Dennis Kucinich: from The 30 people who defined Cleveland

from Cleveland Magazine, December 2002
Friends and rivals recount their memories of Kucinich's epic battles as mayor, his years in exile and his triumphant comeback, as told to Cleveland Magazine in these excerpted interviews.

Kucinich became mayor in November 1977.

John Ryan, president of the Greater Cleveland AFL-CIO: "Dennis was the first candidate I worked for before I was even old enough to vote. I was 17. There was this incredible energy. It was a campaign with a purpose. This was not about Dennis; this was about fighting powerful companies for the good of working people."

George Forbes, ex-city council president: "It was a constant confrontation, it was a constant battle. When I was president of council, I only went to City Hall on a Monday and Thursday afternoon. When Dennis was mayor, I had to be there every day, because you never knew what was going to happen. He had a young group of people with him, a young cabinet. It was exciting for them, but it was hell on the town."

Bill Sullivan, former councilman and a leader of the 1978 effort to recall Kucinich: "I really couldn't go along with his tactics [of] destroying people. You were either for or against him, and if you were against him, get out of the way, because he was going to roll over you.

"He beat Eddie Feighan by one percentage point and I supported Eddie Feighan, so then [I went to him and said,] 'OK, Mr. Mayor, you've won; we've got to work together.' I remember I was sitting in his office and he said, I'm going to bury you, Sullivan.'

"He went on a national search for [police chief Richard Hongisto] and all of a sudden was going to fire this guy. The press called me: 'Councilman Sullivan, what are you going to do?' I gulped and said, 'We're going to review the charter and see if we can recall him.' I thought I'd pin his ears back, tame the guy a little bit. Lo and behold, my phone started ringing off the hook. In a month's time we had 60,000 signatures. He won [the recall election] by 236 votes."

In December 1978, as the city's financial troubles mounted, the Cleveland Trust Bank refused to grant the city a loan extension unless it sold the Municipal Light System (now Cleveland Public Power). Kucinich wouldn't sell and the city went into default.

Ryan: "Dennis was willing to risk a bright future in politics for cheap electricity. He showed me, as a young man, he was willing to stand up to incredible powers and put his own personal life in jeopardy in the interests of people he [represented] by refusing to sell Cleveland Public Power. Think of what he really did give up: all those years of political life when he was almost exiled."

Kucinich lost his bid for re-election in 1979. He spent 13 of the next 15 years out of political office.

Forbes: "He suffered. He couldn't make a living. He could not get a job. That was payback from the business community for what they felt he did to the town."

Kucinich was elected to Congress in 1996.

Joe Cimperman, city councilman: "We were in a Labor Day parade three years ago in Brook Park. And I remember him putting his arm around me and saying that I had to maintain spiritual peace inside, because giving in to anger would be my downfall. At that point, it was the best thing he could have said to me, because he sensed my inexperience and my youth, and wanted to impart some wisdom.

"When the hospitals started closing, he reached out to every council member who was impacted by it. He called me at 3 in the morning. He was feeding, living, breathing off of this chance to keep [St. Michael's] open."

Forbes: "[Last year,] we went and had a cup of coffee together — he had his cup of hot water — and we sat and talked abut the mayor's race. He had given it a passing thought. He said, 'If I run for mayor, I want to talk to [Dick] Jacobs, I want to talk to [Al] Lerner, I want to talk to [Sam] Miller, I want to talk to [Bert] Wolstein, and I want to announce a project a month.' Which told me that he had changed. He never would've even considered talking to those men before, when he was mayor."

Cimperman: "There's people from a generation that will never change their opinions about him, both positively and negatively: the older neighborhood core and the older corporate core. The more people my age, in their 30s and 40s, get to know him, the more they're like, 'This guy stands for things that are important to me.' At the Tremont arts and cultural fair in Lincoln Park [in September], I was walking with him and it was unbelievable how many people said, 'Keep the peace. Don't let us go to war.'"

Ryan: "He'd been invited by the Iowa AFL-CIO to speak at their convention. Normally, they [invite] people running for president. He asked, 'Could you come with me?' He spoke about how labor unions need to stand up for our ideals and set the course of the country for working people. People kept on giving him standing ovations.

"When driving back, I got a phone call that my mother died, totally unexpectedly. He showed his compassionate side. He told me an incredible story: His mother was very sick for the better part of two decades. She'd gotten last rites a number of times. Many times, he held her hand, thought she'd soon pass. She was able to pull herself out of horrible situations, all different horrible diseases.

"He said, 'I really think the lesson she taught me was you can't give up. I always carried that with me. When we were fighting the hospital fight, and LTV, because my mother never gave up, the least I could do for her was not give up on those fights.'"


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