BTL: State Legislatures Are Ground Zero on the Attack of Democracy

Interview with David Pepper, Blue Ohio co-founder, attorney and former chairman of the Ohio Democratic party, conducted by Scott Harris

As the House Committee investigating Donald Trump’s failed Jan. 6 coup attempt continues to gather new evidence of the former president’s culpability in a multi-pronged attack on democracy, less attention has been focused on the Republican Party’s assault on democracy in state legislatures nationwide. As the November midterm election approaches, state GOP legislators have passed new voter suppression laws, imposed extreme partisan gerrymandered district maps and nominated candidates for governor and secretary of state who vow to overturn election results that Republicans lose.

This frontal assault on state level democratic institutions is fueled by Trump’s “Big Lie,” where he falsely claims massive fraud in the 2020 election robbed him of victory.  According to a New York Times investigation, 357 sitting state Republican legislators — 44 percent of the Republican lawmakers in 9 states where the 2020 presidential election was closest — have used the power of their office to discredit or try to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with David Pepper, former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party and author of the book, Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call From Behind The Lines.  Here, he assesses the Republican party’s assault on democratic institutions in state legislatures and his current effort to reverse the Democratic party’s inadequate response.

DAVID PEPPER: My worry is what we in America think about democracy and politics is about people. And one of the major points in my book is the attack on democracy is happening separate and began before Trump was even president. And if he’s locked up tomorrow for whatever, he just got searched for, the attack on democracy will continue.

So we have this bad habit of sort of tying it to him when it began before him. And it will last long past him. So basically what we have is because no one knows what happens in state houses and they happen to be very powerful, especially when they can control voting rules, election rules, drawing of districts, as well as issues, everything from, you know, banning books to Roe v Wade.I mean, these states have a lot of power. Most people don’t know it, that the far right has basically chosen — and Jane Mayer in the New Yorker wrote about this the other day in a way that they echoed a lot of my book — that they have chosen as their place to go to undermine democracy, state houses, because for a number of reasons, that’s where you can get it done most effectively.

Once you realize that we’re not in a battle over elections and swing states, but a battle for democracy itself, that’s when you really see, oh my gosh, that’s a long battle. We have to prepare accordingly. We have to fight at every level.

~David Pepper

You know, you saw in Kansas Roe V. Wade is popular. Women want to have a right to choose. And so do men want them to have that even in Kansas. So there’s a side of politics right now that’s in the minority. They know it. They’re the ones who want crazy gun laws, no choice for women, no exceptions. They know that if they were to run an election on a fair basis like that Kansas referendum, they know they would lose.

And so in order to avoid those defeats, they are using statehouses with gerrymandered districts where there’s no accountability, to actually ram through really unpopular laws. You know, just as an example, Ohio. Any poll will tell you that in Ohio, 60 percent plus of Ohioians would support Roe v. Wade, same in Texas, clearly same in Kansas. So rather than accepting defeat, what they’re doing in a lot of states is trying to lock in minority rule through statehouses. And sadly for a generation they’ve been very successful. And so my call to arms in my book — The first title is Laboratories of Autocracy, which is describing how these statehouses are operating. But the subtitle is “A wake-up call from behind the lines.” It’s me saying, “Listen, everybody I’m from Ohio, which is thought of as a moderate state. It’s not acting moderate anymore because they’ve rigged it and put in power extremists.”

In addition to fighting for U.S. Senate seats and the presidency, we have to fight back at the statehouse level or they will continue to do what they’re doing all over this country. We’re not really. Democrats are not engaging at this level. We don’t think it’s important. We think everything’s about the federal government.

But the other side sees that actually they can get most of their agenda done through these undemocratic statehouses. And that’s what they’re doing. And so the book is really trying to be a wakeup call for people to see that and get to work helping win, not just at the swing state level for Senate races, but actually down at the statehouse level where so much of this is happening.

Too many Democrats are still thinking it’s the old political battle where, “OK, let’s say what we’re for and go win you know, a few Senate seats in the swing states. And if we win that we’ll win.”

And once you realize what their battle is, which is much deeper and everywhere, not just swing states, if all we do is fight for a few Senate seats, we are always on defense and they are always on offense in the states where so much is controlled and we’re on the losing side long-term.

We have not shifted our overall investment and building and prioritizing in a way that reflects a very different battle we need to be waging. … That has to change.

~David Pepper

SCOTT HARRIS: David, you’ve had an urgent message for the Democratic party writ large across the country that they need to stop focusing on swing states in swing districts, but they actually need to have a 50-state strategy. They need to focus on statehouses, state legislators, state senators. They need to focus on governorships and secretaries of state. What has been the response to your message?

DAVID PEPPER: Just to be clear, I wanna win those swing seats. I mean, we and Tim Ryan here in Ohio could beat JD Vance, but we can’t stop there. And that’s the problem. We basically, that’s all we see as valuable and important.

The response generally you know, I am good friends with the head of the DNC, Jaime Harrison. He was the South Carolina party chair. He gets this, but what has to happen is we can’t just say, “Oh yeah, that’s what we have to do.”

It’s gotta be reflected in how money is invested and how sort of the infrastructure is built. Once you realize that we’re not in a battle over elections and swing states, but a battle for democracy itself, that’s when you really see, oh my gosh, that’s a long battle. We have to prepare accordingly. We have to fight at every level. We can’t just get excited the last two months of a cycle and then put it all away until the next cycle starts. That’s not how you win a long battle for democracy.

So, you know, one example of someone who’s done this very well is Stacey Abrams. She saw it was a long battle for Georgia. She just kept going and going and going. That’s how we need to think about it. So the response, I think from a lot of people would be, “Oh, we understand it, but we have not in the way that Republicans and the Koch brothers have. We have not shifted our overall investment and building and prioritizing in a way that reflects a very different battle we need to be waging.

And my worry is until we start to do that, which involves taking some percentage of the money you spend the presidential year and divide it up all four years and spend in all 50 state — things like that, that the Koch brothers started doing a long time ago. The Democrats just haven’t really done yet. That has to change.

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