The day after the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I stood looking, inside the Central Library’s “American Originals” exhibit, at Kennedy’s notes for his 1961 inaugural address. Reading the two plain yellow legal-pad sheets, I was struck by how fresh both the ink upon them and Kennedy’s prose about ending “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself” remain. Rather than a window onto the past, JFK’s notes seemed like a glimpse of some utopian future — or at least an escape from the toxic present.
Of all the Democratic candidates running for the White House, Dennis Kucinich most embodies the hopeful spirit of Kennedy’s New Frontier — and he’s polling near dead last. He’s also among the most ridiculed. Although there’s at least one right-wing Web site solely devoted to trashing the Ohio congressman, much of the dissing comes from a middle-aged left whose commentators, like their respectable colleagues in the “center,” find Kucinich unelectable because he’s too progressive, too short, too divorced or too New Age. Yet one is endlessly surprised by the energy and devotion of his followers, who seem heedless of all pundits.
Mary Jacobs, a substitute teacher who now works as Kucinich’s L.A. campaign coordinator, was immediately won over by the congressman’s speech at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard last April, an event that drew a large, enthusiastic crowd.
“My jaw dropped when he said he cared for homeless people and mentioned the Nuclear Posture Review,” Jacobs says. “No other candidate talks about the homeless or nuclear war. I make peace T-shirts that I sell out of shopping carts at rallies, but from that moment on I stopped making them and switched to making Kucinich shirts.”
Jacobs was a student at the University of Illinois when she did volunteer work for Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic 1968 campaign. Today she is an unpaid volunteer who runs Kucinich’s tiny headquarters on Cesar Chavez Avenue in East L.A., where she lives. She tells me of the changes that the campaign has caused in her life.
“My husband’s become a vegan like Dennis, which drove me nuts,” she says. “We have a lot of friends that we didn’t have before, and we talk about Dennis all the time.”
“The beauty of Kucinich’s campaign committees,” Francis DellaVecchia tells me, “is that they remain very autonomous. They each have a wonderful individual flavor.”
DellaVecchia, who ran for L.A. mayor in 2001, managed Dawson’s Book Shop in Larchmont Village before taking a big salary cut to become a paid field director for Kucinich’s Southern California campaign (he has since quit, citing an organizational shuffle).
“This is a people’s campaign,” he says, “unusual for its lack of ego. People have really risen to the occasion.”
Like DellaVecchia, Susan Mainzer took a large salary cut and put her life on hold to work for Kucinich. Now she’s one of only five paid Kucinich press representatives, serving as his national media coordinator. “I was making more money when I was 23!” says the former record-industry publicist. “I’m working out of my house now, and I can’t even get a ‰
roommate to share expenses because I need the second bedroom for my office.”
Like Mary Jacobs, she first met Kucinich at the Immanuel gathering. “I was onboard immediately,” she says. When asked to explain Kucinich’s appeal, she answers, “He really listens to you. I’ve met other politicians and none have his passion and realness.”
Anai Ibarra-Lopez quit a corporate PR job to work as the campaign’s unpaid media coordinator for Latino affairs in Los Angeles. She tells me she first heard Kucinich speak on radio station KPFK and found him straightforward on immigration and driver’s-license issues. She is also alarmed by the high proportion of Latino casualties in Iraq and by the Pentagon’s recruitment focus on low-income Hispanics.
“The Army is a last resort for education and employment for Latinos,” she says. “Every day I see ads broadcast on Spanish-language television that show Latino-looking soldiers and their families supporting them. And now the Army is going into Latino high schools to get information on students there — they don’t do that in Anglo schools.”
I ask Ibarra-Lopez if she could see herself eventually campaigning for another Democrat.
“I’m not sure,” she answers. “I don’t see any difference between Bush and the other Democratic candidates — all of them are pro-war and for having a huge Pentagon budget.”
Last Sunday, Kucinich spoke to the faithful at an East L.A. school and then cut the ribbon on his campaign’s storefront headquarters. Mary Jacobs was there, and while she was happy to see the candidate, she was disappointed by the turnout and an unforeseen Christmas parade on nearby Whittier Boulevard that shortened her candidate’s stay. Still, she was gratified to hear him. “I get goose bumps when I hear him speak,” she says. “I’m so enthusiastic some people think I go overboard. But this is a grassroots campaign and people like me belong here. I’ve never felt so inspired.”
More surprisingly, neither has Greg Gilbert, a Republican investment banker from Newport Beach who heads up Kucinich’s Orange County campaign. “People here are getting sick and tired of what’s happening,” Gilbert told me. “There have to be alternatives to war and the corporate economy, and Dennis is the only one giving them. I can’t imagine campaigning for anyone else.”