Dennis J. Kucinich’s political career was extinguished like a burned-out light bulb on a cold winter night 25 years ago. Journalists came from as far away as England and Japan to record his demise.
As the clock ticked toward midnight -- the moment Cleveland would go bankrupt if its mayor didn’t surrender to the banks -- a local TV station started a countdown, as though it were New Year’s Eve.
The date was Dec. 15, 1978, and Kucinich -- precocious, pugnacious and ambitious -- was, at 31, the nation’s youngest big-city mayor. He had won office on a promise to cancel the sale of Cleveland’s municipal power company, Muny Light, to a competing private utility. But six banks threatened not to renew the city’s credit on $15 million in loans unless Kucinich agreed to sell by midnight.
Downstairs in the Italian-marbled City Hall, Cleveland’s treasurer and the president of one of the banks watched the minutes tick by, waiting to see if Kucinich would back down. Upstairs, the mayor and council bickered. Kucinich stood firm. The clock struck midnight, and Cleveland became the first American city to default on its debts since the Great Depression.
The boyish-looking 5-foot-7, 140-pound mayor, nicknamed Dennis the Menace by the business community he had alienated, held to his belief that the private utility, Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., and its banking friends, most of whom were CEI shareholders, were out to gouge the city.
If Muny Light had been swallowed by CEI, he believed, it would have cost Cleveland millions of dollars in higher rates and especially burdened working-class homeowners.
“Two things about Dennis have never changed,” said Jack Schulman, a Harvard-educated lawyer who worked in the beleaguered Kucinich administration. “One, he is absolutely honest and you never have to wonder whether he’s taken a position because someone bought him off. Two, he’s committed to working people.”
The default, and the exile that followed, became both Kucinich’s political coffin and his eventual springboard to redemption. It clung to him like a shadow, from the West where he fled after the Cleveland debacle in pursuit of a new life to Iowa and New Hampshire where, in the winter of 2004, he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination using a light bulb as his symbol and the slogan “Light Up America.”
“You come to certain moments in your life, which are key and defining moments, which tell a lot about who you are,” Kucinich told Cleveland magazine in 1996. “And for me, everything came down to that moment. Who I was. Where I’d been. Who I grew up with. How I grew up. What my aspirations were. What I hoped to do. What I hoped to be.... And it all came down to my saying, ‘No, I’m not going to sell that electric system no matter what the consequences are to me personally.’ ”
After the default, Kucinich survived a recall by 236 votes. But savaged in the local media and unpopular with the black and business communities, the Police Department and city hall bureaucrats, he was swept out of office in a landslide in 1979. He had dreamed as a child of being Cleveland’s mayor, and his two-year fulfillment of that dream had been marked by tumult, national derision and, in the end, a humiliating defeat.
TV talk-show hosts joked about Kucinich’s legacy, about Cleveland -- “the crisis capital of America” -- and its “boy mayor,” whose assistant director of public works was 21 and whose head of city education was fined for “mooning” his brother on an interstate highway. Kucinich was nearly broke by the time he was voted out of office. His second marriage was collapsing. Prospective employers didn’t return phone calls. He flew west, seeking equilibrium.
For several years, he paced the streets of cities in California, New Mexico and Oregon. He looked for jobs, and when they didn’t materialize he knew the ghosts of Cleveland still haunted him. Occasionally he’d return to his hometown for public forums. Crowds saw him and chanted, “Default! Default!”
Bunker Hill Period
In Los Angeles one day, he found himself in MacArthur Park, among the poor and dispossessed. He remembered the words of Langston Hughes, the seaman-turned-poet whose first book was titled “Weary Blues”: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal star.”
“I knew what it was like for all these people out there trying to get their lives together and figure out where they’re going,” Kucinich recalled. “I’d been there.... I remember thinking, ‘Man, I put 10 years into a career in Cleveland and it just floated away.’ ”
He started writing his autobiography in the Bunker Hill apartment of a friend, Robert Scheer, then a political writer for The Times. He laughs now when asked if the writing was cathartic. He was still years from achieving catharsis, he said. He had always believed life works out if you do the right thing. What he hadn’t realized, he said, was the learning curve: It would take him 15 years to get his dreams back on track.
“Dennis can take it,” said Scheer, who now writes a weekly opinion column for The Times. “I never saw him show self-pity. I never saw him show regret. Never saw him say the world is cruel; ‘How could this happen to me?’ Even in hard times, Dennis was fun to be with. He’s always been an optimist.”
Dennis John Kucinich grew up a virtual transient in a loving but dysfunctional Cleveland family. He was the eldest of seven children of Virginia and Frank Kucinich, a truck driver who never quite caught up with his bills. Before he turned 18, Dennis had lived in 21 places, including the backseat of a couple of cars.
He scrubbed the floors of his Catholic school at the age of 12 for 60 cents an hour to help pay his tuition. He was a surrogate parent to his siblings. He got good grades, and as a 5-foot-4, 98-pound high school freshman made the football team as a backup quarterback with a penchant for flattening bigger players who blocked his path. His athletic career ended as a senior because of a heart murmur (which would later keep him out of the military during the Vietnam War).
When he was 17, he moved into his own apartment to escape the bedlam at home. It was a $50-a-month walk-up in Cleveland’s tough Tremont area. He wore a black raincoat in those days and carried a gun, a starter pistol loaded with blanks, to scare off muggers.
“My ambition is, and will be, a career in national politics,” he wrote in an autobiography for school.
Soon he was working two jobs, as a surgical technician during the day and a copy boy at the Cleveland Plain Dealer at night. He also enrolled at Cleveland State College and started attending Cleveland City Council meetings, pestering the elected officials with questions and challenges. He ran for a seat on the council in 1967, even though he was only 20 and not old enough to vote.
“If I win this one, I can go all the way,” he said at the time, and given his ambition and cocksure attitude, friends had no doubt that he was referring to nothing less than the presidency of the United States.
A Need to Achieve
Kucinich lost that election but won a council seat in 1969 and the mayoral post in 1977. People considered him a talented politician and an impulsive, difficult person to do business with. He didn’t compromise, and he seemed consumed by the need to achieve, to prove he could play on the same field as the big guys.
Once, although he seldom drank, he bet a group of reporters at Cleveland’s Rockwell Inn $5 each that he could put down 10 martinis in 30 minutes. He won the bet in 27 minutes, went outside to vomit and was sick for days. But he had made a point: He didn’t back down in the face of challenge.
Cleveland magazine found his behavior as mayor so peculiar that it asked two unidentified psychiatrists to assess his personality. Opined one: “Dennis seems to have a need to be a person significant in size. Since he’s not physically big, he has to establish it in another way, so that when he enters a room, people say, ‘Here comes a significant person, a formidable person.’ ”
But even his critics came to admit that Kucinich was formidable. Knocked out of the political arena in 1979, he returned to Cleveland from his Western wanderings in 1983 and won a seat on the council.
“I don’t think anyone, including me, thought this was a big comeback,” he said. “I was only back to where I started. But I was reconnected.”
Perhaps more important, Clevelanders were starting to believe Kucinich had been right about Muny Light, especially after members of a congressional staff concluded, in 1980, that the default had been politically motivated. History was about to be rewritten by the loser.
In 1993, then-Cleveland Mayor Michael White cited Kucinich’s “wisdom” in not selling the utility, and in 1998 the council honored the deposed mayor for having the “courage and foresight” to stand up to the banks. The utility, now known as Cleveland Public Power, provides low-cost electricity that saved the city an estimated $195 million between 1985 and 1995. One of the new buildings in its expanded plant is named for Kucinich.
Kucinich completed his comeback in 1994, winning a seat in the Ohio Senate -- one of the few Democrats in the country to defeat a seated Republican state senator that year. President Clinton took note and urged Kucinich to consider national office. Kucinich was elected in 1996 to Congress, where he speaks with one of the most liberal voices.
His presidential aspirations took form in February 2002, when he was scheduled to speak, along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor Warren Beatty, to the Americans For Democratic Action in Los Angeles. He was staying at the Westwood home of a friend, Emmy-winning TV producer and writer Lila Garrett, one of the event’s organizers.
“He was sitting at my computer in shirt sleeves after breakfast, about four hours before his speech,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘What theme would you like me to use?’ I said, ‘Reveal who Bush really is.’ He replied, ‘I can do that,’ and he wrote this really beautiful prayer for America.”
In his prayer, Kucinich lamented the USA Patriot Act and the approaching war in Iraq and concluded: “America, America. God shed grace on thee. Crown thy good, America. Not with weapons of mass destruction. Not with invocations of an axis of evil. Not through breaking international treaties. Not through establishing America as king of a unipolar world. Crown thy good, America.”
Fifty-thousand people responded with e-mails. He knew he had tapped into a chord of national discontent. Eight months later, he kicked off his presidential campaign. He has drawn enthusiastic crowds, though polls put him a distant sixth in a field of seven, and he received only 1% of the vote in Iowa on Monday. And he delights supporters with his animated style, his progressive vision and his willingness to poke fun at himself.
Walking into an Iowa coffee shop the other day, Kucinich was dwarfed by the crowd gathered around him. He kicked off his shoes, jumped on a chair and shouted: “I am standing up!”
Someone asked him what Dennis Kucinich, the congressman of 2004, would say to Dennis Kucinich, the mayor of 1978, if he were to offer some advice. Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied: “Hang in there.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Dennis J. Kucinich
Born: Oct. 8, 1946, in Cleveland
Family: Divorced twice. One daughter, Jacqueline
Education: Cleveland State University, 1967-70; Case Western Reserve University, bachelor of arts, communications, 1973; master’s degree, speech communications, 1974
Career: Cleveland City Council, 1970-75, 1983-85; clerk, municipal courts, 1976-77; mayor of Cleveland, 1977-79; radio talk-show host, 1979 and 1989; lecturer, 1980-83; public power consultant, 1986-94; television reporter, 1989-92; Ohio state senator, 1994-96; U.S. congressman, 1997-present
By the numbers
Number of times Kucinich’s family moved when he was growing up, at times sleeping in a car.
Kucinich’s age when he was elected to the Cleveland City Council.
Kucinich’s age when he was elected mayor of Cleveland, at the time the youngest mayor of a major American city.
Number of votes by which Kucinich avoided being recalled from the mayor’s office in 1979.
Percentage of votes Kucinich captured in his 2002 congressional race.
Amount Kucinich says he spent for his Cleveland home, which he purchased in 1971.
A closer look
* Kucinich is a vegan who enjoys matzo and hot water with lemon instead of coffee or tea.
* Kucinich does not allow his staff members to park foreign cars in congressional lots.
* The progressive candidate has garnered a host of high-profile supporters, from actors Danny Glover, James Cromwell and Hector Elizondo to musicians Willie Nelson and Ani DiFranco.
* At 5-foot-7, Kucinich is the shortest candidate in the race.
* A date with Kucinich was the prize in an Internet contest. He and his female companion had breakfast in Concord, N.H.
* Kucinich supporters have composed dozens of songs about him, including an original piece by Willie Nelson, “Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth.”
The Ohio congressman is running as the one true unreconstructed liberal in the race. Adamant in his opposition to the war in Iraq, Kucinich goes beyond fellow war opponent Howard Dean by calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops and their replacement by U.N. forces. He has an avid group of followers, but not in sufficient numbers to influence the Democratic race, let alone win the nomination.
Analysis by Mark Z. Barabak
Sources: Almanac of American Politics, National Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, www.kucinich.us
Los Angeles Times