Call of Duty

High school quarterback, college student-body president, Marine with two tours in Iraq under his camo belt, freshman state rep who knocked on almost 20,000 doors to get elected — yeah, that’s Josh Mandel, and he’s only 30.

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 by The 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.”

Check back July 1 for the complete story.

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