When Josh Mandel got a call from the Marines last year asking him to return voluntarily to Iraq, he had much more to contemplate than when he first enlisted in 2000. He had just been elected to the Ohio state legislature. Family considerations were also important to him. He ultimately decided to serve a second tour in Iraq “because I didn’t join the Marine Corps to say no when my country called,” Mr. Mandel explains.
Of all the factors he weighed, Mr. Mandel says political concerns were not among them. Now he has been forced to deal with the politics of that decision. The opponent in his tough re-election fight, trial attorney Bob Belovich, is attacking Mr. Mandel’s service, arguing that he abandoned voters. Mr. Belovich’s wife, Barbara, acknowledged in an interview for this column that she has told voters that Mr. Mandel “went AWOL” (a military term for desertion) by fighting in Iraq.
Even Mr. Mandel’s motives for serving in Iraq are being questioned. Mrs. Belovich claimed in an interview with this columnist that Mandel “put his personal ambitions ahead of his constituents.” Asked why anyone would enter a war zone out of “personal ambition,” Barbara Belovich replied curtly, “Certainly he wasn’t serving our needs.”
That’s not how one prominent local Democrat sees it. “I have great respect for what Josh did. To say that he didn’t serve his constituents by risking his life in Iraq is absurd,” says Broadview Heights mayor Sam Alai.
Considered a rising star by the Ohio GOP, Mr. Mandel wasn’t on anyone’s radar two years ago. In 2006, he was a long-shot candidate to win his Cleveland-area district, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by well over two-to-one. Democrats didn’t take him seriously, so they spent little money to retain the open seat. But after knocking on almost 20,000 doors, Mr. Mandel scored a stunning victory.
Mr. Mandel faces a much tougher race this time around. Ohio Democrats targeted him from the beginning, because at just 31 years old, he is seen as a top up-and-comer. Progressive Majority, a moveon.org-affiliated political action committee that focuses on local races, has made defeating Mr. Mandel a top priority. Then there’s the Obama effect. ACORN activists have blanketed the area, and every liberal group from moveon.org to the Obama campaign is working to maximize Democratic turnout.
The Belovich campaign has not been bashful in going after Mr. Mandel’s military service. At a major Democratic Party event in Cleveland this March, while Mr. Mandel was still in Iraq, Mrs. Belovich told Mr. Alai, “Josh Mandel isn’t serving our country, he’s serving George Bush.” Though in a phone interview Mr. Belovich denied hearing his wife’s comments, Mr. Alai says that’s impossible: “We were so close, I could have reached out and smacked him in the face. She said it, he heard it, and he said nothing. It was clear he didn’t disagree.”
At a Progressive Majority event in Cleveland this July, Mr. and Mrs. Belovich laid out their campaign blueprint for defeating Mandel. “[Mandel] feels that his obligation to George Bush is stronger than his, you know, his obligation to the people in the 17th District,” Barbara Belovich said. (An audio recording made by someone who overheard the discussion was recently posted online, and neither Bob nor Barbara Belovich deny making those remarks.)
As heard in the recording, Bob Belovich then added that Mandel won in 2006 in part because of his “blue sign” and “Jewish name.” Asked recently by this columnist what he meant by the comment, Belovich stated that many people think Mandel is a Democrat, including some who think so because Mr. Mandel is Jewish. Belovich, who is Catholic, then spent five minutes discussing the implications of Mr. Mandel being Jewish. (The district’s Catholic population is three to four times bigger than its Jewish one.)
“To some Jewish voters, they would be attracted to him because he’s Jewish. To other Jewish voters, they wouldn’t support him because of his stance on the issues.” Questioned as to whether he was speaking of Jews generally or Jewish Democrats specifically, Mr. Belovich responded that he was referencing Jewish voters overall. This apparently rules out the possibility of Jews supporting Mr. Mandel because of his policy positions or legislative achievements.
Asked if he thinks he’ll receive Jewish votes for being Jewish himself, Mr. Mandel answered, “Maybe my opponent has met people who blindly support me because I’m Jewish, but I certainly haven’t.” As for the attacks on his decision to return to Iraq, Mr. Mandel says, “If they want to take shots at me, I can defend myself. But what they’re saying comes awfully close to degrading the sacrifices of our young men and women over there now.”
Attacks on Mr. Mandel’s military service could easily backfire. But given that the lines are still being repeated so close to the election suggests that they’ve resonated with at least some voters in a district where the war remains deeply unpopular.
The obvious implication is that by serving in Iraq, Mr. Mandel was a do-nothing legislator. Yet he was one of the two people who lead the successful fight to force Ohio’s multi-billion dollar pension funds to divest from companies doing energy-related business in Iran and Sudan. Pension fund managers agreed to start divesting when legislation co-sponsored by Mr. Mandel and Rep. Shannon Jones was poised for passage.
Knowing the enormity of the challenge facing him, Mr. Mandel is making one last push for the homestretch. He vows to avoid negative campaigning. And he is optimistic that voters will reject his opponent’s tactics. “I really believe that no matter how someone feels about the war, just about everyone truly supports the troops,” says Mr. Mandel.
For Josh Mandel to win re-election in his heavily Democratic district, he needs to be right.