Former Ohio Democratic Party head David Pepper has witnessed Republicans’ weaponization of statehouses firsthand and is determined to give Democrats a way to fight back—before it’s too late.

October 20, 2021, Chris Smith

If you think Washington is broken, David Pepper is here to tell you things are worse in Columbus. And Tallahassee. And Atlanta. And Austin. Pepper, a recent chairman of the Ohio state Democratic Party, has a new book out this week, Laboratories of Autocracy. The title plays off a phrase coined by U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who called the states—optimistically—America’s laboratories of democracy.

Pepper’s take is considerably darker. He describes not simply old-fashioned corruption in state legislatures, but a decades-long campaign, orchestrated by Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and the Republican Party, to use them to subvert democracy. The strategy is now paying off in everything from rigged election districts to voter suppression to anti-abortion vigilantes. But Pepper’s alarming book also includes smart ideas for fighting back. He spoke to Vanity Fair about both problems and solutions while visiting the Ohio birthplace of President Ulysses S. Grant, just south of his own Cincinnati hometown.

Vanity Fair: Your book opens with a bizarre scene: the miles-long traffic jam of voters trying to reach the single drop box location for one of Ohio’s largest counties in October 2020, a mess worsened by the Republican secretary of state. Was this the spark to write the book?

David Pepper: One of the sparks. Every few weeks we all react to a crazy new law in some state, like voting restrictions in Texas. There’s a lawsuit or a boycott—and then we go back to debating something else that’s happening in Washington. People never stop and think, ‘Why does this keep happening in the states? Is anyone going to actually do something?’ The problem is you say the word ‘statehouse’ and people immediately go to sleep. But they are an Achilles heel of American governance: easily corruptible, unknown to most people, and with a lot of power to do damage.

The book describes many of the bad outcomes in Ohio—in public education, the environment, jobs. But politically, spotting that weakness was a kind of evil genius.

Karl Rove was the one who, in 2009 when the Republican Party was truly down and out, targeted the statehouses. He did what I wish Democrats had done, which is to pay attention to the levers of power that draw election districts, like the state auditor’s office in Ohio. The incredible result of Rove’s plan is that we’re entering the second generation of state legislators who have never known real democracy. Because of gerrymandering, they’ve never faced a competitive general election. My guess is Rove was far more successful than even he anticipated.

As you write, he’s had a lot of help along the way, from the Koch brothers and ALEC, among others.

Major groups figured out that state government is a weakness they can nationalize, they can weaponize.

Accumulating money and holding onto power are eternal motivators in business and politics, but you also see racism driving state legislatures to the right, especially after Barack Obama’s win in 2008.

I think it’s a huge factor. I think the different motives are dovetailing into one another. You see it with the critical race theory debate. It’s clear there’s big money behind arcane stuff. They are learning there is real potency to the strain of white supremacy that is threatened by Obama’s election or by Biden winning in Georgia with a very energized African American electorate, and it is bridging with economic interests.

In describing efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election by pressuring states to invalidate their vote counts, you say, “Give Trump credit.” Was it hard to write that sentence?

I hate to say it, but one thing about Trump, he has a good read on suckers. And who he can bully. In that case he understood that those unknown people, state officials and legislators he was flying into the White House, were the ones who can change the outcome. If they’d played that card sooner it might have worked, and that’s pretty scary.

Lately there’s been chatter on the right about a “national divorce”—that is, an inevitable, desirable splintering of the union into red and blue countries. Given what you’ve seen of the anti-democratic drift of multiple state legislatures, is that a serious risk?

I think the biggest mistake we’ve repeatedly made is to not take right-wing talk seriously. The fact that CPAC is going to Hungary next year for its conference, and Tucker Carlson is interviewing Orban—you should be worried about that! They’re not faking! They act on what they say, again and again, to keep power. Everyone in Congress, when voting on things like the bills this week, should keep those statements in mind. And when I hear the thinking, “Oh, well, if we act aggressively on voting rights, we’ll get nothing else done”—that’s the kind of thinking that led to Jim Crow. We have a small window where Democrats have the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress. Not to get the John Lewis voting rights act passed would be a historic mistake. The filibuster cannot stand in the way.

Ohio will have a say in whether the Democrats have any window next year—Republican Rob Portman is retiring, so there’s an open U.S. Senate seat. Tim Ryan is the likely Democratic nominee. Who do you think will be his Republican opponent?

Josh Mandel is clearly the favorite, and he enters with a massive advantage in name ID, in that he’s run statewide twice—winning for state treasurer in 2010 and losing to Sherrod Brown for Senate in 2012. He can’t be outflanked on the right, and Trump is going to love Mandel. Which would open up an opportunity for Ryan, because Mandel is so far out there.

Your book closes with 30 ideas for “resistance” and for “reclaiming democracy.” They’re savvy and idealistic. But isn’t the best hope that Democrats become as devious as Republicans, only for a good cause?

Gerrymandering anywhere is going to invite problems. One of the key points in the book is wherever we’re in charge, we need to lead on democracy. Virginia is a great example—they’ve expanded voting access. Washington and Oregon have really opened up early voting. Colorado has drop boxes everywhere. That all sets a standard. The history of our country shows that the side that’s permanently on offense will win. We don’t have a lot of time to wake up.

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