It’s election night 2011 and all signs point to a Republican upset in the City Commissioner’s race between incumbent Joe Duda and challenger Al Schmidt. Win or lose, Schmidt’s holding a victory party in the upstairs lounge at Liberties Bar on North Second Street. North Philly native Robert Allen Mansfield’s one of the first to show up. Mansfield walks with a cane and dresses in black, sporting thin, dark sunglasses. He hands out business cards. He’s just back from Kentucky where, he says, the Tea Party candidates—with whom he identifies—are barely showing up for the fight. And he hopes that here in Philadelphia, Schmidt can bring a “resurgence to the Republican Party… We need to be out there competing and expanding the base.”
In less than a month, the 40-year-old retired U.S. Army Sergeant and 2010 gubernatorial candidate will announce a bid for the U.S. Senate. He’ll be the only Philadelphian in the crowded Republican field, the only Iraq War veteran, and one of the few blacks who’ve ever run as a Republican anywhere in the state of Pennsylvania.
Yes, a black Tea Party Republican from Philly.
Almost two months later, Mansfield’s campaign is in full swing as he meets with PW back in Northern Liberties. He’s just come from an Independence Hall Tea Party Christmas event where he was named a Board Member of the group.
Mansfield immediately wants to clarify his positions: A ‘fair tax’ code, school choice, veteran’s health care and black empowerment. He says the Republican Party won’t survive past 2020 if it continues ignoring and disrespecting the Black Community and touts himself as Philadelphia’s ‘hip hop Republican.’ “In my neighborhood, I do what Malcolm X says: I rap to people,” he says. “I don’t talk to them, but I speak with them … everyone in Cheltenham knows I’m a Republican. They know I’m a Tea Party guy. But I try not to come with all that ‘holier than thou’ stuff.”
Mansfield’s personal and political narrative is anything but conventional. Born in North Philadelphia in 1971 to a heroin-addicted mother, he was immediately given up for adoption and spent a week in the hospital recovering from the opiate addiction. He would never meet her. “I spent seven days withdrawing from heroin,” he says, “so I came into this world fighting.”
He spent his childhood in several Philadelphia foster homes. And this would result in a series of tragedies he’s tried to make the most from. “I was molested when I was nine and raped when I was 16,” he says. “And that was in a children’s home. So adults had failed me every step of my life.”
In July 1987, he was transferred to the Easton Children’s Home in Easton, Pennsylvania and believes it saved his life. While there, he became close with the late Michael H. Danjczek, the executive of the Home, who taught him public speaking. When Mansfield was getting ready to leave state custody, he says Danjczek approached him about politics. The move from public speaking to politics, he said, was a no-brainer. So was the decision to register Republican.
“African Americans fail to realize that until recently, the Democratic Party was the party of the KKK,” he says. “Just look at [former West Virginia Senator] Robert Byrd, the southern Dixiecrats. So, why would I join a party that wants to lynch me?”
Mansfield says things could have gotten better from there—but they got worse. After doing some research, he found out his mother had died in 1983, but her family still resided in Philadelphia. He moved back to Philadelphia to reconnect with them, but became homeless, and would remain so for three years. During that period he began working part-time for a local Democratic state Representative, both as a driver and issues advocate.
“I got caught up in progressive politics,” he says. “I was out there advocating for houses, you know, ‘housing now!’ And I realized as I was going through another painful chapter of my life that, you know, how am I going to advocate for the homeless when I don’t have a home?”
The experience grounded him, and even now, as a Tea Partier, he calls the social safety nets that kept him above ground for so long necessary in today’s society. He even suggests Gov. Tom Corbett’s recent move to destroy some of those safety nets is perhaps unconstitutional. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I’m not a no-government anarchist. You want anarchy, come to 30th and Norris and take the stop signs down …You have to have rules, you have to have order, but you don’t have to have nannies.”
In 1995, he joined the Pennsylvania National Guard and remained there until 2010, when he was honorably discharged. While fighting in Iraq, he suffered a serious injury that requires he use a cane and those specialty sunglasses. “I volunteered and got injured which is why I wear these glasses. I’m not trying to be pimp daddy,” he says with a laugh, referencing a City Paper blog post from December, in which he was mocked for having worn the shades at an indoor debate. CP later issued a ‘heartfelt’ correction.
Over those years, and while in the military, Mansfield worked in financial consulting and began several small financial companies. He even worked six months as the Chief Financial Officer for a Toronto-based financial firm. He was discharged from the Guard in June 2010 and immediately began a run for governor of Pennsylvania, though later dropped out of the race due to health issues.
Now, in a better state of health, he’s running for Senate with a set of radical ideas that, he says, will essentially pull the United States from its debt-economy and free the people from the progressive tax system which he believes has failed.
The United States will continue being marred in debt and send jobs overseas unless we move from a production-based federal tax code to a consumer-based code, he says. As Senator, Mansfield will support cutting all federal taxes for a federal ‘fair tax’ system and the closure of all tax loopholes. “And when I say ‘fair tax,’ I’m not saying 23 percent,” Mansfield says. “I’m talking 10-15 percent on everything you use. You can’t pick winners and losers anymore.”
Replacing the income tax system, he says, would not only put all Americans on the same playing field, but give those working their way up more motivation without discouraging those at the top from hiring and producing more. The federal government would then bring in more revenue, he claims, because all loopholes would be cut. He’d also propose and support gutting or cutting the Department of Education, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The ideas are anything but what Senator Bob Casey’s done over the past five years.
“He’s not leading,” Mansfield says of the state’s current senior senator. “He’s too much in the pocket of the unions … I understand that union workers are voters, as well, but you can’t be so pro-union. And [in so doing], he has stood in the way of deficit reduction.” He also believes Casey’s self-proclaimed pro-life stance is a farce, and backs it up by noting Casey did not vote to defund Planned Parenthood, and voted for “the new health care law.” He makes a point of saying he will not call the Affordable Care Act ‘Obamacare,’ because he won’t disrespect the president like that. “I don’t need government telling me what I have to buy and what I don’t have to buy,” he says of the law.