Toledo Blade: Pepper for Ohio AG (Endorsement)

One of Ohio’s best-known political figures, Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine, seeks a second term. He faces an aggressive challenge from Democrat David Pepper, an attorney, former Cincinnati City Council member, and past president of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners. The Blade recommends the election of DAVID PEPPER.

The winner of next month’s election will become Ohio’s top cop for the next four years, supervising more than 1,600 employees and overseeing a $261 million annual budget. The attorney general’s office helps local police agencies and enforces laws on predatory lending, consumer protection, health-care fraud, anti-trust cases, and charitable organizations. The Ohio attorney general earns an annual salary of $109,564.

Mr. DeWine’s tenure has had several high points. He has reduced the state’s backlog of untested rape kits, and shortened average wait times for new DNA testing from 125 days to 23 days.

The attorney general started calling for old DNA evidence in 2011, encouraging Ohio’s 800 law enforcement agencies to clear their testable sexual-assault evidence shelves. Since then, police agencies have submitted more than 8,300 rape kits for testing by the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Slightly more than half of the old kits — many of them 10 to 20 years old — have been tested. Ohio’s backlog of old DNA kits should be cleared in about a year.

Responding to the state’s heroin and opioid epidemic, Mr. DeWine conducted about a dozen town hall meetings around the state, wisely and properly using his bully pulpit to raise awareness of a growing public health problem. Mr. DeWine also created a $1 million heroin unit to assist local police agencies with larger, long-term cases.

“We can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” Mr. DeWine has, prudently, stated on numerous occasions. In August, his office granted Lucas County $500,000 for recovery housing and another $150,000 to support the Sheriff’s Office’s addiction resource unit.

Before he became attorney general in 2011, Mr. DeWine, 67, served as a U.S. senator and House member, county prosecutor, state senator, and lieutenant governor under Gov. George Voinovich.

Mr. Pepper, a Yale University graduate, is also well qualified for the job. He has managed a large county, clerked for a respected U.S. Court of Appeals judge, and taken a lead role in improving police-community relations in Cincinnati. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati’s law school.

Overall, Mr. Pepper has an unusually sharp grasp of urban issues — a perspective that’s sorely lacking in Ohio state government. The son of former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper, he ran unsuccessfully for Cincinnati mayor in 2005. He was elected county commissioner a year later, but lost a close race for state auditor in 2010 .

Mr. Pepper, 42, accuses Mr. DeWine of bid-rigging and using the attorney general’s office to advance a far-right political agenda. As the underdog, he has overreached in some criticisms of Mr. DeWine, but generally has been on point.

He denounces what he calls rampant pay-to-play politics in the attorney general’s office, and vows sweeping reforms in how bids are awarded.

Mr. Pepper’s charges of bid-rigging may be exaggerated. Nevertheless, records appear to correlate numerous campaign contributions to Mr. DeWine with contract awards. At the very least, they give the appearance of a process that is tainted and less than honest.

Mr. DeWine denies any wrongdoing, including a connection between campaign donations and contract awards. To his credit, he has heard the critics and vowed to be more transparent in how bids are awarded. But he has rejected some of Mr. Pepper’s sensible reforms, such as prohibiting fund-raising activity during the bulk of the bidding process.

Contract awarding under Mr. DeWine has fallen short of the highest standards of accountability and transparency — standards that the state’s chief law enforcement officer ought to meet.

Even more troubling is Mr. DeWine’s penchant for using his office to fight ill-advised and divisive legal battles around the country. He has become a national leader among state attorneys general in trying to stop birth control coverage mandates stemming from the Affordable Care Act. He also has involved himself in out-of-state cases on abortion and gun control.

Mr. DeWine is hardly the first attorney general to weigh in on out-of-state court cases. But repeatedly using a statewide office to fight partisan and ideological legal battles around the country, representing the views of the extreme right, is troubling. The Ohio attorney general should focus on what matters to the vast majority of the people of this state.

Mr. Pepper has also made mistakes. He racked up nearly $10,000 in fines for violations that include expired license plates and parking tickets over a 14-year period. Mr. Pepper was sent more than 160 delinquency violations for failing to pay tickets. All fines were eventually paid.

This too is troubling for a candidate who wants to be attorney general. Still, when voters elect an attorney general, parking tickets are less relevant than murky business dealings and use of the office to advance a partisan agenda.

Courteous and soft-spoken, Mr. DeWine is an old-school gentleman who has never let the trappings of power go to his head. For four decades, he has, for the most part, served the state with honor, dedication, and integrity.

But it’s time for a change. Mr. Pepper represents a fresh voice. Smart and tough, he has enormous potential to become an outstanding attorney general.

Now more than ever, the state needs an energetic attorney general who will serve all the people of Ohio and uphold the highest standards of accountability, transparency, and honesty. Ohio needs DAVID PEPPER as its next top cop.