Forty-two-year-old Democrat David Pepper has already served two terms as a Cincinnati City Councilman and a term as Hamilton County Commissioner. Now he wants to be Ohio’s attorney general, and he’s hitting Republican incumbent Mike DeWine on multiple fronts to try and unseat him.
Pepper has cast himself as the progressive alternative to DeWine’s staunch conservatism, saying the attorney general is pushing a far-right agenda instead of serving Ohio residents. Pepper says he can do a better job, slamming DeWine on his response to Ohio’s growing heroin addiction problem, the state’s backlog of rape kits and his support of conservative causes like the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case.
But with a mountain of experience and backing from the state’s strong Republican political machine, 68-year-old DeWine is a formidable foe. If there’s a political job in the state, DeWine has probably either done it or run for it. He has served as a county prosecutor, as an Ohio state senator, three terms in the U.S. House in the 1980s representing the suburbs around Columbus, a term as Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor and for more than a decade was a senator for Ohio. He became attorney general in 2011.
Both candidates are part of prominent Ohio families. John Pepper, the challenger’s father, is the former CEO of Procter & Gamble and Disney. The incumbent’s cousin Kevin DeWine is Ohio Republican Party Chairman, and his son, R. Patrick DeWine, is a Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge.
Pepper says he has gotten an in-depth look at the problems facing the state, both as a private attorney and during his time as a public servant in Cincinnati.
“A lot of what I’m talking about has been shaped by my experiences here as a councilmember and commissioner,” Pepper said in a recent interview.
But DeWine’s campaign says Pepper is inexperienced and that his criticisms about DeWine’s performance as AG are misleading.
“From the average voter to the political insider, everyone sees his claims as ridiculous,” DeWine’s campaign spokesman Ryan Stubenrauch said in an interview.
Pepper has seized on questions of cronyism that have popped up around the AG’s office. An Associated Press report earlier this year showed that the office awarded outside law contracts to firms without any documentation of the way those firms were chosen. Many of the firms tapped by the AG office are big donors to DeWine and the Ohio GOP. Pepper is accusing the attorney general of “pay to play” arrangements.
He also says DeWine hasn’t been proactive enough on big issues like the state’s escalating heroin addiction crisis during his time as AG.
The Ohio Department of Health in April released a report stating that 606 people in the state died from overdoses of the drug in 2012.
That’s a 37 percent increase from 2011. Research by the attorney general’s office suggests as many as 900 people in the state died from the drug in 2013, another big spike. Fatal drug overdoses have been the most common cause of accidental death in Ohio every year since 2007.
DeWine has taken some action on the issue. In November 2013, he created a $1 million special unit staffed with lawyers, investigators and addiction specialists to work on heroin cases exclusively and go after major dealers. Pepper says that’s not enough. He proposes that the state create a modern database system that tracks heroin deaths, spend more money on addiction counseling and training for local law enforcement as well as make drugs that can treat overdoses more available.
DeWine’s campaign says Pepper is simply politicizing a tragedy.
“There is no magic wand that’s going to solve this. DeWine is doing all he can,” Stubenrauch says, noting that law enforcement officials have been seizing record amounts of heroin from dealers in the past two years.
Pepper says DeWine has also mismanaged the process of testing rape kits, which are samples collected when sexual assaults are reported. Here, he’s ventured into murky waters. Though the state does have a backlog of nearly 4,000 kits yet to be tested, this is mostly because local law enforcement officials have fallen behind in testing them. DeWine actually requested the kits be sent to the state so testing could be expedited.
But the state’s crime lab is only able to test about 300 kits a year, and as many as 3,000 more that have yet to be released by local authorities. Pepper has floated the idea of sending the kits to other labs, including one in Hamilton County, for testing. DeWine says that won’t work because these smaller labs don’t have the capacity to test the overwhelming number of kits.
Pepper has also blasted DeWine on more ideological issues, including the brief the attorney general authored supporting Hobby Lobby in its recent Supreme Court case over contraception and the Affordable Care Act. Pepper says DeWine shouldn’t be taking up such causes on taxpayers’ time.
“Every time he’s fighting these cases, he’s losing valuable time and money,” Pepper says. “I just think it’s a very inappropriate use of the job to go around and fighting for Hobby Lobby. They have their own lawyers.”
The Hobby Lobby brief is an example of DeWine’s right-wing agenda, Pepper says. He contrasts that approach with his record, highlighting the fact that during his time on city council, he voted to overturn Cincinnati’s Article XII charter amendment, which prohibited protected status for gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals. DeWine has been active in opposing laws expanding gay rights, including a pitched battle to keep Ohio from having to recognize gay marriages from other states.
Despite gains by Pepper, DeWine has some big advantages in the race.
The latest campaign finance information, filled in June, shows that DeWine’s campaign has a comfortable $2.8 million to Pepper’s $1.4 million. But Pepper’s campaign doubled the amount of individual donors — more than 800 — DeWine had. These include a lot of small $50 and $100 contributions but also a couple big checks from big names.
Former Cincinnati mayor and talk show host Jerry Springer chipped in $10,000 in June, and Laurene Powell-Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, gave Pepper $12,000 in April. Pepper has also gotten help from his family, which has poured $84,000 into the AG-hopeful’s campaign. David Pepper has also come out of pocket to the tune of $85,000 for his bid.
Pepper is seeking his first win in a statewide race, having lost a bid for state auditor in 2009. Currently an attorney, Pepper received both his undergraduate and law degree from Yale and now practices law and teaches as a professor at University of Cincinnati College of Law.
DeWine says Pepper is not fit for the role of Ohio’s top attorney. In a February interview with a reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer on transparency issues in his office, DeWine pulled no punches.
“He is the most unqualified person to run for attorney general in my lifetime,” he said of the challenger.
Pepper calls that “nonsense,” pointing out that DeWine was a county prosecutor decades ago.
“Crime on the ground in Ohio looks much different than it did in the 1970s,” he said, claiming his more recent experience as a private attorney and law professor have prepared him well for the job.
The candidates have until July 31 to file their next set of campaign finance disclosures, and both candidates continue to reach out to donors and voters ahead of the November election. Pepper’s gotten endorsements from usual Democratic supporters like the Human Rights Campaign. DeWine has gotten endorsements from business groups, including the National Federation of Independent Businesses. ©