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Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper’s future may be in doubt after rough losses, chaotic campaign

November 9, 2018

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper’s future may be in doubt after rough losses, chaotic campaign

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper’s position may be in jeopardy after a second straight election of underperformance, including a chaotic coordinated campaign between the party and statewide candidates, sources said.

Party insiders with knowledge of the Ohio Democratic Party’s interactions with several statewide campaigns described poor financial decisions, petty squabbles over basic party functions and an inability by Pepper to rein in staff.

Coupled with Republicans sweeping the constitutional offices during Tuesday’s midterm election, the revelations point to an uncertain future for Pepper, who recently started his second term as chairman.

Pepper said he hadn’t thought about his future with the party.

“My focus is not on myself, but on reaching out to and thanking our wonderful candidates, both those who won and lost, and the countless other people who left it all on the field in a tough state,” Pepper said in a statement. “I serve at the pleasure of our executive committee, and I welcome their feedback, as well as the feedback of our stakeholders, about how we can build a stronger Ohio Democratic Party at a critical moment for our country and state.”

None of the insiders blamed Pepper directly for the problems, but did say he was responsible for not holding staffers accountable. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation openly.

An Ohio campaign strategist with intimate knowledge of statewide candidates and ODP operations said Pepper was a fundamentally good and likable chairman, but allowed a culture of ineptitude.

“David Pepper is a good man who works really hard,” the strategist said. “That did not stop the Ohio Democratic Party from being ineffective throughout the cycle and detrimental to the success of campaigns.”

The strategist, along with two other Democratic operatives with knowledge of statewide campaigns and a source close to the coordinated campaign, described incidents that paint a picture of a party that was needlessly difficult to work with, inefficient and often a burden to the campaigns as they were trying to win difficult races.

None of them said the party caused Democrats’ losses Tuesday night. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown was the only high-profile Democrat to win, with former federal consumer watchdog Richard Cordray and the rest of the statewide executive slate falling short.

But they felt the lack of awareness by Pepper and the party could hinder future candidates’ chances at success.

“I think they often got out in front of campaigns and didn’t understand that Rich Cordray and Sherrod Brown should’ve been leading the party’s efforts and not David Pepper,” one source said. “The biggest disagreements with multiple campaigns is how money was spent.”

The party disputed the incidents laid out by the sources. Spokeswoman Kirsten Alvanitakis said ODP was one of the best-run Democratic parties in the state.

“Some of the issues of disagreement that emerge during such coordinated efforts are inherent because of a strategic disconnect between what individual campaigns want -- short-term victories -- and what state parties are focused on -- an entire ticket up and down the ballot, compliance, and building a brand and a bench that sustains over the long term,” Alvanitakis said in a statement. “Unfortunately in the past, state parties have been treated like ATMs and pass-throughs for individual officeholders, and that is part of the reason why the progressive infrastructure of parties has been steadily weakened over time.”

Money squabbles

The sources detailed numerous accounts of the state party not being able to keep track of money. In one instance, a box was found in a closet at ODP headquarters in Columbus with $25,000 in checks that had not been deposited, sources said.

Another time, a box with more than 20 cell phones was discovered. None of the cell phones were in use and nobody was assigned the phones, but ODP was paying the bills to keep the lines active, sources said.

Campaigns also had to regularly battle with the party to receive financial support for specific programs from the state candidate fund – a pool of money overseen by the party.

“There were constant arguments about supporting campaigns,” one source said. “The idea that you have to argue about that to just get basic things done feels like a huge problem.”

Much of the criticism centered on the party’s interaction with the coordinated campaign, a joint operation between ODP and Democratic campaigns around the state. Each provides staff, funds and other necessities for operating the campaign, which is mostly focused on voter mobilization.

The coordinated campaign was co-managed by ODP and the Brown and Cordray campaigns, though other campaigns also provided input. While coordinated campaign staff are technically ODP employees, they are overseen by a director agreed upon by the co-managers.

The sources felt the coordinated campaign was an overall success, but faced numerous obstacles from the party over basic functions.

They said most of the problems involved money, which Alvanitakis denied.

“The fact is that the Ohio Democratic Party is one of the strongest and most professionally run state parties in the country, and our team members are the experts in election law compliance,” she said in a statement. “State campaign finance law is frustratingly complex, and even veteran campaigners often don’t understand it, let alone unnamed sources or folks who are on the ground here for months as opposed to years.”

The party lost contribution checks from down-ballot candidates meant for coordinated campaign operations, the sources said.

The coordinated campaign would hold weekly check-ins to measure a number of metrics – most importantly, money. For three months the party’s tabulation of how much they contributed to the campaign was off by hundreds of thousands of dollars, three sources said.

The director found out about the discrepancy after combing through receipts and contribution logs, three sources said.

That money was an issue is striking. For the most part, Democratic candidates outraised their Republican counterparts this cycle.

Brown raised enough money to dole out $300,000 to the state party and maximum contributions of $12,707 to each of the candidates for Ohio’s five executive offices, even while facing re-election.

Riding the bus

Several moves caused friction between the campaigns and the party, the insiders said. After strategy for the coordinated campaign had been agreed upon, senior level ODP staffers would circumvent the coordinated campaign director, instructing employees to do something different, three sources said.

A particular sore spot was the ODP’s statewide bus tour.

The 35-day tour was an earned media play to get coverage in smaller towns. The party emblazoned a charter bus with the candidates’ names on the back and “People First” on the side. Candidates would sometimes join the tour to stump.

To some extent, the tour was successful. Numerous small-town newspapers featured front-page articles about it.

“A few campaigns didn’t agree with that strategy, but most embraced it enthusiastically, as did our grassroots and county leaders,” Alvanitakis said. “Looking at Tuesday’s results, it’s obvious we needed even more investment and resources going toward outreach outside our urban areas, not less.”

But the insiders questioned how helpful the tour was to the campaigns.

“Nobody wanted the (expletive) bus,” one of the sources said. “There is no major cry for this thing. It’s something they wanted to do to show that they were getting out there and running in every county. I don’t know how much it cost, but I’m sure some smart person could’ve found a better way to spend that money.”

The tour kicked off during crunch time of the election, eating into volunteers’ door-knocking time.

“It became the kind of thing where the coordinated campaign was having to actively tell the party to not have the bus come because they were trying to get people out on the doors and do what they do, and it was just a total distraction,” one source said.

A coming change?

Disorder aside, the insiders had universally kind things to say about Pepper. They viewed him as fundamentally good, but not able to control some on his staff who caused the most headaches.

“I actually believe that David’s heart and mind and energy are in the right place,” one source said. “I think he just has a complete disconnect with accountability for his staff and that his staff don’t express the same energy or focus that he does.”

The Brown and Cordray campaigns released a joint statement saying they were proud of the work they did with the party, but did not dispute any of the individual claims.

“Our coordinated campaign was full of hardworking people who put in a strong effort to win,” the campaigns said. “Both our campaigns were proud of how well we worked with the other statewide campaigns and with all our Democratic partners across the state, including the Ohio Democratic Party.”

Democrats from around the state, including members of the Democratic Party’s executive committee, told cleveland.com they would not be surprised by a change in leadership.

Nobody who spoke with cleveland.com said Pepper’s departure was imminent, but some said he should step down. Many of the Democrats said they hoped Brown would chart a new course for the party given he’s the only statewide Democrat who has proved he can win a high-profile office consistently. 

Pepper, 47, is a former Cincinnati city councilman who ran unsuccessfully for auditor in 2010 and attorney general in 2014. He lost the auditor’s race to Dave Yost and the attorney general’s race to Mike DeWine, both of whom won high-profile statewide races on Tuesday for attorney general and governor, respectively.

The Ohio Democratic Party’s executive committee elected Pepper as its chairman over Sharon Neuhardt, Brown’s preferred candidate, shortly after the 2014 election. Pepper succeeded Chris Redfern, who was forced out after similar back-to-back disastrous defeats in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections.

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