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Charges fly in spirited AG race

Contrasting candidates DeWine, Pepper have little common ground.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has been in elected office for 34 of the past 38 years, starting out as Greene County prosecutor in 1977 back when his current political opponent David Pepper was a first grader.

Now making his seventh run for statewide office, DeWine has been on the statewide ballot more often than anyone else since Jim Rhodes ran statewide for the ninth time in 1986.

Meanwhile, Pepper, DeWine’s Democratic challenger for attorney general this fall, has run statewide once before, losing in 2010 to Dave Yost in the auditor’s race.

But Pepper says DeWine’s experience as a county prosecutor, Ohio state senator, U.S. House and Senate member, lieutenant governor and attorney general doesn’t translate into the right policies for Ohioans.

“This office should have a very broad agenda. The office can have an impact on just about every major issue in Ohio and it has an impact, if done right, on the citizens of Ohio in so many important ways,” Pepper said. “Right now, it’s just not happening.”

Pepper charges that DeWine ignores national issues such as holding the pharmaceutical industry responsible for over-marketing powerful pain killers, spends resources on personal political agendas such as limiting access to birth control and abortion and allows pay-to-play politics influence who gets state legal work.

DeWine pushes back on such criticism. He notes that filing amicus briefs in a handful of lawsuits across the country does not take up much time and his administration has filed some national cases when it was in the state’s interest. After our Columbus bureau last July documented campaign contributors receiving lucrative contracts through his office — a practice often referred to as pay to play — DeWine said he instituted changes to better document who receives contracts through his office.

The Ohio attorney general is in charge of the largest public interest law firm in the state with 445 attorneys and 1,274 other employees. The attorney general enforces consumer protection and Medicaid fraud laws, collects debts owed to the state, oversees the state crime labs and represents the state in court actions.

Although polls show Pepper trails DeWine by 19 to 28 percentage points, the race is spirited and feisty. Pepper is quick to criticize DeWine. For example, he notes that DeWine let his law license lapse for nearly 10 years while he was in the U.S. Senate.

“As far as I can tell his most relevant legal experience was back in the ’70s and early ’80s, which I think is why he keeps stumbling into cases that are all about politics and not much about law and he seems to lose almost all of them,” Pepper said.

DeWine paints Pepper as unprepared. “He has been a county commissioner and he has been on city council in Cincinnati. That’s a wonderful background. It is not a background to be attorney general. That’s not a criticism. It’s a statement,” DeWine said.

Mike DeWine

DeWine grew up in Greene County and worked in his family seed and feed business. In 1967, while still a student at Miami University, he married Frances Struewing, whom he met in first grade. By the time DeWine started law school at Ohio Northern University, the couple had two children.

Over the years, Fran and Mike built a large family — eight children and 20 grandchildren — and have become a highly visible team on the campaign trail, walking hand-in-hand on parade routes and hosting an annual ice cream social that draws thousands to the DeWine family home in Cedarville.

Though he has an extensive political resume, he often harkens back to his days as a local prosecutor to lend support for his policies today.

“That experience has shaped a lot of how I look at things,” he said. “That was true when I was in Congress as well. The experience of being a county prosecutor — every problem that you have in the county comes across your desk.”

As attorney general, DeWine has worked on reforming the foster care system, addressing the heroin crisis, offering mediation and training in open records laws, instituting law enforcement officer training to properly handle people with serious mental illnesses and reducing the turnaround time for results from the state crime labs.

DeWine said he is proud of the work he has done getting police departments across the state to submit their old, untested rape kit evidence to the AG’s crime labs for analysis. Nearly 5,000 of the 8,600 submitted so far have been tested and resulted in 210 criminal indictments, he said.

DeWine said he is committed to defending the Ohio Constitution and state laws, regardless of his personal beliefs, while Pepper has said he would substitute his wisdom for the people of the state based on his own views.

“I have my own opinions and I’m not reticent about telling people what they are,” DeWine said. “The job means you defend the statutes, you defend the constitution.”

When asked which job he likes more — attorney general or U.S. senator — DeWine said the advantage of running his own office is he doesn’t have to convince 59 senators, or even his own staff members, that he has a good idea; he just has to find a way to do it.

“I think we have been very innovative,” he said. “This has been a dynamic office. We’ve stepped in when it was clear there was a need for a solution.”

David Pepper

Pepper grew up as the second of four children born to John and Francie Pepper in Cincinnati. His father climbed the corporate ladder to eventually become chief executive of Proctor & Gamble.

Educated at Yale University for both undergraduate and law degrees, Pepper said his privileged upbringing led him to want to give back through public service.

After college, he worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and in Russia as an aide to former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. In what he called his “Forrest Gump” moments, he encountered international leaders such as Henry Kissinger and a young vice mayor in St. Petersburg named Vladimir Putin.

He returned to Yale for law school and then clerked for 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Nathaniel Jones in Cincinnati. Pepper has done commercial litigation at two major law firms and served on the Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County Commission.

His vision for the attorney general post is one of activism on major issues impacting middle class Ohioans.

“The attorney general has neglected so much of the other things that this office could do. His agenda seems to stop at public safety and mine would just start there,” he said.

Pepper wants to build a robust voting rights unit within the civil rights section, re-engage on consumer protection issues and be a more alert watchdog protecting veterans and seniors. He said he would work more closely with local governments rather than competing against them and he criticizes the DeWine administration for considering building a new crime lab in Southwest Ohio that would pull work away from the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab and the Hamilton County Coroner’s lab.

“It’s hard for me to understand why the attorney general is so intent on just growing his shop at the expense of others,” Pepper said.

Pepper also said he’ll install a system for picking outside counsel that removes politics and the appearance of pay-to-play, a phrase often used to describe handing out contracts to campaign contributors. “You have an attorney general who is literally rigging bids for his donors,” he alleged. “In many ways, that sentence frankly should define the whole race.”

A Dayton Daily News investigation published in July found that in doling out lucrative collections contracts, DeWine passed over more experienced debt collectors in favor of a friend’s new company. His campaign and the Ohio Republican Party received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from collectors as they sought work from the state.

DeWine said his administration listened to the criticism and has since instituted a “paper trail” to document who gets state legal work and why.

“It’s not going to change what we do,” he said. “It’s going to change what record there is of it.”

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