COLUMBUS, Ohio — State attorney general candidate David Pepper said on Monday he would make advocating for voter rights a priority if elected this fall and criticized incumbent Mike DeWine for his record on election law issues.
Pepper, a Cincinnati Democrat, said DeWine, a Greene County Republican, has repeatedly defended state-passed election laws that were found unconstitutional or blocked by the courts, including those addressing early voting hours, provisional ballot handling and third-party ballot access.
"If this was the way a company was run, the head of the company would look at who the in-house counsel was and ask why they kept losing," said Pepper, son of a former Procter & Gamble CEO. "And maybe they'd say it's time for someone new."
Pepper said that if elected Ohio's top law officer he'd stand up against laws he deems as an attorney to be unconstitutional — a promise Republicans criticized as uninformed.
It was one of a series of voter-related goals Pepper laid out Monday.
Pepper's voter protection platform calls for establishing a voting rights unit within the attorney general's office to investigate complaints and incidents of voter intimidation, disenfranchisement, fraud and suppression. He said he'd also work with the state elections chief to make the office a resource for voting rights awareness; advise state lawmakers on how to make election laws constitutional to avert expensive legal fights; and advocate for transparency in Ohio's redistricting process.
"I can't think of anything more important than making sure we're a state that protects and respects the voting rights of our citizens," Pepper said.
Republicans said Pepper's plan signals a lack of understanding of the job he seeks, including its separation from the legislative process and its obligation to defend state laws presumed constitutional.
DeWine told Youngstown's The Vindicator newspaper that he didn't pass or write the laws but did what he's "supposed to do" by defending them in court.
Ohio Republican Party spokesman Chris Schrimpf said the plan proves Pepper unfit to be attorney general.
"Pepper should know that the attorney general is the attorney for the state," he said in an email. "Apparently, Pepper would leave the state without a lawyer if he doesn't like a law passed by the Legislature. That's not acceptable."
It is not unprecedented for Ohio's attorney general to step aside in a case he sees as constitutionally questionable, however.
In Coast Candidates PAC vs. Ohio Elections Commission, DeWine asked leave of the court to part ways with the commission and to support "the free-speech rights of Ohio citizens."
In a 2011 brief, he explained to U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett in Cincinnati that his decision related to "serious concerns about the constitutionality of Ohio's generalized 'false statement' law."
Pepper said the attorney general's job "doesn't include defending to the very end laws that are unconstitutional."
A spokeswoman for DeWine's office said he did not leave the state defenseless in that case but assigned a separate attorney to represent the commission.
Schrimpf said Pepper "has never prosecuted a case in his life and runs for a different office every four years."
Pepper, a former Cincinnati councilman and Hamilton County commissioner, ran unsuccessfully for Ohio auditor in 2010.