Democrats around the country struggled on Election Day 2014, and while what happened in Ohio happened everywhere, David Pepper believes it’s more important that the party get things fixed in Ohio than just about anywhere else.
“Although it was a national trend and we had some statewide issues that made it especially bad here, I don’t think pointing fingers at the national scene is the answer for Ohio,” he said in an interview this week. “It’s so important that Ohio be organized, Democrats in particular, for 2016, and then mobilize and take whatever we build in ’16 and make it work in ’18.”
Pepper, a former Hamilton County Commissioner and Cincinnati City Council member, ran for Ohio Attorney General in 2014 but was unable to unseat Republican incumbent Mike DeWine. Now Pepper has thrown his hat in the ring for the role of Ohio Democratic Party chair, with central committee members slated to vote Dec. 16.
“There is a lot that has to be done. I think one of the most important ones is that we need to be more clearly about issues that matter to everyday voters than we’ve been of late,” he said. “I think sometimes parties can get caught up in being about process of elections and candidates, and in a way that’s putting all your eggs in one basket.”
Pepper said the ODP needs to be more clearly associated with its foundational values and principles, so that whether the election is in a presidential year or a mid-term, voters know the party is about issues that impact people’s lives every day.
“One clear task is to make sure the party is doing a much better job identifying with bedrock issues that matter nor just to Democrats but way beyond,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that can be done to do that and I’m excited by it.”
Pepper also spoke of energizing the Ohio Democratic Party’s infrastructure, saying that leadership is key, making sure everyone from those elected statewide to precinct executives know what role they need to play and have the resources to play it effectively.
“There are more Democrats in this state than Republicans,” he said. “In these non-presidential years you wouldn’t know it. I think part of that is about energizing people and I think part of it is about an inability in recent cycles to get this very large infrastructure activated so we mobilize people to vote and participate.”
Cultivation of strong candidates, putting together resources and delivering results are all other parts of getting the party on the right track, Pepper said, praising strong elected Democrats around the state and saying he wants to get everyone on the same page toward success.
“I think a lot of it is about leadership and having people at the top whether it’s the chair or others who through their actions and the way they communicate show this is a party about the whole state, not just the statehouse or a few other places,” he said. “And then I think we need to look structurally about how things are set up.”
Due diligence looking at the structure of how the party operates in Ohio only just begins in December, Pepper said, promising, if elected chair, to go on a listening tour around Ohio to gather input from stakeholders and hear ideas from every corner of the state.
“I have very strong beliefs on what our plans should look like but I wouldn’t want to presume that my plans are the only ones,” he said. “In fact, the more people you talk to the more good ideas you get.”
The listening tour, he said, should be the beginning of it and not the end, going further to propose a summit of party chairs to take stock of everyone’s thoughts on a range of issues.
By opening these lanes of communication, Pepper said he hopes to formulate a robust plan that will not only help the party put together winning campaigns in 2016 but well beyond that year, including, importantly, 2015 and 2017.
“I think that will lead to structural changes so that the way the party is set up and better reflect the geography of the state to make sure that all parts of the state and different groups within the party all feel like they’ve got an important seat at the table,” he said.
By having a philosophy of inclusion, and holding hundreds of community events, Pepper said, he was able to raise the most money of any non-incumbent attorney general candidate in the country and he sees this as a way to maximize fundraising opportunity in the future. The goal would be to empower people to be part of the fundraising process and to reach out to others.
“My view is that if we were able to do that in a race for one office there’s no reason we wouldn’t be able to do that for a whole lot more,” he said. “For an organization it could be the difference of who the president is in two years, or who the governor is and what the apportionment board looks like in four years.”
Pepper said that he isn’t a “party insider” and it’s important to bring fresh eyes to the situation.
“I think the whole point of this conversation should be that we’re all talking to every one and getting input, basically getting votes for this position because we’ve been out there talking to everybody,” he said. “I don’t think the right approach is to short-circuit that conversation by having one person say, ‘Oh, this is the person.’ That’s not how Democrats operate. We don’t like to have our leaders hand-picked.”
With regard to concerns people have raised to him that he might run for office in 2018, Pepper said the group ambition of working to elect Democrats around Ohio is far more important to him than any individual ambition to obtain one certain office.
“That’s a far bigger contribution with far more impact,” he said. “If I can get in there and help a whole lot of people win and do great things, I’m happy to do that versus personally seeking one office.”
Pepper also praised state Sen. Nina Turner, of Cleveland, with whom he’s partnered in having this conversation around the state and who would play a significant role in party leadership with him.
“I think we bring a unique set of skills, and having a partnership leadership team is very important,” he said. “I think it’s a leadership team that reflects the diversity of this party. We both have different backgrounds and come from different parts of the state. And if our problem is that we’re not energizing voters, anyone who’s seen Nina knows there’s nobody in Ohio that does a better job of energizing voters. I’m thrilled to work with her to get this done.”
David DeWitt is a journalist and universal minister based out of Athens, Ohio. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He can be found on Twitter @TheRevDeWitt.