CLEVELAND - U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) and Republican challenger Josh Mandel battled in a debate of sharp contrasts and sharp elbows Monday, including on the advisability of the 2009 auto industry rescue.
After months of avoiding a direct yes or no answer on the auto bailout, Mr. Mandel told a crowd at the Cleveland City Club debate inside the Cleveland Renaissance Hotel that he did not agree with the $80-billion taxpayer-funded rescue that many believe saved the U.S. auto industry after the 2008 credit crisis.
"I would not have voted for that. I couldn't have," Mr. Mandel said, saying the bailout deprived nonunion retirees of the Delphi Co., a General Motors spinoff, of the value of their pensions. He sidestepped the question from the panel of journalists whether the rescue proved to be a boon for the state's economy.
"I will do everything I can in Washington to grow the economy with strong manufacturing policies, strong auto manufacturing policies, but I'm not a bailout senator. He's the bailout senator," Mr. Mandel said.
Mr. Brown responded that the bailout saved 800,000 jobs, and said he worked with former President Bush and with President Obama on the legislation.
"This job is about real people, with real families, and real problems and real goals and dreams. And yet Josh Mandel called my vote for the auto rescue 'un-American.' I call that vote doing my job to fight for their jobs," Mr. Brown said, later adding, "To vote against the auto rescue boggles the mind."
The forum was held in front of a boisterous lunch crowd of about 1,300 people inside the Renaissance Hotel ballroom in downtown Cleveland.
It was the first public meeting of the two, and had all the earmarks of the campaign, a bitter slugfest that has been played out in negative television ads from both sides. Two more debates are planned: 8 p.m. Thursday in Columbus sponsored by the Ohio Newspaper Organization, and Oct. 25 in Cincinnati sponsored by the Ohio NBC affiliates and AARP.
Mr. Mandel, 35, of Beachwood, suburban Cleveland, is a former Lyndhurst city councilman and state representative who was elected state treasurer in 2010. Mr. Brown, 59, of Avon is a former state representative, Ohio secretary of state, and U.S. representative.
The two traded jabs, with Mr. Mandel often categorizing Mr. Brown's answers as "Washington-speak" and Mr. Brown repeating a slogan from his campaign, that Mr. Mandel is "a politician we can't trust."
Both faced tough questions from the audience relating to past campaigns. A man speaking in a foreign accent asked Mr. Mandel about a controversial ad from his 2010 campaign for treasurer that linked his opponent with someone with an Arabic name, seeming to imply it was bad to be a Muslim.
"I spent 15 months of my life doing everything I could to protect Muslims," Mr. Mandel said, referring to his two tours with the Marine Corps Reserves in Iraq. "One of my concerns about radical Islam is that women in the Middle East are treated like garbage."
Mr. Brown piled on, saying the 2010 campaign is being played out in 2012.
"We've seen a lot of these kinds of campaigns from Josh Mandel. We're seeing it again today, attack, attack, attack," Mr. Brown. "Doesn't have to have a lot of substance."
Mr. Brown used his closing statement to tag Mr. Mandel with two of the damaging issues that have been raised repeatedly by his campaign, that Mr. Mandel hired political associates for jobs in the Treasurer's office, after accusing his 2010 opponent of doing the same thing, and that Mr. Mandel didn't attend the first 14 monthly meetings of the Board of Deposit, which he chairs.
"It's well established that he can't be trusted to show up for work at the job he was elected to. It's well established he can't be trusted to hire qualified people instead hiring his political cronies," Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Mandel responded earlier in the debate to the question of his hiring saying he has appointed "only qualified professionals."
The two divided on economic policy, with Mr. Mandel citing a litany of bad economic indicators to show that, "the stimulus obviously didn't work." Mr. Brown called on the GOP-controlled House to pass a jobs bill he authored in 2011 that takes China to task on unfair trade policies.
Senator Brown was reminded that in an early campaign of his career he advocated a limit of 12 years in Congress, where he has served continuously since 1992. He told the questioner he made a mistake, and then quickly turned around to blast Mr. Mandel for saying he would serve a four-year term as treasurer, "and then within weeks was flying off to places like the Bahamas to raise [money] from the payday lenders for a Senate race."
Asked about abortion, Mr. Mandel said, "I am pro-life, I believe in protecting life," and then pivoted to say the real issue for everyone was creating jobs.
Mr. Brown said, "I trust women to make their own health care decisions," and said Mr. Mandel also opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Mr. Mandel repeatedly invoked the sluggish economy and high unemployment rate as the legacy of Senator Brown's service in Congress, which included the House of Representatives and since 2007 as a U.S. senator.
"We are not going to change Washington by sending Sherrod Brown there," Mr. Mandel said in his closing statement.
Contact Tom Troy at email@example.com or 419-724-6058.