COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Executives of 10 of 17 manufacturing companies whose workers have won a new award established by Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel have donated to Republican candidates, including Mandel himself, an Associated Press review has found.
Campaign finance filings show Mandel’s re-election campaign received donations from executives at three of the firms within weeks of their skilled-trades employees being recognized. One executive who had not given before said his contribution was solicited by a political fundraiser.
The findings raise questions about whether Mandel is using the nonmonetary Ohio Strong Award he launched in March to reward and attract political contributors as he faces Democratic state Rep. Connie Pillich this fall.
Mandel’s office said the program recognizes no companies, only workers, and politics weren’t a consideration. Spokesman Chris Berry said the firms it approached came from a nonpartisan list of manufacturers provided by a national organization, word-of-mouth recommendations and online nominations.
“We specifically and intentionally are not honoring companies, executives or their leadership,” Berry said. “The men and women being honored are the workers who put product out the door each and every day and they are individuals who are excelling in their careers.”
In announcing the program’s March 24 launch, Mandel said he would use it to address the “quiet crisis” of a diminishing national skilled labor pool. Winners are recognized at their plants with remarks by Mandel, a written commendation and almost always a story and photo in the local newspaper. Berry said taxpayer costs for the program are minimal.
The first awards were given the day the program was announced, and, 49 individuals at 15 companies were honored before an unsolicited online nominee was chosen, records show. Berry said 11 online nominations have now been accepted.
Firms contacted by the AP said they were cold-called by the treasurer’s office and asked to choose employees worthy of the honor.
John Bacon, president of Mack Iron Works in Sandusky, said he was surprised to get the call.
“I told them if you want something highly political, you called the wrong guy. I didn’t want this program used in that way,” Bacon said. “I wanted to see it used to recognize some very fine people who have worked with Mack Iron for a long time. When I told them that, they were understanding. I never felt any pressure otherwise.”
Bacon’s company is among five with award recipients whose high-ranking executives didn’t turn up in the AP’s review of state and federal political donations.
Executives at nine manufacturers with Ohio Strong workers – including Toledo Metal Spinning, Youngstown’s Taylor-Winfield and Elyria-based Ohio Screw – had varied histories of generosity to GOP candidates and causes before the program started, the review found. One firm’s leader gave to Democrats, and another large firm, Phoenix International in Bowling Green, had political givers to both parties.
The president of one of the GOP-donating firms, Mansfield-based PR Machine Works, is Mark Romanchuk, a first-term Republican state representative. He and his wife, Zoi, gave a combined $3,000 to Mandel’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate two years ago, filings show.
Larry Lewark, CEO of Lewark Metal, and Leo Hawk, chairman emeritus of American Trim, were two of three executives of winning companies who gave to Mandel after their workers were honored. Lewark gave $250 and Hawk gave $1,000, both in mid-April.
Hawk and wife Arlene have given more than $600,000 to GOP candidates and causes over the years, including a combined $26,000 to Mandel’s campaigns
The third executive to donate after Mandel’s awards visit, Rose Metal Industries president Bob Rose, said he received a call from a fundraiser soliciting donations for Mandel’s treasurer campaign about three weeks after the treasurer bestowed the award on four of his employees.
“I was impressed by what he did,” Rose said. “I gave him a token amount to support the philosophy that I saw when he was at our plant, but I knew nothing about him beforehand. And I don’t consider $100 to be a major political contribution.”
Bacon and Rose said Mandel’s premise for the Ohio Strong program is welcome as U.S. manufacturers struggle to find workers to replace baby boomers retiring from skilled jobs in welding and other trades.
“They’re not the glitzy jobs that people talk about. They’re not sexy stars, they’re not investment brokers,” Rose said. “They’re just people that come to work and work hard in a heavy industry environment. They do a good job, they raise their families. It’s sort of America 101.”
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