Democratic Chair writes political thrillers to share insights
By Mike Boyer
After the 2010 and 2014 election debacles that saw Ohio Democrats badly beaten by Republicans, Cincinnatian David Pepper took on the unenviable job of trying to revive the state’s Democratic Party.
“I guess, in a way, I run to problems,” says Pepper who in June is expected to be re-elected to another four-year term as party chair.
His decision to take on the state party role mirrored his entry into politics 18 years ago running for Cincinnati City Council.
Pepper, who turned 47 this month, has a resume more akin to that of an international lawyer, which he once aspired to be, than a politician.
Son of former P&G and Disney chairman John Pepper, a Phi Beta Kappa and a Yale Law School graduate, Pepper worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. while spending much of his time in Russia. In 1999 after a decade away he returned to his hometown to clerk for Judge Nathaniel Jones at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“When I ran for Cincinnati City Council in 2001 I hadn’t spent years of my life thinking about politics. I was totally new to politics. I ran because we had real issues in the city,” he says pointing to the businesses leaving the city, tense police-community relations and extensive bickering on council.
“Nothing seemed to be working,” says Pepper who finished first among 26 city council candidates.
After two terms on city council and a failed bid for mayor he was elected to the Hamilton County Commission in 2006 and served as commission president in 2009 and 2010.
“The irony is I think my reputation as a city council member and county commissioner was that I wasn’t all that partisan. I worked across party lines as much as I could. But after the 2014 meltdown, and it’s fair to say that’s what it was, I honestly thought, ‘We’re not going to have a chance to compete even though I think we have some great, talented Democratic officer holders out there unless we build a robust party.’”
Pepper sees his role as more about fostering good candidates than partisan politics.
“We will do everything we can to win in 2020, like we did in 2016, but our view was the real measure of a party is what are you doing every single year to recruit, train, elect and support good public servants,” he says. “I grew up with dad who would have told you the core of his job was leadership development when he leading Procter & Gamble. The irony is the core of my job is leadership development.”
When he’s not traveling the state on party business, though, Pepper, who was managing editor of the Yale Daily News and worked at community newspapers in Cincinnati while in college, has scratched an itch as the author of two political thrillers.
The first, The People’s House, about a Russian oligarch’s plot to capture the House of Representatives, came out in 2016 before the first indictments in the Mueller probe. Because it foreshadowed much of today’s news it has gotten a lot of national media attention fueled by a favorable review in the Wall Street Journal. Pepper recently published a second novel The Wingman, about the influence of dark money on politics.
One of Pepper’s friends at Yale was former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, who’s written several spy novels.
“He was writing about Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, where he was a war reporter. It made me think: ‘Well, I know politics. That could be the basis of stories that are interesting and also realistic.’”
In the books Pepper shares what he sees as problems in U.S. politics today without being partisan. The main character in The People’s House is a moderate Republican and the gerrymandering is in favor of Democrats.
He says his goal “was to show how a combination of gerrymandering, relatively weak election security and total partisan paralysis could create vulnerabilities in our political system.”
He hopes the books can bridge some of the current political divisions.
“Even though my day job is chairman of the party, when I sit with a book club and approach conversation through that I’ve had great meetings. I met with 20 women in [heavily Republican] Green Township, a year ago but you wouldn’t know it. We talked about the book, the characters, and then we were talking about politics and how broken it is. If you approach issues in the right way you can make headway.”
Pepper admits it took awhile to find the right voice for his books.
“I had never done creative writing in my life. I’ve been a lawyer and in journalism. I know how to write. But fiction is totally different.”
Pepper borrowed from his personal experiences in the telling of the stories.
The Russian character in The People’s House doesn’t reveal he speaks English until late in the story, something that happened to Pepper when he dealt with a then up-and-coming local official, Vladimir Putin, when he worked in St. Petersburg, Russia.
His main character, political reporter Jack Sharpe, also has to think on his feet when he’s kidnapped, something that briefly happened to Pepper when he was on city council.
“If you can capture the emotion of lived experience that’s when you get compelling writing,” he says.
Pepper, who lost statewide races for Ohio Auditor in 2010 and Attorney General in 2014, won’t rule out running for office again some day.
He and his wife, Alana, have two young sons, and for now he says he plans to continue to balance the dual roles of party chair and novelist. “Clearly, I’m someone who likes to multi-task,” he says.
His political duties won’t give him time to write until after the November election, but Pepper says he has a number of issues for his protagonist Jack Sharpe to face.
”The truth is every day I have a book idea.”