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Editors' Picks Interviews

An Interview with David Pepper, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman

David Pepper ’93 is currently the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. He has written two novels—The People’s House (2016) and The Wingman (2018)—the first of which centered around a Russian plot to influence a congressional election and was hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “sleeper candidate for political thriller of the year.”

The Politic: Your books have been hailed as remarkably prescient, from the direct parallels to the Russian influence in elections to more broad comparisons to things like media polarization and even the #MeToo movement. How do you respond when people characterize you as a kind of political prophet, and did you expect your books to have that kind of an impact?

David Pepper: I did not write the books trying to predict anything. That wasn’t my goal. But my goal was to, as best as I could, be as realistic in describing problems in our system and to think through, sort of somewhat realistically—although there is some drama in both books that is beyond what you’d expect—what some of the real problems in politics could allow to happen, and how those real problems make us vulnerable.

I think in the exercise of trying to describe real-world problems in our political system, and what they might make us vulnerable to, in some way I almost put myself into the mind of people who want to do us harm, for example Vladimir Putin. As I looked at gerrymandered districts and voting machines, and in the second book dark money, I was thinking through, like any keen observer of our problems would, “What do those problems allow someone or some group to do?”

It has been odd that every few weeks there seems to be some new twist that’s similar to the book. It’s Cambridge Analytica, it’s Lukoil. That was never my goal, but as I look back and look at what I was doing, it doesn’t surprise me ,and it speaks to the fact that I was working so hard to be realistic about our vulnerabilities and how someone could take advantage of them.

The People’s House centers around a conspiracy to influence American elections through voting machines. You’ve spoken before about the weakness of America’s electoral infrastructure. How serious of an issue is it? Do you see any movement toward reform?

Not enough. Because I’m in politics I deal with this stuff to some degree, and we have folks in our legislature who are working hard on the Democratic side to really strengthen security. But I think we have left ourselves with a lot of vulnerabilities.

There was a rush to modernize after Bush v. Gore, but in that rush to modernize there clearly wasn’t enough protection built up, and all of a sudden if you have machines that are tied to the Internet and you don’t have paper ballots to back everything up or you don’t have people voting originally on paper ballots, it’s clear what experts have been saying for years: “This is not secure.”

I’m not saying that’s what happened in 2016, though my book describes that. There are a few places—Michigan had tens of thousands of undervotes for the presidential election. That is one of the bigger question marks about how that could have happened.

That aside, I haven’t seen anyone show that machines were hacked, but I do believe that it’s a vulnerability, and I think every state should make sure that there’s a paper ballot involved. There should be much more auditing of paper ballots to make sure they square with machine counts. There is a lot of need for that, and hopefully the current conversation, because of Russia even trying to breach dozens of states, will help create movement toward that.

Someone told me after reading my book, and this was truly at the time I thought really cynical, they said, “David, the most unrealistic part of your book was actually the ending, where when they discover that there was something that was done they all come together to solve it.” And I said, “I can’t believe that, of course they would solve it!” Now this was obviously a long time ago, and the sad fact is, that person was right. My book has sort of a happy Washington ending where once they discover that the election was rigged they do something about it, and what’s so sad is that for the last year and a half, Congress hasn’t been able to find its way to do anything about any of these issues.

One of aspect of America’s voting system that you explored in detail in the book was how decentralized it is and how it’s mostly left up to state and local governments. There are a lot of state and local governments, like the ones that feature in The People’s House, that simply don’t have enough money to get new technology. What are your thoughts on that issue?

It really comes down to every county. Every election is a local function, like schools and policing. As the book describes, it’s not as if the election function is the most politically powerful interest that a country commissioner or whoever decides how to set the budget is trying to satisfy. The sheriff has a bigger megaphone, the prosecutor has a bigger megaphone, some local judge might be more powerful. The board of elections is not politically very hefty, so I do think that in a world of scarce funding, especially in small rural counties, you’re adding a financial pressure that, especially when those counties will play a role in presidential and congressional elections, creates a tension.

One of the challenges to doing the reforms we’re talking about is the expense. And unless state and federal governments are willing to spend real money, the local nature of elections will be one of the obstacles to actually coming up with the most secure system. So this can’t just be the local boards of elections coming up and saying, “We want more secure elections.” It has to be a state and federal governments saying, “Yes, it still is up to the local boards, but they need financial help if they’re going to be able to do any kind of rapid upgrading that people would be confident would actually help secure elections.”

One of the benefits of having it be local is that because it’s local, it is less hackable than if you had some central database nationally that one hack could screw up the whole system. So in some ways, being decentralized can also be helpful.

But I do think that because it is decentralized and most of the responsibility ends up being on small, underfunded counties, which are lucky in good times to even have enough jail space for people committing crimes, it is one of the last things in the pecking order when it comes to funding your budget.

Is there anything particular about the time you spent in Russia that you found useful in integrating the Russia aspect to your story?

That’s a great question. I did happen to be in St. Petersburg when Vladimir Putin was vice-mayor, and I did interact with him. I was working for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, and we were doing basically advisory work for the city on how to reform itself following the end of the Cold War, and I was interacting with Putin on a regular basis back when he was barely known.

One of the scenes in the book comes right out of that experience, the one where Kazyrov [the Russian oligarch who rigs an American election] is in the meeting with all of the lawyers and waits to speak English until the very end and they’re like, “Ah, he speaks English!” That happened with me and Putin. After about two years of meetings with Putin, he had never spoken English, and a translator messed up a word that he had said in Russian and he knew enough English to correct her. So we were like, “Oh, okay, he’s been hearing everything we’ve been saying for two years and we didn’t even know it.”

I would say, though, that I really enjoyed being in Russia, so I don’t like that we’re now in this situation between Russia and America that we’re in. When I was in Russia it was the heyday when Yeltsin and Clinton were getting along well and we were trying to provide help—probably more naively than we should have been.

One thing it did do for me that I think helped me write this book is that I was there enough that I started to see things through the Russian lens, and it made me think that way even when I was back in America. I kept thinking, “How do we look to others?” And I always have thought that we’re a country that has lectured the world for a long time about how great our democratic system is. And I’d sit in Russia and think that from a Russian standpoint, if they look at our system—as Kazyrov does—they would think it’s not as great as we’re telling them, particularly the gerrymandering. It’s this very anti-democratic system that allows you to lock in a majority even if the voters don’t agree with that majority and vote against it.

The whole Kazyrov character is a way to have someone else explaining and questioning a lot of our system in a way that I think is very natural but in a way that a lot of Americans, because they are so caught up in partisan politics, don’t see it for the deep problem that it is. In America, Citizens United and gerrymandering and other issues always get caught up in party politics—one side thinks it’s bad, the other doesn’t. But the view from another country, which is free from the partisan divide in America, looks at those issues as real dysfunctions that open up real vulnerabilities to our security.

We run around the world and do election protection, and we really tell people how to have a good system, and then we have these massive dysfunctional, anti-democratic aspects to our system that we casually ignore. So other countries rightfully look at our system and say, “You’re pretty screwed up too.” Our biggest weaknesses are more visible from elsewhere than in our own system because partisan blinders make these things seem less significant than they are.

You decided to make the main character of these stories a reporter for a struggling regional newspaper, which at the beginning of The People’s House has had to fire all its investigative reporters and its cartoonist. What do you think are some of the biggest issues facing the press today?

I was actually the managing editor of the Yale Daily News in 1992. Even though I never did journalism after I graduated, I’ve always thought about the world in some ways from a reporter’s eyes.

First of all, I love having the main character be a reporter because it’s a great way to discover a plot in a natural way. But I also, in hindsight especially given the current nonstop attack on “fake news,” am actually really glad now I made him a reporter since the press is now discovering pretty much every major thing about the Trump administration. So I love that my main character is a reporter who basically won’t drop a story.

I actually have been in the Youngstown Vindicator building multiple times; I know their political reporter, and he was one of the first people I sent the book to. When I called him up, he said to me, “David, there’s a part of your book that’s so unrealistic. We’re so understaffed now I could not even get on the road two hours south of here to cover a story. I’m so stuck covering everything that I don’t even have the bandwidth to do that.” So I said, “Okay, well, I need some dramatic license here but I see your point.”

But I really do worry that the slow bleeding of newspapers is cutting out anything but the most basic reporting, and having the time to dig into real stories is getting tougher and tougher. I know from my experience in government that getting into truly juicy, meaty stories that uncover real problems takes commitment and reporters who know what they’re doing. It takes years to develop the skills to be a true investigative reporter. But what do years mean? They mean you make more money, so you’re a more expensive employee, and if you have TV stations and newspapers who can’t afford anything but people in their early to mid-twenties who don’t make as much, when they make cuts they cut out the forty and fifty year olds. They’re getting rid of a lot of the people who actually have the experience to really dig into things that aren’t easy to find. So it is a problem.

If you want to find corruption in government, go to places with one party rule and no real newspaper. That’s where it happens. Because if it’s one party rule there’s no one else sitting around on the other side and being a check, and if there’s no newspaper no one’s digging in.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major papers, though they have their ups and downs, will always have an audience. But it’s these midsize papers that, if they don’t exist, no one’s going to cover those stories, and if they don’t exist, that’s when one of the most important checks disappears. In a place like Ohio you can see this play out. There are still robust midsize papers, but it’s a struggle. They are essential to providing a check on government especially when a lot of those towns have one party rule. That midsize paper with a reporter like Jack Sharpe who’s experienced enough to know how to really dig into stuff is very important.

How did you find the time to write these two books given your day job?

I basically started the first book sometime around 2011, so the first book took me years because at the time I was a lawyer and then I ran for office in 2014 and didn’t do a lot of writing then. So I would work on it for a while and then put it down because something came up, and then I went through a real spurt in 2014 and 2015. So that one was very gradual.

Very practically, I had a son born in May of 2014 and was married in May of 2013, so if my son at the time was napping at noon on a weekend I’d write for a couple hours, or I’d wake up at 6 and write a chapter or two before he woke up. It’s no way to write a book, you really should not be writing a book trying to squeeze it in between everything else, but for most people who aren’t professional writers that’s really what you’re stuck doing.

The second book I started writing when the first book was with an editor who was helping me think through how to finalize it, but that book was inspired when Chris Christie beat the hell out of Marco Rubio in the debate against Trump. As I watched that, I thought, “I think I have the plot of my next book.” And I started writing it within days. Now that was in the middle of a presidential election, so I didn’t have a lot of time to work on it. A whole chunk of the writing took place shortly after Trump won and into the early months into 2017 when there was sort of a lull as people were recovering from Trump’s election.

I have other book ideas, and I’ve actually started chapters for a couple, but at this point because we have a big election this year I don’t anticipate getting much done until after November when I have more time.

Where do you get your news?

This is going to sound terrible, but mostly Twitter. I literally just follow all the sites. I’ll pick up The New York Times and The Cincinnati Inquirer and The Columbus Dispatch. The party also sends me every morning at about 9:00 a.m. a summary of all the clips that are relevant as well. I’m on the road every day from Cincinnati to Columbus, so if I weren’t I’d rather read, but I’m always listening to Sirius MSNBC.

What place would you most like to visit that you haven’t already?

I’ve been lucky to have visited a whole lot of the world. I mean, I’ll try not to violate the question, but my favorite place in the world is Tuscany. I’ve visited a fair amount of it, but exploring the little corners of Tuscany is what I’d want to do.

If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

Trying to write books.

Which living person do you most admire?

I’d say my father.

What keeps you up at night?

The deep fear that Donald Trump will be president when my sons turn 11 and 9, and they’re 3 and 1 right now. And John Bolton.

What advice would you give to college students?

The number one piece of advice I would give is when you have a network of people you meet in school, keep up with them as well as you can. This is going to sound like I’m name-dropping, but when I was a junior at Yale, one of the top reporters the year below me was David Leonhardt. The best sports reporter was Theo Epstein. Ellen Barry was my news editor. Sam Power was a year above me.

People go on to do amazing things, and keeping up with the people you meet with, establishing friendships early is so important. So many people you’re interacting with, in 20 or 30 years, will do incredible things. The fuller life is to have kept up with people all the way through. When you’re lucky enough to be at a place of very talented people it’s easy to take it for granted.

What’s your favorite book?

Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson series. It’s pretty incredible.