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Dennis the Annoyed 

Kucinich, the Cleveland crusader, battles Washington

Thursday, Nov 20 2003
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Illustration by Ismael Roldan

When the Great Blackout of 2003 hit half of the country, it put on the front burner an issue that Dennis Kucinich owns. When the scrappy, working-class Democrat from Ohio was first elected to Congress in 1994, his campaign signs and bumper stickers featured a light bulb and the slogan “Light Up Congress!” It was a reminder of how, when Kucinich was elected mayor of Cleveland on a campaign pledge not to sell Muny Light, the municipally owned electric-power company, he fought the special interests to a standstill and saved cheaper electric power for his city.

And when it became clear that the blackout, which affected 50 million people, started in the Ohio plants of First Energy Corp., no one had to explain why to Kucinich: He’d been fighting greedy, regulation-flaunting First Energy — and its predecessor, Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) — for years.

CEI in 1976 wanted a monopoly on Cleveland power to help it recover from the financial disaster it brought on itself when it invested massively in nuclear power, building plants so unsafe they often went unused, and began a campaign to buy Muny Light on the cheap. CEI’s co-conspirators in their planned raid on taxpayers’ wallets were a consortium of six of Cleveland’s banks, which owned 1.8 million shares of CEI stock (the bankers’ conflicts of interest were rampant: Of CEI’s 11 directors, eight were also directors of the banks). These banks, which also owned the city’s debt, threatened to push Cleveland into default if the sale were not permitted. Kucinich resisted, and became the target of a vicious campaign by the city’s notoriously pro-business, pro-Republican newspapers — which raked in handsome profits from CEI’s advertising.

“Where I come from,” says Kucinich, “it matters how much people pay for electricity. I grew up in the inner city of Cleveland, the oldest of seven children.” His father was a frequently unemployed truck driver, and, he says, “My parents never owned a home, they lived in 21 different places by the time I was 17, including a couple of cars. I remember when there were five children and my parents living in a three-room upstairs apartment on Cleveland’s east side. My parents would sometimes sit in the kitchen at one of those old white enamel-top tables, which, when the surface was chipped, was black underneath. When they counted their pennies, I could hear them clicking on the enamel tabletop. Click. Click. Click.”

When he was in the bankers’ board rooms listening to their threats to cut the city’s credit if he didn’t toe their line, Kucinich remembers, “I was thinking about my parents counting their pennies, and I could hear those pennies hitting the enamel-top table, I could hear those clicks. So, I said no to the sale of Muny Light to CEI.” The banks then pushed the city into default, Cleveland’s tame press labeled Kucinich “Dennis the Menace,” and at the next election in 1979 Kucinich was defeated, with default as the issue, by GOPer George Voinovich (later governor, now U.S. senator). Now, Kucinich stands vindicated. “There is little debate over the value of Muny Light today,” as Cleveland Magazine wrote in 1996, noting that the power company owned by Clevelanders “between 1985 and 1995 saved its customers $195,148,520 over what they would have paid CEI.” In 1998, the Cleveland City Council adopted a resolution commending Kucinich for “having the courage and foresight to refuse to sell the city’s municipal electric system.”

The East Coast blackout put Kucinich on TV’s national news for the first time since he declared his insurgent presidential candidacy. He railed against the deregulation of the electric-power industry — which has not only led to skyrocketing price rates for consumers but allowed the industry to ignore the desperate need for upgrading unsafe, worn-out facilities, thus exposing the nation to massive outages.

Since the blackout, Kucinich has been getting more TV attention. After all, Kucinich came in second to Dean in the MoveOn electronic primary, which brought Dennis the Menace a million bucks in contributions in just a few days. Some 15,000 Kucinich supporters have signed up to be part of his campaign through the local gatherings organized via MeetUp.com, meaning he’s second only to Dean and ahead of John Kerry in these Internet-arranged caucuses, despite the Massachusetts’ senator’s big push to use MeetUp.

Then, too, Kucinich’s attacks on Dean’s inconsistencies and flip-flops have been drawing blood in the debates. When Dean tried to pretend he was always opposed to raising the age for Social Security–funded retirement before an AFL-CIO candidate forum in Chicago, Kucinich nailed him for having said in the past that the retirement age should be raised to 70.

Dean in the end was forced to admit Kucinich was right. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney told the Washington Post that Kucinich’s record on issues vital to labor was as good as Dick Gephardt’s, who has 21 international unions in his corner. And, while the nation’s top labor bureaucrats who’ve taken a position so far are split between Gephardt and Dean, Kucinich in Iowa has a Rank and File for Kucinich Committee that has scads of local presidents, union reps and shop stewards working for him there.

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