You Think Washington Is Dysfunctional? Look at Your State Capital

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It’s easy to look at Washington and shake your head about the partisan sniping and political dysfunction that’s found around every corner in these marbled halls of power. But D.C. might not be the pinnacle of America’s problems. It could actually be the scattered government buildings found in major cities such as Austin, Boston, Sacramento, Tallahassee, and Boston.

That’s right: for all of the grief that D.C. rightly receives for its political petulance, the state capitals might actually outperform the U.S. Capitol when it comes to politicians acting in self-interest, ignoring the will of the majority and pushing an agenda set in corporate boardrooms and not local communities.
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It is so bad that the disconnection between the popular agenda at the state and political level has been called out by an ex-chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. In This week’s non-fiction publication: Laboratories of AutocracyThe book is available in English. The book keeps pace with David Pepper’s earlier works, political thrillers that hit a little too close to home for anyone actively following campaigns in America. He’s an avowed Democrat and an unsuccessful two-time candidate for statewide office, but his observations aren’t partisan hackery.

The D.C. Brief talked with Pepper this week about the book, Ohio’s future as the nation’s blue-ribbon bellwether and how former President Donald Trump’s Big LieMany seeds were planted in the state legislatures. We have edited the conversation lightly to make it more concise and clear.

DCB: Washington’s dysfunction is the focus of so much attention. It is clear that state-level dysfunction poses a greater threat to effective governance. What is the secret to making statehouses more dangerous than the U.S. Capitol.

The statehouses may have been an ineffective and less efficient part of American governance. But what’s happened in the last 20 years is a combination of extreme partisanship, gerrymanderingThere are many groups who have capitalized on this weakness in order to increase their national impact.

Then you make it. Point about the weakening of the statehouse press corps—that no one is minding the store. Which are the implications?

Ohio may have the most robust state press corps in America, according to me. Even so, it’s not nearly enough to keep up with the chaos that’s coming through that statehouse. You average a handful of reporters per statehouse and it’s just overwhelming. They can’t keep up. And it’s exactly what the people who are weaponizing statehouses are counting on. Washington might pay more attention to it but most states allow them to continue their activities because there is a smaller statehouse press corps.

What’s the other thing that happens when you cut back on newspapers? We’ve seen it in Cincinnati. It’s easy to get rid of columnists, and your education boards are virtually unaffected. What columnist would dare call for something insane if they had a 30 year standing? These independent opinions also diminish as more newspapers close.

See what Ohio’s statehouse has done in this redistricting exercise. It’s insane. They’re missing all the DeadlinesIt is. They’re rewriting the standards. The courts will in the end rise to the occasion, I believe. The excuses they give to the press are clearly lies, but they’re quoted and printed. This nonsense would be much more easily exposed if there were a few editorial boards powering on.

It is clear that corporations and interest groups are seeing a great return on their investment in state legislatures. You conclude that the majority of this investment is for Republicans. Why aren’t Democrats getting in on this action?

All sides have weaknesses in statehouses. You do have Democratic states with capital cities that don’t meet all the standards of good government. But [Republicans]They are moving in an anti-democratic and dangerous direction. As excuses, they use Democratic statehouses. If I tried to point out an issue with an Ohio law the Secretary would reply, Well, we’re better than New York state.So, one thing I always remind them of in my book is that Democrats must do the right things when they are running the statehouse. It’s literally the first thing they’ll say—to find a state that’s run by Democrats that they can compare to.

Here’s a reminder of the threat democracy poses. Now that some of these state legislatures’ imaginations have been captured by President Trump’s Big Lie and Jan. 6., I really wonder why we might even bother voting in 2024 if we know how this is going to play out in statehouses.

The Big Lie wasn’t the beginning. The Big Lie is one more excuse for what they’ve been doing. When they looked at 2010 they saw every reason they had lost and attempted to make the rules right. And that’s what they’re doing in 2021. It was the early voters in Ohio, Black voters and young voters who were responsible for that, and now they are determined to end this coalition.

What they’re doing in statehouses actually has more impact than what happened on Jan. 6. There were some statehouse members participating in Jan. 6 and there are others that are part of Stop the Steal, but it’s the work they’re doing as officeholders back in their state capitals that’s actually more dangerous than anything they were doing that day.

The most troubling part is when what they’re doing has an air of legitimacy. What’s different about what’s happening in statehouses versus Jan. 6 is that that was an instruction that on its face looked illegitimate. The laws they’re passing in statehouses trying to change the rules, that seems to be legitimate to a lot of voters. This feels almost like: They are elected. They’re supposed to do thatIt’s a false impression of legitimacy. It’s leaving an impression of legitimacy that shouldn’t be there.

It is quite compelling to dissect Ohio’s corruption and problematic governance. Last year, the Ohio House had to fire a Republican Speaker. FaceA $60 million kickback scheme to pay for nuclear-plant rescue funds. In a scandalous sex act, a Democratic Attorney General had resigned a few years ago.What do I mean? USA TodayIt was most likely right at the time. Ohio was home to the highest level of corruption in the nation.

Ohio, however is key to a large portion of our country. Ohio is the center of politics. Is Ohio’s corruption representative of what’s going on in other places, but just more in-your-face? Is Ohio an exception?

It’s a bellwether. If it can happen to a state that has been the bellwether and voted for Obama twice, as recently as ‘12, it should scare everyone in the country because it can happen anywhere.

If you throw in a certain set of incentives into the institutions of statehouses, you get the same results, no matter what state you’re in, and no matter who’s actually in those offices. And if you’re benefiting from that system, you’ll do whatever you can to keep it in place, which is why they’re doing all these changes and attacks on elections. There’s a revolving door of these people, but the behaviors are the same.

A whole generation of these political majorities have never experienced democracy. They have never been to elections. They haven’t lived through it. Because of that, they’re scared to death of them and everything they’ve done to live in the world of gerrymandered and rigged elections is to get ahead. The only way to keep power is to avoid the democracy they’ve never been part of.

I want to come back to a conversation you and I had after 2016 about Ohio’s politics. It was clear that Ohio is not considered a Red State. However, you argued that Ohio could still be considered a swing State if the map was drawn accurately and Democrats given an equal chance. Do you still believe that’s the case?

Any good Democrat could win. Things change depending on what cycle it is. Trump was elected twice here, and we voted for Obama. Is this a swing state or are we managing like one? It is not. We’re governing like a rigged state of a super-majority of people who haven’t ever really been in elections. Even though the state may be somewhat similar, its governance is wildly out of control due to all of the levers they use.

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