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Bummers & Gummers

Thinking the Unthinkable: A Real Person for President, Part I

A Look at the Personal History and Platform of Dennis J. Kucinich

By Lokiko Hall

Posted on Aug 25, 2003

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Dennis J. Kucinich, pen & ink drawing by Lokiko Hall

Last month I registered as a Democrat. Not because I am - or ever expect to be - a Democrat. My personal political ideology is too complex to go into here and too radical to be feasible in nations comprised of more than one citizen. Before this nation-of-one moved to Oregon in 1992, I was as disaffected as many young people: I didn't see the point of voting. I also had never before been deeply committed to a particular place. I arrived in the wake of Measure 5 and just ahead of Measure 9. Immediately it was as self-evident as the consequences for not attending promptly to the needs of the land I lived on that if I didn't vote against the various insane initiatives (and for the occasional good ones) that came up in this state, then I was partly responsible for the resulting mess. So I started voting, exclusively on issues that I knew something about.

Given the opportunity, though, I would love to see some real earthshaking change for the better. I would dearly love to be a part of that change: to shake things up - and see what shakes out. The Democratic race for the presidential nomination is, to my mind and quite surprisingly, the best opportunity I've seen yet to rattle the cages in a big way. And with enough rattling, who knows?, one or two doors might just spring open.

And that's the strange thing about this race. Flashing through my usual pessimism are moments of almost giddy glee. Perhaps it's a reaction to having had so much bad news for so long. Perhaps it's because there is an inherent excitement in that rare race into which has entered a true dark horse. In this case I'm not talking about just any dark horse, but scintillatingly, brilliantly dark horse.

Perhaps it's because I'm a sucker for a good story. This dark horse has a great one that fits perfectly into the landscape of bummers & gummers'boundary-free territory of the outsider. Better still, the protagonist of this story talks like a revolutionary, and walks like one, too. The label of "Democrat" seems to be stuck on merely to make him more palatable to the masses. As for his story, it's the stuff from which legends once were made. These days, it reads like a movie script: desperate beginnings; a seemingly meteoric rise to success followed by a flaming fall from grace, a phoenix-like rise from the ashes... Come on!

But it's true.

It was 1977; I was thirteen years old and a freshman in high school in Cleveland, Ohio, when I first heard the name Dennis Kucinich. It was a name immediately engulfed in a firestorm of controversy that soon extinguished, so it seemed back then, the "Boy Mayor of Cleveland's" political career. As I moved from Cleveland to Baltimore/D.C. and from there to Lorane, Oregon, Kucinich periodically appeared in my field of awareness. Oh, he's got a teaching job now, well, that's something at least; he would surely be instructive on subject of politics and the media. What's this? He's in Eugene? As a U.S. Congressman (when did that happen?) promoting a United States Department of Peace? Is he serious? Then, not long after he proved that he was not going to relent on the subject of peace - he's running for president?!

Like most people, I was surprised, amazed, and thought little of his chances. But as I've watched him proceed with the same unflagging determination that checkered his career, I revised my opinion, or rather, split it in two. One part of me still sees little hope that the people of the United States will ever get up off their couches and take responsible action for the condition America is in and for the conditions America forces the rest of the world to accept, but another part hopes for an upset and refuses to rule it out. Partly because I come from Cleveland.

I know that dark horses do win sometimes. And not just Dennis Kucinich. Back in the late '80s, there was a mayor's race in which one contestant was almost never mentioned, except for entertainment value: his campaign had little money and his strategy was to ride the busses of Cleveland talking to people. This ludicrous idea of actually talking with ordinary people must have scared some other people. Next thing I knew the front runner, the notorious career politician George Forbes (who to me always had the stink of corruption about him) got nervous enough to take out a full-page ad in The Plain Dealer disparaging this Michael White. Soon after that, Michael White became mayor of Cleveland (1989-2001).

I tell that story here because it comes to mind (and usually out of my mouth) whenever people ask me what I really think of Kucinich's chances. Which is usually the question they ask next after "who is he?" And "how do you say that?" (Here in Oregon, it's an untalked about fact and an unanalyzed impact upon our regional culture that we don't even have diversity among the white people. The overwhelming majority of Oregonians come from just a few of the more blonde and blue-eyed countries of Europe. - And how do you say that name? Coos IN ich.)

So with that in mind I'm more than entertained, I'm heartened and enthused, to know that there is someone in the race for the president whose net worth matches my own. (Kucinich's net worth, as posted with the Federal Elections Commission is between $2,000 and $32,000.)1 Whose campaign chest back in March was about $80,000. (It's grown considerably since then, especially for a fellow who knows how to be economical.) Who keeps doing amazing things I would never expect from a Congressman and then goes over the top and gets other Congressmen to do likewise. (For instance: During the WTO conference in Seattle, Kucinich marched with workers protesting WTO policies. However, the day before the conference, Kucinich organized 114 Capitol Hill Democrats to try to convince Clinton to seek human rights, workers rights, and environmental quality principles as preconditions in all US trade agreements.)

There is historical evidence to show that it doesn't matter what Kucinich's chances are to win the presidency. What does matter is what every one of us does about what he's doing. In the late 1800s, a "time of great economic exploitation and waste, grave social corruption and ugliness, the dominant note in American political life was complacency."2 [emphasis added] Isn't that the weird nightmare we find ourselves in today? We look to join the people we know should be rising up by the thousand and millions and all we see are sleepwalkers complacently consuming their way to oblivion, while powers they did not elect and they don't care to influence, attempt to drag us all into World War III. But back then, from the midst of that complacency, there arose a movement called Populism. The Populist Party won no big elections. Nor did it last very long. At that time most people thought the Populists were entirely ineffective. But when we look back with discernment, we see that the Populists created a groundswell of protest and criticism that reined in corporate corruption and tipped the balance of power in such a way as to give workers the rights that have been steadily being abridged since the 1980s.

Okay, you're probably thinking that was back then, and that everything is much harder now. The corporations have grown more huge, vastly more powerful, and more intricately corrupt. Even our voting process has been hijacked and overruled. The military and the police have unfettered firepower and the willingness and training to use it on the people they are supposedly empowered to serve and protect. Well, that's all true. But try out this quote from the Populist platform of 1892, and see if it doesn't ring any bells:

"We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection[;] imported pauperized labor beats down their wages[;] a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty."

Nothing has changed. Certainly not the need to again stop being complacent and take a stand. We all know that the primary goal is to get Bush, et al., out of the White House. Third party candidates are a luxury we can't indulge in this time. We know we must vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination no matter how compromised they are. But all the way up until that moment we have a chance to not be compromised ourselves. We have a chance to make a stand for someone who really does stand for the people and not for bigger and worse business-as-usual.

But let's get on with the story, because I, for one, love a good story.

Dennis Kucinich: Growing Up the Hard Way. Then Growing Up an Even Harder One.

Dennis Kucinich was born in October of 1946, the first child to come to a "spitfire" (his words) named Virginia, and Frank, a truck driver of Croatian origins. From the hospital he was taken to his grandparents' house, the first of 21 places, including a couple of cars, that he would live in before he was seventeen years old. His mother devoted much of her time to reading to him, and also taught him to read when he was three years old. He's been reading ever since.

The Kucinich family grew fast and was often forced out of their home - not for nonpayment of rent, but because of the size of their family. Then in 1956 his mother was hospitalized, possibly for post-partum depression, after she gave birth to her fifth child. The other four children were sent to a Catholic orphanage and receiving home. In an interview with Cleveland magazine reporter Audry S. Chapman,3 Kucinich recalls Christmastime of that year: "I remember I hadn't seen [my brother] Gary for weeks and I felt really bad about it. We went out to play and it was a very cold winter day. I was looking for Gary and I thought I saw him; I remember running across this field to go and see him. I ran and ran and ran up to this kid. And it wasn't him. It was horrible."

Three months later the kids were taken in by some relatives in Michigan and after a while Virginia joined them. Frank came each week, and during these visits Dennis prayed that his family would stay together. Later in the year of 1957 the family was reunited by moving back to Cleveland and living in their car until they found a place to rent. "I was always jockeying for positions to sleep on the floorboards of the backseat," he told Chapman. Thus began a series of rentals that his father got and maintained for as long as he could by leaving some children behind when he signed the lease, sending kids outside when there was some notice that the landlord was coming, or hiding them in closets when there wasn't.

Kucinich was raised Catholic and sent to Catholic schools. Things weren't any easier at school. At one point the other kids realized that he was wearing the same pants every day (turquoise pants with black stitch piping on the side - it mustn't have taken long), because they were the only ones he had. Eventually a nun noticed what was going on and had some clothes sent to the house. She also gave Dennis a job scrubbing the floors of the school to pay for his tuition and some of that of his siblings. He was twelve; he made 60 cents an hour.

When he went to high school he got a job as a caddy at a country club and stuck with it for all four years. He worked six days a week, carrying two bags (which can be anywhere in the range of 100 pounds), and walking 45 holes each day (about 10 miles).

He moved out on his own at the age of seventeen and after graduation worked for two and half years before going to college. His apartment was above the steel mills.

In a 1978 conversation with Studs Terkel 4 (who thought at first that Kucinich was somebody's office boy when the young mayor of Cleveland met him at the airport and reached to take Terkel's duffel bag), Kucinich recounts that it was the Vietnam war that put him on the path to politics. "I'd see that some people were profiting, while tens of thousands of Americans were dying. I started to think: This is a dirty business. I'd better start to find out more about it."

So in 1967 at the age of 21, Kucinich ran for City Council. He went from door to door, spending months just talking to people, financing nearly the whole campaign out of his pocket. "Every campaign I've ever run has been door to door," he told Terkel (and that's exactly how he's campaigning today - town by town and lecture hall by lecture hall, flying coach and sleeping in the homes of his supporters). He didn't get elected until 1969, just after he turned 23. His ward was made up of working class people from all over Eastern Europe, as well as Appalachians, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans.

No one believed that his opponent, a well-established veteran councilman could be beaten. When Kucinich won, it was at first assumed that the banks, the utilities, or some other big corporate interest had sent him there. But he represented the people who elected him, in particular the working poor, the disaffected and the ignored, and because he did so, he soon began stepping on toes.

"When I started stepping on toes, I didn't know I was stepping on toes," he told Terkel. "I found out very quickly there a number of special interest groups who made city hall their private warren. There are 32 councilmen. Thirty-one to one was usually the score." 5

He must have scored some victories as a councilman because eight years later he became the youngest person ever elected mayor of a large city. He was 31 years old, small and wiry with a boyish face that bordered on the cherubic when he smiled - and the temperament of a working terrier. Terrific fodder for caricatures and jokes, even if he had "behaved himself." But he didn't, and the waves he made got bigger and bigger, until conditions were ripe for a perfect storm.

"This urban populist all but ended the fox trot the business community had enjoyed with previous mayoral administrations. All over Cleveland, business leaders clutched their hearts with each bold move: He said no to tax abatements; he transferred funds from the corporate sector to inner city neighborhoods; he took what they considered to be irresponsible risks, such as forbidding Republic Steel Corp. to build an ore dock in Cleveland's port even as they threatened to leave." 6 All this at a time when Cleveland was in protracted economic slump that had kept Cleveland the butt of jokes for years.

It wasn't long before the powers-that-be were out for blood. Kucinich was indeed young and brash, undoubtably full of himself, and, as he has said himself twenty years later, had a lot to learn about compromise. It wasn't long, in fact it was only August of 1978, his first year in office, that a recall election was held. The recall was supported by just about every powerful group in the city. He didn't help matters at all by firing Chief of Police Richard Hongisto on Good Friday of that year, one month after the conclusion of a nationwide search to fill the position. Kucinich won the vote and the hotly demanded recount by 236 votes. (Later, on Opening Day, Dennis Kucinich, wearing a bullet proof vest because of the many death threats he'd received, elicited a standing boo from the 75,000 people at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium when he went out to throw the first pitch of the season. He threw a strike despite the pressure, and got some cheers for that.)

A few months later, though, those who wanted Kucinich out of the picture found the key to his destruction.

What follows is a fairly complicated story. Few of us are so blessed or unlucky as to have the pivotal moment of their life limned out so clearly, so publicly and so painfully. Although it's a story about NOT selling out, it's still all about money. Bear with me as I try to follow the cross currents of money and manipulation.

Some people may be able to recall that in December of 1978 Cleveland became the first major city since the Depression to go into default. It was another great national joke at Cleveland's expense. T-shirts abounded in town that read, "Default's not mine; I just work here." Well, who's fault was it? To this day, too many people think the default was Kucinich's.

In the mayor's race, Kucinich's main campaign promise was to save "Muny Light." Cleveland's publicly owned power company was a cause Kucinich had been championing for years already. (Muny Light was the brainchild and dream of populist mayor of Cleveland, Tom L. Johnson, one of Kucinich's heroes.) Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI), which competed with Muny Light on a street by street and house to house basis, wanted to destroy it. Before Kucinich was elected, Muny was not doing well on any score. Its service was poor, and there were frequent outages (which were later traced back to tampering on the part of CEI). CEI had a marketing campaign going that trumpeted all of Muny's weaknesses and the fact that Muny Light was $31 million in the hole at the time and being subsidized by the city's general fund.

But in January of 1977, CEI's tampering was discovered and rulings were made that gave Muny Light a new source of cheap electricity and a way out of the red. In retaliation, CEI took the city to court for $16 million dollars in debts that had accrrued to it during the terms of the previous two mayors. It was also discovered shortly after Kucinich took office that the (previous) administration before his had misspent tens of millions of dollars of bond funds. The money could not be accounted for. Cleveland was shut out of the national bonds market. The city was also trying to negotiate the renewal of $14 million worth of notes held by local banks.

So, let's see, we've got CEI demanding millions of dollars in a court suit. Plus, the city had a general fund deficit of millions more that it had no recourse but to use its operating funds to pay off. Then the local banks (six of them), which had eagerly rolled over such loans for the previous mayor, refused to rollover the other $14 million for Kucinich.

The bank loans were to come due on December 15, 1978. Kucinich had the money to pay off either CEI or the banks, but he couldn't do both. As the deadline approached Kucinich appealed to the banks to allow time for a special election proposing an income tax hike to pay off the loans for Muny Light. On the day the loans came due, all the banks consented to Kucinich's appeal - except one: Cleveland Trust, a bank which happened to have CEI directors as four of its board members.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that Cleveland Trust CEO Brock Weir made Kucinich the devil's own offer that day: if Kucinich would sell Muny Light to CEI, Cleveland Trust would not only roll over the loans, but it would loan Cleveland an additional $50 million. Kucinich would come out of the deal looking like he "saved" the city; his fences with big business would be mended and his future as a politician would be assured.

Kucinich said no.

On the same day, the City Council (where Kucinich was regularly at war with City Council President George Forbes) agreed that they would put an income tax increase before the voters if the mayor would sell Muny Light. Kucinich said no again. But this time he made a counter-offer. He was sure that with its new source of power Muny could be profitable, so he promised that he would sell Muny Light if it didn't turn a profit within 18 months.

At midnight on December 15, 1978, the city council voted 17-16 against the mayor's proposal. The next morning newspapers around the world published the story that Cleveland had gone into the default. In the press and everywhere else, Kucinich got 100% of the blame.

On February 27, 1979, the citizens of Cleveland (many of them the same ones that booed Kucinich the summer before) voted on a referendum that had two issues on it: whether or not to raise their income taxes and whether or not to sell Muny Light. For the two months before that Kucinich had spearheaded yet another grass-roots campaign. "We organized volunteers. People went door to door, in the freezing rain and the bitter cold, subzero temperatures and big snow. We laid out the hard facts. We were facing the attempt of big corporations to run the city." 7 The opposition outspent them by 250%, but when it was all done the people had voted to increase their taxes and to retain Muny Light by a factor of 2 to 1.

In November of 1979, with nearly all the industry and media sources of Cleveland united against him, Dennis Kucinich was defeated in his bid for re-election. His political suicide was complete. Soon he was jobless and destitute. He lost his wife; he almost lost his house. He was the laughingstock of the nation.

Today Muny Light, now called Cleveland Public Power, has proved its worth to the city of Cleveland. Over the years it has saved its customers hundreds of millions of dollars over what they would have paid to CEI. 8 Wealthy business people, who probably still hate Dennis Kucinich, admit that retaining Muny Light was "the best thing that ever happened to Cleveland" 9 and set the stage for Cleveland's renaissance during the '90s.

Long after that powerful proof and the acknowledgement of his part in it, Kucinich was still the despised outcast of Cleveland politics. And it was through all this that Dennis Kucinich began to crawl his way back, door by door, campaign by campaign, with many defeats along the way. Some people wondered why he kept trying. First he got back on City Council. Then he was elected to the state House. Next he went to the state Senate - one of only three Democrats across the nation to defeat a sitting Republican state senator. And then in 1996, after five tries, he became the U.S. Congressman for Ohio's 10th District. Now he's running for president, and becoming renowned as a "rock star" and "cult hero" of the political scene - a reputation that may give him as many problems as it does advantages.

He has another reputation that serves him better, and that's as a statesman. He writes his own speeches; he's responsible for every word he says. At the Take Back America Conference on June 5, 2003, 10 wrote that Kucinich's speech caused a "screaming standing ovation" and that "it was clear there was no point in having anyone else follow him." (Gephardt was slated to follow Kucinich with a video message, but according to Salon, the conference organizers adjourned to a party after Kucinich because Gephardt's speech "would have played like a parody of establishment banality.")

Still, coming from the back country of Yoncalla on July 20th to hear him speak at the University of Oregon (on notice so short it didn't make it into the newspapers), I wasn't sure what to expect. I hoped there'd be a decent crowd, but many people I'd talked to in Lorane and Cottage Grove were just beginning to hear about him. Then I went into the lecture hall - and got a seat only by luck and friendship. It was standing room only when I arrived, later the crowd overfilled into the hallway beyond the door.

In the moments before Kucinich was introduced, I heard someone behind me say "Didn't he used to be mayor or something of some place back East?" Then he appeared and everyone leaped to their feet for a long and thunderous ovation as he walked down the steps to stand before them in an open-collared blue shirt and dark blue pants. He looked like a bus driver. Or a janitor. I looked around at the cheering people, some young, but most older than me by a decade or two and thought, Is this normal? I certainly wouldn't be doing this for anyone else.


End Notes:

1. Forbes Magazine

From my reading of this article "net worth" doesn't mean what your true commercial value is, but rather liquid assets. Real estate is not included. Keep that in mind with the other guys. I'm not sure if Kucinich has paid off his house yet. Kerry is the richest, but John Edwards and Bob Graham are also "multimillionaires"–whatever that means– because Dean, with a net worth between"$2.2 million and $5 million" is not mentioned as part of that super-elite club. Gephardt is the least rich at "between $153,000 and $545,000," which the article specifically says does not include his real estate because he gets no income from those holdings.

2. "Populism" by Richard Hofstader at

3. Cleveland Magazine
This story contains a much more extensive recounting of Kucinich's childhood as well as of his early political career and subsequent comeback. I recommend reading it.

4. The Nation, "Kucinich Is the One" by Studs Turkel

5. Ibid.

6. Cleveland Magazine

7. The Nation

8. Between 1985 and 1995, Muny Light-CPP saved its customers $195,148,520 over what they would have paid to CEI. That's just money but when Kucinich speaks about one person making a difference, he's been there, done that.

9. Cleveland Magazine

10. Salon is a subscription only site: Excerpts of what Salon wrote apears at Kucinich for President

or "Kucinich #1 with Activists, Again" at High Country Peace News

Thinking the Unthinkable: A Real Person for President, Part II–
The Speech and Q&A Session

by Lokiko Hall

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