PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS / THE DEMOCRATIC HOPEFULS
Dennis J. Kucinich
The Onetime Boy Mayor of Cleveland Is Still a Maverick After All These Years and Proudly Wears the Liberal Label
By David Lamb
Times Staff Writer
July 13, 2003
Opening day, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, April 1978. On the mound, to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, the 31-year-old maverick mayor and enfant terrible of Ohio politics. He is wearing a bulletproof vest. Police sharpshooters ring the ballpark roof. Dennis J. Kucinich looks up at the crowd. When he is in attendance and Indian fans yell "Kill the bum," he knows they aren't talking about the umpire.
His appearance on the field brings a chorus of boos from 75,000 fans. Kucinich, who had just fired the popular police chief live on TV, on Good Friday, adjusts his body armor. He winds up and fires a waist-high strike to Indians catcher Gary Alexander. The catcalls give way to scattered applause and cheers. Politics and sports, he thinks: They are fickle businesses.
Kucinich lasted only one term as the nation's youngest mayor of a major city. During that time he narrowly survived a recall, made as many enemies as headlines and presided over the first bankruptcy of an American city since the Depression. "Dennis the Menace," as the press labeled him, was trounced in his bid for reelection. A political cadaver, he packed his bags and headed west to reevaluate his life.
Now, 25 years later, on a Saturday morning in June, Kucinich is stuck in freeway traffic outside Los Angeles. A vegan, he is in the back seat, drinking apple juice and eating pita bread loaded with hummus. It is his 10th campaign trip to California, and a few miles away, at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, 500 people are waiting for the comeback politician a four-term Ohio congressman and one of nine candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"Most of the people here are activists," said Marsie Murray as the crowd filed into the auditorium. "Dennis raises important issues we care about. He questions why we went to war in Iraq. He talks about health care, the environment, putting people back to work. He speaks for a lot of people unhappy with the direction of the country."
Though the national media have paid scant attention to his longshot candidacy "That's OK, I'll benefit from exceeding expectations," he says Kucinich's grass-roots, underfinanced campaign has attracted more than $1 million in individual contributions (corporate donations are eschewed) and enthusiastic crowds, particularly among the pro-labor, antiwar core of the Democratic Party. The Bush administration, he tells audiences, "led the nation into war based on lies."
He finished second to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in a recent poll of 317,000 Democrats by MoveOn.org, a liberal online organization. Dean got 43.9%, Kucinich 23.9% and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry 15.7%
"More folks than I thought are jumping on his bandwagon at this point," said David Loebsack, a political scientist at Cornell College in Iowa. "I think he's tapping into many of those who would normally go with Dean. It's the angry crowd, the Democrats who are almost as mad at Democrats as they are at George Bush."
At Taft High School, and later at a fund-raiser at the Van Nuys home of actress Mimi Kennedy and before a group of American Muslims in Long Beach, Kucinich drew standing ovations and cheers as he quoted Emerson and Churchill and outlined a progressive platform: Repeal the USA Patriot Act (for taking away civil liberties), nullify NAFTA, halt antimissile defense technology development, transfer money from the Pentagon to education. He supports global nuclear disarmament, universal health care, setting up a Cabinet-level Department of Peace to make nonviolence a cornerstone of domestic and foreign policy. A Catholic, he wavered on abortion before taking a solidly pro-abortion rights stance.
Kucinich stands 5 feet 7 in shoes with thick soles and weighs 135 pounds. On the desk of his Washington office is a portrait of Lincoln and in the closet, a dummy named W.C. that Kucinich, an amateur ventriloquist, uses from time to time to delight children. With net assets listed at less than $32,000, he is one Congress's least affluent members. He still has a $40,000 mortgage on the modest Cleveland home he bought 32 years ago. When people talk about inner-city poverty, he replies, "I know the territory."
As a pint-sized boy, he worked his way through parochial school scrubbing and waxing floors, dwarfed by the electrical floor polisher he pushed around. His father was a truck driver who found it difficult keeping the landlord at bay while supporting a wife and seven children.
By the time Kucinich was 17, his family had lived at 21 different addresses, "including a couple of cars." He moved into his own apartment as a high school senior to escape the chaos of home. It took him two years to get used to the quiet.
"One year I had just one pair of pants bright turquoise with black pipe stitching on the side," Kucinich recalled. "They were more appropriate for a psychedelic penal institution than a school. Finally some kids figured out I was wearing the same pants every day. It wasn't much fun.
"Change came fast in those years. That created an insecurity, as it would with any child, but it also created adaptability to change. I learned you can have the best of times and the worst of times going on at once. You can be happy at the same time you might have to skip a meal."
In 1969, five years after he had finished runner-up in a contest to be the Indians' batboy, Kucinich who still carries a bubble-gum card of Indians slugger Rocky Colavito in his wallet won a seat on the Cleveland City Council by 16 votes. He was 23. He is remembered as a nuts-and-bolts activist who knew the issues, showed compassion for the less fortunate and cared passionately about a decaying city so polluted its river caught fire.
But Kucinich was also combative and uncompromising, an unpopular populist. As mayor from 1977 to 1979, both he and Cleveland became of the butt of jokes on the late-night talk shows. The police walked out in a dispute with the mayor, the assistant director of public safety he appointed was 21 years old and the school board president was caught "mooning" on a highway.
For two years, it was Kucinich against everyone. His refusal to sell the municipal power company to a private utility which would have given the utility a monopoly led to Cleveland's default on $14 million in bank loans. Kucinich didn't blink. He figured his family had survived without credit; so could Cleveland. That decision and his take-no-prisoners management style cost him dearly when he was swept out of office in a landslide.
His marriage broke up, he almost lost his house, phone calls seeking a job went unanswered. He moved to California to write a never-published autobiography and wandered through Alaska, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico, trying to patch together a new life.
He walked the streets in every city, mile upon mile. One day he found himself in Los Angeles' MacArthur Park, among the poor and dispossessed who cluttered the benches. The voice of Donna Summer singing "MacArthur Park" filled his head:
There will be another song for me
For I will sing it
There will be another dream for me
Someone will bring it
"Walking the streets of L.A.," Kucinich, now 56, recalled the other day, "I knew what it was like for all those people out there trying to get their lives together and figure out where they're going. I'd been there. And when that song came back to me in MacArthur Park, I remember thinking, 'Man, I put 10 years into a career in Cleveland, and it just floated away.' "
Redemption was a long time coming. But in 1993, Cleveland Mayor Michael White said Kucinich had made the right decision in not selling the municipal power company. It had saved taxpayers a small fortune in lower rates.
The utility announced a $146-million expansion and named a building after Kucinich, who three years later defeated a conservative Republican incumbent, Martin Hoke, for Congress. His campaign symbol was a light bulb and his slogan was "Light up Congress with Kucinich."
"Dennis is a good example of maturation," said former Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), who served in Congress with Kucinich and whose brother, the late Carl Stokes, was Cleveland's mayor when Kucinich was on the City Council. "Over the years, he grew. He was always an excellent politician, very savvy, a bright young man. Given time and space, he developed into a fine congressman."
As co-chairman of Congress' Progressive Caucus, Kucinich traveled to 20 cities to denounce the Bush administration's plan to attack Iraq. Although most political analysts question his electability, his liberal, antiwar agenda has found a following and resulted in some endorsements, including those of Tom Hayden, Arun Gandhi (grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi) and Willie Nelson, who said Kucinich "stands up for heartland Americans."