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Howard's Commentary - Close to Home, In More way's Than One

I'm a sucker for good political novels, and a double sucker when it's set in an area I know.

David Pepper is the chair of Ohio's Democratic Party and has a new novel called "The People's House". I wish I had stumbled on it a few weeks earlier, so I could have added it to my list of Christmas gift ideas for my audience.

The hero is an aging journalist from Youngstown and the book opens in a St Clairsvlle hotel at the supposed-to-be-victory party of a long time Congressman. But his expected win doesn't occur and across the country surprising losses mount up leading to a GOP takeover of Congress.

Although it is clearly set closer to contemporary times, it reminds me greatly of the Republican Revolution of '94. That year I was a reporter in a St. Clairsville hotel victory party as Bob Ney was elected to his first term. And the GOP swept house seats across America to take control of The People's House for first time in decades.

Ney was elected to the old 18th District. Pepper sets his in the more recently redrawn 6th--which stretches along the riverfront. Still, for me, there were echoes of events I was part of.

A key part of the novel is set in nearby Monroe County. The grizzled and powerful party chair in the book reminded me of Belmont County's Dem chair when I was starting as a journalist. Frank Vanelle showed me the power that a detailed understanding of political geography and demographics can have.

And there are eerie echoes of issues still percolating today. Pepper says he did not plan the novel as prediction (it was started 4 years ago). But the tale of an American election manipulated by a Russian energy baron is strikingly familiar.

And the politicians who declined to address the travesty they saw (because they benefited from it) are akin to those seen snuffling around Donald Trump today.

Pepper: The truth is, what I knew had less to do with Russia than ourselves. And it is this: We have allowed key pillars of our democracy to erode to the point where the deep dysfunction of our political system and culture has emerged as perhaps the prime vulnerability of our nation.

Gerrymandering is so extreme that our legislatures are no longer democratic. Control of the US House (or "The People's House," which is the name of the book) rests entirely in the 25 to 30 seats across our country where a contest actually takes place. The rest of the elections are essentially preordained, the results inevitable, the "people" largely irrelevant. As the world's oldest democracy, it is not a system we can be proud of or hold up as a model. (

The novels snakes through the corridors of political power in DC and the back rooms of Buckeye State politics, with a few murders and the energy politics of fracking tossed in for good measure.

If you're a political junkie, this a great read. Well-written, locally connected, timely, and with an understanding of how messed up our system is.