Mandel-Harper Ohio Senate debate goes off the rails in Cleveland

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An Ohio Senate debate between Republican candidate Josh Mandel and Democrat Morgan Harper devolved into name-callling and sparring with the audience Monday night, adding the latest explosive moment to the incendiary Ohio Senate race.

Among the insults, Mandel said Harper is “like AOC only dumber,” referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. And Harper mocked Mandel for being on his third run for U.S. Senate, with unsuccessful efforts in 2012 and 2018.

Mandel is the former treasurer of Ohio and one of several Republican candidates running to replace Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Harper is a long shot Democrat in a primary against Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who’s generally expected to be the Democrat nominee. The debate Monday included only Harper and Mandel.

The nastiest exchange happened between Mandel, an audience member and the moderator. 

The moderator asked Mandel about a previous comment calling Black Lives Matter “thugs,” after which an audience member interjected with a loud “uhhhhuh.” 

“You ain’t coming in the Black community. Put ’em out,” the audience member said. 

“Hey, hey, we’re not doing that,” the moderator shot at the audience member. But Mandel engaged him anyway. 

“You mean like put him out with a, with a bullet? What do you mean put him out?” Mandel said. 

“No, no, no, Mr. Mandel. Mr. Mandel. Mr. Mandel,” the moderator said, trying to cut off that exchange but to no avail. 

“Ask him to leave,” the audience member said. “He don’t belong in the Black community.” 

Republican Senate candidate and former Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel speaks to the Geagua County Conservative Club in Chesterland, Ohio, on May 20, 2021.
(Josh Mandel Senate campaign)

“I thought this was America where we debate freely,” Mandel said. 

“Hey sister, listen to me. Don’t do that… This is America. He can be here. Don’t do that. Don’t embarrass me,” the moderator, who was Black, said to the audience member, who was also Black. 

“I’m not embarrassing you. But to bring that White man in the Black community like that, I’m finished,” the audience member said. “Don’t you suck up to him.”

The moderator then tried to calm down the audience member and Mandel, but again to no avail.

“Let me tell you something ma’am. I put my life in the hands of young Black guys. I had young Black men put their life in my hands in the United States Marine Corps in two tours in Iraq, so don’t stand there and lecture me,” Mandel said, speaking over the moderator. “Those were my brothers, whether they were Black or they were White or they were Hispanic or they were Asian.” 

Shortly thereafter the moderator gained control and asked Mandel if he would consider the people who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to be “thugs,” like he called Black Lives Matter. Mandel dodged the question, though he did say some Capitol attackers “committed crimes.”

U.S. Democratic Senate candidate Morgan Harper speaks during a debate with Republican candidate Josh Mandel at a Baptist church in Columbus, Ohio, Jan. 27, 2022.
(REUTERS/Gaelen Morse)

That was not the only explosive exchange, however. Mandel started prodding Harper early in the debate on the issue of student loans. Harper said the U.S. needs to “cancel” student debt and argued it would be good for the U.S. economy. 

Mandel responded by pointing out that student loan forgiveness is regressive by its nature.

“Why is it fair to Teresa, that waitress at Waffle House,” or other blue-collar workers, Mandel said, “to have their tax dollars pay for someone like Morgan, who went to Princeton and Stanford.”

“No one is talking about,” Harper responded, arguing that people care less about the regressive nature of student debt forgiveness than about the regressive nature of corporate tax cuts.

After a moderator directed a question to Harper about her electability – compared to Ryan, a career politician – Mandel said she was “out of touch” with Ohio and would not be able to win an election in Ohio. Harper shot back with an insult at Mandel’s own electability. 

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, walks up the House steps on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. Ryan is running a low-key campaign in the Ohio Senate Democratic primary and was attacked Monday by his opponent, Morgan Harper, as being aligned with corporate interests. 
( Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“Interesting, because I do believe, third time running for the same seat, so let’s talk about track record of winning elections,” Harper said. 

She then detailed her history in an “abusive household” and how she had to “work my butt off to get scholarships to Princeton and Stanford.

“That’s something you wouldn’t know about,” Harper continued, “because you’re just used to getting whatever you want.”

“Why are you so angry?” Mandel said.

Harper also got in a few digs aimed at Ryan, accusing him or being funded by “big insurance companies and big pharma,” “special interests” and  “corporate interests.” But the debate still had more fireworks left between the candidates after Harper pushed for “Medicare-for-All.”

“I told the story earlier about being at a town hall, the bar and restaurant down the street, where I told folks I’m going to date Morgan Harper. She’s like AOC only smarter. After hearing that answer I actually think she’s like AOC only dumber,” Mandel said, to murmurs of “whoah” from audience members. 

“Because the reality is if we had universal health care in this country it would bring down the quality of health care for every American citizen. In fact, there are Canadians when they have heart problems have to come across to the Cleveland Clinic,” Mandel added. 

Harper didn’t engage the insult, but argued that Medicare-for-All could help eliminate expenses for small businesses and allow people who want to start a business to leave their jobs without worrying about health care. 

Harper refused to shake Mandel’s hand when the debate ended.  

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