His first engagement was to a Democrat — a Democrat who would work as an advance consultant and associate on Obama’s campaign and in his White House. But now, at 30 years old, in the summer of 2008, Mandel got married — in Jerusalem to the former Ilana Shafran, also a Democrat. Shafran was the granddaughter of Fannye Ratner Shafran, who with her three brothers built the real estate development company Forest City Enterprises that helped make the Ratners one of the wealthiest, most prominent and politically active families in Ohio and beyond.
In the fall of 2008, Mandel served as well as a co-chair of Ohio Veterans for McCain, the Arizona senator and that cycle’s Republican presidential nominee. McCain, Mandel told the Associated Press, had the “gut instinct” to lead the country. Obama won Ohio and won the White House, of course, but east of Cleveland Mandel was reelected easily to his state representative seat.
And he surprised nobody the following spring by announcing his first statewide run — for state treasurer. In a speech in Lima, Ohio, he showed off shoes with holes in the soles he said he had worn while knocking on 19,679 doors in his state rep runs. They gave him a standing ovation.
In retrospect, and even in real time, the run in 2010 was a pivotal moment in the history of Mandel. The tea party revolted afoot, the politics of the early Obama years were marked by a more partisan, more menacing national mood. Mandel ventured a different kind of campaign.
Kevin Boyce, the incumbent state treasurer, was Black. Amer Ahmad, Boyce’s top deputy, was Arab American and Muslim. Boyce’s office had given a low-bid, $32-million state investment contract to a Boston bank that had just hired as a lobbyist a Columbus-area attorney named Mohammed Noure Alo — who was friends with Ahmad. Boyce also hired Alo’s wife as a receptionist in his office. Ahmad, Alo and Alo’s wife all attended the same mosque.
Mandel’s campaign accused Boyce of “cronyism and corruption,” blasting out a fundraising appeal in which he used the word “mosque” three times. “We deserve public officials who use tax dollars to hire people because they are qualified — not because they belong to their comrade’s Mosque,” Mandel wrote.
And on Sept. 30, 2010, he took to TV with a statewide airing of what might remain the most notorious ad of his career.
“Corruption,” his campaign called it. As ad fodder, it was more than fair game. Boyce himself hadn’t broken any laws, but Ahmad and Alo later were convicted of money laundering and wire fraud and sentenced to prison in what ended up being the biggest kickback scheme in state government annals. But as serious as that was, it’s not what people remember the most: Mandel injected into the 30-second spot to unmistakable air of Islamophobiausing music that was vaguely Middle Eastern and leaving viewers with the impression that Boyce, who is Christian, was a member of the same mosque.
“What it was really about was uncovering corruption that was happening under the nose of Kevin Boyce,” Jonathan Petrea, who managed Mandel’s campaigns for the state legislature, told me. “That should have been the takeaway. Instead, everybody was distracted by claims of Islamophobia,” he said.
“Mandel has shown that he will do anything to win a vote. Josh would rather sink to outright lies and fear-mongering,” Chris Redfern, then the Ohio Democratic Party chair, said in a statement at the time. “His ad is nothing less than a modern-day Willie Horton smear. He should take it down immediately, and he should be ashamed.”
And hey what. At least a part of him was. Mandel took it down off TV — though he kept it on his YouTube page — and he confided in a friend he regretted it. “He called me,” said Matt Cox, a GOP operative in Ohio who is not close anymore with Mandel, “and he said, ‘I feel I really screwed up here.’”
He said so publicly, too, but not until after he won.
“I regret running the ad,” he said in Columbus Monthly. “I made a mistake.”
“After the election, I broke bread with Treasurer Boyce, at Bob Evans,” he said on local TV. “And I did apologize to him.”
“This will be an ad that will haunt Josh Mandel’s political career,” Redfern told the plain dealer that December.
At the time, however, it didn’t haunt Mandel’s career so much as give it a boost. He got from his own party a wave of positive reinforcement. Republicans took to talking about him as a challenger to Sherrod Brown for the Senate. Mandel was sworn in as state treasurer in January. The chatter grew louder in February. By March a group of conservatives around the state had started a draft.
That spring, back on his home turf at the annual dinner of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, the group’s finance chair capped his introduction of the ascendant Mandel with just three words.
“Run, Josh, run.”
Mandel spent most of his first two years as state treasurer running for the United States Senate.
He didn’t officially announce his candidacy until 14 months in. In just his first year, though, he traveled to fundraisers in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Utah and Hawaii, while missing 14 straight meetings of the Ohio Board of Deposit — of which he was chair. Justin Barasky, a longtime Brown aide who then was working for the Ohio Democratic Party, dubbed Mandel the state’s “absentee treasurer.”
In one of Mandel’s first interviews in his new job, he talked about Sherrod Brown. “Sherrod Brown,” he said, “has voted to the left of Bernie Sanders, who is a socialist.”