As his van winds through scenic Coldwater Canyon, Dennis Kucinich experiences a musical flashback. Although his destitute childhood, tumultuous term as "boy wonder" mayor and new life as a congressman were set in Cleveland's gritty neighborhoods, it was here that he began a project of personal reclamation.
"After I lost the [mayoral] election in Cleveland in 1979, I moved to California for a while," he says. "I actually remember walking in the area around L.A. known as MacArthur Park, and I was thinking of that song and thinking of the lyrics where they talk about 'Someone left the cake out in the rain. It took so long to make it.' And it goes on, raising the question of whether I'll ever have that recipe again."
He gazes out the window at setback homes and manicured lawns. "I worked 10 years to be able to put together an organization that helped to make it possible for me to become mayor of Cleveland [at age 31] and put my heart and soul into an effort to represent the people," he continues, "and it was an experience of being shattered."
His voice turns lower, quieter: "For me it began that period of the night of the soul."
Presidential candidates don't talk like that. They offer only the most scripted and guarded of focus-group tested personal anecdotes. But this 57-year-old combative mystic deals in dreams and absolutes, not in the pragmatic compromises that might actually get him elected president. In a world of impossible moral quandaries -- and a presidential field awash in strategically muddled positions -- the fourth-term Ohio congressman offers strident clarity flavored with New Age spirituality.
He envisions no less than a world without war, nuclear weapons or uninsured sick people -- and he also wishes everyone followed his lead as a vegan who respects "the sacredness of all species." In other words his platform is Utopia, and many consider his candidacy a fantasy as well. He is, after all, engaged in a neck-and-neck race with "margin for error" in national polls.
But his message resonates with perhaps enough working-class progressives and Hollywood types who provide financial backing and rabid devotion to affect the race in a place such as Iowa, where the Jan. 19 precinct caucuses put a premium on just such zeal.
Still, on this bright September day, he is more than 1,600 miles and a couple of worlds away from Des Moines. In the morning at the California-Mexico border, he lets loose with five minutes of pro-immigrant/anti-NAFTA fury while about 100 scrappy activists, many of them holdovers from Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign, cheer. Nader himself is a Kucinich supporter.
By late afternoon Kucinich has made his way north to a lavish Studio City home where a few hundred supporters wearing that casual California moneyed sheen await him on a vast lawn. Co-hosts/actors James Cromwell and Ed Begley Jr. tower over the 5-foot-7 candidate as they praise him from the patio, and when Kucinich begins preaching the gospel of "Give Peace a Chance" and "Dump Bush," he might as well be John Lennon crossed with Martin Luther King Jr. to these true believers.
Outwardly, he's the most idealistic and the most outraged of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls and, by most measures, the furthest to the left, though he only recently switched his position to now favor abortion rights. A product of Cleveland's hard-knuckled ward system, he counts Shirley MacLaine as a friend and casually quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Eliot and singer Paul Simon.
He speaks of making war "archaic" and draws a blank when asked to cite the last U.S. military action he supported. Yet his political career has consisted of one battle after another. He'll fight like hell for his vision of peace.
His biggest arena for those fights has been the all-come presidential debates. Kucinich, with his plop of dark hair, elfin ears and teeth that catch the spotlight, comes across like an angry rabbit. He sets himself apart from his eight fellow hopefuls by rasping out proclamations that begin, "I am the only one standing on this stage who . . . "
He then touts his unwavering opposition to the war in Iraq and plan to bring U.S. troops home immediately. Or he mentions that he's the one who would create a cabinet-level Department of Peace. Or would end the NAFTA and World Trade Organization agreements. Or would institute a single-payer system to provide universal health care.
The candidate speaks with the liberation of someone possessing The Truth. Several months ago on "The Daily Show," host Jon Stewart joked that the presidential candidates' viability could be gauged by the indirectness of their rhetoric. After a clip of Richard Gephardt offering a hedge-filled assessment of Bush's Iraq policies, Stewart pronounced Gephardt the front-runner. At the opposite end of the spectrum was a heated Kucinich evisceration of the administration. Stewart's verdict: no chance.
Michael McCurry, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton, says Kucinich is playing the "traditional and honored role in presidential primaries" of giving voice to a particular point of view that won't carry the majority but broadens the debate.
"I don't discount the role that he plays," McCurry says, "but I think it would be a little far-fetched to say he has a serious chance at the nomination."
Yet Kucinich's appeal enabled him to raise about $1.6 million in the last quarter of fundraising, perhaps a drop next to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's bucket of $14.8 million during the same period, but creditable nonetheless. (His own net worth is estimated as between $2,002 and $32,000 by the Center for Public Integrity, and his 2002 financial disclosure statement indicates a $15,000-$50,000 personal-loan debt--which has been reported elsewhere as $20,000--to "Shirley Parker" a.k.a. MacLaine, in whose house he stayed in his down-and-out early '80s.)
"We're on a tight budget, and we're in this for the long haul," says Kucinich campaign manager Dorothy Maver from the campaign's modest wood-paneled headquarters on Cleveland's West Side, where several twentysomething volunteers work the phones near a handwritten sign that reads "Oct. 2 -- Happy Birthday, Gandhi!"
Even Ohio politicians who consider Kucinich's candidacy folly do not discount his persistence. Tim Hagan, who served as Cuyahoga County Democratic chairman when Kucinich was mayor, says, "There's no one in America who believes in Dennis Kucinich more than Dennis Kucinich. We used to say back here in Ohio, you've got to drive a stake through the guy's heart to get him out of it."
Kucinich learned tenacity early. The oldest of seven children in a Catholic-Irish-Croatian family, he says he lived in 21 homes -- and a couple of cars -- by the time he was 17 as his truck-driver father struggled to support the brood. (Both parents died in the 1980s.) Trying to retrace his family's movements, Gary Kucinich, Dennis' 52-year-old brother and current mayoral candidate in the Cleveland suburb of Strongville, takes a drive around the Slavic Village neighborhood and Cleveland's East and West Sides.
After about two hours, Gary Kucinich has located a few old apartment buildings -- where the family invariably would cram into two bedrooms -- and about a dozen places where a supermarket, used-car lot or weeds has replaced their former homes. "It seems like almost everywhere we lived is a vacant lot or a parking lot," he sighs.
Gary Kucinich traces his brother's drive to those childhood days. "When other kids were out having fun on weekends at night, Dennis was working two or three jobs, caddying at Beechmont Country Club, working as an orderly at St. Alexis Hospital, working as a copy [clerk] at the Cleveland Plain Dealer," he says. "He was doing all this, paying his way through college."
A sense of hope
Was he one of those kids who thought he could be president?
"I was one of those kids who believed that I could follow a dream and be anything I wanted to be," Dennis Kucinich says, "and I believed that when I had my nose pressed against the inside window of a car that was parked outside a steel mill at night, and that's where we slept, in the car. I believed that when I was watching the flames from the steel mill leap into the night sky. I always had a sense of hope."
Kucinich talks this way sometimes, giving the impression that he's painstakingly crafting his own myth.
But he also can reveal a wry, self-effacing side. In a discussion of his childhood heroes, who also included Abraham Lincoln, Indians slugger Rocky Colavito (Kucinich whips out the 1966 baseball card from his wallet) and several saints, the candidate says, "Like a lot of children of the '50s, when we had televisions, it was easy to become enamored of the heroes of the Westerns and of people like Zorro and the Lone Ranger and Robin Hood. I liked Robin Hood." He pauses for comic effect. "I know this is all pregnant with political meaning."
Then he's serious. "Of course, the thematics of a lot of those shows had an effect on a lot of children at that time in terms of being willing to go out in the world to do good and to engage those forces that were not particularly committed to doing good."
Kucinich set out to engage those forces before he even had reached legal voting age; he conducted his first campaign for Cleveland City Council in 1967, when he would turn 21 only a few weeks before Election Day. How many campaigns has he conducted overall?
A full five minutes pass as he touches each finger on each hand multiple times. "This may be," he says, "since I started, my 32nd campaign."
He lost the 1967 race but was voted onto the City Council two years later. He lost a congressional race in 1972 but was elected mayor in 1977.
Kucinich's two-year term was marked by constant battles with Cleveland's corporate powers and assorted others. "He just had an image more of fighting and hostility than of managing and running a city," recalls retired Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), who now supports Kucinich.
'A standing boo'
When the mayor was invited to throw out the first pitch at the Cleveland Indians' home opener in 1978 -- soon after he'd fired his police chief live on the 6 o'clock news on Good Friday -- he had to wear a bulletproof vest while police sharpshooters lined the stadium.
"People were yelling, `Kill the bum!' and it wasn't the umpire they were yelling at," Kucinich recalls. "When they introduced me, I got a standing boo." He laughs. "But to show you how politics is, I walked to the mound, shook off a few inappropriate signs I got from the catcher and veered up and fired a strike. And the boos turned to cheers. That's baseball, and that's politics too."
The mayor's friction with corporate Cleveland came to a head when he refused to sell the city-owned electric company, the Municipal Light System (a.k.a. Muny Light), to its largest private competitor despite intense pressure from local banks, businesses and the media. So the Cleveland Trust Bank called in a $15 million loan in December 1978, and Cleveland became the first city since the Great Depression to go into default.
Having already survived a recall election by just 236 votes, Kucinich ultimately lost his re-election bid to Republican George Voinovich (now a U.S. enator) in a city as predominantly Democratic as Chicago.
And Kucinich's "night of the soul" became 15 years in the political wilderness.
"His career was over in 1979. Period. End of discussion," says Brent Larkin, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's editorial page director who has covered Kucinich since that decade.
Kucinich embarked upon what he calls "a journey into the poetry of my own life. Searching for those lyrics which inspired me to hold onto hope, whether it was reflecting on Eliot's `Wasteland' -- `shoring fragments against ruins' -- or `Prometheus Unbound' where [Shelley] writes of `hope creating from its own wreck the thing it contemplates,' or the lyrics in Simon and Garfunkel's `Hazy Shade of Winter': `Hang onto your hopes my friend/That's an easy thing to say, but if your hopes should pass away/Simply pretend that you can build them again.'"
He spent much time in California as well as New Mexico, where he hung out with Mac-Laine, who would become godmother to his now college-age daughter and remains, in his words, "a dear friend." He says he and the actress share "the belief in the potential of each person and in the understanding of the importance of seeking the broadest understanding of spiritual principles."
During these years he got divorced for the second time. ("I think that everyone who has ever served in public life recognizes the extra pressures that are put on family.") He also returned briefly to City Council and unsuccessfully ran to become Ohio's secretary of state and governor.
"The people of Cleveland in their wisdom gave me something I would not have given myself, and that is time to think, to reflect and to begin to put things back together but in a different way," he says.
Just as Kucinich was getting his spiritual house in order, the political planets were realigning. In the early '90s, the Cleveland Plain Dealer revisited Kucinich's decision not to sell Muny Light and found that Cleveland residents saved millions of dollars through the public utility's cheaper rates. The City Council eventually held a special ceremony to honor him for his decision.
So in 1994, two years after another failed bid for the U.S. House, Kucinich claimed a state Senate seat with light-bulb-shaped placards and the slogan "Because He Was Right!" Two years later he won his current House seat in Ohio's 10th District, defeating two-term incumbent Republican Martin Hoke under the banner "Light Up Congress."
But the controversy over his mayoral tenure persists. The 1999 book "The American Mayor: The Best & The Worst Big-City Leaders," by University of Illinois at Chicago history professor Melvin G. Holli, surveyed biographers, urban historians and social scientists to rate American mayors between 1820 and 1993, and Kucinich ranked as the seventh worst. (Jane Byrne came in 10th.)
Hagan complains: "It's not a socialist system. It's a capitalist system. And if you don't have the business community at least respecting your view or dealing with you, you're going to cause irreparable damage to a city. And he did."
But Jim Stanton, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and longtime Kucinich political ally, says the former mayor got "a bad rap from the business community. . . . On a grade basis he had a C administration, but it wasn't what they portrayed it to be. And there wasn't anything corrupt about it. Inept at times, yes. Misguided, yes."
Kucinich's view is more rose-colored. "My record as mayor of Cleveland actually is the one thing that recommends me to the presidency because I demonstrated an ability to defend the public interest as a very young person in government when I could have done it the other way," he says. "I could have cut the deal, because that's what politicians learn to do.
"Show me one public official in America who was able to take that kind of a hit and come back years later to the same constituency inside the city of Cleveland and consistently rack up margins of approval in elections of over 90 percent. What does that mean? There's the test. The test is how am I received in Cleveland today?"
Should Kucinich be president? "Hell, yeah, I would definitely vote for him," says Felix Pena, who manages a Cleveland U-Haul outlet. "Any time anything important happens, he's there; he shows up to help out."
Should Kucinich be president? "No, he should be institutionalized," says Dave Mateosky, sitting next to Pena on a barstool at Harry Buffalo in the South Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn. "He destroyed Cleveland. I would hate to see him destroy the nation."
Ideology isn't necessarily a key issue. "For as liberal as his views are, he's much more popular than he should be," says Maureen Pallas, a waitress at the downtown Italian restaurant Frank and Pauly's.
Now Kucinich is trying to expand that popularity. At a Los Angeles event in February 2002, he delivered a speech titled "A Prayer for America," one of the first post-Sept. 11 broadsides against the Bush administration. The speech, which condemned the nation's military actions, the Patriot Act and the propagation of fear, was widely circulated on the Internet and netted him numerous speaking engagements.
A year later he was campaigning for president, angered, he says, over "the administration's march toward war against Iraq and the failure of Democrats in Congress, our leadership, to stand up to the Bush administration."
Kucinich's speeches, often delivered without notes, are carefully modulated exercises in rage and release. Here's how he sounds while addressing a packed, folkie-flavored gymnasium/coffee house in Venice:
"The America that I believe in and that you believe in is an America that must work to abolish all nuclear weapons -- it is time! [The crowd whoops.] It is an America which must sign the biological weapons convention because it is time! . . . It is an America which must sign the international criminal court agreement and rejoin the world in the cause of equal justice because it is time!"
As the applause rings, his voice descends to a near whisper: "And when America does that, the heart of the world will once again open to our nation, and we will unleash the power of peace and love which is our birthright. It is the right of every citizen in this world, to live in peace."
Of course, easier said than done.
"He doesn't see any enemies," complains Jim Moroney, who serves Mediterranean food at Judy's Oasis in Cleveland's West Side Market. "He refuses to believe there are people out there who would want to cause injury to the United States."
Shopping at a nearby stall, retired English teacher and Kucinich backer Joe Bascone laments, "He's not electable, and that's a shame."
Electability is Kucinich's albatross. "Literally hundreds of Iowans have told me that they like Kucinich better on the issues than anyone, but they're voting for someone else because of electability," says Iowa state Rep. Ed Fallon. "If every person who said that voted for Kucinich, he'd win Iowa."
Speaking their language
Kucinich backer and Chicago-based author Studs Terkel goes so far as to say, "If he were in a debate given equal time with anybody, especially Bush, he'd not only be electable, he'd win in a landslide. He'd win every blue-collar Reagan Democrat. Suddenly they'd realize, `He's me. He speaks my language. He has my background.'"
Then again, former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who endorsed Kucinich for mayor in 1977, has endorsed Dean for president. "[Kucinich] always was a gutsy guy, smart, and I think he had and has integrity," Metzenbaum says. "I think of him as a politician. I'm not sure I think of him as president."
Kucinich, on the other hand, thinks of himself as a beacon for the world.
"My journey has spanned political, social, economic and even spiritual gulfs," he says as Beverly Hills passes by the van window. "And because of that journey, I really have a sense of the potential for oneness which exists in this nation and in the world community. I see how it all fits together . . .
"I don't see myself as being so much different from anyone else. It's just that I maybe have had more of an opportunity to think these things through and to look at life in a multidimensional way. So I'm simultaneously the child living in a car and the presidential candidate driving through the tonier neighborhoods of L.A. Same person."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times