the first property tax rollback in the city’s history — one of the few, he adds, in the county.
As a state representative, he cites accomplishments such as working across the aisle with Democrats to hammer out last year’s $53 billion budget and advance an initiative to stop state pension investments in foreign companies doing business with countries that sponsor terrorism. His current focus, he says, is on improving the economy, creating jobs and keeping people in Northeast Ohio.
“The way to do all three of those things is to create a tax environment and regulatory environment in which local employers can grow,” he says. “In Ohio, we unfortunately have one of the highest-taxed states in the nation and also have a bureaucratic environment that’s unfriendly to small businesses.”
For example, obtaining a permit from environmental regulators in other states might take three months; in Ohio, it might take 12 months, he says.
District residents who question Mandel’s dedication to them don’t have to worry about a third stint with the Marines if he’s re-elected in November. He’s looking forward to spending time with his family, particularly fiancée Ilana Shafran, a self-employed fashion consultant based in University Heights whom he’s marrying on Aug. 28.
He doesn’t see himself as a career politician.
“I’d like to work in a local small business,” he offers.
But the observation that his resume is tailor-made for political life is met with silence. When I ask how long he’d like to stay in public office, he pauses before answering.
“As long as I feel like I’m making an impact,” he finally replies, “and as long as the voters continue to put me in office.”