David Pepper may be on the verge of becoming Ohio Democratic Party chair
It is looking more and more probable that when the Ohio Democratic Party’s executive committee meets Tuesday night in Columbus, it will pick Cincinnati’s David Pepper as the new state party chairman.
And Pepper – the former city council member and Hamilton County commissioner who ran and lost the race for Ohio Attorney General this year – will then have the unenviable task of picking up the pieces of a political party that was shattered in this year’s election.
It became necessary for the party to choose a new leader immediately after the November election, when the Ohio Democrats running for statewide office were completely wiped out by the Republican incumbents.
It was the second gubernatorial election in a row where the Democrats were swept; and both times, Chris Redfern of Catawba Island, was at the helm of the party. The day after the election, Redfern, who had been party chair since 2005, announced his resignation. It was a double whammy for Redfern on election day – his statewide ticket not only went down in flames, but he lost his seat in the Ohio House.
There are no guarantees, but Pepper told WVXU that he believes he has “well over” the 75 votes he needs to win the chairmanship. There are 148-member executive committee.
“Things are somewhat chaotic,’’ Pepper said. “But we feel we have a majority.”
His principal opposition comes from Sharen Neuhardt, a Dayton lawyer and political activist who ended up as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald’s lieutenant governor. The FitzGerald campaign, plagued by every conceivable problem that a campaign could have, ended up with a paltry 33 percent of the vote.
Neuhardt has substantial support – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the state’s highest ranking Democratic elected official, is pulling out all the stops, phoning and e-mailing executive committee members urging them to vote for the Dayton candidate. Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman is on her side, as is Tim Burga, the president of the Ohio AFL-CIO. Janet Carson, the Geauga County chair, is president of the Ohio Democratic County Party Chairs Association. She flirted briefly with running herself, but is now backing Neuhardt.
Neuhardt could not be reached for comment, but she told Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler last week she believes in “building a great team of people” to bring the party back.
“I want to make sure the diversity and inclusion that we talk about in our party is actually reflected in the party leadership,’’ Neuhardt told Ohio Public Radio.
Pepper has been busy racking up endorsements. He has the backing of the Democrats who are mayors of the major cities that are the north and south bookends of the state – Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.
On Wednesday, three of the four Ohio Democrats who are members of the U.S. House – Joyce Beatty of Columbus, Marcia Fudge of Cleveland, and Tim Ryan of Niles – put out a statement throwing their support to Pepper.
Most southern Ohio Democratic leaders – with the exception of Neuhardt’s base in Montgomery County – are backing Pepper.
But one of the most significant factors in Pepper’s ability to build support is the alliance he has made with State Sen. Nina Turner of Cleveland, the unsuccessful candidate for Ohio secretary of state.
Turner is extremely popular in the heavily Democratic urban areas, particularly among African-American Democrats, who saw her as their champion, battling the alleged “voter suppression” by Republicans in the legislature and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.
Pepper told WVXU Turner would play a “major role” in rebuilding the party if he is elected chairman.
“People are excited by the two of us coming together from different parts of the state to rebuild this party,’’ Pepper said. “I don’t claim to give as good a speech as Nina Turner does, but she can play a major role in this party. She has the ability to energize folks.”
He is not talking about a “co-chair” situation. Right now, there is a vice chair of the party, former Dayton mayor Rhine McClin, and she will remain in place. But Pepper told WVXU that there is a possibility of creating other vice chair positions; and that Turner might fill one of those.
“I didn’t pick her as some deal to win votes,’’ Pepper said. “She is the most energizing person we have in this party. She’s as good as it gets. There needs to be a role for her to play in rebuilding the party.”
What kind of state party chairman would Pepper be?
“A very active one,’’ said Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke, who is backing Pepper. “He doesn’t know how to do anything at less than 100 miles per hour.”
Pepper has a mixed record as a candidate.
He ran for city council in 2001 as a first time candidate and was elected with ease, showing for the first time his ability to raise campaign dollars. Then, in 2005, he ran for mayor and ended up losing to fellow Democrat Mark Mallory.
The next year, though, he ran for Hamilton County commissioner and knocked off an incumbent Republican, Phil Heimlich, giving the Democrats their first majority on the Hamilton County Commission in over 40 years.
But, instead of running for re-election in 2010, he chose instead to run for state auditor; and ended up losing to Republican Dave Yost in a year when all of the Democratic statewide candidates lost.
Then, of course, this year he ran for Ohio attorney general and got washed away in another Republican tidal wave, losing to incumbent Republican Mike DeWine.
But those two losses in statewide races may have gained Pepper an advantage that will serve him well in Tuesday’s election.
Over the past five years, he has traveled over every corner of the state, visiting almost every one of Ohio’s 88 counties and making connections with Democrats in each and every one of those counties.
“He knows the leadership in every county; and, more importantly, he knows the grassroots people who are going to be essential to getting the party back on track,’’ Burke said. “That’s an enormous advantage.”
And, Burke said, Pepper has good connections with the national party leadership.
“That was something Chris (Redfern) had to develop; David’s already got it,’’ Burke said.
And, Burke said, Pepper is a prodigious fundraiser, which is something the party is going to need to get back into the fight.
Things seem to be rolling Pepper’s way in this election.
Things could change between now and Tuesday night.
But Pepper believes he has the votes; and Burke is hoping that the party will come out of the election “unified.”
“I’m hoping people are going to see the likelihood of the outcome of this and that there is no point in fighting over this,’’ Burke said. “We shall see.”