Book cover

David Pepper is keeping the Ohio Democratic Party alive, single-handedly, even though his six years as the party's chair came to an end a year ago.

Quick. Name the current chair. You can't because the new chair is largely invisible as is the party apparatus.

Quick. Name a Democrat who can keep Mike DeWine from being re-elected governor in 2022. You can't because the two announced combatants are largely unknown outside of their home areas.

Quick. Name the Ohio Democrat who has kept the Ohio Republican establishment's feet to the fire during the redistricting and reapportionment machinations the past few weeks and who is leading the charge to get the Ohio Supreme Court to overturn the horribly Republican biased, profoundly disrespectful to Ohio citizens gerrymander/remap.

Two Hints: It is not the virtually anonymous chair of the Ohio Democratic Party and it is not the Democratic candidates for governor or any other statewide office in 2022, the latter of which are few and far between.

No, my friends, the lone voice in the wilderness and hero to rank and file Democrats, well-meaning independents and Republicans with a conscience is – drum roll – David "Flipping" Pepper. He takes it to the GOP graft bags every day and in every way.

And in his spare time, David Pepper wrote a scorch-ingly good book titled Laboratories of Autocracy (St. Helena Press). It is all about what Republicans in Ohio have done to our democracy in the Buckeye State and what the GOP mind-benders are doing to the rest of the country. Read it but keep the antacid handy.

The thing I like most about David Pepper is that he does not need to do this stuff. He grew up in great comfort to one of Cincinnati and Ohio's wealthiest families. He could be devoting his life to yachting. Instead he has put himself on the front lines to remake Ohio and the United States and lead a rebirth of democracy.

Pepper begins his book by outlining the woes of Ohio: population of the young and educated departing, education declining, health services disappearing and economic distress, among others. While facts are facts, I get the feeling that the average Ohioan does not feel that the state is in decline and does not feel like voting the Republicans out of office on the basis of the "woes" issue.

He then ticks off the radical proposals enacted by the veto-proof Republican-dominated Ohio Legislature: deregulated gun usage, difficult if not impossible to obtain abortions, and a crackdown on those with non-traditional sexual orientation, among others. In fact, while Ohio Republicans play a publicity shell game to distract from the inevitable gerrymander of districts for the next decade, they are jamming through more radical measures with little media coverage and even less public discussion.

Pepper blames Ohio's woes on corruption and government dysfunction orchestrated by the Republicans. He writes that the average Ohioan does not understand that the state government mostly decides things that affect the quality of Ohioans' lives. While lots of money comes from the federal government, it ends up being filtered through the state government and allocated to local communities and entities by the state bureaucracy.

He writes that the average Ohio citizen lacks awareness of how government works at the state level and is not oriented toward following what the legislature and governor do.

As an aside, I think people in central Ohio possess more awareness about the state government than other regions because it gets a lot more coverage in the Columbus and central Ohio media and because the state government is a "local business," employs a lot of local people and weighs more heavily on the minds of central Ohioans. I have lived in central Ohio for 13 years and know a lot more about the state government because of this local osmosis then I did living the previous 34 years in Bowling Green (100 miles away) and the 29 years before that in Ashland (70 miles away).

Pepper elaborates about the so-called "pay to play" method of government decision-making in the Ohio government, where businesses and big donors make contributions to powerful legislators and the governor in order to obtain favorable treatment from them and from regulators. The utility First Energy is being investigated for giving millions to a non-profit that was a front for massive political donations, mostly to Republicans. The charter school ECOT took millions of state money to provide a substandard education to thousands of Ohio schoolchildren and made hundreds of thousands in donations to mostly Republicans to keep its subsidy until the roof fell in.

The author notes that powerful donors even attempt to influence the legislature to pass laws that make life harder for the donors' competitors.

I agree with the author who states that eight-year term limits for state legislators have had negative consequences because it makes the legislators more transitory and more vulnerable to lobbyists and ALEC, a right-wing entity that provides ready-to-pass texts of radical legislation.

Term-limited legislators often maneuver to find employment or jump to the other legislative house during or immediately after their terms expire. The years before term limits were pretty awful, too, with legislators amassing power and staying in charge for decades. That is why Ohioans voted for term limits. I think term limits should be tightened to a maximum of eight years in the legislature. Period. No more. I also think the legislators should be part-time, paid thusly, and limited to meeting 60 days a year, except in emergency. Too many legislators "go Columbus" after they get elected, both losing touch with reality and their home communities.

Pepper writes about his own experience running against Republican David Yost for state auditor in 2010. He already had served on the Cincinnati City Council and as a Hamilton County Commissioner. He writes he was cruising to victory in October, it appeared, until utilities and other big money donors starting putting lots of cash into Yost's campaign, catching Pepper by surprise and doing damage to Pepper's campaign from which he could not recover. The Republicans wanted to control the then state reapportionment board on which the state auditor sat in order to gerrymander the state in 2012 after the U.S. Census was completed.

Yost's win helped the Republicans rig the districts and gave them an overwhelming edge in both houses of the Ohio Legislature and in the Congressional delegation from 2012 to the present, Pepper writes.

Even though Ohioans voted for Constitutional Amendments last decade to reform the current remapping process, the Republicans claim to have found loopholes to subvert the intent of Ohio voters and recently approved new districts that are just as biased as the old ones. This has occurred in spite of Pepper making spirited appearance after spirited appearance in front of the Republican-run hearings to demand that the Republicans live up to the goal of non-partisan district boundaries. Only the Ohio Supreme Court stands in the way of another decade of Republican dominance of Ohio's House and Senate and its Congressional delegation.

Pepper details the various ways Republicans are subverting democracy across the country and then offers a recipe for fighting back. He urges readers to resist at the national, state and local level. He lists 30 steps that informed citizens need to take in order to replace "Autocracy" with "Democracy." Among the steps are "Robust Federal Corruption Enforcement" and "Invest Every Year, Everywhere."

David Pepper is a great American. We are lucky to have him fighting the great fight for us in Ohio. Buy his book. Read it. Act on it. Share it. And, as he says, "Resist."

If we are lucky, we will get to vote again for David Pepper for state office. Let's hope he wins the next time and brings about needed democratic reform. Then he can write a follow-up book titled "Laboratories of Democracy."

 (John K. Hartman writes the Columbus Media Insider column for the Columbus Free Press. Send your comments to 

(Copyright, 2021, John K. Hartman, All Rights Reserved)