Being a journalist based in Ohio, concerned about gerrymandering and bought elections myself, Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper’s new, first novel, “The People’s House,” speaks to me in more ways than one.
It is about a journalist, based in Ohio, concerned about gerrymandering and political intrigue, and uncovering a plot involving globalist corporate chicanery, the power struggle of Washington D.C., and the darkest of political crimes.
Pepper has penned an immensely readable novel in the form of a political thriller centered around the investigative journalism of fictional Youngstown Vindicator reporter Jack Sharpe. Sharpe is no intrepid cub reporter, but an almost reluctant, crusty veteran newspaperman, navigating his way through the story of a lifetime.
His story is made possible by the gerrymandered creation of only a handful of competitive U.S. Congressional districts in Ohio and throughout the country. It involves the stealing of an election, the mysterious death of an ousted popular incumbent, and America’s reliance on lowest-bidder, county-level election infrastructure to oversee its most important manifestations of democracy.
In the background, lobbyists on K Street, political ambition in Washington, and the burgeoning fracking industry in the American Mid-west loom ominously.
“The People’s House,” doesn’t just bend the ear and mind of jaded newspapermen such as yrs. truly, but anybody who is interested in American politics, elections, the corner of corporatism and K, and our beloved Buckeye State, famed for its crucial role in critical election cycles. It also speaks to anyone who enjoys quickly-paced, always-guessing, suspense-filled novels.
Pepper’s novel traverses Ohio, making stops from Toledo to Geneva-on-the-Lake along Lake Erie, taking state Rt. 11 down to industrial Youngstown, and barging down the Ohio River with stops in Monroe County, Marietta and Hamilton County. Sharpe makes inlets to Ohio’s capital city, Columbus, and Ohio State University.
Perhaps most satisfying in the early going of Pepper’s novel is his characters’ candid assessments of the reality of politics and elections in America. Through his characters, Pepper presents insider perspective of harsh and often odious political truth.
“I was fried on politics. Had been burned out for years,” Sharpe echoes the sentiment of many 21st Century Americans. “Hell, I’d given up on politics long before becoming a political journalist. It had only gone downhill from there.”
Sharpe’s cynicism stems from the baldy obvious gerrymandering of U.S. Congressional districts across the country. The U.S. House of Representatives was created in concept as “The People’s House,” Sharpe observes, but “modern-day elections to the People’s House have almost nothing to do with the people.”
Many House members face no opposition whatsoever, he notes, and for those that do, “demographically lopsided districts usually end the race before it begins.” So the people are left to watch their elected representatives to the People’s House, “waltz back to Capitol Hill unchallenged.”
Out of 435 seats in the U.S. House, Sharpe accurately assesses, “maybe twenty or thirty seats are legitimately up for grabs.”
A little later in the book, a K Street lobbyist gives an honest insider assessment of what corruption is accepted and allowable in American politics, and what crosses the line.
“Bribing American officials is not only illegal, it is aggressively enforced,” the lobbyist tells a client. “It’s not acceptable in the culture of Washington, nor is it necessary. Campaign contributions have the same effect.”
A direct hit on the heart of Citizens United. Pepper’s enthusiastic lobbyist, who has wholly embraced and exploited this reality, elaborates.
“Large campaign war chests are the measure of power, of potential, in Washington,” he says. “If you shower campaign cash on the Washington politicians, you will get your way. Most of the time.”
Later on, a Capitol Hill staffer acknowledges her own acceptance “that certain dark arts – lobbying, outside money, attack ads, even gerrymandering and quid pro quo fundraising – were part of politics.”
But in Pepper’s novel, these hum-drum if abhorrent machinations of American politics (well known to any student of our country’s history to have long existed) only scratch the surface of the much darker intrigue beneath, as the lobbyist, Capitol Hill staffer and reporter Jack Sharpe are soon to find out.
If you’d like to find out along with them, you’ll have to buy the ticket and take the ride, as it goes. Suffice it to say that Pepper’s first foray into noveldom can be viewed as a proud accomplishment. The tightly-woven plot will keep the possibilities open and the reader’s mind at work until the end.
Pepper captured Sharpe both as a fully-rounded character and as a representative of the journalism profession with admirable verisimilitude, and Pepper’s cadre of other characters will creep you out, offend your sensibilities, harden your resolve, and embolden your commitment to truth and justice, as the author stitches together a storyline of indictment with a precision befitting of Pepper’s legalistic and political bona fides.
The “People’s House” of U.S. Congress may seldom represent the best interests of the American people these days, but the beating heart at the center of Pepper’s novel of the same name never strays from the good faith of we, the people. It is assuredly worth the read.
If you’d like to meet the author, Pepper has signings planned for Sept. 23, at The Booksellers at Austin Landing in Dayton at 6 p.m., The Book Loft in Columbus’ German Village on Sept. 29, at 7 p.m., and at The Booksellers at Fountain Square in Cincinnati on Sept. 30 at 11:30 a.m.
“The People’s House” is also available online at Amazon.com
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive’s RouteFifty.com, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.
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