Mayoral candidates David Pepper (left) and Mark L. Mallory take questions from Seven Hills Upper School students Friday in Madisonville. (Photos by Gary Landers/The Cincinnati Enquirer)
In theory, this kind of event
should have been a friendly forum for David Pepper.
The location: Seven Hills Upper School
in Madisonville, where Pepper had appeared at least twice before.
The organizer: Beth Driehaus,
a friend of Pepper and wife of Dan Driehaus,
who has contributed $250 to Pepper's campaign.
The audience: a room full of 380 prep school kids, the sons and daughters of mostly well-to-do families from East Side neighborhoods that voted overwhelmingly for Pepper in the Sept. 13 mayoral primary.
Indeed, Pepper's first words in his opening statement were a sort of mock protest, after school headmaster Todd Bland
introduced him as a graduate of rival Cincinnati Country Day. "I thought we were coming to a neutral forum today, and then he had to let out that I went to country day. It's not fair."
When Bland opened the floor to student questions, Pepper found most of them were hardballs.
Here are the student's questions and the candidates' answers -- with the students getting the final word:
QUESTION: Sarah Eustis
(left), a 16-year-old from Hyde Park, noted that others had "tried and failed" to unite City Council. Why, she asked, did Pepper think he could succeed where others had failed?
ANSWER: "I have to disagree with you a little bit. I don't think a lot of politicians even tried. That's been the problem," Pepper said. "I don't think the problem with city council is that the members aren't good people. It's just that they've never been asked to be part of a team. I'm not going to call them names like others do...."
"Is it my turn now? Wow," Mallory said, suggesting Pepper's answer went on too long. "Building a team and working with others is not about plunking down your plan and dictating to a group of people that they have to sign on to your plan, and building a team that way. Building a team is about building relationships."
HOW EUSTIS SAW IT: "I thought that's where they differed in their approaches most," Eustis said. Which approach is better? "Honestly, I haven't made up my mind yet," she said.
QUESTION: Ahmad Muhammad
(right), a 17-year-old from Bond Hill, told Pepper that young people in his neighborhood call him "Prince Pepper" because of his privileged background, and noted that most of his campaign contributions come from outside the city. How can he represent the entire city?
ANSWER: "If you look closely, my opponent has far more dollars from outside Cincinnati in terms of percentage," Pepper said. He said most of his out-of-town contributions came from friends from law school who knew about his passion for Cincinnati.
"I'm very proud of my family. I grew up a pretty lucky guy. I got to go to a school like this," Pepper said. He said he was committed to public service. "I could have gone to a great law firm and made a lot of money, or done a lot of other things."
(Mallory declined to answer the question, since it was directed at Pepper.)
MUHAMMAD'S TAKE: "I feel like he beat around the bush the entire time," Muhammad said. "Since he's from a privileged background, how can he know what it's like to be less fortunate in the city? How well can he relate?" (Pepper walked up to Muhammad afterward to thank him for the question.)
QUESTION: Ben Greenberg
(left), a 17-year-old from Hyde Park, said all he ever heard Pepper talk about was making the city safe for the middle class. "Don't you think making the city safer for the homeless is more important than that?"
ANSWER: "I think you're absolutely right. If we don't take care of those who are least well off ... then we've lost as a city," Pepper said. "I'm a Democrat as much as anyone," he said, noting that he fought for a budget that partially restored cuts to human services.
Mallory said poverty, hunger and homelessness weren't getting enough attention in the campaign. "I grew up in the West End, and I still live in the West End, one of the most impoverished areas of the city," he said. "Kids in low income areas go to school hungry. I know that when I'm hungry, I have a shot attention span. When I'm hungry, I get aggravated."
GREENBERG'S REACTION: "I just feel that there are more immediate issues than what Mr. Pepper is talking about," Greenberg said. "The less fortunate, sometimes they get brushed aside, when we talk about the economic issues of growing the city."
QUESTION: Jessalyn Reid
(right), a 15-year-old from Mount Lookout, offered the most provocative question of the morning, asking Pepper to explain his proposal
-- since abandoned -- to increase the penalty for possession of marijuana.
ANSWER: "We have become the place in the entire region where drugs are dealt," said Pepper, singling out Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine as the region's worst open-air drug market. In 80 percent of drug arrests in Over-the-Rhine, he said, neither the buyer nor the seller is from the neighborhood.
"They can have an enormous amount of drugs and only get a ticket," Pepper said. "If you do in San Diego what you do in Cincinnati, you get in a lot more trouble."
"I hope you all got an answer out of that, because I certainly did not," Mallory told the students. He said he didn't understand Pepper's proposal, which would have resulted in a 90-day sentence for possession of up to 3.5 ounces of marijuana. It's now a minor misdemeanor, which police call a $100 "weed ticket."
"Sometimes you don't have a lot of experience with things and you don't know what you're saying. If you have an ounce of marijuana on you, you're not considered to be dealing in marijuana," Mallory said.
"Drug trafficking laws are very different from drug possession laws," he said, adding that the focus should be on distribution.
REID'S CONCLUSION: "I thought Mr. Pepper avoided the question and wasn't clear," Reid said -- though she conceded that maybe her question could have been more direct. "It seemed like Mr. Mallory has a much better opinion, that it's the distribution that should be prosecuted, not the possession."
"It brought out a more argumentative side of the candidates, which for the students was fun."