Home-State Record: Dennis Kucinich

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(Host) Today in our series on the home-state records of the Democratic presidential candidates we look at Congressman Dennis Kucinich. The Ohio congressman is considered a long-shot in the race, but as Vincent Duffy from public radio station WKSU in Kent, Ohio, reports, Kucinich has faced long odds before.

(Duffy) Dennis Kucinich was a college sophomore in 1967 when he paid $42.50 to declare himself a candidate for Cleveland city council, and lost. Two years later he won that seat, and last October he returned to Cleveland’s City Hall to announce his latest political goal:

(Kucinich, from announcement speech) “I stand here, ready to light up America! I’m Dennis John Kucinich and I’m running for the president of the United States!” (Sound of crowd cheering.)

(Duffy) Twenty-five years ago, the thought of Kucinich being drowned out in this room by cheering supporters would be hard to imagine. The early rise – and some thought fateful fall – of Dennis Kucinich began when the self described champion of underdogs became the youngest mayor of a major American city in 1977, at the age of 31. Critics and comics called him “the boy mayor.”

(Mike Polensec) “He inherited a city that had made some terrible financial decisions prior to him being elected.”

Cleveland City Councilman Mike Polensec was a young councilman when Kucinich was mayor, and says the relationship between the mayor and council was combative:

(Polensec) “Every Monday night was like D-Day. You know, it’s like you wanted to come into council chambers wearing a helmet and a flak jacket. It was ugly every Monday night down here.”

(Duffy) The confrontational mayor fired his police chief on live TV and alienated the business community. But his biggest battle came when local banks threatened to call in a $15 million loan if Kucinich didn’t sell the city owned municipal electric company to its commercial rival. Kucinich refused to sell and Cleveland defaulted on the loans. His critics mounted a recall effort that Kucinich survived by only 236 votes. He lost re-election by a landslide. Two decades later, Polensec and others believe Kucinich was right not to sell Cleveland public power:

(Polensec) “Did Dennis do the right thing? Of course he did. There are some people who even went so far as to say he was a political martyr over it.”

(Duffy) Kucinich was determined to return to politics. He served briefly on city council, and mounted losing campaigns for Ohio governor and secretary of state and Congress. But in the ’90s, Cleveland officials started crediting Kucinich for low utility rates, and he won a seat to the Ohio Senate with the slogan, “because he was right.” Two years later voters elected him to Congress. He continued to champion the underdog, fighting to keep steel mills and hospitals open, and even standing in front of Jacobs Field vowing to keep Cleveland Indians baseball on local television:

(Kucinich, at Jacobs Field) “This is the house, the house that taxpayers built. And because it’s the house that taxpayers built, and because this team is heavily subsidized with tax dollars, it’s time for us to put our foot down and say look, we want the games back on free TV. We support this team so much, in so many ways, and that’s what this bill is designed to do.”

(Duffy) Kucinich represents a district where many trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe. His vegan diet and recent change to a pro-choice stance on abortion set him apart from most of his constituents. But his Web site does celebrate the area favorites of polka, kielbasa and bowling. And at the Red Circle Bar and Lanes in Parma, Ohio, Kucinich’s name still creates disagreements:

“When he was mayor, he was kind of anti-big business…”
“That’s good…”
“He doesn’t take care of…”
“Look what big business is doing to this country today…”
“You’ll get your turn in later. I feel that half the businesses left Cleveland because of that.”

(Duffy) But most agree Kucinich has matured since his days as the “boy mayor.” He easily wins re-election to Congress and city leaders now welcome him. Earlier this year, current Mayor Jayne Campbell ended the symbol of a long held grudge against the former mayor:

(Campbell) “And everyone who has served as the mayor of Cleveland has a portrait, except Dennis Kucinich. It has been 22 years since Dennis Kucinich was mayor of Cleveland. It is time now to put Dennis Kucinich on the wall, because he served as mayor.”

(Duffy) Kucinich remains a long shot among Democratic candidates for president, but believes he will gain support as more people pay attention. He was a strong critic of the war in Iraq before it started, and now thinks just as he was eventually proven correct about Cleveland Public Power, he’ll also be proven correct about the war.

For the Home-State Record Project, I’m Vincent Duffy.

(Host) On Wednesday in our series on the home-state records of the Democratic candidates: Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. And Tuesday night at 7 on VPR, a special hour-long documentary on the record of Howard Dean.

Read or listen to the Home-State Records of all nine candidates

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