Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper kicked his administration off by going on a listening tour around the state, gathering feedback from local Democrats across Ohio. He went back to the drawing board and with his team developed a plan. He is now traveling around the state again to share that plan.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he told a crowd of Athens County Democrats last Tuesday evening. “When you lose like we did last November, you have a lot of soul-searching to do. I’m not here to give a happy song.”
This past November ended one of the worst cycles of politics he has ever seen, Pepper said.
“When I grew up, I remember watching debates,” he said. “Last year in Ohio we didn’t have one debate. That’s a low point. I’m afraid our young people are going to think that’s normal.”
The gerrymandering in Ohio is so bad, he said, competitive Congressional elections no longer happen in the state. And the influence of money, Pepper added, is fundamentally breaking the system of politics.
He noted that Ohio Democrats have one million more voters registered in the state than the Republicans.
“We like to brag about that, but the truth is that the largest block of voters isn’t us or them; it’s the block that has decided none of it matters to them,” he said.
Pepper said the party’s goal under his leadership will be to energize that block and get them to see that voting every time and voting Democratic really is important to their individual lives.
He said the party has developed its 2016/18 strategy, where the party will no longer show it knows how to win in a presidential year but not two years later.
“It’s taking all the excitement that will build for a historic campaign, I think, for the first woman president, and (carrying that forward) for 2018 too,” he said. “Everything we do in 2016 is building an infrastructure, and energy, and data, and lessons, to also use in 2018, when all the statewide elected offices are on the table and so is (the seat held by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown).”
Asked after his speech about the problem of gerrymandering, Pepper emphasized the importance of 2018, when statewide elected offices that sit on the apportionment board will be up for grabs. That election will be critical, he said, and key to fixing Ohio’s district maps so they are drawn fairly and competitively.
The plan is to put emphasis and resources into helping local candidates and county parties.
“It doesn’t start with dreaming about 2016, it starts with getting folks elected at the local level this year, and helping you be good candidates,” he said.
Pepper talked about the 2016 Republican Party primary race for president, citing the recent announcement by Donald Trump, which was greeted by Athens County Democrats with laughter and sarcastic applause.
Pepper also took a dig at Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential ambitions, recalling his television ad at the 50-yard line in the Ohio State Buckeyes’ stadium, saying that it was halftime in Ohio.
“The implications was that he was going to be in Ohio for the second half, but he’s not,” Pepper said. “He’s running around to every other state.”
Of all the people running for the Republican nomination, Pepper said, all except one say they don’t believe climate change is caused by human activity; none believe in equal marriage rights; none will address issues such as equal pay; and only Kentucky’s U.S. Sen. Rand Paul expresses concerns about getting into more foreign wars.
“We’re talking about a group of people who, on issue after issue, are wrong on every one of them,” he said. “If any of these guys win, you start adding up the combinations of things they’ll do and it’s really scary.”
On the Democratic side, he said, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are on the right side of all these issues.
Following his speech, Pepper said in an interview that once he took over as chair, his team started by holding 100 listening events all over the state of Ohio, gathering input from county parties.
They went back with that feedback, developed a plan, and are now traveling again around the state, sharing their vision for the future.
“What did we learn? We have to build our bench. We have to build our infrastructure every year. And we have to be better on message,” he said.
With regard to infrastructure, and maintaining it through cycles, Pepper said that the party has to have clear-cut expectations for precinct executives. He cited the highly effective community organizing template set by Obama for America.
“Too often around the state, people who are precinct executives have never been asked or told they need to work the precincts,” he said.
Another big step, he said, is making sure the party gets its data right, and knows where it wins, how it wins, how many voters it has, and where it needs to target. From there, it’s a matter of keeping precinct executives motivated, handling their little parts of the world, and motivating voters.
“We have one million more voters than they do,” Pepper reiterated. “We do this stuff, we start winning elections.”
David DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure 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.