Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper discusses his history, the 2016 elections and the future of the Democratic Party

“Becoming the Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party is not something the day of the election in 2014 I would have even thought of. We were starting from scratch as a party after 2014,” Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper told the National Battlegrounds Class.

Mr. Pepper’s personal history is unique. “I grew up around the world,” he told the class. “We lived in Rome for a while, then Brussels.” Following that Mr. Pepper attended college and law school on the East Coast, and traveled to Russia. He said, “No matter where I went, I never stopped bragging about Cincinnati.”

Following the Cincinnati riots of 2001, Mr. Pepper sought an at-large seat on the Cincinnati City Council. In 2006, Mr. Pepper was elected as one of three county commissioners for Hamilton County. He also ran for State Auditor in 2010 and Attorney General in 2014.

Following statewide Democratic losses in 2014, Mr. Pepper was elected to Chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, where he embarked on an expansive listening tour of the state.

“I took three months and did town-hall meetings all over Ohio. I listened to feedback and turned frustration into enthusiasm,” Mr. Pepper told the class. From these town-halls, Mr.Pepper developed the Main Street initiative. This initiative seeks to elect Democrats at state and local levels of government, acknowledging that there is a disparity between presidential election and off-year election turnouts.

Regarding the 2016 Democratic U.S. Senate primary in Ohio netween PG Sittendeld and Ted Strickland, Mr. Pepper said, “This state is enormous. When you get elected to City Hall, build a great record of service. It takes a while, it takes years to get down. What I said to PG [Sittenfeld] was take some time and be patient. We have a process of endorsements.”

On the 2014 election when Ed FitzGerald lost to John Kasich in a landslide, Mr.Pepper said, “Short-term we need to do a better job of vetting our candidates. We need to build a farm team. Katie Clyde, Emelia Sykes, Nan Whalen, they are candidates to watch for the future.”

Though Mr. Pepper is a Super Delegate in the Democratic Primary, he has pledged to stay neutral until the convention.

“We want to be able to unite this party, we want both [the Clinton and Sanders] campaigns to feel they were treated fairly, so that’s why I haven’t pledged,” Mr. Pepper said. He also noted the enthusiasm for Senator Bernie Sanders among young people. “Win or lose this November, there will be a very active candidate for Congress someday who was once a Bernie Sanders grassroots supporter.”

On the Republican side, Mr. Pepper empathized with supporters of Donald Trump: “The political system is so broken that people want someone that’s not a politician.”


James Hardy, Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Akron, discusses his personal background, challenges facing the city and his experience as a student

“For me, my political involvement, it starts coming here to the University of Akron. I took this class 12 years ago. I got a tremendous amount out of the Campaign Battleground class. Having that hands-on experience really helped me figure out whether or not I wanted to get involved [in politics],” James Hardy, Chief of Staff to Mayor Dan Horrigan, told the National Battleground’s class.

As an undergraduate at the Bliss Institute, Mr. Hardy was involved with the College Democrats, a role that allowed him to join John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004.

After college, Mr. Hardy was elected to the Akron School Board in 2005 and became the board president in 2009. In 2006, he was the regional director for the Jennifer Brunner for Secretary of State Campaign. Following that campaign Mr. Hardy became the special assistant to the President at Kent State University, where he also earned a Master’s in Public Health. This lead to a brief stint at Summa Health Systems before he joined the Summit County Department of Health. Following Mayor Horrigan’s election last fall, Mr. Hardy was appointed Chief of Staff.

“I didn’t ask to be Chief of Staff right off the bat,” Mr. Hardy told the class. Instead, Mr. Hardy led the transition team between the Fusco Administration and the Horrigan Administration. Mr. Hardy said in politics and governing, “you have got to know someone is going to have your back and tell you the truth.” He felt he could provide this to Mayor Horrigan.

The most pressing issue facing the city is clearly the Combined Sewer Overflows, remnants of a turn-of-the-20th century engineering practice resulting in storm water overflowing into sewage drains during heavy storms. The remedy  is estimated to cost $1-$2 billion.

The consent decree mandated by a federal judge requires the city, and therefore its residents, to foot that cost. However, Mr. Hardy noted, “the EPA allows for an ‘integrated plan,’ where the consent decree can be forgone if the city can do it for cheaper and make it more environmentally friendly.”

Other issues facing the city include the disproportionately high infant mortality rates in zip codes 44320 and 44327. These zip codes also have disproportionately high rates of obesity and diabetes and a 10-year difference in life expectancy from other zip codes in the Akron area.

On the merger of Huntington Bank and First Merit, Bank Mr. Hardy said somewhat sarcastically, “that was fun, definitely a learning experience.” The merger was problematic for the city given FirstMerrit’s commitment to provide jobs in the city in exchange for renovation of the plaza in front of the FirstMerrit building. There were questions on whether Huntington Bank, a bank out of Columbus, would honor that agreement. For the time being, it appears Huntington will honor the agreement and could bring 200 jobs into Akron.


Has American politics always been uncivil? Bliss Institute students discuss if civility is possible

At the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, students and faculty often discuss the need for civility in politics, especially given the current election climate. Graduate student Emily Maher and undergraduate student Connor Shaw recently had a conversation with the Campaign Battleground blog about the increased sense of incivility in political discussion in the United States.

Why is open political discussion among peers important?

Maher: I think being around other people who don’t think like you helps you. It helps you avoid groupthink. I think it’s good to surround yourself with people who don’t agree with everything you say. It makes you more conscious of yourself and your beliefs.

Shaw: But there’s definitely a lot of blending together. Like Emily said, aborting the whole groupthink mentality. At the Bliss Institute, we spread ideas and have civil conversations. The professors also feel the same way. It’s not just the students. We’re all here to learn or to apply our knowledge. It kind of defeats the purpose of the Institute if you’re trying to push one specific way of thinking.

That’s definitely a huge thing. Whether it’s here or even outside of the Bliss Institute, you definitely hear when you’re outside with some people who can’t see past the lies and see past political parties, but there definitely is a level of respect for the opposition or the other way of thinking.

Has there always been incivility in American politics?

Maher: I think there’s always been incivility in politics. I think the internet has made it easier to be uncivil because a lot of the times you’re anonymous. It’s easier to write some things than actually come out and say it. This current campaign atmosphere reflects the growing concerns of incivility. It’s just becoming more acceptable to be loud and proud about being uncivil.

Shaw: Seeing these presidential campaigns, there’s a lot of incivility. That’s sometimes kind of frightening. It shouldn’t be normal. I don’t think I’d say it’s always been like that. I’d like to think that there are some areas that have some decency even though it is politics we’re talking about.

Maher: And I think the loudest opinion sometimes gets the most attention, and we’re seeing that. Think about the political sound bites in our culture and media right now.

Shaw: Absolutely. The smallest opinions are the loudest. It’s a really weird mentality. You have your silent majority and now you have the vocal minority that’s starting to guide the way through a lot of politics.

How can society shift away from uncivil political conversations?

Maher: It needs to be a conscious effort on everybody’s part. It definitely takes effort to be thoughtful about what you say.

Shaw: Because we both work in politics and study politics, I think we’re a lot more likely to do it and I think our generation – millennials – is also a lot more likely. I think we’ve both seen that a lot of our friends and peers are a lot more open to talking about sharing ideas and not being angry with each other’s views. But it would definitely need to be a conscious effort. I don’t think it’s something we could start an ad campaign and end overnight or over a weekend. It’s a work in progress.




Finding the common ground: Bliss Institute students discuss how the 24/7 news cycle and social media have polarized the electorate

This presidential election season has placed an emphasis on the increasing importance of how much media and social media influence and polarize the electorate. Students at the Bliss Institute often discuss the growing sense of incivility in American politics.  Graduate student Alex Pavloff and undergraduate student David Matheny recently had a conversation with the Campaign Battleground blog about the lack of finding the common ground in the political discussion.

Unlike what is commonly seen in the press and online, how do Bliss Institute students set aside their political differences?

Matheny: Even during discussions, we have a civil conversation about the issues or what have you and find a common ground.

Pavloff: There’s an element of professionalism as well. I see this also in the professional campaign world. People that do this for a living and people that are even on the level that David and I are on, we get it.

David and I, we study the political process. We worship it. We are always following it and always engaged, which I think allows us to tolerate other opinions. In an increasingly polarized electorate, we’ve got political science that for the past 20 years has been saying the electorate is becoming more polarized for a number of reasons. People that don’t have those opportunities that we’ve been exposed to, I think it’s very easy for them to default to the knee-jerk reactions, the instinctual political reactions of, “This candidate is good; this candidate is bad,” and, “Anything this website says is good; anything this website says is bad.”

How has the rise of social media and the 24/7 news cycle played a role in the increased polarization of political views in the country?

Pavloff: The primary political news source for millennials is Facebook. It’s very easy for an individual to shape their news feed into an echo chamber where you’re only seeing the information you want to see.

Matheny: The polarization has just been getting worse over the years for a number of reasons, and I think definitely the media plays a role in that heavily and social media is starting to play an even bigger role in it.

Pavloff: And if Donald Trump is the barometer of civility of politics…. Clearly, nationally we’re in trouble and there’s a number of factors.

Turns out people click on those Trump stories a lot. The media, much like the political process and the political institutions, are reactive bodies. They react to what the electorate wants to see and wants to hear and wants to read. And so if there is a problem with civility in politics, it is also a problem with the electorate.

How is it a problem with the electorate, and how do you try to overcome that problem yourselves?

Pavloff: So we’ve got political science which shows that even highly educated individuals – advanced degrees, masters, PhDs, law degrees, what have you – when presented with clear scientific evidence to the contrary of one of their own opinions, will disregard the evidence.

It is human nature, when presented with something that does not fit within our own cognitive paradigm, to throw it out. This does not fit with my beliefs; therefore, it must not be true. Can we fault the electorate for subscribing to their own human nature? Maybe, maybe not. Something I try to do is humanize the opposition. That’s important. People don’t do that enough.

Matheny: For me as far as trying to get people to have more civil conversations and whatnot, I do try to not ask derogatory questions or pointed questions that would stir the pot and make the discussion go sour. Even when other people do ask those types of questions, I try to rebut it with, “Why are you asking me that?” There’s a more important question we need to discuss here, the actual issue, and not why I believe what I believe and you believe what you believe. You need to always make sure you come back to the middle and find that common ground, what we so desperately need again in politics.




Speaker of the Ohio House Cliff Rosenberger on his history, governing and crafting policy in Ohio


 “I’d never in a million years thought I’d be elected to the house, let alone elected Speaker,” Speaker of the Ohio House Cliff Rosenberger told the Campaign Battlegrounds class.

At 35-years-old, Speaker Rosenberger is the third-youngest Speaker in the history of the Ohio House and is currently the youngest Speaker in the country. Having just returned from a trip to China with other Speakers from around the country, Ohio House Speaker Rosenberger put his career trajectory into context describing his humble political beginnings in Clarksville, Ohio, a town with a population of 450.

“My grandfather always told me, it’s important to give back to the community. He made me run a town parade in Clarksville, and I thought ‘How could anyone be against anything you do in a parade?”  he told the class. Speaker Rosenberger learned quickly that even innocent exercises in civic engagement like parades become a discussion of resource allocation.

Speaker Rosenberger spent 12 years in the Air National Guard, interned with Karl Rove in the Bush White House and graduated from Wright State University. He was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 2010, representing Wilmington, Hillsboro and Waverly in southern Ohio. He assumed the office of Speaker in 2015 having been unanimously elected.

“You, as Speaker, are not only the head of the party for the House, but you also become a father, a wedding counselor and a lot of other things. You don’t choose who you serve within the Legislature,” he told the class. “However, 65 to 70 percent of my time is spent doing things administratively.”

Speaker Rosenberger suggested consensus and coalition building were of particular importance to his governing style. “You can go out and fight like heck with somebody, but it’s important to sit down with people too,” he said.

On the question of legislative redistricting reform, the Speaker said, “I think [Issue 1] makes the districts fairer. You’ve got an angry electorate – part of the reason is people don’t see their representatives enough.”

On the eve of Gov. Kasich’s State of the State address, where he called for redistricting reform for congressional districts, Speaker Rosenberger told the class, “We are looking at congressional redistricting now. We were waiting for the Supreme Court to make a decision in the Arizona case, and they did. However, comparing state redistricting to federal redistricting is like comparing apples to oranges.”

Ohio House Speaker Rosenberger also noted the similarities and differences of Ohio’s regions.

“In Southeast Ohio, there is a lot of rural poverty. They have a lot of food deserts. For instance, there is no grocery store in Vinton County. In Southwest Ohio, there are infrastructure concerns. Upwards of 150,000 vehicles a day travel across the bridge between Ohio and Kentucky – so there are infrastructure concerns and national security concerns as well. Northeast Ohio has a strong labor tradition with both Democratic leaning and Republican leaning unions. In Northwest Ohio, you have a similar dynamic with labor, but there are also questions on renewable energy out there with the wind farms. Central Ohio, the Columbus area, is a growing and modernizing town. LGBT issues and acceptance are important to the citizens there,” Speaker Rosenberger said.

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Ohio Turnpike Executive Director Randy Cole discusses self-driven cars, infrastructure policy, and leaving a legacy of good governance


“Within the next decade, we’ll see self-driven trucking units – probably with detachable cargo modules – carrying goods around the country,” Ohio Turnpike Executive Director Randy Cole told the Campaign Battleground class. “The major auto-manufacturers have all pledged to have a self-driving option for every car rolling off the line from model year 2020 on. There will be cars produced in the next five years that are driverless.”

Mr. Cole’s self-described career goal is to “make government more efficient through technology.” Prior to his appointment to the turnpike, Mr. Cole ran his own consulting firm, GovTech Solutions, dedicated to bringing technological efficiencies to government. Following GovTech, Mr. Cole joined State Auditor Mary Taylor’s Office as the Director Audit Services & Technology.

His time at the Auditor’s Office lead to an appointment to the Controlling Board as its president, where Mr. Cole worked as part of a large team to help close an $8 billionstate deficit, create a $2 billion state surplus, and expand Medicaid in Ohio.

“This year, our Medicaid costs in Ohio are a billion dollars below projections. We’re working toward paying for value [of medical procedures] instead of paying fee-for-service,” Mr. Cole told the class. Mr. Cole’s perspectives on government efficiency and budget policy give him unparalleled insight into infrastructure policy.

“Last year, we set an all-time record in the United States for vehicle mileage traveled,” he said, responding to a question regarding the state of America’s roads and highways. “On the Ohio Turnpike, we have 53 million trips – amounting to 3 billion miles – traveled annually.”

Though some states are experimenting with a “Roade Usage Charge” or millage-based tax, Mr. Cole maintains there will be other avenues for funding. “Tolling is a big part of the answer. It has to be. Funding solutions in the future have to include tolling,” Mr. Cole said. Even so, Mr. Cole notes that Ohio maintains, “near the lowest tolls for passenger and commercial vehicles in the Midwest.”

To be successful in politics, Mr. Cole suggests students “have thick skin, short memories, and a very close group of friends.” However, he was quick to remind the class, “There’s a difference between governing and politicking. Real governance becomes your legacy.”

Students and others are encouraged to follow Mr. Cole on Twitter @CRandyCole.

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Ohio plays critical role in a most unusual campaign season

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The current brand of presidential politics has created a historic campaign season that has surprised political experts and the Washington establishment, Dr. John Green told an audience today at the 2016 Power Players Luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland.

“In my career, I’ve never seen a presidential nominating campaign like this one,” Green said at the event, presented by Smart Business magazine. Green is director of The Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron.

Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders have ridden a surprising wave of anger against so-called establishment candidates, Green said. “I didn’t see it coming either.”

Ohio’s March 15 primary was critical to both Gov. John Kasich and Hillary Clinton but for different reasons, he pointed out. Ohio’s governor had to carry his own state to continue in the GOP race, and Clinton had to regain the momentum she lost when Sanders beat her in Michigan on March 8.

“Kasich and Clinton came into Ohio with must wins,” Green said. “A week ago, Clinton was surprised in Michigan. The Clinton campaign had already begun looking forward to the campaign in the fall. That’s a mistake.”

“For both parties, if you carry Ohio, that bodes very well for the fall election,” he added.

Now, both the Republicans and Democrats can expect a protracted battle for their party’s respective nomination before the summer conventions.

The Republican establishment faces a critical decision, as it has to determine if it will support Trump, particularly if he comes to the GOP convention in Cleveland just short of the 1,237 delegates required for the nomination.

”The GOP leadership has yet to sort itself out,” Green said. The decision could lead to a contested convention that could damage the Republican Party.

“Donald Trump has the potential to scramble the usual electoral coalitions that we have in the United States,” Green added.

Among Green’s other observations on Trump:  

  • He is effective at using social media: “Donald Trump is a better Tweeter than any other candidate.”
  • He has an ability to overcome seeming adversity and bad publicity: “He just seems to shrug everything off.”
  • His campaign represents a decline in the nation’s civil discourse: “It may well be that America has reached a point of greater tolerance for disrespectful discourse. More and more, people are rewarded for breaking those kinds of rules.”
  • “This is an unusual candidate, who whether rightly or wrongly, and I think wrongly – is being held to a very different set of standards.”
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State Representative Emilia Sykes visits the Bliss Institute


Image from Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission

Campaign Battleground welcomed House Representative Emilia Strong Sykes (D) to our discussion this month. A graduate from Kent State University, Rep. Sykes returned to northeast Ohio in 2014 to take her father’s seat in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Rep. Sykes earned a master’s degree in public health from The University of Florida, and has experience serving as an administrative adviser in the Summit County fiscal office. As a representative of the state’s 34th District, Rep. Sykes works to provide quality healthcare to her constituents, in particular advocating for infant mortality rate reductions.

“There are two zip codes in Akron where the infant mortality rate is double the national average. We need to address this problem on a number of levels,” Rep. Sykes said.

In addition to her work on public health issues, Rep. Sykes  strives to empower the community and improve the education system in order to create good paying jobs. She also has become involved in voting rights issues. Rep. Sykes discussed whether or not 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in the Ohio presidential primary and commented on a recent lawsuit against Ohio Secretary of State John Husted.

“John Husted has yet to win a single voting rights lawsuit. Not one,” Rep. Sykes noted.

Though our time with Rep. Sykes was brief due to a prior engagement, the class very much enjoyed her discussion and look forward to her bright political future.

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Pollster John Zogby discusses NASCAR Dads, the evolving Latino voting population and the potential of a Trump-Clinton presidential race

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“I ran for mayor in 1981, and thankfully I didn’t win,” pollster John Zogby told the Campaign Battlegrounds class. Mr. Zogby began as a self-described “left-wing political activists” before migrating to professional polling.

In the mid-1980’s Mr. Zogby began polling local races, something unseen in the field at the time but is now considered common practice. By 1994, Mr. Zogby was conducting polls for Richard Murdoch, generating information for Fox News and the New York Post . Two years later, Mr. Zogby was polling for Reuters and NBC News.

Zogby was the first pollster to coin the term “NASCAR Dads.” He explained, “Weekly Wal-Mart shoppers are one of the key groups, when they are with Obama his approval rating is good. When they are against him, his approval rating is not.”

For this election season, Mr. Zogby suggests the most decisive demographic will be what he terms, “First Globals.” Coined “millennials” by others, Mr. Zogby suggests, “There is a clear demarcation on foreign policy attitude at the age of 50. Those older than 50 believe in ‘American Exceptionalism’ – the idea America plays an exceptional role in foreign policy. Those below 50 are more cautious about foreign policy.”

Mr. Zogby also discussed how the Latino participation has evolved. “In 1992, Latino voters were 4 percent of 92 million voters . Now they are 10.1 percent of 132 million voters,” Mr. Zogby explained. During our discussion, Mr. Zogby also commented on the decline in support for Republican candidates among Latinos.

“George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote, John McCain won 31 percent, Mitt Romney won 29percent. In 2010. Latino voters turned out at 70 percent and voted 80 percent Democrat,” Mr. Zogby shared.

On the phenomenon of Donald Trump, Mr. Zogby said, “I thought he would be a summer fling. All the rules have been broken and anytime he breaks the rules he does better.”

On Hillary Clinton, Mr. Zogby said he has met her several times and has personally told her, “I don’t really know who you are.” He further suggested, “It’s easy to see how [a Trump-Clinton race] becomes competitive. Not trusting a candidate,” he told the class. “is powerful.”


Akron Beacon Journal Managing Editor Doug Oplinger discusses journalism with Campaign Battleground


Doug Oplinger of the Akron Beacon Journal visited our class on February 9, 2016. Specializing in public policy and community engagement reporting, Mr. Oplinger has been involved in editing and contributing to three Pulitzer Prize-winning pieces and has won several national awards for his directive role in the Beacon’s The American Dream: Hanging by a Thread series, which examined the difficult economic forces causing anxiety in the middle class during the recent recession.

“Before we get started, I want you to give me one word that describes a journalist,” Akron Beacon Journal Editor Doug Oplinger asked the Campaign Battleground Class. Mr. Oplinger then began to move about the room with a tape recorder and students gave their responses, “story…nagging…educated…embellishers…facts.” “I have very thick skin,” Mr. Oplinger suggested, “so if you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask.”

Mr. Oplinger told the class he wanted to go into politics as a kid. He began attending city council meetings and started asking questions in the hope of getting involved. Eventually, Bill Hershey, a journalist for the Akron Beacon Journal had a young Mr. Oplinger attend a city council meeting and record the proceedings. Mr. Oplinger did so and reported back to Mr. Hershey. In doing so, Mr. Oplinger earned his first byline.

Mr. Oplinger explained the journalistic process, “You finish your story, put your feet up, eat some cold pizza, then you walk down three flights of stairs. You watch them put the plates on the press and start the presses, and there your story is reporting on Democracy in Action- it works again! And you were a part of it.”

Mr. Oplinger noted the two Pulitzers the Beacon Journal had won during his time there, as well as the four total the paper had won over its history. He noted that one, earned for the Beacon’s coverage of an attempted takeover of Goodyear Tire and Rubber in the 1980’s. He suggested, “The trucks would pull up to the factories after work and sell out of papers on the spot.”

Mr. Oplinger also discussed the changing business model of print media. He noted that advertisers have moved to the internet. The current reach of the Beacon Journal, he contends, is about 500,000. For comparison, they sell about 70,000 print copies of a given paper. Demand has also shifted for free audio and free video content. These business model changes are preceded by changes in consumption of news. “Confirmation bias is a tremendous problem for journalism and Democracy,” contended Mr. Oplinger. He pointed to Breitbart as an example of aggressive journalist quick to the scoop but often slanted in their view.

Asked if the days of quality journalism are over, Mr. Oplinger replied, “I sure hope not.” However, he did note that “The Beacon Journal is no longer the best paper in the state.”