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Cover Story: Swimming Against The Tide

David Pepper Has Spent His Life Defying Expectations

By Stephanie Dunlap · June 29th, 2005 · Cover Story
Against The Tide
Against The Tide

What David Pepper is not: Just a spoiled rich kid leeching off his dad's P&G success. Flashy or spontaneous. A good housekeeper.

What David Pepper is: A policy wonk, just this side of being a real nerd. Addicted to Diet Coke. Highly educated and dryly funny. Possibly the hardest worker in any room. Overly, annoyingly proud of Cincinnati.

"I grew up thinking this is the best hometown America had to offer," he says. "I always look back and wonder why."

Pepper, who turned 34 on June 7, is a second-term Cincinnati city councilman running as a Democrat for the mayor's seat. Before that, he was the second of four children and the middle son to John and Francie Pepper.

Part of the reason he loved Cincinnati so much, he says, is probably that it was his anchor during the seven childhood years he spent abroad, as his family moved from school to school and country to country, Italy to Belgium, for Procter & Gamble. He attended four schools in three countries in a year and a half.

"I grew up in Cincinnati being as happy as anyone could be," Pepper says.

He says he's running for mayor because right now Cincinnati isn't the hometown it should be to many of its citizens.

Certainly his childhood was comfortable. His father, John Pepper, served many years as president of P&G and then as chairman of the P&G board of directors.

But the elder Pepper, now wealthy, says he started in marketing at $7,000 a year and would never have been able to afford his Yale education without an NROTC scholarship.

His mother, likewise, grew up in a modest house in Mount Auburn. The fifth-generation Cincinnatian's father was an OB/GYN physician; Francie Pepper followed her mother into a family heritage of feminism and advocacy for the victims of domestic violence.

The Peppers have four kids: John, 35; David, 34; Doug, 31; and Susie, 27.

John and Francie Pepper say their children always held summer jobs and made their own distinctly separate ways, just as their parents had.

Francie Pepper says her family's financial success has always been an issue, not just since David entered politics.

"My children have run against it their entire growing up," she says. "We have always felt the obligation to help other people have the same kind of opportunities. You get and you give. You work hard at it, very hard at it."

She says the younger Peppers have always been accused of doing nothing and making lots of money at it.

"My kids were never making lots of money and they were working their tails off," she says. "It comes up a lot. They handle it with humor."

'Kind of a slob'
David Pepper says that in high school he was the guy between cliques who naturally tried to work with everybody. His younger brother, Doug, who works for a venture capital firm in San Francisco, remembers it the same way.

"David wasn't like the big party guy in the class," he says. "But he was friends, interestingly enough, with all the most social people in the class. He wasn't the center of the party, but he was always at the party."

His older and younger brothers, on the other hand, were both the social chairs of their respective college fraternities. John Jr. earned the nickname "Thumper."

None of that for David. Francie Pepper says his only nickname was "Dave." She says once upon a time he might also have been called shy, like his father. Or at least quiet.

"It's funny, because he's actually the child that no one knew I had," she says.

Either he and his group of five or six close friends were hunkered down somewhere, or Pepper was alone in his room, studying.

But he always had a confident streak. His parents recall the swim meets where David would be substituted in to fill out a vacancy. Apparently he was a pretty terrible swimmer.

"God bless him, he'd get into some of these races and they were long, like 400 meters, and he'd be the last but he'd be going crazy and he'd get out of there and he wouldn't feel bad," his father says. "I suspect if I'd been in his shoes I wouldn't have done it, because I'd have been embarrassed. But he didn't. He knew who he was. So I saw just a lot of determination in him and a willingness to take on new things."

For the most part, he was a good kid, according to his mother.

"He rebelled getting ready to go to college, big time, but he toed the line pretty much on a lot of other things that other kids got into and he never did," such as drinking and smoking, Francie Pepper says.

"I think I was the studious kid who kind of did what he was supposed to do," David Pepper says. "I wasn't sitting around gunning for college. I just thought that's what I was supposed to do."

Doug Pepper says his brother always seemed to be the most balanced person in their family. He remembers David as the intellectual, the "brainiac" who was always mature beyond his years -- the one who, at age 10, his parents entrusted with caring for their sick dog's puppies.

"When the mother was away from the puppies, he slept with the puppies and fed them at night and I think that says something about the level of responsibility that my parents were able to give him at a young age," Doug Pepper says.

Puppies are darling, but Doug isn't only blowing sunshine about his brother.

"He's incredibly messy," he says. "His room was always a mess. He's kind of a slob."

The Cincinnati booster
After high school at Cincinnati Country Day School, David Pepper went to Yale University. Josh Galper, his roommate at Yale and now a litigator and speechwriter in Washington, D.C., seconds the assessment of Pepper's housekeeping skills.

"Since his brother said it, yeah, he didn't have the cleanest side of the room, I would say that," Galper says.

But what matters, and what Pepper had down pat, is organizing his head, according to Galper.

"This is a guy who was capable of pumping out three law review articles during law school," he says.

That's in addition to working 10 hours a day writing for Yale Daily News, Galper says.

As a junior Pepper was elected by his peers, with a memorable lack of controversy, to the post of the paper's managing editor, Galper says. It explains Pepper's affinity for talking to City Hall reporters about their work, especially if he thinks they've mischaracterized him.

At Yale, Pepper consistently earned honors marks while annoying everyone with stories about Cincinnati, Galper says.

"Once you got to know him, you also got to know Cincinnati quite well," Galper says. "None of us stayed in as close touch with what was going on (in our hometowns) as David did."

Pepper drove to Bengals games when they played in Baltimore, New York or New England. When he was younger, he couldn't sleep after the first loss of the Reds' season. In college he was such a rabid cheerleader that he was elected most likely to become Cincinnati's head of tourism.

In spite of his obsession, Pepper was well liked.

"He's got a great sense of humor," Galper says. "He was very popular among everybody at law school, and you don't get that way by being boring."

A double major in history and international relations specializing in American-Russian relations soon became extremely relevant to Pepper. Just out of college and before law school, he went to work for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., as an aide to former President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

He soon landed in St. Petersburg, working with CSIS on an international commission that sought to introduce the best of modern business and organizational practices to the Russian city. Heading the commission were Henry Kissinger and St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Pepper was all of 22.

George Handy, who still directs the International Action Commissions Program for CSIS, says he had misgivings about how comfortable the young man might be in such a role -- and Pepper's mother confides that Pepper himself was nervous. But over three years he proved himself capable and confident enough to take over his own projects.

"He has a knack for making people feel comfortable with him, whether they are young Russians from a different culture or old Russians from a different political system," Handy says. "He had the way of acting with confidence and deference at the same time."

After three years in Russia, Pepper returned to Yale for law school. After graduating, he was one of three applicants chosen from a pool of 350-400 to be clerk for a year to Judge Nathaniel Jones in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Then in 2001 he was elected to Cincinnati City Council, earning the most votes on his first run for public office.

'Is this guy real?'
On Oct. 17, 2003, two men kidnapped Pepper and drove him from ATM to ATM to make cash withdrawals. At one point they blindfolded him and held a gun to his head. After a while they let him go, were eventually caught and each sentenced to eight years in prison.

Tellingly, his mother's response is that maybe Pepper understands better now the terror of the domestic violence she's spent her life crusading against. He did recently ask the city's law department to look into how the Ohio Constitution's new ban on same-sex marriages might affect enforcement of domestic violence laws.

"To feel like someone else has your life in their hands, that's a terrible feeling," Pepper says.

But he says he understands that the incident wasn't as bad as what some people live through day after day.

"In the end, it wasn't that serious," he says. "It was an uncomfortable hour."

But politically, maybe that kidnapping was the best bad thing that could've happened to Pepper.

It made him seem somehow more human. He says he was stunned by the number of people who approached him about it.

"We're glad you're OK but we're also glad it happened because now you know," they said.

"And I think they're right," he says.

Pepper knocked on Rosalind Christian's door in Clifton not long after her son was killed. She thought she recognized the guy in the shorts and T-shirt.

"He said, 'How are you? I heard about your dilemma,' " Christian says.

She told him about her son.

"He was so sensitive to my pain," she says. "He just reached out to me. He said, 'I'm an attorney. If I can help you in any way, here's my card. Feel free to call me anytime.' "

A week later a letter arrived from Pepper, saying the same things. As months dragged on and her son's killer remained free, Christian got nervous and made the call. She says Pepper called right back even though he was out of town. Then when she went to court, Pepper sent someone from his office to lend Christian support.

"He was really there for me," she says. "And he never knew me 'til he walked up on my porch."

Pepper catches a lot of grief, especially on African-American radio stations such as WDBZ (1230 AM) and Web logs such as Cincinnati Black Blog.

"I don't know what the big deal is," Christian says. "I hear all this 'Pepper's not this' and 'Pepper's not that.' I don't know why they're giving him such a hard time. Maybe they don't know him like I learned to know him."

Part of the big deal is Pepper's famous family and its wealth. Then there's the question of how a privileged white male can relate to the lives of the rest of Cincinnati's citizens, the majority of whom can't really relate to his.

He is especially accused of being out of touch with Cincinnati's African Americans, a problem when he's campaigning for mayor against three African-American candidates.

Pepper says he understands the preconceived notions about him.

"I'm proud of my family," he says. "But if I were a citizen, I would look pretty closely at me and think, 'Is this guy real? Does he get it?' I think I have something more to prove than other people, and that's not a problem."

He says he tries to prove himself in two ways. First, he puts himself out there, knocking on doors in places like Bond Hill and Avondale.

"I would never go to someone's door and get defensive if they said, 'How do you know?' I'd say, 'That's a good question, let me walk you through that,' " Pepper says.

He says he'll be slated to visit 30 homes in a night but ends up spending 45 minutes each in the kitchens of just two.

In addition to door-knocking, Pepper says he goes to a lot of African-American churches -- not to speak, he says, but to listen. He's not particularly religious, but he is spiritual, he says, and more so as he gets older.

"What embarrasses me is sometimes they'll say, 'Sit up front,' " Pepper says. "I don't want to sit up front. I just want to be there."

Part of his platform, laid out in a series of tome-like plans, is to meet regularly with ministers.

"One of the things I really love about Cincinnati -- there are a lot of eloquent ministers," he says. "It's a real anchor in the community right now."

Not everyone is enamored of politicians who visit black churches, nor swayed by his run-ins with crime. A letter to the editor in The Cincinnati Herald, to which Pepper regularly submits his own editorials, asked the would-be mayor if he'd ever been profiled or had any real-world experiences that qualified him to oversee the police department's compliance with the collaborative agreement.

"Please don't spin the answer from the 'I was a victim of crime' perspective because that's not what's being asked," wrote Jenell Hubbard.

Pepper wrote her back. He's never been racially profiled nor had any negative experiences with Cincinnati Police at all, he wrote.

"But my own experience is less important than that of the broader citizenry, and my job is to listen closely to that broader experience," Pepper wrote.

Doing his homework
Jones, now retired, is a longtime NAACP activist who soundly rejects charges that Pepper harbors racial bias. Only for political purposes would anyone "ascribe to him any but the most positive and forward-looking views on issues of race and racial advancement," the judge says.

Pepper gives public service a good name, Jones says. Throughout Pepper's clerkship, his selflessness, hard work and good humor stood out.

"I thought that was remarkable for a young man who had so many options that were not available to many people," Jones says. "There's a reserve to his personality that may lead to people misconstruing who he is, but there's a lot of depth there and a lot of caring."

In that way Pepper feeds off his family's legacy. His father was instrumental in orchestrating the collaborative agreement on police reform, founding and funding the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and launching the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, through which David Pepper has mentored a young man for four years.

"The advancements that many African Americans came to enjoy -- in employment, cultural and economic life in this city -- a lot of those measures were made possible because of the involvement of the Pepper family, and David comes out of that tradition," Jones says.

But more recently, Pepper alienated a lot of people by trying to increase the penalties for possession of marijuana.

"Though I support Dave in what he's trying to do, he didn't have a clue, he was so off the mark," says Candace Tubbs, director of the Society for the Advancement of Reforming Felons (SARF). "But his intentions were good."

Through SARF, Tubbs provides shelter and services to at-risk youth, ex-offenders, homeless people and victims of crime. Most recently she sought to defuse tensions between the youth of Bond Hill and Avondale after 16-year-old Eugene Lampkin was shot and killed. Those who talk to Tubbs often refuse to talk to police or politicians, which is why politicians like Pepper seek her out.

In fact, she says he'd called to ask her how to deter the white suburban kids from coming to the city to buy drugs.

"David Pepper is a good man," Tubbs adds. "He doesn't always understand black culture, but he's a good man."

The marijuana proposal fell flat and raised a lot of ire and eyebrows. Pepper denies ever having smoked the stuff.

That's somewhat of an anomaly: He is notorious for becoming an expert on any subject he takes on.

"When David brings something in, there's not likely to be any mistakes in it," says Councilman David Crowley. "Unless you know the subject better than he does, if you want to argue with him you better do your homework."

Councilman Chris Monzel, a Republican and an engineer for General Electric, agrees.

"He even called himself a policy nerd at one event," Monzel says. "He loves it, he eats that stuff up. I don't know if people understand how much he really digs into that."

It can sometimes be a bit much, according to Monzel.

"Sometimes he loses sight of the practicality," he says. " 'Analysis paralysis' we call it in engineering."

Pepper is insistent that, if elected mayor, he be prepared to act the minute he's sworn in. So he's studying. To draft his plans -- which in dozens of pages each have so far tackled public safety, education and youth development and economic development -- he traveled to cities across the United States and spoke to many mayors. Much as he once translated Western practices to St. Petersburg, he seeks to figure out how initiatives that were successful elsewhere might be adapted to Cincinnati.

Likewise, he searches out local experts. Tubbs says most of the ideas in Pepper's youth plan came from his meetings with the troubled youth she assembles and ministers.

"He's not black and he didn't grow up in an underprivileged environment," she says. "He didn't understand youth culture, black culture, so he went to the youth. I can appreciate that."

'The silver spoon thing'
It's in ways like this that most conversations about Pepper inevitably come back to his upbringing.

"I know the silver spoon thing always comes up, too, which is just ridiculous because he doesn't take money from his parents," says Andrea Canning, Pepper's girlfriend for the past two years. "He works like everybody else."

He does appellate law for Squire, Sanders & Dempsey and earns a $60,000 salary on council. It's a nice living, but it's not at all lavish, Canning says.

Then, in the tradition of his parents, Pepper tries to give back. One of the charities he supports is SARF.

"For the last four years we've actually been able to give Dave our bills and they just go away," Tubbs says.

Anne Sesler, Pepper's campaign spokeswoman, denied a request for specifics.

"Regarding SARF, David does not want to publicize his charitable donations," she says.

"I like to see how he treats people who aren't so fortunate, with his own money," Canning says. "He almost doesn't even tell me a lot of times."

Then she'll find something or talk to someone or receive an ugly piece of jewelry he's bought off a hard-up street vendor.

"He said, 'You're not going to like this,' " Canning says.

Pepper's father is frank about the impact of his own corporate success on his son's political career.

"One would be financial," he says. "There, it's microscopic."

The elder Pepper says that, in spite of the $1,000 donation limit -- to which Pepper adhered before it was mandated -- he raised a lot of money in little increments.

"But if I look down the list or if you did and I looked at the names with you, the number of people you'd say, 'Well, John Pepper, his dad, got this' -- less than 10 percent. I mean, you could count on a couple hands," he says. "So financially it's extremely small. And I'm sure people outside feel that's not the case, but it is."

Access earned by the Pepper name might have helped on David's first run for office, his father says.

"There were probably some people who he called or he wanted to meet or who were invited to come to the first time to meet David Pepper would say, 'Well, that's a name I know. Maybe I'll go and listen to him.' So there may have been some of that then," he says.

But he says now people ask if by chance he's related to the councilman.

"I've never been a political person," John Pepper says. "I've been involved in a lot of activities and I am a registered Republican who tends to vote quite independently on a lot of matters, but I've never been involved in politics. I've never been part of the party organization. I've never raised any money for political purposes."

Though Francie Pepper leans toward the Democratic Party, she's more interested in nonprofit work, which precludes most political activism.

David Pepper says he was more drawn to public service than elected office.

"I haven't sat around in life and thought, 'Oh, I just really want to be a politician,' " he says.

Maybe he also just wanted to do something of his own.

"My family sort of covered the private sector part," he says. "They've got that taken care of."

Free-thinking Democrat
Pepper might be suited to politics, but there are some who question whether he's suited to the Democratic Party.

Monzel, one of council's two Republicans, says he and Pepper have similar approaches to many issues that he traces to a corporate sensibility.

"He's somebody I can work with," Monzel says. "I wish him good luck."

Asked whether Pepper is really a Republican in disguise, Monzel says the subject has come up "many, many times."

"I kid him about it, too," he says. "But he's not, and he says he won't, and that's the end of the discussion. He's liberal on the social issues. Some of his stances on the social policies wouldn't go along with the Republican platform."

Crowley said he was skeptical when he first heard that the businessman's son wanted to run for council as a Democrat. But Pepper soon impressed him as a very studious and bright young man "who could absolutely make a ton of money" but instead committed himself to public service.

"He's not a Democrat like I am," says Crowley, probably the most liberal member of council.

What is it that draws Pepper to the Democratic Party? He pauses to consider the question, then speaks carefully.

"I think we live in an incredibly competitive world," Pepper says. "I believe in the free market. But I think there's a lot of failures if we let that system just run on its own. Government needs to play a role to creatively figure out how to connect people that the system leaves out to opportunity. I'm not as big-government as other Democrats.

"I didn't grow up as a Republican or a Democrat. I grew up thinking about the issues and having opinions on issues. I didn't grow up knowing different politicians."

He also grew up arguing every side.

"David was bound to be a lawyer because he took the opposite side of every argument in the family, whatever it was," Francie Pepper says.

'He's such a threat'
For all the attention it gets at times, David's personal life isn't very titillating. He lives in Mount Adams. To relax, he runs around Lunken Airport a few times a week and plays tennis. He drives a leased Audi.

He's a creature of habit, eating a breakfast to make Dr. Atkins proud every morning at the Walnut Hills Frisch's and often finishing the day with quesadillas from Longworth's at night. Right now he's on an Amstel Light kick. He drinks Diet Coke after Diet Coke; his aides at City Hall know to bring him cans during meetings or just have two waiting at the outset.

But Pepper's not particularly discerning in terms of food, drink or music.

"I don't get hung up on most details -- what beer's what, what's in, what's out," he says.

He reads a lot of political biographies. He admires Robert Kennedy Jr. for "being able to connect with people (who), if you just looked at him and where he came from, people would not think he'd be able to in a real way."

Pepper usually goes to bed around midnight and rises at 7 a.m. His dating pattern is one of serial monogamy; his mother says he's had a girlfriend since sixth grade but has never been engaged. Now he dates Canning, a former WCPO (Channel 9) news anchor and reporter.

That came about because the news reports of his kidnapping caught Canning's eye as she was throwing together a contest for the city's most eligible bachelor. Pepper won fifth place. He says it's mostly because his mother recruited all her friends to vote for him.

"I said, 'Mom, how lame is it to have an organized campaign?' " he says. "I wanted nothing to do with it."

Then the top five were honored with an awards ceremony and a rose.

"If I hadn't gone to that cheesy awards ceremony, I wouldn't have met Andrea," Pepper says. "And I'm sitting there with a stupid rose in my hand. A political consultant would have been like, 'You are a total idiot.' "

Canning admits she didn't think much of Pepper at first.

"I've always been skeptical of politicians," she says. "I find a lot of them are very self-centered and more into themselves than the community they're working in. So I never really thought about him that way."

But ever the researcher, Pepper e-mailed Canning to say he'd read in her bio that she'd grown up very near the lake in Canada where the Pepper family spent summers.

He took her to the Blind Lemon, and two and a half years later they're still together, even though the relationship became long-distance in January when Canning moved to Washington, D.C., to work for ABC affiliate News One.

Canning says the distance is tough but they're trying to work through it. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. occasionally to catch her national stories on ABC World News Now; she flies back to Cincinnati as much as she can, often using Francie's donated frequent flier miles.

"I envision a future for us," she says. "He's a wonderful man and I love him a lot and just hope that everyone else sees what I see."

She says talk radio and Web log speculation about the truth of Pepper's kidnapping is ridiculous.

"He's such a threat to everybody else that he gets attacked left and right," Canning says.

But counter-attacks aren't Pepper's style, she says.

"What he wants to get accomplished doesn't involve attacking people," she says.

His mother says that kind of politicking isn't in him.

"He's not going to say nasty things about anybody," Francie Pepper says. "That's not his way. He wasn't raised that way."

The sensitive guy
On the contrary, Pepper has earned something of a reputation for sensitivity. For example, in 2003 CityBeat asked council candidates to name the incumbents they'd most like to replace. Nick Spencer, who lost that race and is running again as a Charter Committee candidate this year, named Pepper.

Spencer chose Pepper because they disagreed over the city's $52 million subsidy for Convergys and over an anti-loitering ordinance Pepper authored.

"David was kind of hurt, I think," Spencer says. "If I would have known that he was going to be upset, I wouldn't have named him."

To Spencer, that points to one of Pepper's flaws -- which, he says, Pepper has worked to overcome.

"He doesn't like to be attacked," Spencer says. "He doesn't like people to say bad things about him. David is very sensitive to criticism, much more so than the average politician."

Pepper considers that bit of criticism. If it's about a policy matter that he believes he's right on, he doesn't think twice about criticism and hate mail, he says.

But it seems to sting when he's caught off-guard.

"Maybe sometimes I'll see something and I'll think, "That's too bad, I thought we were working well together,' " he says. "I like to feel I have good relationships with everyone. Maybe when I don't see that, it bothers me."

"He's good most of the time," Canning says. "Every once in a while he won't take it as well as he should. I think he's gotten stronger as he's been in this business longer."

Pepper also has a reputation for an understated wit.

"It took me a while though to realize that David has a really good sense of humor, though he's certainly not silly or a master of one-liners," Crowley says.

Leslie Ghiz, a second-time Republican candidate for city council, says Pepper's offhand quips will revisit her for days.

"It's a very dry wit," she says. "You have to have a sense for it."

Ghiz, who is friends with Pepper and Councilman John Cranley, offers some insight into the relative youth of the council members and candidates.

"It's very hard because we're all three very young and we're in politics and it's a very difficult position to be in at our age," she says. "You're expected to be so much more mature than everybody else, but you're expected to be normal, too."

It seems doubtful Pepper will ever settle into some "normal" existence. In fact, a lot of his supporters see him going as far in politics as he wants. Handy thinks in eight years Pepper will be a U.S. Senator. Jones says he can see Pepper in higher office, whether state or federal, elected or appointed.

"He'd kill me for saying this, but I always joke that someday I'll visit him at Camp David," Doug Pepper says.

But Pepper denies, and few will argue, that he's thinking any further than the mayor's seat for the next eight years.

"I've actually asked him that and he really is just totally focused on Cincinnati," his mother says.

"He's the type of guy who looks for a challenge that he can be passionate about," Handy says. "And his commitment is not just because it's a stepping stone, his commitment is because it's the right thing to do."

"I don't have a plan," Pepper says. "This is an eight-year project. My goal is to win this race and in eight years have begun a new direction for this city. After that, we'll see. My inclination would be to stay here."

Until then, for the man who is arguably Cincinnati's biggest fan, there's nothing but preparation for the mayor's seat. ©



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