Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers

Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

David Pepper: Going on Offense

| S:1 E:146
David Pepper: Going on Offense

David Pepper is the former Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. You may have seen one of his viral white board videos on twitter, where he breaks down Republican attempts to undermine our democracy.

In this interview, David discusses the recent house speaker races, meeting Putin and the war in Ukraine, and how pro-democracy forces need to go on offense in order to preserve majority rule.


Check out David’s new book, Saving Democracy, which details how every American can join this fight.

David Pepper:

We've got to keep an eye on what's happening because that itself … this guy is a speaker as a result of the entire Republican caucus going along with a dramatic change that it used to be that if you lost that caucus vote, that was the end of your speaker run.

In this case, people who lost the quote “primary” won the general because of these people.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is David Pepper, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and a prolific white border on Twitter.

His short videos breaking down Republican attempts to undermine our democracy almost always go viral, and I asked him to join us today to help us understand the current state of the threats we face.

David, welcome back to Burn the Boats.

David Pepper:

Thank you. Great to be with you again.

Ken Harbaugh:

We just had a critical vote here in Ohio to enshrine abortion rights in our state constitution. But I want to back up because the Republicans in this state, and I would argue nationally, pulled out all the stops in their efforts to prevent this right from being part of our constitution.

Can you start by detailing their attempts going back over a year at voter suppression. And pick your starting point, the purging of the voter rolls, they did everything they could.

David Pepper:

It's so funny you asked that. I literally just ran from another room to do a whiteboard on this because I actually think it's really important that we document this stuff.

It gets lost in the day after analysis. We like to have these very clean analyses of elections as if there's some simple narrative. And that often means that we truly overlook some really disturbing things.

And in this case, we have watched what is about as close as you can get to sort of Orban style autocracy moves in an American state.

For a year, we have seen (and we can spend the whole hour or whatever on this) multiple steps where they're weaponizing government itself to suppress democracy because they fear the majority, well, the citizens.

And we can go through one at a time, but Issue 1 in August was to change the rules midstream. It was on a day that was literally by their own law, not allowed.

They took the ballot language that is quite clear and they rewrote it in the summary that appears on the ballot to be very misleading, to add very politicized terms that have nothing to do with the terms that were on the amendment.

They wrote a summary longer than the amendment, if that tells you anything about what they're doing. They're purging voters only weeks before the voter registration deadline, so that voters who figure out their perch, it's too late to re-register.

They're running around doing disinformation, not just through a campaign, which we're used to, which you dealt with when you were a candidate, but through government websites.

The Ohio Senate has created a channel that we're paying for that's putting out disinformation about a citizen initiative.

Again, Viktor Orban would watch and say, “You guys are good students. This is how I run Hungary.” On and on and on, and it's really disturbing.

And let's overcome it, but let's not let it get normalized. It's very disturbing behavior.

Ken Harbaugh:

Absolutely. And the important thing to drive home is that regardless of how these one-off ballot measures go, be they in Ohio, or Virginia, or Kansas, their track record is to keep pushing, to keep this anti-democratic impulse going, even if they get smacked down by the voters.

And it's just indicative of a mindset that is creeping towards real authoritarianism because they know they're not going to win over the long term, the popular vote. So, they create a system where they don't need the popular vote to retain power and to impose their extreme vision.

David Pepper:

The more in a corner they are, the harder they fight. I worried about this when Democrats won the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in April. There's a celebration like that ends it.

Well, you and I lived through this in Ohio. We had our big Supreme Court win in 2020. Ohio, for those beyond here who didn't see this, we had our Wisconsin moment in November of ‘20, we won the independent Supreme Court.

We had four seats in the hands of three Democrats in a moderate Republican who would stand up to the current rigged, corrupt State House.

What did they do as a response? Did they quit and start following court orders? No, they changed the rules of how we elect justices to favor their candidates.

They manipulate the ballot to move those races to the top so that if you voted for Republican for governor, you'd keep voting for a Republican for Supreme court.

And then for two years, they simply ignored that court's orders the entire time. They broke the law multiple times whenever the court issued an order telling them so, they'd ignore it and it worked.

And so, what we're seeing is the more they're in a corner, they intensely fight back. They are willing to break the law if that's what it takes. They're willing to spend dollars and waste tens of millions on absolute anti-democratic steps if that's what it takes.

And the closer they are to losing power, frankly, the further they go.

And that's why oftentimes when you don't see that … with our victories, we have moments of relief. And those moments of relief often occur at exactly when they're doubling down.

And so, of course after the August win, we deserved a celebration in Ohio that we had had this big day for democracy, but maybe spend a day celebrating because their pattern is they will go further, more quickly, immediately when they worry, “Oh my gosh, we're about to lose it completely.”

It's the same as January 6th. There was sort of an assumption by some that Trump was going to go. No, he resisted, didn't he? That's kind of what they're doing at the state level when the closer they get to losing, the fierceness, the ferocity of the pushback actually intensifies.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's classic behavior of a zealot. It's cultish almost by definition in that the more evidence arrayed against them, the more opposition they encounter, the deeper entrenched their views become.

Which obviously is an indictment of the Republican party today. But it's also antithetical to the democratic contract, which requires give and take. It requires compromise.

How do you compromise with a side that literally believes (and you can just look at the new speaker of the House) that God is on their side. That thinks you and I are murderers. Where's the middle ground?

David Pepper:

With some people, there is one. And I want to give credit to Republicans, some in Ohio in August, who spoke out and said that attempted tack democracy was wrong.

Now, there's a pattern by the way. It's always former Republicans, office holders. They're Republicans but they're former office holders because they're not clinging to power.

But good for Bob Taft, and Betty Montgomery, and Maureen O'Connor in Ohio. These are big name Republicans. They came out against it.

And on election day, hundreds of thousands of Republicans (I believe the number will bear out) voted against their own party to support and work with Democrats that we maintain our direct democracy.

So, I think with some, there's middle ground and I think that's an example. And this is where we go beyond party and I think we have to.

When there are moments where democracy's at stake, if you can build alliances (and I know you do this) with some who say, “Well, I don't agree with you on some things, but I'm for democracy,” build those alliances.

That was a key to the August victory for democracy. And not only, again, was it leaders, and you know the state like I do, if Geauga County, Ohio is voting no on an issue along with Democrats, boy, did Republicans vote no. And that's what happened in August. Or Green County, Ohio.

So, I think there's some middle ground with some sliver (and I don't want to understate it by word sliver) with some element that's still pro-democracy. And they're clearly with independents and with some Republicans.

Build those bridges, find that middle ground to maybe agree to disagree on other issues but agree on democracy.

But then with others, like you're saying, compromising with them, you're just losing. And you have to make the case, you have to stand up and hold them accountable. When they're attacking democracy, you got to call it out.

And with them, there's not going to be a compromise. We just have to win and then find the areas to break bread with all the others on so that we have sort of a multi partisan, pro-democracy coalition that can beat back the 35% or so that seem to be interested in winning even if the majority's against him and will do whatever it takes to do so.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think we're making a distinction, a very helpful one between rank and file Republicans, Republicans out across Ohio who have day jobs who don't spend every waking minute thinking about politics and elected Republicans, especially those in Washington who seem now, in the thrall of the MAGA movement.

And you've written a lot recently about going on the offense against that part of the Republican party, that entrenched MAGA part of the Republican party that honestly can't be compromised with because of how radical it's become.

Can you give us a teaser for your latest book on going on the offense and running everywhere?

David Pepper:

Sure. So, I won't give you a teaser, I'll give you an example of what happens when we don't go on offense.

And his name is … I can always forget his name, which is terrible. Is the new speaker, Mike Johnson, Mike Thomas, Mike Thompson. He was such a back bencher, I can't remember his name.

Ken Harbaugh:

Johnson.

David Pepper:

Johnson, right?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yes.

David Pepper:

He's a case study of these people. Literally, his first race for the State House, uncontested. His second race for the State House, uncontested. His race for Congress, 35 point win. The next one, a 35 point win. His most recent one, uncontested.

I wish he was a rare MAGA candidate. Most of them or half of them are emerging into power with no opposition because we're not even running. And so, you have this guy who I think if you took most of his views of the world, his views would poll in the 20 or 30%.

But now, he's at the highest level of power because along with half of his Republicans in Louisiana and 50% of Tennessee Republicans and 60% of Oklahoma Republicans, they're in office with no opposition.

Literally all they have to do is get some signatures, pay some $50 filing fee, and they get to be extremists, creating all sorts of like crazy laws that most people don't agree with.

So, when we literally are empowering extremism, when we don't take the steps and we don't see that there's a value for democracy to running everywhere.

We may not win those seats, but if you bring accountability and knock on 20,000 doors versus literally saying you got the position no matter what you do, no matter how crazy you are, no matter how extreme your laws are, no matter how unpopular, you get to keep the office without even worrying about it.

What we've done by not running and not being on offense is let the Mike, again, Johnsons of the world or there are hundreds of equivalents running states. They're running their extreme agenda through these states largely with no one running against them, or at least 30, 40, 50% of them, no one running against them.

And that's why the extremism is taking states that Obama won like Iowa, Indiana, Clinton one like Missouri and making them unrecognizable versus a few years ago.

If the extremists are the only ones in the conversation, what's going to happen? They're going to get more extreme because that's the competition. If you're running against these folks, you start to bring accountability from the other direction.

“Hey, you ruined our public schools in this rural area because you gave all the money away. You passed an abortion bill that sent a 10-year-old rape victim to another state.” Which no one in Ohio agrees with except for maybe 10%.

But if you're not running against them, then they just keep doing it and doing, doing.

So, go on offense, start seeing that the business as usual of our side, the democracy side must be, “Hey, we run everywhere. That's just what we do.”

We got to stop this process where we accept is okay letting the Mike Johnsons of the world literally reach the highest levels of power with no opposition whatsoever.

Ken Harbaugh:

And Mike Johnson's ascension is an indictment of his entire party. Let's not forget that he won that vote for the speakership unanimously.

Every Republican in the House (I think some of them hadn't done their due diligence because some of this stuff is just coming out now) voted for a Christian nationalist who believed that humans and dinosaurs roam the earth at the same time. I mean, this is a dangerous guy.

And you're right, his rise was abetted by the lack of opposition the entire way. And now, he's two heartbeats away from the presidency.

David Pepper:

Can I say something else about him though and that rise?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah.

David Pepper:

This got lost. I did a Substack on this a few weeks ago. His ascension is also a result of election denialism within the House Republicans because the traditional approach to electing a speaker, whoever wins the majority of the caucus becomes speaker.

Everyone else agrees, “Oh, you won fair and square among our caucus. So, when you get put up against the other party's person, we all vote for you.” And we all know that in that process, “I don't like this guy, but he won.”

Steve Scalise won the majority, and then later a Minnesota Republican, Emmer, won the majority. In a normal world that's like winning the primary and then you win the general.

But in this world, the minority members of the Republican caucus said, “We don't care that we lost to you Scalise or Emmer, we refuse to vote for you in the general. We want to win the general, even though we lost the equivalent.”

And that's why he speaker. They literally were denying their own election results within their caucus and saying, “We refuse to live with the consequences of our caucus vote.”

And what's so pathetic, as you said about the rest of them, if you or I were in the majority of a caucus and we had voted for the winner, and the person who lost came to me and said, “Hey, I know I lost, but I want your vote for the speaker ultimately.”

I'd say, “Pound salt. We didn't vote for you. We're sticking with our guy and we will drag this out for years, but I would never give you my vote when actually you lost fair and square in the caucus vote.”

And that's what Johnson and Jordan — Jordan tried to do it and they refused. But these were people who lost at the caucus level.

A majority voted for someone else and the Matt Gaetzes of the world basically said, “Oh, we want to win even though we lost.” And the rest of these cowards keep going along with it.

So, it's a perfect symbol that even within their own caucus rules, they refuse to abide by the results.

So, Scalise would've been speaker under the old rules. This guy, Emmer in Minnesota would've been, but a bunch of election deniers literally refused. And then the rest of them accept the rules, which is again, insane when you think about it that they went along with it. But they did.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think that is a key observation about the psychology of the right today. It's really important to understand that election denialism wasn't a bug after the 2020 election. It's a feature of their system now. It's a badge of honor to say elections … yeah, go ahead.

David Pepper:

I was just saying, and I worry that we keep normalizing it. I mean, the national media treated the Jordan candidacy after he had lost to Scalise like that was normal.

No, in any normal world, Jordan would've been out because he lost the election in the caucus. Just like, I don't know, Pelosi ran against someone we know well, Tim Ryan. I think Tim dropped out at some point. Well, then it was over because the Democrats had weighed in.

In this case, the loser refused. And then this party is so weak, they went along with the person who lost.

And my worry about all … this is why I'm glad you opened the way you did. We've got to keep an eye on what's happening because that itself … this guy is a speaker as a result of the entire Republican caucus going along with a dramatic change that it used to be that if you lost that caucus vote, that was the end of your speaker run.

In this case, the people who lost end up … like people who lost the quote “primary” won the general because of these people.

And again, the idea that every Ohio Republican, congressman, and others, once who try and say that they're kind of above this stuff, the Mike Turners, the Dave Joyces, that they all said, “Sure, we'll pick Johnson even though we didn't want him to win and we actually won our vote.”

Again, is just bizarre, honestly. And so is sort of the mindset that you've said has really sunk into these folks.

Ken Harbaugh:

They are saying the quiet part out loud now, when you have Mike Johnson giving an interview about America as a biblical republic.

I remember not long ago, Mike Lee referred to democracy as rank democracy suggesting that the people cannot be trusted with their own votes.

And I think they're internalizing that maybe subconsciously in anticipation of the day (it's probably here already, but it is certainly coming if it's not) when the vast majority of Americans reject their vision for the country.

And they have an out, they say it doesn't matter because democracy is secondary to (insert your value) God's will. It's secondary to unborn life. It's secondary to loyalty to an individual. Democracy is slowly falling down the ladder of values and virtues for the Republican party.

David Pepper:

It's very clear, if you look closely, this has really become an ingrained talking point. The minimization of the value of democracy itself.

And they're using sort of a false historic dichotomy that didn't exist. That when the founding fathers talked about a republic versus a democracy. Now, they weren't separating them out in the way that folks think of it now.

No one thinks we're an Athenian democracy, a direct democracy. No one thinks that. That's sort of the dichotomy that was being drawn.

But when they said republic, they meant a majority of people. Now, they define the majority differently then of who got the vote. But then it was a majority will, majority rule process that picked these people to lead us. That's a democracy. It's a democracy centered republic, let's say.

The dichotomy they're now trying to draw is obviously very misleading that somehow by republic they didn't mean the broader democracy as we conceive it. And I think that's part of the broader project to just undermine the value.

And Johnson did this, as you said, Mike Lee did this, of the broader notion of democracy as if that justifies what they do. Intense gerrymandering, attacking the law of Ohio so that it takes 60% to pass something.

They want to fit all that into their mindset about a republic. Like there's something healthy about minimizing majority rule. And I don't think the founders would ever agree with that.

But I agree. So, this is a long-term project. And for as bad as they are running government, they're quite good at this stuff. And I think this nonstop pounding … and every time I tweet about democracy, I will get bots or real people saying, “We're not a democracy, we're a republic.”

And it shows you, it's really seeped in to the right wing ecosystem and it's ahistoric, the way they're trying to separate the two.

But I think it's part of the broader project, which is of Lee, Johnson, and others really wanted to give a sense that no, no, we can be in the minority and still rule this country. I mean, that's really the project.

If democracy means that we're in the minority and we can't rule, then it can't be right because that's what we should get to do. And that's why I think they're minimizing it.

And like you said, they're trying to act like the majority controlling the country some really bad thing. When I think most Americans, that's their most essential notion of what democracy means.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, I mean, the simplest answer is a republic is a form of democracy.

David Pepper:

Exactly.

Ken Harbaugh:

You can't speak out against democracy and say you're for a republic unless you really don't understand that.

David Pepper:

Correct. You said that better than I did, but yeah, absolutely.

Ken Harbaugh:

The abortion issue is it creates the perfect battleground for waging this kind of fight if you are a hardcore anti-democratic Republican, because you're able to cast the battle in almost mannequin terms, it's in their minds a battle between good and evil.

And in within that construct, democracy is the least important thing.

And we see this, we see this in how the opponents of the latest Issue 1 were talking about women's rights. You had one of the most outspoken opponents of Issue 1 saying that that 10-year-old girl's body was designed to carry life.

I mean, it's so outrageous that they have to know the majority of people will be repulsed by it, but it's less important to them than I guess doing God's will, which is probably the scariest phrase in all of politics.

David Pepper:

Well, the smart ones though know that it's unpopular. And that's why I think in the end, as much as … and I think they always are figuring out how to get better.

When I wrote my first book called Laboratories of Autocracy, it's not just some cute turn of the phrase, they're always running little tests and they always learn from them. And I worry that over time they're going to get better at trying to get these abortion bans sustained.

But the smart ones, the Mitch McConnells, the Koch brothers, they understand that their general positions are toxic.

And one of the things, I think they combine them in one way, but I think on our side as terrible as it all has been, I do think post-ops gives us a chance to make the attack on democracy mean something to people, see how it affects their lives.

Which is most of us agree that a woman has a right to choose. That's true. Like it's somewhere in 60% in Kansas, it's close to 60% in every poll in Ohio. It’s Texas, Florida. These states support abortion access.

The reason they're attacking democracy is to lock into place laws that they know you don't support. And if they're successful in attacking democracy, guess what, laws that you don't support are going to upend your life.

So, I think one of the most important things we can do to show people the attack on democracy is not some 30,000 foot debate over the founding fathers and the terminology. It's an attack on their lives. It's attack on the majority views of this country.

And Dobbs has in terrible ways actually done that. And there is a winning streak that I hope will continue in Ohio. But either way, where Dobbs has provided some real world examples of what happens in a worldwide democracy where people can impose an extreme or minority worldview on a majority of people who don't agree with them.

And I think we need to be better long-term at showing people that attack on democracy upends their real lives in all sorts of ways, in a way that most people do not agree with.

So, I think for on their side, it clearly is sort of their example trying to fire up their folks. But when we know that most Americans actually don't support the post-ops abortion bans, the ones sending 10-year-old victims to other states.

It actually gives us an opportunity to explain this is what the lack of democracy's going to do this country if we don't fight back really, really hard.

Ken Harbaugh:

I agree a hundred percent. And I think convincing voters that democracy protection, defensive democracy is the fight that links all of these other issues together, it's going to be difficult, but it's absolutely essential.

When I think about our ongoing perennial efforts to reign in the out-of-control gun industry, the NRA, when I think of our efforts to protect the climate, when I think of the current effort to enshrine abortion rights and the constitution, protecting democracy is foundational to all of them.

You might be a one issue voter on something else, but unless you care about protecting democracy, the people's voice is not going to be heard on those issues.

David Pepper:

Yeah. And the reason why you've seen an alignment of different interests against democracy, it's all the groups that know that they're on the side of losing issues.

You and I support the Second Amendment. Extreme gun laws though are totally unpopular. 90% of gun owners want universal background checks, red flag laws, protections against those who've committed domestic violence and are likely to do so.

Again, this is all very popular stuff, just like a woman's right to choose and contraception, doing something about climate change is popular.

What unites of people attacking democracy, they have different issues, but they all kind of figured out, “If we don't do something about majority rule to suppress it, we're going to lose.” They're going to lose their gun sales, they're going to lose the push for abortion bans everywhere.

And they know that. So, that's why who's in line to support issue one in August, who's in line to make sure gerrymandering is locked in? Those very groups because they would lose in a majority will world and they know it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you think when it comes to abortion rights, the radical far right forces overreached, are they beyond their bridge too far? I mean, they've been able to get away with so much and divert attention elsewhere.

But you've heard the analogy, this is a case of the dog having caught the car and now, they don't know what to do with.

How would you assess that?

David Pepper:

Yes, they caught a car they thought was sort of uncatchable because they passed all these laws, probably not assuming Roe, at least the ones that are a little more politically savvy, just assuming Roe was going to keep what they passed from happening.

And that's why you see people like Mike DeWine, he signed all these bills. He's spent his life doing this, so I'm not saying he doesn't agree with it.

But what's he saying in the final weeks of this this Issue 1 battle, “Oh, we'll renegotiate.” No, you signed the ban that sent that 10-year-old to Indiana. You didn't say you wanted to renegotiate after the news got out that she was sent to Indiana.

You want to renegotiate now that you think the voter's going to reject you. So, don't give me this renegotiating nonsense.

But that's the guy who figured out he caught the tire of the car. If after all his life's work of doing this, when he thought it wouldn't probably happen because of Roe. Now, he's I'm sure seeing polling that voters don't like his abortion ban, no exceptions to rape princess.

“Oh, I want to be reasonable now. Let's come up with something reasonable.” You had your chance, dude, and you didn't do it. And that's why you see a lot of …

But here's the problem. They're figuring it out too. They know they caught the car. So, you'll see Glenn Youngkin and other, “Oh, we're going to get something more reasonable.” Even Donald Trump actually, he's lately been more quote “moderate.” He's saying he's against no exception.

So, I think they're going to — and this is we better be prepared for. They have figured out that the extremism is a loser.

And to the extent people are fired up about doing something about it, they are starting to soft pedal and like they always do, they're going to get better at disguising it, engaging in misinformation, and doing other things to convince people they're not as extreme as they are and they're not as extreme as the laws they passed.

So, we've got to do a very good job of continuing to expose it because I think they have caught the car, they figured it out. Kansas showed them, Kentucky showed them.

And I think they're going to try and walk back in a way that they still get what they want, but they call the people trying to protect rights, the extremists.

And like Mike DeWine, this has been the whole campaign. “Oh, let's just be reasonable, everybody. Let's not go too far. The answer is no, you're the one who went too far. That's why this is even happening.

But they're going to get, I think, more scale to try to water down what's been clearly a very extreme set of laws they've passed around the country.

Ken Harbaugh:

And it's incumbent upon us to stick that to them and not let people forget. I think a clear tell is when people like Mike Johnson find themselves in the spotlight and start scrubbing their online profiles, start deleting things from their Facebook pages, then you know that they're trying to reform their public image, but they haven't changed at all.

David Pepper:

Yeah. Again, to go back to this one, and you and I we've run for office. I've been in office, but I'm glad that I'm not a career guy because you can see how sick people get when they're in there for their whole career.

Mike DeWine literally signed a bill that sent a 10-year-old rape victim to Indiana. And after that story became public, he wouldn't talk about it. He too scrubbed his website of all traces that he did that when he had his own election.

He didn't renegotiate that law when he saw the horrible effect it was having. He just kept right on going. He's in court right now, in the Supreme Court of Ohio in front of his own son for God's sakes defending that law. Yet with weeks to go in a campaign he thinks he might lose, he now says, “Let's be reasonable. I want to renegotiate.”

The idea that he's saying he'll renegotiate because of a bad poll and not because of what happened to a 10-year-old girl in Ohio is as sick as politics gets. And I think you agree with that. And it's a sign that someone needs to get out of politics.

If they are getting the point where the tragedy on the ground in real lives doesn't change their mind, but a poll makes them say certain things, I'm sorry, you're done with, you need to be gone for politics.

Just like he did the same thing with guns. This is the same guy who after Dayton, that massacre, promised grieving families in Dayton, he would do something because they chanted him to do it. And a year later, he did nothing of the sort. He actually did the opposite.

So, I just think that we're starting to see yeah, they scrubbed their websites, they respond to polling, but the real-world consequences that would impact real human beings to maybe rethink what they've done, they don't care at all.

And that really is one, most people who aren't into politics, this is why they're horrified by it. They're truly non-human behavior in response to tragedy, but responses to polls and potential election losses, terrible.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right. For those not as familiar with Ohio politics as you and I are, you referenced our governor, Mike DeWine, defending himself in front of the Ohio Supreme Court on which his own son sits.

I mean, the FBI called Ohio the most corrupt state house in the country. We are sadly living up to that.

But I think this is a good opportunity to bring us full circle because remind us why it is so important to run everywhere.

And I'm going to put it in a more specific kind of question. What would you say to that young aspiring candidate who was thinking about running in a district that Trump won by 30 points?

And I happen to have found myself in that category once. What is your argument to them when it's by all accounts, probably a suicide mission?

David Pepper:

Great question. Thank you for asking. You're a hero for stepping up and running in those districts.

The reason democracy is frankly going the wrong way in so many places is because there's no accountability left in politics in these places.

And that's of course the original sin of that is gerrymandering. But when we follow up on that gerrymandering by not running, we take the problem, make it so much worse.

Again, imagine the extremist who literally thinks, “Oh, I don't even have a general election. There's not one person knocking on the door in my community explaining that I'm an election denier or I'm the one who sent that 10-year-old victim to another state.

That's how the extremism and the anti-democracy efforts are being put on steroids. So, if you step up and run — by the way people win in some cases (it's hard) or you narrow the margin, that's important too.

Even if you don't win though, every day of your campaign was public service of the highest level, as patriotic as it gets that you are bringing accountability to a place that doesn't have it in that lack of accountability is the root cause of all this.

And so, the 20,000 doors you knocked on to explain what was happening, you might actually have that guy that the opponent … these guys are real sensitive because they'd never had opposition.

When they start having their neighbors say to them, “God, I didn't know you did that law. That was awful. I thought you were the nice guy from the parade or at the auction at the county fair. I didn't know you were an extremist.”

Every piece of feedback they start to get like that is the beginning of the accountability they never face.

So, that entire run, if you don't win (and you did this, Ken) is public service, the highest form. And it's higher value now more than ever because it's happening in a world where we have less of accountability than we've seen in a long time.

And I think it shouldn't just be me saying this, all of us from the highest levels of party on down to the grassroots activists, we need to surround these candidates with the value sort of we believe in that they're bringing that race.

So, whether it's support, volunteering, events, whatever it is. When people step up in a tough district, that shouldn't be the call we don't return, which is too often what it is. That should be the call that we return.

We say, “My God, that guy hasn't been opposed in three terms. Thank you for stepping up. We need that guy to hear about what he's doing. We need the people in his district to know what he's doing.” And the only way we're going to do that is if someone runs.

By the way, one other thing, in an even year where other things on the ballot, let's say you're do this in Ohio, you are lifting turnout for everyone else. You are lifting turnout for Sheriff Brown or Senate or presidential candidate or governor candidate.

Leaving 50% of districts uncontested is a disaster for turnout. Imagine trying to win a state where let's say you're a statewide candidate for president or governor where you have to cover half the districts yourself because there's no one even running, which is what Beto faced or Tim Ryan. It was, there were less uncontested races, but still.

So, you're not only playing this enormous role, you're part of a team effort and you're playing a key role in a team effort that otherwise your whole district is basically left for dead because no one's running.

And your own message, you are seeing this like I am all around the country, Republicans are taking credit for Joe Biden's economic plans, the infrastructure, the other things.

If you're not running, you're not there to say, “Actually, you had nothing to do with that. That was a Democrat. I'm on that side.” You oppose this thing.

So, when you're not running, it means you're not on message in half the parts of the country, which is one reason we're not doing as well as we should.

And so, all these things come from running and if you win, actually even better, but everything I described is a value from running that doesn't happen if we leave all these places uncontested.

Ken Harbaugh:

Could not agree more. There's also the less tangible benefit of bringing people, not just voters, but staff, and volunteers, and young people into the process.

And watching members of my team go on to run campaigns all over the country and across Ohio has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Win or lose, that's a legacy.

David Pepper:

Absolutely. And by the way, a lot of people run, if they don't win, they run again and then they win. We've got a bunch of state reps who ran in districts that were gerrymandered for Republicans in 2011, now they're in their second or third term in the State House because they kept running.

You're always building. We have this short-term two-year cycle mentality, that's a loser. It's a long game. And every vote you got was a vote for the good. Then run again, you're building from that base.

That's why Casey Weinstein's in the State House or Jessica Miranda, they kept going. Others may run for Mayor next or school board or whatever, but you're building a brand that's oftentimes some of the best …

Ted Strickland ran three times before he won. And he was viewed as a complete out of the blue candidate. He goes on to be governor. So, you're always building and so you might lose, but then keep going, you might win the next second time or third time or whenever.

Ken Harbaugh:

Switching gears, one of the segments we got the most feedback on was from your last interview a while back at the outset. This is going to sound like it's way out of left field. It was at the outset of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

And I had heard that you spent time with Vladimir Putin back in his days in St. Petersburg. And I would just love your perspective, having seen two years of his brutality in Ukraine on how that compares to the Vladimir Putin you locked eyes with more than once in Russia years and years ago.

David Pepper:

I don't want to over project, but as you said, I was in numerous meetings with him. I'm probably like one of the only Americans who ever met with him as much as I did who wasn't doing something really wrong.

I was there when we were getting along with Russia. It's sad that those days are gone, but this is when we were trying to help them build democracy in a market economy back in the early ‘90s. He was the vice mayor of St. Petersburg.

And my project, I worked for a think tank called CSIS, Center for Strategic International Studies. We are trying to provide technical assistance. And as I probably explained at the time, there were a lot of really admirable, some cases inspiring figures leading in Russia, leading the city, et cetera.

He was always sort of the opposite of those people. He was very serious. A lot of them were actually very big charismatic type figures. He was the guy who made the trains run on time.

And while others seemed to sort of kind of give off a vibe of, hey, we actually want democracy, we want a western minded … that was never the vibe he gave.

I now know in hindsight, I didn't know then how caught up in the corruption of like the St. Petersburg port he was.

But he was a very sort of tough guy. And I always thought with him in hindsight … and this is why I think Ukraine has kind of stood him up and it's clearly now a long slog, which is horrible what's happening. He's used to running people over and if he sees weakness, he runs over them.

And I think that's what he expected with Ukraine. I think that what he doesn't expect and what he sort of can't run over is if someone is as sort of steely eyed as he is. And I think that his world is basically, it's sort of like a Donald Trump view. You're a bully. You run people over. If they show any weakness, you run him over.

And I always have thought that the approach to someone like him if you don't want to lose is you got to stand up. And that's easy to say, I'm not in the position of running a nation, but I do think that he counts on people lacking the backbone that he has and just rolling over. And when he senses that someone is weak, that's what he does.

I think he clearly targeted Trump as a … what's it called? A useful idiot that would do what he wanted. I think he clearly knew that Hillary Clinton would not do what he wanted. That's what he doesn't like, that's what he fears.

And I think that was clearly why he clearly … we can get into what happened in ‘16, what didn't. There's a lot to that, not as much as some would want. But I think he judged Trump would cater to what he wanted and he knew that Hillary Clinton would stand up and I think that's still sort …

And so, I think a guy like Zelenskyy is standing up and I think that's made Putin's life a lot more difficult and he probably didn't expect it in the way that's happened.

But a guy like that, I think just honestly is just, he's looking for anyone to show a little sliver of weakness and then he moves into that space as fast as he can.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Well, we have people in this country I would argue trying to model that in the Republican party and it's pretty scary.

David Pepper:

But on that, I'm scared of the effort to separate Israel from Ukraine aid. All that Putin watches and thinks, “Oh, there's weakness, there’s weakness.” He knows who he wants to win when he sees that.

He sees J. D. Vance and he sees what … when J. D. Vance says, “I don't care about Ukraine,” which he said when he ran, Vladimir Putin is like, “Okay, there's the weak person I'm looking for. I want him.”

So, yeah, he is detecting weakness and when he sees it, he'll move right in. Donald Trump I think behaves the exact same way.

Ken Harbaugh:

David, great having you as always. Glad we got this time to catch up. Good luck with the new book, two of them actually, Saving Democracy and your novel, The Fifth Vote. We'll put a link in the show notes. Thanks again.

David Pepper:

Awesome. Thanks, Ken. Take care.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to David for joining me. Make sure to check out his book, Saving Democracy: A User's Manual for Every American. The link is in the show description.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.


View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Tim Alberta: Evangelical Extremism

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:160
Journalist Tim Alberta discusses his book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, and his personal experiences with the evangelical movement....
Listen to Tim Alberta: Evangelical Extremism

Dr. Steven Hassan: MAGA is a Cult

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:159
Dr. Hassan explains how cults indoctrinate members, and how the radical right has copied these strategies....
Listen to Dr. Steven Hassan: MAGA is a Cult

Dr. Bandy Lee: A Duty to Warn

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:158
Psychiatrist Dr. Bandy Lee discusses Trump’s mental state, and the danger he poses to the country....
Listen to Dr. Bandy Lee: A Duty to Warn

Tristan Snell: Trump’s Legal Strategy

Burn the Boats | S:1 E:157
Tristan, who prosecuted Trump as the Assistant Attorney General of New York, talks about Trump’s legal strategy, our current judicial system, and ...
Listen to Tristan Snell: Trump’s Legal Strategy