COLUMBUS (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.
Award recipients themselves are mostly registered Democrats or independents, and many belong to Democratic-leaning unions.
Campaign finance filings reviewed by AP 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 said his contribution was solicited.
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 said Thursday that any cross-section of American businesses tends to lean Republican at the top and that's not what the program is about. He said politics "never, never" came up in the award selection.
"I'm sick and tired of CEOs and executives always getting the credit when companies are doing well, and I think it's about time that we recognize the workers who are actually operating machines and working on the floor of the plants," he said. The treasurer's office says it used a nonpartisan list of manufacturers provided by a national organization, word-of-mouth recommendations and eventually online nominations to pick winners.
Mandel launched the program March 24 -- citing a "quiet crisis" of disappearing skilled workers -- and gave the first awards that same day, after cold-calling companies. Winners get plant visits by Mandel, a written commendation and almost always local newspaper coverage.
Mandel honored 49 individuals at 15 companies before an unsolicited online nominee was chosen. Spokesman Chris Berry said 11 online nominees have now been selected. Taxpayer costs for the program are minimal.
Firms contacted by AP said they were cold-called by the treasurer's office and asked to identify noteworthy employees.
John Bacon, president of Sandusky-based Mack Iron Works, said he was surprised by 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 winners whose executives don't show up in state or federal donation databases.
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. A 10th firm's leader gave afterward. 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 GOP-donating PR Machine Works in Mansfield is Mark Romanchuk, a first-term Republican state representative. He and wife, Zoi, have donated $3,000 to Mandel.
Larry Lewark, CEO of Lewark Metal, and Leo Hawk, chairman emeritus of American Trim, gave $250 and $1,000 respectively to Mandel's campaign in mid-April, after having employees honored.
Hawk and wife Arlene have given over $600,000 to GOP candidates and causes over the years, including a combined $26,000 to Mandel.
The third executive, Rose Metal Industries president Bob Rose, said a fundraiser soliciting donations for Mandel's campaign called about three weeks after four of his employees were honored. Mandel said he doesn't know who made the call.
"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," Rose said. "And I don't consider $100 to be a major political contribution."
Bacon and Rose embraced the goal of Ohio Strong, saying U.S. manufacturers are struggling 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."