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THE CONTENDERS : Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich
Power Parable for an Unlikely Crusade
･ In His Own Words (The Washington Post, Jun 20, 2003)
･ Dennis J. Kucinich's Life in Photos
_____More on Kucinich_____
･ Kucinich's 'Medicare for All' Offers No Role for Private Insurers (The Washington Post, May 11, 2003)
･ The Candidate Shouting To Be Heard About Peace (The Washington Post, Apr 9, 2003)
･ Kucinich Exploring 2004 Bid (The Washington Post, Feb 18, 2003)
In 1978, Cleveland was in freefall. The banks were pressuring the city's young and diminutive mayor, Dennis J. Kucinich, to sell the city's municipal electricity system to cover $4.5 million in debt. Kucinich refused, and the city went into default.
The next year he lost his reelection bid, and at 33, he entered what he now calls "the dark night of the soul." He had trouble finding any kind of work. A job at a newspaper fell through, as did one at a local radio station. He couldn't even become a spokesman for a paint and home supply store after one of its major investors objected. His marriage fell apart. He took refuge on the speaking tour circuit and in teaching communications classes at local universities, but Kucinich had become a pariah.
But by 1994 many voters, thankful for their low electricity rates, had forgiven him. He distributed placards in the shape of a light bulb with the slogan "Because He Was Right," and unseated a Republican state senator.
Two years later he won his House seat, defeating GOP Rep. Martin Hoke, this time with the slogan "Light Up Congress."
Kucinich's decision to hold on to the municipal power company is still controversial. John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said he suspects most Clevelanders still oppose it. "Everything's colored by the fact that the city went bankrupt," he said. But, for Kucinich, the episode has become a parable in his campaign to win the Democratic nomination for president. "When that story is told, it will be instrumental in getting me elected," he said in an interview. "Where it once was an albatross, now it's a springboard."
The story of Cleveland's municipally owned light plant embodies Kucinich's world view, the view he hopes voters across the country will embrace: that the United States is in danger of losing its very soul, and only a crusader such as Kucinich can stand up to the corrupt corporations and their political lackeys who are leading the country down this dangerous path.
Kucinich has a vision of how his administration would dismantle the corporate power structure he sees as destroying America's promise. He wants to repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement so U.S. companies can't take advantage of cheap labor in Mexico. He plans to use antitrust laws to break up monopolies, be they agribusiness or communications. He wants to slash defense spending, defying influential military contractors who extract billions from the nation's budget.
At 56, the four-term congressman sees himself as a bold messenger who is willing to say what others in his party cannot. More than a year ago he gave a speech, called "A Prayer for America," in Los Angeles opposing military action in Iraq. People across the country e-mailed and called him, telling him he should consider a presidential bid. By autumn, he started taking the idea seriously.
But while much of his campaign centers on ideology, it is just as much about his personal experience of defeat and redemption. To have kept trying in the face of defeat and then to finally reemerge as a stronger person is an experience he believes many Americans will relate to.
"It's really not as much about politics as it is about the heart," he said. "It's about seeing there are endless possibilities in life."
At a time of voter unease about the economy and government encroachment on civil liberties, Kucinich seems to have struck a chord with many Democrats. But his candidacy remains a hard sell, in part because of Kucinich himself. Even among liberal Democrats who dominate the party's nominating process, he is just a shade too far to the left. It's one thing for former Vermont governor Howard Dean to oppose the war in Iraq; it's another to propose, as Kucinich does, that the country establish a Department of Peace. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) suggests giving companies a tax break for health care; Kucinich wants a government-run, universal health care system that even former president Bill Clinton rejected in his first term.
But Kucinich remains optimistic. "When you look at the traditional political indices of name recognition, money, looks and all the other stuff, I'm the most unlikely candidate in this race," he said. "I'm used to winning elections people say are un-winnable."
So he hits the road and carries his message to Iowa.
On a recent campaign swing, Kucinich recounted the story of Cleveland's electricity crisis many times. He told it to hog farmers when they asked if he was sincere about standing up to giant farming conglomerates. He told it to labor leaders to underscore his willingness to take on multinationals. He told it to a group of supporters in a private home in Des Moines when he was describing how he envisioned his administration would operate.
Sitting with hog farmers in a local restaurant in Story City, Iowa, Kucinich said he would work to make sure that large-scale agriculture operations did not capture the market entirely. This prompted Kermit Miskell, a retired farmer, to ask, "So is this coming from your heart, or is this coming from a politician?"
"If it was coming from a politician, I would have sold a municipal electricity company and gone on to a career of great fame," Kucinich said. "There is not another candidate in this race who can stand up to corporate America, to the bankers."
Other Democratic candidates, such as Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), have touted their humble beginnings. But Kucinich can trump them all. While he was growing up, his family moved 21 times in search of affordable housing; at one point, he lived in the backseat of a 1949 Dodge. The son of a truck driver, Kucinich likes to tell audiences that, as Langston Hughes once wrote, "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair."
"I understand what people go through," he told a group of painters union officials in Ankeny, Iowa. "I can remember my parents counting the pennies to pay the utility bill. I can almost hear the click, click, click of pennies hitting the table."
While Kucinich lived in poverty as a child, however, he had serious political ambitions at an early age. As a teenager, he confided in his best friend that he planned to run for mayor. Working as a copy boy at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, he told one of the paper's radio and TV columnists, George E. Condon, that he would be mayor by the time he was 30.
"Needless to say, my father did not put a whole lot of stock in this young-looking guy saying that," said George Condon Jr., who now serves as Washington bureau chief of the Copley News Service.
Eleven years later, Condon's father emceed Kucinich's mayoral inauguration. Kucinich was 31 years old.
On one level, Kucinich is running a conventional campaign, traveling 20,000 miles during a recent campaign swing, complete with a camerawoman trailing him to capture scenes for future television ads, and a Des Moines headquarters opening with red, white and blue balloons. But he lags far behind other Democratic candidates in fundraising. He raised slightly more than $250,000 on the Internet in the first few months of his campaign; Edwards and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) collected $7 million each during that same period. The Ohio congressman has two paid staffers in Iowa; while it's two more than the Rev. Al Sharpton has right now, it pales in comparison to the 14 Dean has in the state.
For the past six years, Kucinich hasn't spent a penny on paid media. He plans to employ a similar approach in Iowa, where he has 3,000 volunteers. "I will have the largest grass-roots campaign that the Democratic Party has even seen," he said.
If there's one place it will work, it's Iowa. And perhaps New Mexico, whose caucus Kucinich predicts he will win.
"What matters here is not money," said Gordon R. Fischer, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman, who came to watch Kucinich and several other candidates make their pitch at the state's Polk County dinner. "It's organization and people being fired up about your message."
But it is clear to everyone that money is a problem. "It's kind of like going into a gunfight with a pocketknife," said Mark Smith, the AFL-CIO's president in Iowa.
Without question, Kucinich's message resonates with many Iowa voters, particularly his plan to repeal NAFTA.. "He's saying all the things a Democrat ought to say," said Ken Raines, one of three Democratic National Committee officers in Iowa. "I keep telling folks if Democrats run in the middle, sounding like a Republican, what's the point of voting for a Democrat?"
And in an era of blow-dried candidates, Kucinich exudes a unique charm. He's a mix of working-class ethnic and New Age visionary, a vegan who jokes that while he doesn't eat pork he consumes plenty of corn and soy, two of Iowa's major crops. He actually pauses a few beats before answering reporters' questions, and is just as likely to quote Percy Bysshe Shelley in response as JFK. With a seemingly endless reservoir of energy he outlasts his own aides, and he rises early and talks late into the night with prospective voters about how he would change the country.
Still, even his natural ideological allies said they would have to think twice before voting for him. Marybeth Gardner, who organizes the Iowa candidate forum for the Stop the Arms Race political action committee and showed up at a recent Kucinich reception, said she has never met a better peace candidate. But she and all her friends face the same dilemma when choosing between Kucinich and Dean: "[Kucinich is] doing the exact right thing. On the other hand, we definitely want Bush out of the White House."
Kucinich is not deterred. Armed with his stories of taking on corporations and the traditional political power structure, he is moving ahead.
"This is about reclaiming the American dream," Kucinich said. "I'm going to be the only one in this campaign who takes this issue right to the people."