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David Pepper: The Impact of Corrupt State Houses

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David Pepper: The Impact of Corrupt State Houses

David Pepper is an author and the former Chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. In his new book, Laboratories of Autocracy, David argues that the greatest threat to American Democracy is not the alt-right, January 6th, or even Donald Trump, but rather, the corrupt politicians in state houses across the country.

You can find David on Twitter @DavidPepper

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Burn the Boats. Before we start this episode, I have two asks of our listeners. First of all, you have listen to the entire interview. It takes an almost unbelievable turn towards the end. Turns out David Pepper is one of the few Americans who knew, and worked with, Vladimir Putin before he became President of Russia. David offers fascinating insights into the man now responsible for the devastation in Ukraine, and also into the ways in which decades of systemic corruption can produce such a tyrant.

My second ask — if you haven’t already, please write a short review of Burn the Boats on iTunes. We’ve built an incredible audience, and I’m proud of this team and what we’re doing. The best way to share this show with even more people is through reviews. They really do make all the difference. Thanks for listening.

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

My guest today is the former Chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, David Pepper. In his new book, Laboratories of Autocracy, David argues that the greatest threat to American Democracy is not the Alt-Right, January 6th, or even Donald Trump, but rather, the corrupt politicians in state houses across the country.

The first time we spoke, David, I remember it vividly because I was standing outside Yours Truly Restaurant, and it was the immediate wake of the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I called you up. You were chair of the Ohio Democratic Party at the time, and I said, "I want to run for Congress. I can't abide what is happening in our country, and I want to do something about it." You, more or less said to me, "Go for it."

What strikes me about that moment, and the reason it relates to Laboratories of Autocracy is that I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but you did. You've been there before. You have seen this shift in Ohio. Why is it still important to run candidates in these suicide mission races? My district voted for Donald Trump by 30 points, yet as chair of the ODP, you had candidates in every county in Ohio running as Democrats.

David Pepper:

I appreciate the question and again, I appreciate that you ran. It was just a patriotic effort and it is for everyone who runs. In the heart of the district, the more patriotic and courageous it is, and I think we often lose sight of that when we think about who's running for what.

My whole book is about that we all need to re-understand the battle. We're in American politics as not just a battle cycle for cycle, for a certain number of election seats, we're in a battle for democracy itself. That's what's happening. That's what's at stake, and we're blind to it in too many places. That battle is a congressional battle, but it's also a statehouse battle more than anywhere else.

The reason it's so important that we run in every district is if all you care about is winning the majority of the next federal election, then you don't care if you leave out tons of districts, because you're trying to win a few swing seats. But once you realize you're in a long term battle for democracy, where it's a long game, it's a long build, the way Stacey Abrams understood it in Georgia as a long game, then you realize what a catastrophe it is when you leave huge parts of your states without candidates. Either without them at all, or they're so underfunded that no one knows they're running.

Because that means you have people in office who feel completely unaccountable, like we've seen our Ohio statehouse every day, or people like your opponent, Bob Gibbs, which means they don't reflect their districts at all because they can never lose. It means whole swaths of our states never hear the democratic message, only the other side's message. It also means the entire swaths of states like Ohio are completely tuned out from levels of government they need to care about, like the statehouse.

By the way, we also know we have lower turnout when we have fewer competitive elections. The long term damage done to democracy from leaving all these places uncontested is enormous, but we don't see it as that bad because too often, those fighting for the pro-democracy side, they don't see that as their battle. They see it as a battle for the next cycle.

My goal in the book and as chair was, we got to recruit and run everywhere, and we also have to, and I hope you felt this when you were running, at least for me, we need to treat running itself as public service. Not just if you win, but running itself is such an important part of our democracy that we need to do a lot more to help people as they run, and if they don't win, to keep them in the ball game in whatever way they are, like you still are. Yeah, big picture, we've got to run everywhere. If you look at the reasons why we're struggling in so many places, it's because we never run there.

Ken Harbaugh:

You refer to this as a long game. Can you give us some insight into how the Republicans have been playing this game? How 20 years ago they set the stage, how strategists like Karl Rove envisioned the moment we're in now. Can you talk about the bunker and its role in setting Ohio on this path?

David Pepper:

Sure. The other side and it's sort of a conglomeration of groups like the Koch brothers and the ALEC, which is the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Republican Party. They have seen this as a long battle against democracy. Because they realize that if you had a robust democracy, many of the things, or most of the things they're pushing would actually not do well.

This is why Mitch McConnell is so eager to keep Rick Scott's agenda from being announced, because he knows it's not popular. Their game is, we want to really win every statehouse we can because it's statehouses that are the places that define our democracy. They set the rules of elections, they draw districts like we're seeing right now. They have this long game mentality. They invest towards that long game. They don't only invest in the presidential race or swing Senate races, they invest to make sure they have a locked-in Ohio Statehouse in their hands; Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, you name it. They invest accordingly to that long game.

Again, the other side, our side, we haven't seen it that way. We invest in short game strategies. How do we win the next cycle? How do we win enough swing districts to win a majority? Then we leave all the other districts out. You know this as well as I would, with one side playing a long game, or they're investing more broadly in everywhere, and the other side's playing a short game where they only invest in a few swing districts, who's going to win?

My book is all about what their long game really looks like and trying to inspire people, not just to be depressing about how bad it is, but to say they've been doing it for a generation, they've learned a lot and are making progress. So, we're late to the game, but we can still compete, we just have to have a much more long game mindset and to understand the stakes and to understand where the battle really is.

The battle is in districts like you ran in, it's not only in a few swing districts. It's not only your battle, but it was a battle of every statehouse and State Senate candidate within your district. That for the most part, would've gotten blown out of the water, because we don't have the infrastructure on our side to help them.

Ken Harbaugh:

Talk about the nature of these Republican numerical advantages in statehouses. We'll use Ohio as the case in point. You describe that advantage as locked in, but can you compare that to the proportions of the statewide vote that Republicans get? It's roughly what, 55-45 now?

David Pepper:


Ken Harbaugh:

How is that reflected in the representatives that are sent to Columbus?

David Pepper:

It's not reflective. This is true, not just of Ohio. My book tries to use a lot of my Ohio experience, but I get into other states too, because this is a pattern, way beyond Ohio. Although, we're sort of a canary in the coal mines since we were a blue state only 12 years ago and they've rigged us red. Basically, they guaranteed themselves a super majority when Karl Rove won those seats in '10 and they gerrymandered in '11.

In 2018, 50% of Ohioans voted for a Republican, 49% voted for a Democrat for the statehouse. The outcome still was a super majority Republican state house. In Wisconsin, just as an example, the most extreme, Democrats out-polled Republicans on election day by nine points for the statehouse. That still led to, I think a 63-36 Republican supermajority. They've come up with a system that Orban and Hungary would admire. That even when the majority votes the other way, they still get to keep power and it's not even close. But here's the other thing they've done, that's even worse than just flipping what the voters actually want. They've also figured out, and this is the fight right now in the Ohio statehouse, they have figured out how to make it so that 61 or 62 of those seats that they basically are guaranteed, aren't even close.

When you ask about the nature of it, the nature of the current state house, the most easy summary I can provide of this current Ohio statehouse is almost to a person, not a single one of those office holders has ever been in a real election. To a person, they've almost never been in a real democracy. The average margin of victory of those 62 seats is through the roof, blowouts. 17 average 50 points or more blowout, meaning they won 75-25 or better. The next 21, I think are 30%, the next 12 are 20%, meaning 50 of the seats out of their 62 average, a 20% margin of victory in the next 12% or 10% margin of victory. We're talking about a generation because of term limits. We have an entire generation of office holders in that statehouse who essentially have never been in a democracy. Once you see that, then you realize why they behaved in such a warped way. Most of the things that we presume create good incentives in a robust democracy. You want public outcomes that voters like, then they reelect you and you want to lift results in education and healthcare. You don't want to be corrupt because then you wouldn't get reelected, et cetera, et cetera. Almost all the incentives that we think lead to good behavior in a robust democracy are the opposite in a system where you never worry about losing, and all you care about are the special interests that are in your state capital.

The reason why Ohio's public outcomes are such a disaster in the last decade, whether you measure it by healthcare or economy or poverty or public schools plummeting, it's because we have a set of people who've essentially not been a democratic system, and the incentives that they are eager to serve are the opposite of what we expect in public service. That's their nature. It's a generation of people who have not been in real elections. The one thing they know, and they're smarter to know this, although a lot of them aren't very impressive, they know that a real democracy would mean a lot of them would lose their office, because they've done so many bad things in office, they could never survive a real election.

If you had ran against Bob Gibbs straight up, you would've won by 10 or 20 points, and that's true of a lot of these folks, they would lose and they know it. That's why they cling so much to the system of gerrymander districts.

Ken Harbaugh:

I am sure there are a lot of people listening, who- Not a lot. Some people listening who say, "Well, they're still getting elected. If they're getting elected by 20 and 30 point margins, how is that violative of democracy?" Can you talk about the anonymity of the statehouse rep and how these elections really aren't as reflective of the public will as they seem?

David Pepper:

No one knows who these... Again, in those blowout districts I describe, 50 for a decade averaging 20 or more, it's like an election isn't even happening in many of them. In many cases, there is not an election. Now, in '18, when you ran, we were proud that we ran in every district, but that's rare all around this country. You have huge numbers of districts that because they look so impossible, most people aren't willing to give up what you did, and your family did to run. It's a big thing to ask someone to run for offices you know. It's essentially a reappointment. They're winning like Saddam, Hussein won. They're winning 100 to zero. Larry Householder indicted... Let's say that correctly so I don't get in trouble.

Ken Harbaugh:

Soon to be, let's hope.

David Pepper:

... indicted for the largest bribery scandal in the history of Ohio, got reelected after that with 77% of the vote because he only faced right-in candidates. These are essentially people who are reappointed, for the most part. They don't worry at all about the election.

I give an example in my book, by the way, and I spend a lot of time in the more rural parts of Ohio. My wife's from a very small town in a very red county, and I'm there all the time. I love it out there. The shape of those towns is so sad. They're being run down by trickle down economics and lack of investment, and tax giveaways they never see. There was a group of people in one of these towns, it's right on the river called Manchester, Ohio, about 2000 people. If you walk the street with me, you'd be horrified. It looks like another country. Half the buildings are empty, broken glass. The people of that town, this will answer your question about the "election" of these people: The people of that town were so distressed that they called... The ones who even knew, and by the way, statehouse and state senators are the least known of any politicians in politics. People don't know who these people are. They don't know what they do. They don't know what the statehouse does. Well, these people figured it out and they called their state senator and they said, "Senator, our town is collapsing. Look at us. It's terrible. What are we going to do about it?"The state Senator who had voted for all the policies that had hurt this town, didn't say, "I'm sorry, we're not doing better." Or, "Here's the plan." He said to them, "Sometimes you just have to move." Now, that is a world without democracy, when the elected official doesn't get fired for his failures, but actually, he's so confident that he'll never be challenged in his elected job, he tells them to leave. That's the story of Ohio. It's not real elections, it's not a democratic system when you are guaranteed a 50 point victory and often you don't even face an opponent, and where most people don't know who you are anyway, and don't know what you do. That's why I would argue, and I put this in the book, these statehouses are essentially the Achilles heel of American governance. A lot of power over our lives, over democracy. No one knows anything about them.

You've traveled the world, Ken. I think we can all agree that anywhere in the world where you have huge power, but almost no understanding of the people about that power or who they are, that's a very dangerous disconnect, and it leads to very weak governance.

Ken Harbaugh:

We've talked about how that disconnect leads to a coterie of selfish, safe politicians. We haven't really talked about corruption though. What happens what we are entering in Ohio, what is a second generation of completely accountable politicians? What happens to the soul of that democracy? What happens to the public's faith in governance?

David Pepper:

Well, basically, what we've seen in Ohio is truly a meltdown, in the sense of the rule of law here. I don't just mean the egregious bribery and scandals that have involved everything in Ohio, from payday lending, which led to one speaker resigning under an FBI investigation. A for-profit online school scam that led to another FBI investigation, or the largest bribery scandal in our history, which led to another speaker resigning that I mentioned. There's a broader corruption and corrosion that's even beyond those egregious examples. That is the broader MO of these statehouses, where no one back home knows what you're doing and can't get rid of you if they wanted to. But certain interests are in Columbus lobbying every day for their private interests. It's a broader corruption of a massive transfer of public assets and public resources from the public to the private.

That's a deeper level of corruption, where the legislators in these statehouses are, as I said before, they have no incentive to serve the public good because it doesn't matter to their reelection, but they have a strong incentive to keep these private players happy because that money does matter to whether or not they advance.

The broader corruption is the fact that massive amounts of money... The public schools in Ohio are a perfect example, there have been hundreds of millions of dollars funneled over to for profit online and other schools over decades. The people getting that money have become the largest or among the largest donors to the political class in Ohio. Those schools have been disasters of education and all the while local school districts are having to lose money every time those schools open up and every time they pull a student out of that public school. In the last 15 years, our public school system in Ohio went from fifth in the country to the mid-20s.

There's the corruption of just outright bribery that we are seeing, and Ohio was named the number one state in the country a couple of years ago by USA Today when it came to corruption. But there's a broader corruption of the public sphere that is driving outcomes just straight down hill. As I write about it, you and I, and many of us, especially those of us who grew up here, went away, went overseas, we all brag about Ohio because the Ohio we grew up in, we were so proud of. All these great things about Ohio.

You know this, I think, I was named most likely to be president of the Cincinnati Board of Tourism in law school. I just kept bragging. We're still that great state with great things and great people, but the outcomes are not great. They're squandering the assets because of this deep, deep corruption of the public process. I believe, until we fix the broken democracy of states like Ohio, we will not see better outcomes.

Ken Harbaugh:

How did we get here? I'm asking the tactical question. You have alluded to this long game Republican project that started before Democrats were even aware of what was going on. What are the tools being employed? You speak to a couple of them; purging, voter suppression, these things. Give us the playbook.

David Pepper:

A generation ago, the Koch brothers and groups like ALEC made a play for statehouses. This was '70s and '80s. It was helter skelter. It wasn't that effective. When it really exploded was after Obama won, because what they saw was that the Obama coalition... They gerrymandered Ohio in 2001. But the Obama coalition showed up in '08 in states like Ohio in a way that scared the hell out of them. Not just because Obama became president, but because the Obama coalition, the way it showed up, Democrats won the Ohio statehouse. We had 10 of 18 congressional seats. They realized if that Obama coalition stays strong, it wasn't just a risk to their power in the federal government, it was a risk to their hold on states all across this country, and states, again, are a place where they get a lot more done than Congress.

So Karl Rove, unlike us, he wasn't just sitting around moping while we were celebrating, he planned a very effective strategy to take back states in 10, on not a huge budget, and beginning in '11 through intense gerrymandering, but, through a whole lot of other things, voter suppression, attacking organized labor, purging the voters, voter ID in some states, getting rid of early vote, they specifically targeted the voters of the Obama coalition and the ways that they voted as fiercely as they could over a decade, so that, that coalition could never again, knock them out of power.

Now, maybe that coalition got Obama re-elected in '12, but as Kathleen Clyde, a good friend of ours told me, she was a state rep through all this and is running again, they were as upset to lose the statehouse, because they don't think just about federal elections. They were as upset about losing the statehouse in '08, as they were about the White House, because that's really the heart of their power. Their goal was, and this is true all over; Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, you name it, and it worked, Wisconsin. It was ‘This coalition is a threat long term to our power and states. So, we are going to take all sorts of steps; rigging elections, voter suppression of all sorts, targeting the specific way the other side votes, and we're going to not let that coalition rise again.’

That worked for most of the decade. It did rise again to elect Biden. Of course, now they're going after it again through new sets of laws like drop boxes and other things. But it really was about keeping that Obama coalition from dominating politics after Obama won.

Ken Harbaugh:

I imagine as chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, you heard stories all the time, from voters who were being disenfranchised. I bet you still hear them. I do. Can you personalize this for us, can you share with us a story from a voter who has been denied the right to have their voice heard at the ballot?

David Pepper:

Sure. It's funny, on a mass scale, the individual voters get so lost. I'm glad you asked this question, but we literally would hear anecdotally on election day, from all sorts of voters, who'd say, "Hey, I showed up and they said I wasn't registered. I voted every year at this same place for decades." We would hear that and you'd look into it, and you'd try and get them to vote provisionally. These are people who would not have been purged because they didn't vote or they hadn't moved, obviously, they hadn't passed away, but they also had been voting. You thought, okay, there was an error somewhere, and you tried to help them.

You would hear that every couple of years. Then in '18, and I go through this in the book or in '19, it was Frank LaRose, our horrific secretary of state, and he's as bad as it gets. He is now equal to Ken Blackwell in his disdain for voters. He released a list of people to be purged in advance, so that groups like the League of Women Voters could go through that list and alert people that they needed to get themselves off that list.

It turns out, when he released that list of 240,000 people that were going to be purged in coming weeks, 20% of the people were on that list in pure error by the government. They had voted, they hadn't moved, they hadn't passed away. All these county boards and the secretary of state's office, in sharing the lists of who to be purged, they all made screw ups. 20%, tens of thousands of voters were literally on that list in complete error by the government. No fault of their own. Over 10 years, you project that out, that's hundreds of thousands of voters like the individual stories I mentioned.

We asked Frank LaRose, "My God, that is a massive error. That's an outcome changing error all over the state. If you had that number of driver's licenses being knocked out by error, you'd have a crisis. Please, Frank, stop the purging until you can fix the mistake." He just kept right on going. Now, the people who were on the list in error that we found, we obviously took off the list, but of course he moved forward on the purge, and a month later, we found more people who were purged in error.

The point is, those individual voters who would call up a county chair, or a voting rights protection person and say, "I was knocked off the rolls." They were all right, and we learned that the sheer volume of the error was astronomical. I don't believe that it's ever been corrected, and my guess is, the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands of people that ultimately were purged over a decade at no fault of their own. Showing up and being told, "Sorry, we know you voted all your whole life, but you're not registered."

Ken Harbaugh:

Going into the upcoming elections, '22 and '24, what are the greatest systemic threats or tactical threats? What is happening to that individual voter, be it purging or restrictions on access to drop boxes, what should we be most worried about?

David Pepper:

The current round of election rigging in statehouses, like we're seeing in Ohio, that fight continues. Number one is, if they've rigged almost every legislative election, I hate to say it, in the end, that determines the outcome before voters even show up. One is, keep fighting that, and we're fighting that as hard as we can in Ohio. We were thrilled that our Ohio Supreme Court, just yesterday, struck down, for the fourth time, an effort to rig Ohio's maps.

But secondly, the voter ID situation continues, and the purging continues in states like Georgia, Ohio, continuing to fight that, which means also constantly registering voters. Then, number three, they know, and this is why they're going after these things, they know that Joe Biden voters and black voters disproportionately voted early and often with drop boxes. They're making it harder in every way. The laws that were changed in Texas, we already see, had a big impact in leading to the balance being tossed out, the numbers are coming back, and they're huge numbers. They're outcome determinative, again.

Drop boxes were a place that led to huge amounts of votes. People wanted to vote safely in the pandemic. The mail slowed down. People used drop boxes. It's funny, when drop boxes were in place in Salt Lake City, in Anchorage, Alaska over the last five years, no one cared. But when black voters showed up in big numbers in Atlanta and Detroit to vote for drop boxes, all of a sudden, they got to get rid of them, because those people voted disproportionally for Biden and he's president now.

They're going after, just like 10 years ago, they figured out how people were voting for Obama there, made it more difficult. Now, they figured how people voted for Biden and other Democrats, they're making that more difficult. It's a combination, again, of the rigging of elections, of that suppression. But then obviously, and I go through this in the book, late last decade, they also started to attack the outcomes of elections. They started to strip power from officials that threatened them. Be governors, attorneys general, Supreme Court justices. Now, that's also accelerating. This isn't only because of '20 in the big lie, that's a false narrative. This is all an extension of even before that stuff.

But what we are seeing now is an attack on election outcomes and the election process. Donald Trump himself says it, what matters most is who counts the votes? Which is, I think, a Stalin esque quote. Or I can't remember, maybe another authoritarian.

Ken Harbaugh:

No, it is Stalin. He said, "I don't care who votes and how, I care who counts the votes and how."

David Pepper:

Correct. My guess is Putin told Trump that, at some point, half joking. But he got it from somewhere and he's not a broad reader. The attack on the election process is also deeply alarming. Just so we put it all together, because I think in our country, we separate the stuff out too much, the attack on history in teaching it, the censorship, the book banning, the attacks on legitimate protest, those are all part of the spectrum of attacking democracy. They're not isolated.

If we saw another country with all these things happening, we'd say, "My God, they're getting rid of their democracy." It's the voting stuff, it's the gerrymandering. But the attacks on legitimate protests by who they consider the opposition, the banning of books that make their policies look bad, especially compared to historic moments where we had deep issues, like what led to Jim Crow. All of it is exploding. Again, that's why I wrote the book, because I feel like too many people, because we have a federal mindset, we don't see the breadth of the attack on democracy that is exploding in state after state. You and I see it in Ohio. Good people in Tennessee see Tennessee, they see it in Florida, they see it in Indiana. I get calls every day from these places saying, "My God, it's happening here too." But I think as a nation, we are still not fully awake to just how broad and deep this attack on democracy is.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you worry about people giving up? I guess this is a philosophical question and you don't really go into it in the book, but how many election cycles where your vote is either not counted or not relevant, because you're in such a gerrymandered district, how many cycles have to go by before people are like, "You know what, this democracy isn't doing it for me. I'm going to figure out another way to participate in civic life in my community."

David Pepper:

I wrote the book at the risk of demoralizing people because the first two thirds goes through some pretty tough news. But I actually still am a... Even if people don't see it yet, the reason why this country is rallying around Zelinsky and he's clearly very respected right now. The brief love affair some had for Putin, he's down to very low single digits in our country. Because we still believe in democracy, and I think when we see the battle for what it is, I still believe we'll fight for it.

I think that people are demoralized. I think the Senate didn't help when they didn't pass voting rights, by the way, because I think that people need to see the fight from those who care about democracy. But I think the same reason that Obama won in ' 8 and Biden came through in '20, in a terrible pandemic and people still voted, I think as long as we are able to communicate the stakes of all this, that I still think there's time.

That other side has a big head start and they've tried to keep it quiet, but I think there is still time. But I don't think we'll succeed unless we see the battle for what it is and start battling that long game. We went to the same law school, I was blessed to be in the same year as Stacy Abrams, and I think about her fight in Georgia. If she had given up after one or two federal cycles in red, Georgia, that would've been it, that would've been like 2010. But she knew it was a fight that was a long game, and she saw progress every two and four years in registering more voters, inspiring more voters.

She ran for governor '18 and came up short in a very tainted election. She didn't quit, she kept fighting. She even said in '18 after the election was over, "We made progress." Now, most people probably thought because of thinking short term, well you lost, what are you talking about? Well, she knew that they had registered more voters and many more had voted. We saw her progress in '20.

I actually think, once you adjust to the long game and you understand it's a long game like John Lewis did or women's suffrage did, I think it's a morale boost. Because you can see the fight for what it is. You can see victories even in tough federal cycles where often you don't see victories, and you can see progress, and once you see progress, you keep building on it.

We've lived this, Ken, in Ohio. We had some years where we weren't thrilled with our results, but through those years, we also started winning Ohio Supreme Court seats. Even in '20 when Biden lost Ohio by eight, we won our big Supreme Court race by 10. What happened yesterday? For the fourth time in several months, our new balanced Supreme Court struck down an attempt to gerrymander our state.

We had a long game and that's why even when Biden didn't win Ohio, he didn't really try to win Ohio, to be honest. I was pretty happy the day after the election. Why? Because my long game strategy was win Supreme Court seats. We won three in two years, and all of a sudden we have a chance to end gerrymandering. I think once you see it as a long game, I think it actually, in a strange way, gives you more energy, as opposed to a short federal cycle game where you're either celebrating in total victory or total loss, which I think makes it actually harder to keep going.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm glad you talk about and write about Stacey Abrams. She is the exemplar for this kind of long game, deep faith in democracy. On the other hand, we are reminded far too often in Ohio, that the levers of power are held by people who don't really care about public will. Can you share for us the do something story after the Dayton Massacre?

David Pepper:

Oh yeah. Terrible. One of the incentives that I talk about that gets warped in this world without democracy is if you're running in a real competitive district, you generally do well by doing things that are popular, and you don't do well by doing things that are unpopular. But in a warped world without democracy, the popular item doesn't matter. You can push really unpopular things and get reelected.

In fact, in some districts, you do better being an extremist, which is generally unpopular, because it means you don't have a primary in your next primary. There's no sadder example of that than what happened in Dayton, Ohio. We had this shooting where in 30 seconds, a 24 year old, he got 41 rounds off, killed nine people, injured 17. You'll remember this really inspiring moment amid the tragedy was when Governor DeWine was trying to speak to this crowd and he was offering your typical thoughts and prayers speech. The crowd wouldn't have any of it. They literally interrupted him and started chanting, and this was in Dayton, right by where the shooting happened. They started chanting, "Do something, do something, do something." You couldn't even hear him speak.

It really became an issue in Ohio, do something. DeWine knew it. So, he went back to Columbus and he said, "I have been moved by the people of Dayton. I will do something." Of course, we all know that crowd meant, do something to make us safer. Well, DeWine put forward a couple anemic fo-reforms that didn't even get a hearing in our rigged statehouse. Two years later, in the last few months, he signed both a Stand Your Ground bill, and, the other day. Permitless Carry, which we know from the data where this has happened, that only leads to more violence. By the way, the bills for gun reform; universal background checks, others that Democrats put forward are supported by 90% of Ohioans. They're hugely popular.

Having permitless guns everywhere is unpopular. But it goes back to, if you want to solve the gun situation and have common sense gun reforms, you can't do it until you get democracy back in states. Because what happened to Mike DeWine? He ran into his statehouse that doesn't care about issues that are popular, like real common sense gun laws. He ran to a statehouse whose mission is to ram through unpopular bills, to do the bidding of the NRA in Ohio. One of the other lessons in my book is statewide officials get run over by these unaccountable statehouses.

Dewine's got a primary coming up, these things keep passing the statehouse. If he doesn't sign it, he'll think he'll lose. All of a sudden, someone who promised to do something two years ago does the exact opposite now. There's something to me, extra sickening that he took a phrase that was expressed by mourning folk of Dayton. By the way, I know some of the folks involved with this. He literally promised the son of one of the victims at the funeral of that victim, that he would do something, to his face. Two years later, having appropriated the do something term, he does this. It's terrible for him, I think the total lack of courage for Mike DeWine, which we've all come to expect, sadly. But it also speaks to the truly institutional dysfunction where these statehouses, this is all over the country, push through laws that only 10% of their voters support and won't even hold hearings for laws that 90% of the voters support.

Again, why does the NRA go to statehouses? Because that's the only place in America where politicians can get away with pushing deeply unpopular laws and rejecting hugely popular laws. But yeah, the Dayton, do something story and I go through it in my book, it just says so much about how broken, and the impact that brokenness has on lives. DeWine just signed a bill he knows will lead to people dying. That's just clearly what happens, and he did it because the statehouse is out of control, because he is in the backbone facing a primary, to do the right thing that he promised to do.

Ken Harbaugh:

When it comes to how politics intersects with our daily lives, it's the statehouses, it's the governor's mansion where the rubber really hits the road. What do you make of the clown show of our national politics of the Boeberts and the Cawthorns, and the Marjorie Taylor Greenes who get infinitely more attention than the statehouse. Is that just a clown show distraction?

David Pepper:

It's not a distraction. It's worrisome because they couldn't be in the majority. But the one thing I'd say about the national coverage of those, it's like a cartoon show of villains. I worry that we don't see that there are hundreds of people just like them in statehouses, not just talking or doing selfie videos or tweeting, but they're actually in the majority passing laws, attacking democracy.

They're bad, and they give us an insight as to how... If you saw, what's her name, Marjorie Taylor Greene's video yesterday about Ukraine and Russia, awful stuff. What Putin would want people to say here. In a way, it's helpful because at least people can see these people for what they are. But what should scare people more is the fact that there are people just like them who are speakers of houses, and committee chairs in states like Ohio, not just talking, but actually in the majority, passing laws.

Those laws are right now, doing more damage than Lauren Boebert's doing. Too often, no one sees that or no one focuses on it, or no one spends any money. I'm sure the woman or man running against Marjorie Taylor Greene is going to raise a lot of money, and that's great, But we need to be raising as much money and supporting as much the people running against the people who are just like Marjorie Taylor Greene in Ohio and other states who are actually passing horrific laws. Those people too, often get lost.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, David, I am glad that you are sending up this flare. It's a great book, Laboratories of Autocracy. Unrelated question, in doing the guest prep for this, I learned that you were in Saint Petersburg working for CSIS before law school. You didn't happen to overlap in time with Putin and his tenure as deputy mayor there did you?

David Pepper:

I did. My guess is I'm actually, and I don't want to scare your listeners, I probably spent as much time with Putin before he became famous as an American than anyone could have. He was not only the deputy mayor when I was there, he was the liaison to a project... My project was trying to bring technical assistance to Saint Petersburg, which was viewed as the most Western minded city. A lot of American and European businesses were going to Saint Petersburg. My project was... This was when Clinton and Yeltsin were getting along. I actually really enjoyed my time in Russia. My project was trying to help bring different forms of technical assistance to Saint Petersburg. The project was chaired by the mayor of Saint Petersburg, who was a wonderful guy. He was a democrat, small D. People thought he'd be the next president. It was chaired on the American side, by the way, by Henry Kissinger. It was a very high profile thing. Putin was the liaison in my project. I would literally meet with him when we got to Saint Petersburg and we'd walk through, okay, what are the meetings that we're having for the next several weeks? Then he'd be at a number of those meetings. He'd sometimes chair the meetings if the mayor wasn't available. Then at the end of the week, we'd walk through it again. I actually had a lot of interaction with him.

I'll just say, I was shocked when, five, six years later, he's named prime minister of the country, right before Yeltsin stepped down, it was clear he'd be president. I say shocked because, I actually really had a lot of respect for some of the Russian leaders like that mayor and some of the others. They were interesting, dedicated to democracy, wanting to change, were Western minded. I wouldn't say Putin, he wasn't the opposite of that, he just didn't express any of that, and he was very quiet and very gruff. He was clearly the guy who made the trains run on time for this mayor. But he was not the charismatic figure, and he's who we see now. He'd sit there and he'd do these long... The same appearances we see now on video is what I saw, long, very monotone, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah”, versus other Russians who would stand up and give these very inspiring toasts about what we were all going to do together. So when he was picked, this is going to sound odd, but I always thought it's kind of weird that this guy's the vice mayor, all these other people are a lot more impressive. When he was named prime minister, obviously I was stunned. I remember that.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I take it from that, you didn't have a sense from meeting him of how vast his political ambition was.

David Pepper:

Not at all. His boss was the one, Mayor Sobchak, he was one of the authors of the Russian constitution. Mayor Sobchak was viewed as one of the most obvious people to be president of the country in a few years. You didn't even think about Putin that way. By the way, we did know he was a former spy. That was something we knew. A little story on Putin to show you, because I'm a believer that every time Trump met with him, they were gathering more compromise in the way that those meetings were conducted. I saw this myself, in a weird way. When I would meet with Putin for several years, and I knew some Russian enough to be conversant around the city, ride the subway, et cetera. He never spoke any English in any meeting, but a couple of years in, you might have experienced this in your time working overseas, a couple of years into these meetings, at one point, the interpreter, and by the way, our table was not nearly as long as his tables now, but they had a little length through them. But the interpreter made a mistake, clearly translating a word he had said into English, and he immediately corrected her in English.

David Pepper:

It was a complicated enough word that you were like, wait a second, this guy speaks English, and he speaks enough English that he corrected a complicated word. I've always thought about that, as I saw Trump go to Helsinki and kick the translator out or rip up the notes, that Putin, like in that little meeting, where he had no reason to be hiding his English to us, we were literally like a cooperative project. He clearly, every meeting, was just owning Donald Trump. Everything Trump would say at those meetings without an interpreter, I guarantee, was being written down, recorded, so that Trump, in the next meeting, knew whatever I said there... Remember when he announced that joint, what's it called, digital security thing? Who knows what Trump would say in these private meetings? Well, the Russians knew, Putin knew, and my guess is every single meeting was one other iteration of leverage against Trump because of what he would say and do, not even thinking about how much savvier Putin was than he was in these meetings. I saw that when after two years of never speaking English, he piped up and translated a word in English. I think Trump was a useful idiot, like nobody else, when he was president in those meetings with Putin.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, David, this has been beyond fascinating. We'd love to have you back. Thank you so much.

David Pepper:

Thanks. Great to be with you guys.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was David Pepper. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidPepper

And make sure to check out his book, Laboratories of Autocracy. 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 at @Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to

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.

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