David Pepper hits his talking points, leaning forward, fingers crossed, arms on the meeting room table at Ohio Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Columbus. He’s dressed in campaign casual: Blue blazer, khakis, light-blue checkered button down.
He deploys his argument tightly, expertly. He knows construction. A former managing editor of the Yale Daily News, Pepper understands concision and the economy of words. He’ll wax on, but only when he feels like it or when his passion is stoked. That’s when the flames leap.
“It’s a foundational issue: You cannot have an attorney general of a state who is the worst violator of some of the most basic principles of good government.”
Pepper is talking about recent, rampant pay-to-play scandals emerging from the offices of the man he hopes to take down, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
Pepper has been hammering DeWine on the issue for over a year, but this summer the shameful truth about the state’s top cop has really emerged: DeWine and his affiliates have accepted millions of dollars in campaign contributions from firms that have been awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts. Moreover, DeWine’s office has foregone rudimentary on-the-level good government practices such as a fair and open bidding process, transparency, and basic record keeping.
“When I talk to people, when they know the facts, it’s a level of problematic that any regular person can recognize,” Pepper says. “The foundational issue of, ‘Is the AG running a clean office or not?’ is a threshold question. I think it’s clear the current attorney general simply is not doing so.”
David Pepper is not naive and he knows the dim view many Americans take of the politics driving their democratic republic. But who is going to guard the gates when the gatekeeper himself is taking a cut?
“If you’re worried that politics is all about insiders enriching their friends and enriching their donors through inappropriate processes then what you need more than anything else is an attorney general who cracks down on that stuff,” he says. “Until you have that, it’s going to be everywhere. And you’re never going to clean it up when the attorney general is the worst offender.”
A Different Set of Rules
He lists off the accusations against DeWine: The money going into his campaign coffers from those doing the bidding, the donation of said money during the bidding process, the altering of bid results based on friendship, and, most troubling according to Pepper, the money that’s gone into DeWine’s personal bank account, paying back a $2 million loan DeWine gave himself (i.e. gave his campaign).
“So he leaves a fundraiser knowing that a good part of the money he’s raised goes back to him,” Pepper says. “You add it all up, if that’s what the attorney general of Ohio is doing, welcome to a corrupt Ohio everywhere because he has no credibility or clean hands to take on pay-to-play wherever it happens.”
Pepper is no stranger to running a statewide campaign. He ran for state auditor in 2010, originally against Mary Taylor, who eventually hopped onto John Kasich’s gubernatorial ticket. Pepper ended up losing to former Delaware County Prosecuting Attorney David Yost, who got 50 percent of the vote to 45 percent for Pepper.
Pepper sees the purpose of government as public service. Pay-to-play is a way of exploiting government for elite folks to enrich their elite friends, he says. “I think it’s a bipartisan value that it shouldn’t be this way.”
Mike DeWine goes around the state talking about cleaning up corruption, Pepper says, “but when it comes to his own office he wants a different set of rules. If it’s a different set of rules, it should be a higher standard. He wants a different set of rules that’s a lower standard.”
Pepper shrugs. He frowns. He mulls his next point. What’s the sum of it? With an office run like this, Mike DeWine doesn’t have any credibility, and the public can’t have any confidence.
Pepper knows what standard he would bring to office.
“You should have an iron-clad, transparent, written process, with independence, to select contracts and people for the AG’s office based on merit and performance,” he says, laying out the tenets with a series of open-palm chops to the hardwood table. “Make it so airtight that there is no question and no ability to favor donors and friends over someone you’ve never heard of. Setting a standard that high is a good model for the rest of the state.”
He recalls his time as Hamilton County Commissioner, where numbers told the story, and the board simply selected the lowest and best bid. He says that many local governments around Ohio would look at such a standard and exclaim, “Well that’s what we already do!”
“It’s very common sense,” he says, emphasizing the transparent process most local governments also strictly follow. Mike DeWine’s office hasn’t been transparent at all. Opaque is an understatement. The windows are boarded up and blacked out. “There’s no written documents from Mike DeWine on how he picked bids, or how he scored. One of the most troubling things is that it’s all been so secretive.”
A Pro Bono Legal Advisor for Hobby Lobby
Mike DeWine likes to hold town hall meetings throughout Ohio, grandstanding on the heroin crisis being faced by rural communities in recent years, but accomplishing little. Fifteen years ago, heroin overdoses were relatively rare. Since the late 1990s, according to figures from the Ohio Department of Health, deaths from heroin overdose have risen threefold. The number of heroin addicts admitted to state-funded treatment centers quintupled.
“Mike DeWine is much too focused on the political opportunities he thinks this job gives him over the actual problem-solving role he should be playing,” Pepper says. “I wish he was as eager to really solve the heroin crisis as he’s been to go to bat for Hobby Lobby.”
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 for the first-time ever recognizing a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious belief. Under an interpretation of the Religions Freedom Restoration Act, it exempted such corporations from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate on the basis of religious belief.
Mike DeWine didn’t just sign onto another state’s brief on this case—he wrote his own. It was known as the “Ohio Brief,” and it was even broader than the Supreme Court’s eventual decision. In fact, he wrote another brief begging SCOTUS to take up the case in the first place. More than any attorney general outside of perhaps Michigan’s Bill Schuette, Mike DeWine was instrumental in bringing this case. And he did it all under the name of the people of Ohio.
“He’s been in other states making court filings on Hobby Lobby about birth control, but all he does in Ohio is have town hall meetings on heroin that lead to nothing,” Pepper says. “We would get the office out of all the politics of the right-wing, Tea Party agenda he seems to now embrace. That’s the job he seems to think AG is, to be the pro bono legal service of Hobby Lobby and other far-right outfits.”
Alternatively, Pepper says he would be focused like a laser on the heroin crisis. In April, Pepper released a five-point plan that would put money behind the effort to help communities deal with the heroin problem. The plan would would work to drive down demand by supporting evidence-based prevention programs, targeting prescription opioid oversupply, and pushing for far more treatment capacity throughout Ohio, including within the criminal justice system.
Pepper says he would also push for aggressive statewide distribution of life-saving anti-overdose medication for first responders. He also says he would provide special prosecutor support across the state, particularly for going after dealers who can be linked to overdose deaths. Pepper says he wants better data collection and analysis, increased cooperation with local and federal authorities, and specialized training for law enforcement at all levels.
“I would choose to be a leader in this fight,” he says. “Mike DeWine chooses to be a leader too, but it’s for Hobby Lobby on the national level, against birth control.”
He slams DeWine and Kasich for watching a $20 million cut to county addiction treatment come down with nary a word to stop it or a plan to get treatment to those who need it going forward.
“People ask me how my plan is different from Mike DeWine’s. Well, he doesn’t have one. He has a plan of holding town hall meetings,” Pepper says. “Maybe he was in Washington too long because holding hearings doesn’t solve problems.”
Playing Politics on the People’s Dime
Ohio is a state that went for Barack Obama for president two times in a row and elected a slate of statewide Republican officeholders in between. It is the quintessential swing state. So it’s no wonder that many Ohioans feel unrepresented when a statewide elected official goes around the country extolling a Tea Party political ideology that represents the views, at best, of only a quarter of the population.
“Mike DeWine has every right to have his view about Hobby Lobby or any other case, but don’t use the public office of Ohio Attorney General—that has such important work to do on the heroin crisis, on domestic violence, on human trafficking, that needs to be above the partisan fray—don’t use that public office and public resources to fight for your personal political ideology in court,” Pepper says. “I think that’s completely inappropriate.”
It’s a waste of time and money and undermines the credibility of the office, he says. “Most of the cases he’s filed along these ideological lines, he’s lost. So he’s wasting money along the way.”
So here is Ohio’s Attorney General Mike DeWine, in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, representing a private for-profit company from Minnesota, and taking aim at the civil rights and religious freedom of Ohio’s women.
“If he wants to file a brief on behalf of Hobby Lobby, he should do it with his own money and say, ‘I, Mike DeWine, agree with Hobby Lobby,’” Pepper says. “To go to court saying, ‘Ohio agrees with Hobby Lobby,’ to me that’s totally inappropriate.”
Mike DeWine is not serving as Ohio’s lawyer, he’s serving as the Tea Party’s lawyer and for the far-right, Pepper says.
“He’s doing what they want him to do, not what Ohio wants him to do.”
Beyond the simple fact that he’s using state time and resources to conduct himself in this manner on the national stage, Pepper says, DeWine is shielding these actions from becoming common public knowledge.
“If he’s going to be in these cases, everyone should know it. It’s tax dollars being used. It should be listed on the AG’s website: Here are the cases that I’m involved with around the country. And he should have to explain why he’s involved,” Pepper insists. “Ohio women don’t know that their tax dollars went to argue for Hobby Lobby. They need to know that.”
Moreover, earlier this summer Mike DeWine committed via a survey pledge with the Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati to fight any and all laws in Ohio that “offend the conscience of institutions or organizations.” So for Mike DeWine, Hobby Lobby is just the beginning.
“Watching this issue around the country, these laws that ‘offend the conscience’ are laws that say, ‘don’t discriminate against gay people’ and things like that,” Pepper says. “If you take his pledge seriously, he has now said in writing that he is going to actively work to revoke those laws.”
While Pepper is committed to fighting for equality, Mike DeWine has been in court fighting to remove a perfectly valid out-of-state same-sex marriage from the death certificate of a Cincinnati man who died nearly a year ago.
“Talk about extreme. Talk about just a horrible use of an office that’s supposed to be there fighting for justice, and he’s there fighting to erase from history a marriage recorded on a current death certificate,” Pepper says.
DeWine is doing the same thing with birth certificates and passports, Pepper alleges, setting up roadblocks for same-sex couple who want to bring their adopted children to Ohio. Meanwhile, Pepper has received the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign. He is currently the only candidate in an attorney general’s race in the entire country who has received an HRC endorsement.
Spread the Word
The word is getting out about Mike DeWine and what he’s doing in the name of the people of Ohio. Pepper is focused on helping to spread the word, and he says he’s seeing it happen.
“We have a bipartisan group called Women for Pepper, where women are talking to other women and making sure they understand,” he says. “Don’t be fooled by the press work. Behind the scenes, he has been attacking women’s rights with this office for years. If women only know that, he loses this election: they reject the Hobby Lobby ruling by such a degree.”
Pepper can’t mask his personal disdain for the ruling. He doesn’t want to.
“The ruling is that women need to get the approval of their boss—the religious and moral approval of their boss—to make their own health decisions,” he says. “And husbands, like myself, somehow our joint decision about my wife’s health coverage must meet the approval of her boss.”
For three years, Mike DeWine argued for this decision, but he doesn’t like to talk about it. Pepper recalls a woman reporter asking DeWine why women’s rights are always attacked in cases like this.
“He immediately pivoted and didn’t say one word about women and their concerns. He talked about, ‘the boss’s rights’ this, and, ‘the boss’s rights’ that and ‘I think the boss’s rights are being violated.’ And again, it comes down to, who is he representing?”
It all speaks to the larger issue in recent years pitting the rights of people versus the rights of corporations when they are conceived—somehow—as people.
“In DeWine’s brief, he argues, all corporations, they have a religious freedom and apparently, to him, the corporation’s religion trumps the women who work there, her religion,” he says. “So you have a non-person’s religious rights trumping the rights of people, actual human beings. That’s the essence of the argument that Mike DeWine made.”
Pepper says that he believes in the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.
“But I believe in religious freedom for actual human beings over corporations,” he says. “This is a new world, folks. These companies aren’t just people with rights, their rights trump the rights of actual people, of women in the workplace. That’s not narrow. That’s an enormous change in our law.” And DeWine’s preference was even broader.
David Pepper spends a lot of time hammering Mike DeWine because he recognizes that the people of Ohio need to know what their attorney general is doing. But David Pepper also has a plan of his own, a vision for what Ohio’s attorney general could and should be doing.
Pepper has spared few details as he’s unrolled plan after plan to address Ohio’s problems, from heroin to corruption to voting rights, violence against women, and helping local law enforcement.
“I’m running for attorney general because no job can do more good every single day for Ohio or its citizens than the attorney general,” he says as we wind down our talk and prepare to leave ODP headquarters to greet the August sun. “We have laid out a very aggressive agenda to get this office back to where it once was as a national leader fighting for citizens, fighting for consumers, fighting for a safe state, a competitive state. In the right hands, this is a job that can do such good and bring justice to our state. This job should be above the political fray, and when I win it will be.”