Josh Mandelbaum was the new star in the local political sky this election cycle. He not only upset a likable Democratic party insider and party boss, but he trounced him by 22 points. Being a 38-year-old political rookie, whose campaign ended up being a single issue, he got our attention. We asked the environmental lawyer and father of two preschoolers to lunch. He chose Caribou Coffee at 9 p.m. That was the only time he had for breaking bread.
“I have a hearing coming up with Iowa Utilities Board and have to prepare. I’m trying to familiarize myself with the workings of city government before taking office in January. I also try to be home for bedtime for the children. I have considerably more flexibility if people are willing to meet me late at night,” he explained.
Since Mandelbaum is confused with his cousin Justin Mandelbaum, who last year opened Mainframe studios and announced a 39-story skyscraper between Walnut and Court along Fifth Street, Josh’s political signs identified him simply by his first name. We asked him how to keep track of the cousins.
“I am proud of Justin. I think we both care about the same things — making Des Moines a better place by growing opportunities for everyone,” Josh said.
This old cynic asked Mandelbaum about his patronage of Caribou Coffee, a chain that was derided and boycotted, particularly in Chicago, two decades ago after a chief advisor and CFO defended his charitable donations to Hamas and Hezbollah with offensive comments, the worst probably being “It’s not murder if you are only killing Jews.” Mandelbaum said he was unaware of the issue, which should have been put down in 2001 when the First National Bank of Bahrain sold their majority interest in Caribou to a German holding company.
His attitude is in line with his feelings about politics and management.
“The main thing I took away from my years working for Governor (Tom) Vilsack was that the election cycle has to be over when it’s over. Then you have to govern with whomever you need to get things done. They have to be two totally different things if you want to accomplish anything significant. You have to work together with campaign adversaries,” he said.
What made Josh run?
“First, I am a product of Des Moines public schools and neighborhoods. (He attended Hubbell, Hanawalt, Merrill, Roosevelt and University of Iowa Law School, along with Brown University.) I benefited so much that I want to ensure the same opportunities exist for my kids and all kids in Des Moines. Secondly, as an environmental lawyer, I became concerned a couple years back when the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water was established,” he began, referring to the Iowa Farm Bureau-supported group that mainly is known for attack ads on the Des Moines Water Works. While the group claimed to “bring Iowans together,” The Des Moines Register called that claim “hollow.” Des Moines Water Works has, by most accounts, the world’s largest and most expensive filtration system, mostly trying to cope with the huge amounts of nitrates leeching into the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers from industrial farms and feed lots upstream from Des Moines. Mandelbaum says that Columbus, Ohio, is building a huge new system that might take our dubious distinction away.
“The Iowa Partnership for Clean Water (IPCW) had three board members, and one of them was Christine Hensley, my council representative. All of her constituents lived in Des Moines. The Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), which IPCW was lobbying to dismantle in the Iowa Legislature, was in her ward, too. Yet she was behind ads attacking clean water, the DMWW’s specifically, and it frustrated me to see such an example of how broken water politics were. I figured someone had to step up and planned to run against her. Then she announced she would not run for reelection. I was afraid that clean water would become lost without her to run against — that all candidates would usurp what I thought might be my issue,” he explained.
How does Josh explain his victory?
“Simply, I think we had a plan, and we executed it. I was determined to engage every possible constituent, preferably on their doorstep. I listened to their concerns. That is when I learned that clean water was an issue of importance to many. The more doors I opened, the more convinced I was,” he recalled.
Mandelbaum was not the only one frustrated by Hensley’s support for Farm Bureau seemingly against her own constituents. In keeping with his attitude about separating governing from campaigning, he refused to speculate why she might have done that. Others say it was her attempt to solidify support with rural state legislators to help get support for urban issues. Whatever, the election represented a possible peak of Farm Bureau power in the state.
“They are powerful, but I think people overestimate the numbers they represent. Iowa is more of an urban and suburban state now than ever. And it’s not just people living in Des Moines who depend on urban water plants for clean water. Rural Iowans get their drinking water from the same watersheds as the cities,” he said.
What does he expect to happen next judicially after a DMWW lawsuit was dismissed by the courts?
“Basically, I think the judge just invited the next lawsuit. He said that Iowa Drainage District Law was not an issue for the court because Iowa Supreme Court does not specify limits on the immunity of water districts. That brings Iowa Drainage District Law into conflict with the federal Clean Water Act. So, there will be a new round of litigation,” he explained.
Could Des Moines be the next Flint, where drinking water was so contaminated it could not be used for months?
“More likely, we could become the next Toledo, which lost its water for two weeks in 2014. That was because of algae bloom. Flint had a lead problem. We are fortunate to have two river sources in Des Moines, but if both rivers developed nitrate agitated algae problems at the same time, we could be at risk,” he said.
How does the city improve the neighborhoods and schools and the way they interact?
“People need to know more about the neighborhoods. (Des Moines Register columnist) Lee Rood provides a real service shining light on neighborhood problems, particularly housing. Closing the gap between privileged and less privileged neighborhoods begins at a very young age. The ‘word gap’ is something that Des Moines is tackling. Research shows that some kindergarteners will have heard 30 million more spoken words than others. The Des Moines Library and the Des Moines School Board are cooperating on a program to reduce the word gap. So are the library and the Des Moines Parks and Recreation department. These are programs that cost very little and do a lot of good,” he explained, sounding like a man who has left the election cycle far behind. ♦