In his race to be mayor of Cincinnati, David Pepper ’93 LAW ’99 says he has a bull’s eye on his back. An opponent accused him of failing to prevent crime and create jobs; telephone messages suggesting he is racist filled answering machines across the city; his neighborhood development program has been called a “slush fund”; and he has been labeled a flag burner.
But Pepper seems to be in a strong position going into Tuesday’s non-partisan primary campaign. The 34-year-old Democrat, a current City Council member and son of Yale Vice President of Finance and Administration John Pepper ’60 — who is a former chairman of Procter and Gamble, Cincinnati’s largest employer — is campaigning in a city where the Pepper name goes a long way.
Polls show Pepper vying for the lead with Vice Mayor Alicia Reece and State Senator Mark Mallory in a seven-person race from which two will move on to the November general election. He has a war chest of more than half a million dollars, four times that of his nearest competitor. Just this weekend he was one of two candidates to win a ringing endorsement from the city’s daily newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, which gushed over his promise as an “innovative, executive-style mayor.”
Pepper has a rejoinder for each of his critics. He explains that the “flag-burner” label was a desperate attempt to discredit him based on an editorial he wrote for a community newspaper when he was a freshman at Yale; his so-called “slush fund” neighborhood development plan recently won an award from Keep America Beautiful; and his community policing program has decreased the number of fatal police shootings.
“I’ve been viewed as the frontrunner, which puts a big bull’s eye on your back,” Pepper said. “But you just roll with the punches.”
Pepper credits his Yale ties with his frontrunner status. His father is a “key advisor” — and in Cincinnati, the “CEO who did it the right way” has a lot of clout, the junior Pepper said. The elder Pepper, who has long been active in the community, was in Ohio this past weekend stumping for his son in parking lots across the city.
But Pepper’s Yale pedigree has become part of an image that may prove to be more of a liability than an asset in his campaign.
He is white in a 40-percent black city, a six-figure earner campaigning in neighborhoods almost uniformly below poverty line and a product of the Ivy League in a field filled with University of Cincinnati graduates. The “son of P&G,” as he has been nicknamed by Cincinnati’s black radio station, has to work hard to prove himself.
Mallory, who was also endorsed by the Enquirer, said Pepper has relatively limited experience with the problems of most Cincinnatians.
“He’s too green,” Mallory said. “I’m not sure that David truly understands what the community wants, and that is going to be a problem.”
The mayoral race is being played out against a backdrop of racial tensions in the city that erupted in 2001 with the Cincinnati race riots. Joe Fahrendorf ’06, a Cincinnati native who said he remembers the 9 p.m. curfews that came with the riots and the sense that “people were at each other’s throats,” said Pepper faces an electorate that is preoccupied by race relations.
“Whoever wins is going to need to be able to get the African-American community behind them,” Fahrendorf said.
Pepper’s long-term political goals will require him to forge a coalition with the city’s blacks, Pepper’s father said.
“David brings the intellect, energy and commitment to bring people together across very diverse communities, whether racial or educational,” said John Pepper, who is campaigning for his son, a Democrat, though he has donated money in the past to Republicans including President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator George Voinovich.
Pepper’s Yale classmates have organized and attended his fund raisers in cities across the country, from New York to Denver. A former managing editor of the Yale Daily News, Pepper has relied on his fellow News staffers, such as Josh Galper ’94 LAW ’99, to run the final leg of his primary campaign.
More importantly, Pepper said, his Yale years gave him the skills to draft plans for Cincinnati that the city’s alternative weekly, City Beat, said are “tome-like,” going as far as calling him “just this side of being a real nerd.”
“The need to lay out real solutions, beyond talking points and good intentions and rhetoric, comes from being educated in a place that requires attention to detail,” Pepper said.
Pepper said he hopes to solve the “brain drain” that has young, talented Cincinnatians moving to the coasts. But Pepper is hopeful that Cincinnati’s combination of big-city amenities and small-town convenience will prove sufficiently attractive. After all, he said, his memory of Cincinnati was attractive enough to lure him back to his hometown after stints in New York and St. Petersburg, Russia.
“All the people who knew me in college remember me as the guy who talked about Cincinnati,” Pepper said. “People who hear I’m running for mayor think it’s a great idea, because I get to do that all day.”