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.
Kucinich has also criticized Dean for his view that the bloated Pentagon budget — which represents half of all federal discretionary spending — is sacrosanct and can’t be touched, calling Dean’s position “voodoo budgeting.” With a half-a-trillion-dollar, Bush-created deficit weakening the economy, Kucinich has proposed cutting expensive, unworkable, boondoggling weapons systems like Star Wars, the F22s and the V22s, which are useless in the war on terror.
A lot of mainstream commentators — particularly TV’s chattering heads — have made fun of Kucinich for proposing the creation of a federal Department of Peace. Well, the first president to do so was John F. Kennedy, who created the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (abolished under Bill Clinton) to fight weapons proliferation and serve as a counterweight think tank to the Pentagon’s expansionist-policy propagandists. As more American men and women come home from Iraq in body bags, the notion of once again having a federal agency to seek nonviolent ways of resolving the mushrooming number of international and regional conflicts — like those between nuke powers India and Pakistan, not to mention North Korea — doesn’t seem so silly.
Kucinich is, in fact, an ambulant index of the progressive agenda. He’s the only presidential candidate to have voted against the civil-liberties-shredding PATRIOT Act, which he would like to see repealed. In fact, he offers the strongest defense of constitutionally protected rights of any candidate, proclaiming: “We cannot justify widespread wiretaps and Internet surveillance without judicial supervision, let alone with it. We cannot justify secret searches without a warrant. We cannot justify giving the attorney general the ability to designate domestic terror groups. We cannot justify giving the FBI total access to any type of data that may exist in any system anywhere, such as medical records and financial records. We cannot justify giving the CIA the ability to target people in this country for intelligence surveillance. We cannot justify a government that takes from the people our right to privacy and then assumes for its own operations a right to total secrecy.”
Even though he comes from a conservative state, Kucinich hasn’t been afraid to take on issues the front-runners duck. For example, he’s flat out for gay marriage and made a point in the last televised debate of his support for decriminalizing marijuana.
All that’s the kind of talk that brings liberal audiences to their feet.
With employment figures still stagnant, and the blackout having underscored the rotting of our nation’s infrastructure, Kucinich has put forward a common-sense plan he says could return 2 million Americans to the work force. It calls for creating $50 billion annually in interest-free loans to states and localities for infrastructure repair to outdated, polluting sewer and water-delivery systems, dilapidated schools and the like. The federal government, through the Federal Bank for Infrastructure Modernization, would buy from localities the bonds to finance these loans. The Federal Reserve System currently holds some $300 billion in Treasury securities; instead of buying those securities, the Federal Reserve would take a portion of that money to buy the mortgage loans of the states. The risk is slight: A similar proposal was supported by Fed Chair Alan Greenspan in February 2001 congressional testimony.
There really isn’t much to criticize from a progressive perspective in Kucinich’s record. Even his election-year conversion to full-throated support of Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose (after years of voting against federal funding of abortions in the House) has been accepted by a growing roster of Feminists for Kucinich, led by such unimpeachable icons of the women’s movement as Barbara Ehrenreich, Grace Paley, Meredith Tax and Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook.
But it’s the Cleveland crusader’s unrivaled record of opposing the war in Iraq that has been the centerpiece of his candidacy. It was little Dennis Kucinich, chair of the House Progressive Caucus, who — starting with just 19 members of Congress behind him — led the anti-war crusade that eventually corralled nearly two-thirds of House Democrats to oppose a war based on lies. And it was Kucinich who denounced those lies then (long before Dean did) and who — in a series of sharp-minded, ad-libbed floor speeches carried on C-SPAN — helped rally a large chunk of the country to oppose the new Bush doctrine of “pre-emptive” military first strikes (or, in plain English, aggressions) anywhere and anytime the president thinks they’re necessary (a Bush policy which Dean endorsed). In every debate, Kucinich points out that he’s the only one of the Capitol Hill candidates to have actually voted against the Bush-Gephardt-Lieberman blank-check resolution for an invasion of Iraq. Not only that, he filed a lawsuit to try to stop the invasion as unconstitutional without a formal declaration of war by the Congress.
His anti-war sincerity is the major reason Kucinich has a lot of friends in Hollywood, too. According to the Associated Press, “The Ohio congressman . . . outpaces his eight rivals in endorsements from the entertainment industry” — from Joaquin Phoenix, Danny Glover, Shelley Morrison (of Will & Grace), Hector Elizondo, Ani DiFranco, Roy Scheider, Ed Asner, Ed Begley Jr., James Cromwell, Peter Coyote, Elliott Gould, Eric Roberts, director Haskell Wexler, Pete Seeger, and the entire Dave Matthews Band. Casey Affleck says he’s “leaning” toward Kucinich. Other prominent Californians who’ve signed on with Kucinich are Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, who represents Marin and Sonoma counties, liberal powerhouse Stanley Scheinbaum, and Tom Hayden. Kucinich has even made a groupie out of the wife of one of his competitors: According to ABC’s Kucinich campaign embed, “John Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, counts herself as a Kucinich fan and has made a special effort to seek him out at debates to say hello.”
But can Kucinich win the nomination? Frankly, no — not because of his positions, but because he can’t raise enough money to compete simultaneously in all the early primaries now bunched together in January and February under the new, truncated electoral calendar (although he’s raised millions of dollars more than expected). However, Kucinich may be a significant factor in Iowa, where he generates wild applause in union halls when he throws out his cancel-NAFTA, cancel-WTO, repeal-Taft-Hartley red meat — and where he just might wean away enough union members from Gephardt to throw the victory to Dean.
In the latest Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers released two weeks ago, Kucinich is at 3 percent — right where he was in the same poll in July. That may not sound like much — but all the polls show Iowa a close contest between Dean and Gephardt. Kucinich supporters tend to be more deeply committed than those of other candidates, meaning they’ll have more sitzfleisch — Yiddish for staying power — to keep them in their seats right to the end of the lengthy caucus process, giving them importance beyond their numbers. If Kucinich does manage an unexpected impact in the Iowa caucuses — and, given the grassroots enthusiasm he’s generating there with help from singer Willie Nelson and the FarmAid crowd, that’s not entirely inconceivable — it would send a message to the party’s national leadership and the eventual nominee that the party’s left cannot be ignored. Moreover, a surprising showing in Iowa would keep Kucinich’s candidacy — and his undiluted left-populist, anti-war message — alive into New Hampshire, thus insuring continued pressure on the other candidates (especially the often-vacillating Dean) to correct their rhetorical fire.
Kucinich’s supporters like to cite the formula urged by the Texas sage Molly Ivins: Vote with your heart in the primaries, and vote with your head in November. When you think about it, that’s not bad advice at all.