Why the former boy mayor of Cleveland wants America’s top job
The first time I met Dennis Kucinich was in 1978 on a tour of solar homes in Davis. The youngest person ever elected leader of a large American city, Cleveland’s mayor was a fast-talking, blue-collar, populist kid with a progressive vision for the future. He favored radical politics, renewable energy and something called economic democracy. The people who loved him called him “boy wonder.” The ones who didn’t dubbed him “Dennis the Menace.”
A University of California, Davis, student at the time, I remember riding around in the back seat of a friend’s Camaro with the famous boy mayor, talking to him about electoral politics and the future of the country. Secretly, I wondered how somebody so young could be so self-possessed, so utterly confident.
Fast forward to last week and the second time I met Kucinich. Now a Congressman from Ohio and co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus in Washington, D.C., he was back in Davis after 25 years—this time seeking support in his bid for America’s top job, a.k.a. the presidency. With no name recognition, almost no money and no real chance at winning, Kucinich—an unabashed leftist—barnstormed California anyway, like a New Age, one-man argument for the power of optimism. “We must be relentless in our hopes,” he told me in a private conversation just before he took the stage in Davis. “We cannot falter, especially in times when things seem to be moving so powerfully in another direction.”
To say Kucinich hopes for a miracle is an understatement.
Positioned squarely at the bottom of a field of nine Democratic candidates for the party’s nomination, many wonder what reason he could have for doing it. As it turns out, there is a reason. It has to do with guts and ego and doggedness and, ultimately, the desire to do positive works on behalf of regular people. It’s like when Morpheus in The Matrix Reloaded tells Niobe, “Some things never change. And some things do.”
Kucinich hasn’t changed. But he’s hoping the country might.
Dressed neatly in a black T-shirt and creased, green khakis that looked straight off the Gap rack, Kucinich strode back and forth on the stage of the Davis theater with a hand-held microphone, preaching up a storm—can he get a witness?—and blasting the Bush administration for its wrongful war, assault on the environment, and shabby economics. The candidate moved hips-first, like they tell models on the runway to do. He exuded calm, but he knew how to work the crowd into a frenzy, too. A Democrat from his home state put it this way: “He makes a lot of noise for a little guy.”
“The nation has become disconnected from its purpose,” Kucinich stormed to the cheering crowd of 400 faithful in Davis. “We must break this spell of war! We must get this country back on the path of peace!”
Later, Kucinich delivered pretty much the same talk at California State University, Sacramento. No one at either local event seemed there for conversion; they’d already joined the club. After a question-and-answer session with adoring audience members, Kucinich immersed himself, Kennedy-like, into the crowd for more well-wishes, handshakes and hugs. “The nation is at a transformational moment,” he told the crowd. “All paths seem to lead to war and destruction. But we can change the country starting from this time, this place, in this space.” To deliver that last line, Kucinich stepped unconsciously to the very apex of the stage, his feet quite literally balancing over the platform’s rim and a 4-foot drop-off. Was Kucinich worried about plunging head-first over the edge? Hardly.
Kucinich was raised working-class Catholic, the oldest of seven children. His father was a Marine and a truck driver; his family struggled, even living out of a car for a while. When Kucinich graduated from college, he was the first person in his family—on either side—ever to do so.
Like many in his generation, he underwent a political awakening during the Vietnam War era. Pretty soon, he got the idea in his head that he would get into city politics. In 1969, Kucinich ran for city council and won. Soon, he earned a reputation for being smart, liberal, hard-working and stubborn as hell; it’s the same reputation he has today. Somewhere along the way, he became a vegan, too, because he came to believe in “the sacredness of all species.”
In 1977, he was elected mayor and inherited a giant mess. A previous administration had misspent tens of millions in bond funds, and the banks came to the young mayor in a power play, saying that unless he agreed to sell MUNY Light, the city’s municipal electric utility, the banks would call in the loans and send the city into default. “They were trying to blackmail me,” said Kucinich. Despite enormous pressure to sell the utility, Kucinich refused, and Cleveland went bankrupt. Everyone thought the boy mayor’s political career was over. Even he thought that.
But Kucinich prevailed. Even his harshest critics today admit that history has vindicated him, that he was right to refuse to sell MUNY Light. After a long hiatus, Kucinich returned to politics, first as a senator and then as a congressman. From Washington, D.C., he’s led successful crusades for his district. He has kept hospitals open, saved a steel mill and changed rail traffic in Ohio neighborhoods.
But it was in the aftermath of 9/11 that Kucinich unexpectedly came to inherit a national platform upon which to speak. In February 2002, Kucinich gave a talk in Southern California called “A Prayer for America” that struck a chord with millions. With most Democrats bowing down before Bush—thanks to his unprecedented popularity in the polls and for fear that they would be labeled unpatriotic if they criticized him—Kucinich’s prayer came across as a breath of fresh air.
When I finally read it, after about a dozen e-mails forwarding it along, I knew immediately that Kucinich had accomplished something special. The “prayer”—with its reflections on America’s role in the world community and its call for a reasoned response to the threat of terrorism—traveled around the world and back again on the Internet. (The prayer was printed in SN&R in March 2002.) He started getting requests to speak about his progressive vision of the future in communities all across the nation. Ultimately, it was that prayer that made him decide to run for president.
Characterized now by the mainstream media as a fringe candidate, somebody outside the Democratic norm, Kucinich doesn’t seem to mind. He and other candidates are accused of cluttering up the field, hurting the chance that Democrats can unite behind one candidate and actually mount a challenge to Bush. He responds that choice and debate are what the democratic process is all about. However, Kucinich has said he would not consider becoming a Green Party “spoiler” candidate (à la Ralph Nader) against a Democratic nominee. Though Kucinich claims he’s serious in his bid and intends to be president, the candidate is clearly there to do some “truth telling” on a national stage, to get progressive issues (like universal health care) out there on the table.
He supports a “single-payer, full-funded Medicare-for-all program.” Regarding the economy, Kucinich believes the Bush administration’s policies have been guided almost entirely by special interests. Tax cuts only further burden the economy, he said. If he were president, the North American Free Trade Agreement would be canceled, and so would the World Trade Organization.
Some are troubled by his changed position on abortion. After decades of voting anti-choice, Kucinich now has come around to saying that abortions should be “legal and rare” and that Roe v. Wade should be defended. He still says he believes on a spiritual level that life begins at conception, but he has said that his thinking on the issue has “evolved.” Certainly, part of that evolution had to do with Kucinich discovering what other one-time anti-choice Democrats, such as Al Gore, discovered quickly once they were on the national stage: that a liberal voting base will not stand for a candidate who doesn’t support a woman’s right to choice.
It was before the speech, outside in the blazing sun behind the theater, that I got the chance to speak to Kucinich alone. I told him that we’d driven around together in a car 25 years ago, and he surprised me by saying he remembered that day. But then I asked what I’d really come to ask.
I remarked that so many people had been working for so long for progressive change—on issues from corporate responsibility to alternative energy to economic democracy. Was he as surprised as I that not much actually had been accomplished? “In some ways, we seemed closer then than we are now,” I said.
The question came because of something that had been drilling in my head ever since Bush took office, since the World Trade Center towers came down, and especially during the war in Iraq: Progressive-minded people seemed so often out of touch with what most Americans wanted, needed. What was the point in us talking to each other constantly, preaching always to the already converted? I told Kucinich I believed in the ability of individuals to make a difference, yes, but that I had grown weary of the beautiful-loser syndrome in which progressives seemed locked.
It was then that Kucinich began scolding me.
He admonished my cynicism, saying I shouldn’t go there: “When you lose hope, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that can stop us from achieving that which may be just a little out of reach right now.”
He referred to hope as an “imminent reality”—“a reality that is waiting to be called forth.” Indeed, one could say we called forth the right to vote for people who were not property owners, he said. We called forth the Emancipation Proclamation. We called forth the right of women to vote and the ability of young people to participate in the political process.
“Throughout our country’s history, there are moments when change happens,” he said, “and it seems to have happened all at once. But the truth of the matter is it came about because over the many years, people relentlessly pursued their dreams and hopes.
“My approach,” he said simply, “is to try to draw the reality a little closer.” Later, inside the theater, the congressman said it another way. Quoting Percy Bysshe Shelley from Prometheus Unbound, he spoke of “hope creating from its own wreck the thing that it contemplates.”
He’ll not be president in 2004. But how grateful I was to be reminded by Dennis Kucinich that countries can be transformed, that people have the power and that some things never change.
And some things do.