It’s just after 2 p.m. when Robert Mansfield enters Bonner’s Irish Pub in Center City and heads for a table at the center of a nearly empty restaurant.
The Republican hopeful has his cane with him, as always, but is in good spirits as he sits down for lunch before a late-afternoon candidate’s forum in nearby Point Breeze.
Mansfield, 41, suffers from a number of nagging medical conditions as a result of an injury caused by an IED explosion during his time in Iraq with the U.S. Army. More days than not, he has to push through the pain to get his message out to voters and potential supporters in the Second Congressional District.
“I tried to stand at the subway at Broad and Olney for an hour and it was extremely painful,” says Mansfield, who, among other things, has persistent balance issues and regularly contends with headaches.
Staring down adversity
The North Philadelphia resident doesn’t pay much attention to barriers placed before him, though, physical or otherwise. He’s had to overcome them his entire life.
When it comes to running for public office, something he’s done twice before this latest bid, Mansfield understands his chances of overtaking incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah in a district that is overwhelmingly blue. The fact that he’s a black Republican with Tea Party ties may make him an even tougher sell to constituents.
Mansfield still sees value in trying. Someone has to stand up for voters in the district, many “perennial poor,” and provide some “hands-on” assistance, he says.
“It has to be to more than just showing up at photo [opportunities] during election time. It’s a seven-day-a-week event,” he explains over a cup of Italian wedding soup.
Mansfield will also face independent candidate Jim Foster on Nov. 6.
On the issues
Education tops Mansfield’s list of priorities.
“We have consigned these young people to these bad schools, these failing schools and we don’t expect them to graduate, we only expect them to be ball players, in jail, or expect them to be dead. We don’t expect them to go any farther,” he says.
Running a close second is his concern over, what he sees as, a lack of legitimate career opportunities. The city, he says, needs a much bigger business base.
“We need to have room to bring in new manufacturing that’s dealing with new technology,” he says. “We need to deal with how we deal with vacant and abandoned properties. We need leadership in terms of globalization.”
Underlying it all, though, is a commitment to those in the district that Mansfield describes as “not doing so well.” He points to North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia as particularly problematic.
And it can all be traced back to Mansfield’s most-referenced mantra: “Breaking the cycle of low expectations.”
Mansfield, who is currently on leave from his position as vice president of a small business development firm, is, in many ways, living proof of that message.
Not an easy personal life
Born to a mother who was a heroin addict, Mansfield was quickly thrust into foster care, bouncing around a number of facilities all the way through high school.
In addition, two of his siblings were murdered and for a few years in the early 1990s, Mansfield was homeless.
Those are just some examples.
“I am not a criminal. I am not a drug addict. I’ve honorably served this country and that’s all that matters,” says Mansfield, who retired from the military as a sergeant.
He also served in the Pennsylvania National Guard before being honorably discharged in 2010.
Through it all, he remained a registered Republican, first joining the ranks after he was encouraged by a mentor at the Children’s Home of Easton in Easton, Pa.
It’s Mansfield’s hope that his campaign will encourage others from the black community to run under the party banner.
At the heart of this goal is a desire to make the city a true two-party town, one where Republicans have real opportunites to win.
“Here we have an open door for African-Americans to take over a party and they sit in the dark and cuss at the light. It’s silly,” he says.
Mansfield’s own political journey has been particularly difficult this year which he attributes, in part, to confusion on the part of the national Republican Party and flat-out opposition from the local and national Tea Party movements.
Neither cohort, he says, has offered him help getting his candidacy off the ground.
“The Republican Party doesn’t know what to do with me,” he says. “They don’t know what I want. They think I want a job or something and I’m not in this for a job. I’m in this because I truly do care about my community.”
The Tea Partiers, for their part, won’t back a candidate who doesn’t want to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
While Mansfield thinks the legislation needs to be tweaked, he supports allowing children to remain on their parents’ health insurance until they’re 26 and covering pre-existing conditions.
As a result, Mansfield has been left to personally bankroll most of his campaign. As of a couple weeks ago, he had spent around $130,000 of his own money.
“Fundraising? I can’t even spell it,” he says.
What others are saying
Vito Canuso, who heads the Philadelphia Republican City Committee, says Mansfield’s cash-flow issues aren’t surprising given who he’s going up against.
“The likelihood of a Republican succeeding in that district is very limited and the unfortunate reality of it is that the [Republican] National Committee has their priorities and they don’t put much priority when there’s an incumbent that consistently wins by substantial margins,” says Canuso.
That said, Mansfield’s candidacy is supported by many Republicans in the city, including Canuso. Some, though, upset over his stance on the Affordable Care Act, have instead moved to back Foster, whose candidacy was launched with the help of Tea Partiers.
“There are a lot of ways in which you can deviate from the Republican platform,” explains John Featherman, who is running against incumbent Democrat Bob Brady in the First Congressional District. “But, it’s pretty much universal in our party that you can’t be in favor of the Affordable Care Act.”
Featherman, a member of the city’s “Loyal Opposition” faction, does not outright oppose Mansfield’s candidacy.
No matter who supports him or how much of the vote he takes home, Mansfield will deem this run for office a success. In his eyes, he can’t lose.
“If I lose, I win. If I win, I win. There’s no lose, lose in politics,” he says. “You’re recognized as a leader in the community.”
Either way, he says, this won’t be the last time you hear from Robert Allen Mansfield. He’ll keep on pushing to break that cycle of low expectations.
“This isn’t one and done,” he says. “Wherever that conversation is, I’ll be there.”
This is the second in a three-part NewsWorks series about the candidates running in the second congressional district race.