Buckeye Senate Battleground: The Radical vs. The Marine
In the Buckeye State, the battle for U.S. Senate is between two men who started their political careers in their early 20s as Ohio State Representatives.
But for Senator Sherrod Brown of Avon and State Treasurer Josh Mandel of Cleveland, that is where the similarities end.
The year was 1974. Ohio House Speaker Verne Riffe, a self-described country boy and a master of pragmatic politics in southern Ohio, met with a 21-year old Sherrod Brown about becoming the Democratic candidate for the Mansfield-area. Brown was selected by Richland County Party chairman Donald Kindt, who noticed his talents as a volunteer for George McGovern’s presidential campaign in the summer of 1972.
At the time, Brown was not quite finished with his senior year in the Russian studies program at Yale. With his messy hair, a scratchy voice (It sounds as if he is continuously gargling saltwater) and hard-left views, Riffe was less than impressed.
According to the Cleveland Scene, after their meeting, Riffe angrily called Kindt and screamed, “Where the hell did you get that goddamn hippie sonuvabitch? Is that the best we’ve got?”
However, since Brown went onto became the youngest member of the Ohio legislature, defeated Dennis Kucinich in a 4-way primary to become Ohio Secretary of State, was elected to 6 terms to the U.S. House, and now serves as the state’s senior Senator—It is clear the answer to Riffe’s question for Ohio Democrats is an unequivocal “Yes.”
Brown, the son of a wealthy family doctor, presents himself as a progressive’s progressive. An advocate for protectionist policies, he prides himself as a defender of blue collar workers. While most Senators wear American flag lapel pins, Brown always dons on his suit the image of a caged canary, which represents the method coal miners used as a warning about the available oxygen supply. (If the canary died, it was time to evacuate the mine!)
The National Journal ranks Brown as the most liberal Senator, which puts him to the left of self-described socialist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. (On this ideological spectrum, he replaced then-Senator Barack Obama, who was ranked the most liberal in 2007.) Amazon.com is still selling copies of his 2004 book, The Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed, which is a 240-page assault on economic liberalism and trade agreements.
A poorly kept secret in political circles was about Sherrod and Larke Ummel Brown’s marriage ending badly in 1987. Reporters at multiple Ohio newspapers received anonymous packages of court documents full of claims of neglect and abuse. When seeking a restraining order, Larke’s affidavit said, “I am also intimidated by the Defendant and am in fear for the safety and well-being of myself and our children due to the Defendant’s physical violence and abusive nature.”
Brown denied these accusations, and the court found both parties at fault when the divorce was granted. However, in 1992, that did not stop Brown’s opponent for Congress, Republican Margaret Mueller, from broadcasting a dramatic reading of Larke’s claims in radio and TV ads.
In 2004, Brown married Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning liberal columnist and television pundit. Schultz, who frequently uses her prominent space in the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer to lobby for her husband’s policies, recently took a leave of absence after conservative Ohio bloggers caught Schultz using her press credentials to video tape Josh Mandel at an Avon city Tea Party Patriots rally.
When I asked him for his progressive heroes, Senator Brown listed Robert Kennedy and Francis Perkins, the first female U.S. Cabinet member for President Franklin Roosevelt who championed the New Deal and helped set the first federal minimum wage laws.
Josh Mandel, on the other hand, is endorsed by right-wing groups such as FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, Senator DeMint’s Conservative Fund, and recently earned the support of Tea Party-favorite Senator Marco Rubio. Graduating first in his class as an intelligence officer, he served in the Marines for two terms, and operated throughout the Al Anbar Province.
When I asked Mandel if he is a movement conservative, without hesitation he replied, “Of course!” and noted William F. Buckley had a large impact on his political philosophy.
As student government President of The Ohio State University, Mandel considered himself a conservative activist. In 2000, faced serious criticism for his support of commencement speaker J.C. Watts because Watts, who is black, opposes affirmative action for college admissions. “There were many protestors on graduation day, but I wasn’t able to attend the speech because I was already shipped out to Parris Island for the Marines.”
After becoming a member of the Ohio legislature, he found himself comfortable among the most conservative members of the Republican caucus. In 2008, Mandel broke with both parties by opposing the state’s Third Frontier program, which provides grants to politically connected green-energy and infrastructure projects.
Mandel, with a thin build, high-pitched voice, and short Marine haircut, is actually older than he looks. During stump speeches, he is frequently self-deprecating about his youthful appearance. For example, during the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, Mandel joked he has met a lot of politicians who want to be in Congress by age 40, Governor by age 50, and U.S. Senator by age 60. Then, Mandel won over the crowd by noting, “I try to keep my goals simple: By the age of 35, I hope to be shaving.”
While most polling data shows Mandel is the underdog, recent polling from Rasmussen shows the race is a dead heat. Mandel has raised a competitive $5.8 million ($4.3 million on hand) in addition to support from outside groups.
While Brown has a long history of political victories, the Ohio GOP does know to beat him. In 1990, he was defeated during his run for a 3rd term as Secretary of State, when Bob Taft (great-grandson of President William Howard Taft) ran a series of harsh television ads with detailed the investigation of sales of marijuana which took place among Brown’s employees. (No charges were filed in the investigation, and Taft went on to become one of the most unpopular Governors in American history, with approval ratings in the single-digits.)
And Brown recently came under scrutiny about paying his overdue property taxes on his D.C.-area condo only after reporters brought it to his attention. He was also delinquent in 2006 and 2007.
Mandel has made it clear he opposes the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and Wall Street bailouts. However, during my interview, it became apparent that Mandel is uncomfortable giving his views on Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget or the Federal government’s involvement in rescuing Ohio’s auto-industry. As if reading from a script, Mandel repeatedly said he “isn’t going to sit here and cast hypothetical votes on issues.” Mandel’s avoidance of serious answers to major topics was noted recently by Real Clear Politics and multiple local news outlets.
And Mandel’s hands-off management style has also opened his campaign to criticism and newspaper headlines which he would probably like to avoid. For example, the Dayton Daily News scrutinized Mandel’s hiring practices. After running a tough 2010 campaign accusing former Treasurer Kevin Boyce of cronyism, Mandel has opened himself up to criticism of repeating the same mistakes by hiring young, inexperienced friends with exorbitant salaries.
Mandel recently flew to the Bahamas to raise money from payday lenders instead of attending the monthly meeting of the State Board of Deposit. While no previous Ohio Treasurer has an impressive record of meeting attendance, the fundraising trip gave Democrats an opportunity to reinforce the perception that Mandel is AWOL from his responsibilities as Treasurer.
In response, Mandel was quick to inote that while Fitch and Standard & Poors were busy downgrading the outlook of America’s financial situation, both ratings agencies credited Mandel’s conservative investment strategies as a key factor as to why the state’s short term bond and credit rating were increased. In addition, after coordinating with the Attorney General’s office, Mandel fired two investment banks which were defrauding the state pension system. After two years in office, Ohio’s liquidity portfolio has increased by $1.4 billion while Mandel trimmed $1.2 million from his own budget.
One issue Mandel is happy to debate Brown on specifics is environmentalism and carbon emissions. With coal mining operations in Ohio and new efforts to expand fracking, Brown can read poll numbers and likes to portray himself as someone who does not perfectly align with radical environmentalists.
Brown told me by email, “We don’t have to choose between saving jobs and saving lives. I don’t want our children breathing in toxic poisons or getting asthma because of lax environmental standards like they have in China, but we also must safeguard against job loss and if changes need to be made we’ll address them. When I make decisions on policy it’s about what’s best for the middle class. That means saving and creating jobs, and ensuring that we’re protecting our children.”
However, Brown’s record clearly lacks such compromises. While his attack on Chinese products thinly-veiled protectionism, Brown has repeatedly opposed efforts in the Senate to prevent the EPA from enforcing new regulations on greenhouse gases. The most glaring example of Brown’s out-of-touch environmental views is his opposition to a 2011 McConnell Amendment which would have limited the EPA’s powers. The Wall Street Journal called the amendment “one of the best proposals for growth in job creation to make it onto the senate docket in years.”
Mandel, in contrast, is a global warming skeptic and likes to remind voters that on Sherrod Brown’s watch, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows Ohio since 2001 have lost 3,500 manufacturing businesses.
Mandel’s rhetoric is that of a pro-growth supply-sider, and he has seven months to improve and spread his message throughout the state. Ohio Democrats and Harry Reid have much to be nervous about.