Commentary

Ohio voters who care about democracy must challenge Statehouse autocracy

Gerrymandering and lack of accountability have inflicted ‘tyranny of the minority’ in Buckeye State

November 9, 2021 12:20 am

The Ohio Statehouse. Photo by Jake Zuckerman.

“Once you accept that you have undemocratic statehouses attacking democracy every week and all you do is play defense on some of those attacks, you have literally set yourself up for guaranteed failure.” David Pepper, former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, has an urgent message for every pro-democracy Ohioan: Go on the offense with your state rep and senator. Now. Find out whose team he or she is on — yours or the gun lobbyists, anti-abortion crusaders, ratepayer-robbing utilities, anti-trans bullies or right-wing operatives scaring the bejesus out of school parents with a fake crisis framed as leftist indoctrination to shame white kids.

Those who side with “the tyranny of the minority” in the Ohio General Assembly are easy to spot. They’re the ones voting for radical bills like enacting a total ban on abortion or waiving a license requirement for packing heat. Statehouse lawmakers pandering to extremists aren’t tackling real-life constituent problems (e.g. livable wages, affordable housing, health care, day care). They’re posturing as would-be autocrats with a ton of power to enact unpopular policy and inflame ridiculous “culture wars” that make life hell for the rest of us.

David Pepper, official photo.

In “Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-up Call from Behind the Lines,” Pepper is clanging the alarm about Ohio’s descent into extremism and corruption. He is desperate for you to hear what he has to say, “because the clock is ticking, and the next two election cycles are key.” He wants you to be freaked out over the autocratic trajectory we’re on with our far-right legislature as it openly engineers a voter-proof lock on minority rule. It’s a scary trend being replicated in statehouses across the country. Radical right politicians are passing laws widely opposed by a majority of voters — and almost no one knows about it. 

Works for statehouse autocrats seeding the transformation from democracy to total dominion. 

Pepper wrote “Laboratories of Autocracy” to shake up voters in Ohio and other states held hostage to partisan legislatures and to spell out what we stand to lose if we keep putting our heads in the sand. To be blunt: Politicians calling the shots on statewide policy — that affect everything from our quality of life and communities to fair elections — have decided they don’t need public input or consent to govern. The flourishing statehouse autocracies have largely escaped the attention of most people distracted by the 24/7 drumbeat of national politics, the mindless circus on Capitol Hill, the parade of Trump toadies prostrating themselves before the seditionist. 

Pepper ruefully admits he feels a bit like Paul Revere racing to warn citizens that their democracy is under assault on the state level and time is running out to rescue representative government. He deftly weaves an insider’s account of Ohio politics with a play by play of great power being wielded with great anonymity. The mix invites misconduct. State politicians, flying under the public radar, know they can conduct the people’s business without scruples or shame — or consequence.

“The fact that [former Ohio House Speaker] Larry Householder gets re-elected amid the worst [statehouse] corruption scandal in Ohio history,” shows what happens when even a disgraced leader, at the heart of an explosive bribery and racketeering scheme, isn’t challenged in his own district, noted Pepper. No choice at the polls is a massive gift to notorious politicians happy to evade a robust debate about their record.  No one ran against Householder except for write-in candidates and the indicted kingpin skated to victory. 

Unconstrained Ohio lawmakers, with no fear of being held accountable for creating chaos in lieu of public service, become more brazen. More extreme. “There are hundreds of people just like Marjorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert and others in statehouses,” Pepper said. “They don’t have to lead insurrections because they’re literally in the majority and guaranteed to be there and passing laws every day to crush democracy. In that way, they’re more dangerous than those congresspeople who were plotting the insurrection because these folks are enacting extreme bills that directly impact self-government.” 

Laboratories of Autocracy by David Pepper.

“Yet, because they’re in the statehouse” Pepper added, “their undemocratic actions feel legitimate to people. They are anything but. The monstrosity of Ohio’s gerrymandering process, playing out in front of us, is not legitimate at all. Republican lawmakers are not following the Ohio Constitution. They’re not following Ohio Sunshine laws. They are violating all of it. But because they’re ‘elected officials,’ it leaves the impression on citizens, who aren’t following the details, that somehow the flagrant attacks on democracy are legitimate — when by any definition of a functioning, healthy democracy, they are not.” 

“Ohio Republicans are clinging to power in violation of the law,” the longtime state pol stressed. “Once you’ve crossed that line, you’re going to keep doing it. I don’t expect anything of Matt Huffman [Ohio Senate President] but more rigging of elections. That’s all he’s done. It’s all he knows. He is daring the Ohio Supreme Court to toss his gerrymandered maps out saying, ‘Stand up to us. We are violating the Constitution. We are doing it egregiously. Knock the chip off our shoulder.’”

Maybe their comeuppance will come in court. And maybe we, the ill-served people of Ohio, will finally go on the offense with those who have gone unchallenged in their gerrymandered districts. But there’s not a moment to waste. “Laboratories of Autocracy” is beyond disturbing in scope and impossible to put down. It is an indispensable guide for those who are ready to act, to join the long game in the battle for democracy. As Pepper counsels, “The way you lose is you don’t pay attention, or you give up.”

The biggest threat to representative government is stateside. Push. Back. Now. 

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Marilou Johanek
Marilou Johanek

Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.

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