Plain Dealer: David Pepper talks about his vision for Ohio Attorney General’s Office, tells tales of a young Vladimir Putin: Q&A

By Henry J. Gomez, Northeast Ohio Media Group

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on October 16, 2014 at 2:30 PM, updated October 16, 2014 at 3:50 PM

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Few politicians work harder than David Pepper.

The former Cincinnati city councilman and Hamilton County commissioner never really left the campaign trail after his failed bid for state auditor four years ago.

He’s been to chicken dinner after chicken dinner. Cranked out policy statement after policy statement. Launched Twitter barrage after Twitter barrage.

Despite all of this shoe leather and social media warfare, Pepper might also be the biggest underdog on the Democratic ticket this fall. He faces Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose name has been on statewide ballots for decades.

One thing is certain: DeWine and his Republican allies treat Pepper as if he’s a much greater threat than their internal poll numbers would have you believe. DeWine recently hit the airwaves with an ad that asserts Pepper is unqualified to be attorney general. Pepper, 43, has succeeded in getting under DeWine’s skin.

The Northeast Ohio Media Group recently interviewed DeWine and Pepper, concluding a series of Q&A features with the candidates for down-ballot state offices.

You can find our conversation with DeWine here and our conversation with Pepper below. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

NEOMG: After running for auditor four years ago and getting your name out there, what made the attorney general’s race the one you went for this time?

DP: Truthfully, the last time there already was an attorney general for the Democrats [then-incumbent Richard Cordray, who lost to DeWine]. The governor [fellow Democrat Ted Strickland] had asked me to consider running for auditor.

If you look at my record – my time in office fighting for public safety and improved police-community relations, my time as a lawyer since 1999 – despite what Mr. DeWine’s ads say, I have a good, long record as a lawyer. If you add it all up, my background, my experience and my passion are very much aligned with what a good 21st century attorney general should be doing and should be focused on. My experience and my interests are much more aligned with the office.

NEOMG: You crossed paths with Vladimir Putin back during your days working for a Washington think tank’s outpost in St. Petersburg, Russia. What were your impressions of the future Russian president?

DP: I worked in St. Petersburg between ’93 and ’96. This was a very different era in us Russia relations. Vladimir Putin, he was the vice mayor for St Petersburg.

We met with him all the time. I thought to myself: How’d this man become vice mayor anyway? He never said a word. The mayor was gregarious and gave toasts all the time. Putin was deadly serious, not at all friendly.

He would be the last I would have picked to be a forward-looking leader.

Writer’s note: In a 2006 interview, Pepper spoke of Putin more fondly.

NEOMG: What courtroom experience do you have?

DP: I’ve been in court a number of times. I’ve been a lawyer since 1999. My first job was clerking for a federal court – the 6th circuit court, a place where DeWine struggled to win any major case. I have been in court in person and on briefs and motions many times. I’m not a trial attorney. I don’t hold myself out as one.

But I’ve been involved in major cases, commercial cases, voting rights cases.

It’s ironic that a guy who wasn’t even able to practice law between 1996 and 2007 would challenge my legal credentials. I would argue my legal experience is far more relevant and current than Mike DeWine, who was a prosecutor back in the ’70s.

Writer’s note: This is a somewhat misleading line from Pepper. As NEOMG has reported, DeWine had an inactive law license from September 1997 to April 2007, but not because he did anything wrong. He was serving in the U.S. Senate for much of that period. Lawyers in Ohio are permitted to register their licenses as inactive.

NEOMG: What’s the top item on your agenda if you win in November?

DP: The near-term crisis item is clearly the heroin crisis. I think the state has failed to respond in a serious way to what is an enormous crisis. Mike DeWine’s approach is a lot of talk but very little action. We’ve laid out a plan – very robust, very broad.

The heroin crisis is, sadly, a classic case study of what happens when politicians respond to public health crises without a comprehensive approach. There was a crackdown on prescription drugs, but there wasn’t a corresponding focus on the treatment needs of all those who were addicted.

DeWine had a lot of press conferences when he cracked down on pill mills. But he didn’t even declare a crisis on heroin until [November] 2013.

NEOMG: You have been critical of how DeWine handles the testing of rape evidence kits, something many see as a positive for him. What would you do differently?

DP: What I would do is be a lot less patient with the current pace.

I give Mike DeWine credit. But especially since its obvious there are hits being made, when you know there are thousands of these kits all over the state and there are thousands now at the Attorney General’s Office just sitting there, to me it commands a much more impatient, rapid approach than we’re seeing today.

I think there are clear ways to speed this up. When DeWine first got there, he sent evidence to local labs to be tested. I don’t see why you wouldn’t do that now when you have capable local labs. Now he says it’s too expensive.

NEOMG: But wouldn’t your way cost more money?

DP: I don’t think so at all. There’s a finite number of kits out there. You’re going to have to pay a certain cost no matter what. It’s just a matter of when. So by doing it quicker you front load the costs but that’s good because you’re getting through it.

NEOMG: Say you win, and there’s another challenge to Ohio’s gay marriage ban. You’re the attorney general, responsible for defending Ohio law. What do you do?

DP: The irony on this whole issue is that in principle, Mike DeWine and I agree on something. He just articulated it in the case about the right to lie in political ads. The role of the attorney general is very clearly to defend Ohio law and the Ohio Constitution, even when the attorney general might not personally agree with that law.

Your duty to simply follow the Ohio law blindly is trumped by your responsibility to speak up for federal constitutional rights. That’s what DeWine wrote in the separate brief that he filed in that right-to-lie case. I think that clearly applies in the case of these marriage equality bans. What DeWine is doing is even more extreme than these other cases. These other states are arguing that people in their own state shouldn’t get married. DeWine is arguing that valid marriages from other states shouldn’t be recognized here.

NEOMG: Your campaign has been called out for running a misleading “pay to play” ad that equates Mike DeWine’s repayment of a personal campaign loan with some major scandal. Why do you believe this is a fair attack for your campaign to promote?

DP: I didn’t say he broke the law. He’s obviously not in jail. But I don’t think that’s much of a defense. This is the largest [campaign] loan, we believe, in the history of Ohio. If you look back, you do not see loans nearly this size.

I think what’s driving all that pay to play is that over the last 3 ½ years on a regular basis, the money he’s pulling in from [donors who receive state contracts] he is transferring back to himself in six figure increments over and over. I can tell you as someone in politics, walking away from three years worth of fundraising and moving half the money back to myself would really change the motivation of the fundraising.

NEOMG: Fast-forward to 2018. What is David Pepper doing?

DP: Well, I know one thing. I will be almost celebrating my son’s fourth birthday. That’s a guarantee. Politically, I’ll be working as hard as I can to get re-elected.

This is one of the few jobs where every single day you can make a difference for citizens. I cannot think of anything more exciting than not just winning this November, but also running for re-election to keep doing this work. So that obviously would be my goal.