It’s a Wednesday morning, the first day of October, and the Cuyahoga County Democratic Headquarters is not yet bustling with its last push before the November election. There are posters scattered around the small, wood-paneled conference room. There is a poster of JFK, a poster encouraging early voting with President Barack Obama, and two posters promoting votes for women. David Pepper walks in wearing a shirt and tie, iPhone in hand.
Throughout the interview, Pepper remains on his iPhone, yet fully engaged. It is easy to tell as he leans forward, makes his points, flips through his binder of facts, sounding increasingly enthusiastic, that he is passionate about the issues of the heroin crisis, cleaning up government and serving as Ohio attorney general.
Pepper is running for Ohio attorney general against Republican incumbent Mike DeWine. Pepper and DeWine both describe themselves as very different candidates, as do the media. “I think there’s a very big generational difference. He’s still fighting battles from 20-30 years ago. … I think we need to move forward,” Pepper says. “I think Ohio needs to move into the 21st century.”
DeWine frames the generation gap differently. In a recent attack ad, DeWine’s campaign claims that Pepper is not experienced in the courtroom.
Pepper says he is prepared to take on the job. “I’ve done a lot of different things that are relevant to what an attorney general needs to do.” Pepper points to his experience in private practice with the civil side of law, in teaching law, in working on voting rights and election law, and on the public safety side of law while on Cincinnati City Council and the Hamilton County Commission. “I’m the only one running who has the breadth of experience in all those areas,” Pepper adds.
His college friend, Washington D.C. lawyer Josh Galper, agrees. “David will bring so much to the table as attorney general, starting with his integrity and wealth of experience, both from his law practice and years in public service,” Galper said in an interview. Galper first met Pepper when he was a freshman reporting at the Yale Daily News and Pepper was a sophomore. The next year, Pepper went on to become managing editor of the paper. Later, during summers in D.C., the two were roommates. Galper is now on the Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as of May this year. He is also the Chief Policy Officer and General Counsel at Personal Inc., since July 2011.
Galper agrees that Pepper is ready for the challenge of attorney general. “Even at an intense place like Yale Law School, David stood out as a brilliant lawyer,” he notes. “David brings an unstinting sense of fairness to everything he does and the backbone and intellectual heft to push for justice where needed.”
Pepper approaches problems with a practical eye, not one that is political or ideological, Galper says. Pepper goes in with an open mind, analyzes the facts around an issue, and then takes action, he explains. “I think all of these things, in addition to being a gifted advocate and getting things done, are hallmarks of who he is and his public service to date. I couldn’t think of a more perfectly-suited position for David than attorney general,” Galper says.
The Important Issues
When he announced his candidacy, Pepper told The Plain Dealer that the office of attorney general had become too political; he pledged to change that if elected. Pepper says that the office needs to get out of the political cases it’s been involved in around the country.
“Mike DeWine went to Nebraska and filed as a plaintiff to stop birth control. … He was the lead lawyer for Hobby Lobby at the Supreme Court. … The No. 1 way to not be political is to get out of all these cases that are only about politics,” Pepper says. “I don’t think this job should be about fighting those personal battles.”
Pepper hopes to focus on largely non-partisan cases and on cases that are important to Ohio. “You get me worked up just talking about it,” he adds.
The issue Pepper sees as most pressing to Ohio right now is the heroin crisis. He says Ohio has been slow to respond, with DeWine holding the first heroin task force meeting on Sep. 30 of this year. “The first project of that group is to make sure they’re getting accurate numbers of all the people dying. That should have happened three or four years ago,” Pepper said. “We’re four years into a crisis and [DeWine] is just waking up to it.”
Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio and it’s going up, according to an Associated Press article posted on ohio.com on April 18. Fatal heroin overdoses increased 60 percent from 2011 to 2012, from 426 to 680.
Pepper as a New Dad
Issues like that matter more now to Pepper, a new dad. His son Jacob “Jack” Hamilton Pepper was born in May of this year. “My wife is a hero,” Pepper says with a chuckle when asked how he balances campaigning and family. “I’m home more than I would be otherwise.” He admits it isn’t easy but adds that having his wife send pictures and videos all day makes it better. He lights up as he shows off pictures and videos of his son on his phone. “We couldn’t be happier.”
Earlier in the campaign, it was found that Pepper has received almost $10,000 in parking tickets—182 violations in 14 years. Pepper admits his mistake and points out that DeWine is not perfect either. “Was I sloppy and got too many? Absolutely. I’m the first one to say that. I had to pay them all. It was my mistake.” But he says that in the grand scheme of the campaign, it’s not significant. “When you’re talking as we are about heroin overdoses, about rigged bids helping friends, in the grand scheme of things it honestly doesn’t come up.”
Pepper refers to the Democratic accusation, based on an investigation by the Dayton Daily News, that there is a correlation between contributors to DeWine’s campaign and the outside law firms selected to receive contracts with DeWine’s office. DeWine has denied the accusation and a “Truth in Numbers” investigation on cleveland.com found an advertisement based on the story only partially true.
“They dug up an old story,” Pepper says, returning to the parking tickets. “The silliest things come up at the end of campaigns. Of course it was too many. When I was driving around in downtown Cincinnati I, about once a month, got a parking ticket.”
Attorney General Race Debate
When it comes to lack of a debate in this election, Pepper says he’s embarrassed for DeWine. “I love debating. I think anyone who is running for attorney general —maybe more than any other job — should. If you can’t debate and you’re running for attorney general, you’re in the wrong profession,” Pepper explains. He goes on to explain that, essentially, what attorneys are supposed to do every day is debate. If he can’t stand up and make his case, he questions what kind of attorney DeWine is.
“I think it’s such a sad statement about his respect for the voters,” he adds. “I think it’s a shame for the voters that they lose really, the only unscripted opportunity you have to judge a candidate.”
Near the end of the interview, a campaign worker comes in and informs Pepper that he’s got about five minutes left before he needs to prepare to speak at the City Club of Cleveland — part of that last election push. The question now is, will his drive and enthusiasm be enough to dislodge 40-year political veteran Mike DeWine? Voters in Ohio will answer that question on Nov. 4.