Dennis Kucinich: The Story
Swarms of Clevelanders descend upon Municipal Stadium, leaving their posh offices and suburban homes with hope in their hearts. It's a new beginning, they think - the suits, the steelworkers, the bubble-blowing kids - as they anticipate the sound that to them is like no other: the crack of a baseball smacking a bat.
Below them, Mayor Dennis Kucinich waits outside the Indians dugout, his famous mop of hair lilting with the wind. His chest is tight on this 43-degree day - not only with anxiety, but within the protective vise of a bulletproof vest he strapped around his body only hours ago. He's had countless death threats. And he's prepared. All he wants now is to throw out that pitch.
"When they called my name, I got a standing boo from about 75,000 people," he recalls.
It's 18 years later, and Dennis Kucinich, on the campaign trail, has traveled back to that moment - his mop of hair thinner, his face marked by time. The 49-year-old state senator sits next to Claudia Jabo, the lifeblood of his congressional campaign, and digs into a heap of Chinese food at one of his regular West Side haunts.
"There were police sharpshooters ringing the roof of the stadium," he says, dragging his chopsticks around the edge of the dish. "So I very calmly went up there, took a windup and threw a strike.
"I really thought about that," he continues. "It would have had great symbolic significance had the ball gone in the dirt or had it been a wild pitch." He looks away and grins. "It was pretty funny. 'Cause then I got some cheers."
Jabo's eyes shift. She appears uneasy with her hopeful's candor. But Kucinich is self-assured, at peace with what he's saying and even more with himself. So why did they boo?
"They had good reason to!" he declares. "I had just fired the best police chief in the United States. And why was he the best police chief in the United States? Because only a month earlier, that's what I told everybody!"
And then Kucinich laughs. He grabs Jabo's arm and they laugh loud together, enjoying a moment of an era that's finally gone by. "If I wasn't the mayor and ... a mayor did what I did, I'd probably be in the stands booing him too," he later says. That s part of politics. You have to learn to accept criticism. A lot of it was deserved then."
So why did they cheer?
"Because that's how sports and politics are," he says. "I crossed through two worlds though. I went through the political world into the sports world. The only difference is I could throw the strike and truly, when I walked off that mound and into the stands, I was a bum again."
He threw a strike. Yet only moments before, 75,000 people rose to their feet, cupped their hands to their mouths and booed - some laughing at the mayor, others exchanging the twisted look of satisfaction children share when they collectively tease.
But it didn't matter, did it? That chorus of disgust and disapproval they showered over him that day did not defeat him but fueled him instead. Because in the face of adversity - like he felt as a kid when his family was broken up; like he's felt over the last two decades as the crown prince of Cleveland's default; like he felt with each loss before his political comeback - Dennis Kucinich throws a strike.
No wonder he's back. After a 10-year ride through Cleveland politics that culminated with his 1977 mayoral win and crashed with his defeat two tumultuous years later, Kucinich exited the scene, leaving behind a city in default. His two-year term was marked by explosive confrontations with virtually every powerful entity of the city, revolving mostly around an issue that erupted on Dec. 15, 1978, when Kucinich refused to yield to bankers who gave him a choice: Sell the Municipal Light System to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. or the city will go into default. The mayor said no. And the city went down. And the legacy has been his ever since.
Amazing thing is, this fateful decision that nearly destroyed every aspect of his life has since turned around and kissed him on the mouth. Even his detractors admit that as brash and as confrontational and as arrogant as he was, doggone it, the boy mayor was right.
"Here's a guy who got carried out of the ring on a stretcher, who walked back in and they strapped the belt on," says William Burges, president of Burges & Burges, a Cleveland marketing and political strategy firm. "Now he has re-emerged wearing the championship belt of Muny Light."
So now, in the midst of a political comeback even he never thought possible, Kucinich is considered a real threat against incumbent Martin Hoke in the race for the 10th Congressional District seat. Oh sure. Plenty are still booing. But to that Kucinich simply shakes his head. In the words of his good friend Shirley MacLaine, he says, "What people think of me is none of my business."
It rook many years for Kucinich to reach this equilibrium. Through the default, the defeat, the destitution and the divorce, he privately, painfully searched deep inside himself and has emerged a changed man. "Life for me is very good," he says. "I've never been happier."
These are surprising words from a man who - 18 years later - is still crucified for Cleveland's default. Even today, the business establishment says Kucinich's name like it's a dirty word. In fact, their version of history has branded him so deeply with the onus of default that generations of Clevelanders who know nothing of its events say Kucinich put the city into default like it's a mantra. Even the sacrosanct Citizens League wouldn't break this corporate code: In 1994, in a rare and secretive move, it reversed its endorsement of Kucinich for the 23rd state Senate District seat, awarding the prized nod to his opponent instead.
But a closer look at the events that preceded the default reveals that it was not the work of just one man: It was the culmination of a war between CEI, Muny Light, the business community and the mayor.
A satisfied grin spreads across Kucinich's face as the group bubbles over with laughter, while intermittent shouts of "All right!" and nods of support fuel his charge more.
"I'm the only member of the Ohio Senate with a 100 percent labor-voting record. And that doesn't happen by accident," he says. "My father was a Teamster, a member of Local 407 for 55 years. I understand what it is like to grow up in the inner city and to be part of a family that had to struggle to make ends meet. I carry a union card. I'm a brother. I'm not a missionary for people who are of labor. I am of this community."
As Kucinich's sermon approaches its dramatic end, hands reach out to shake his or to sign up to help in his quest for the Hill. This is Kucinich's most powerful talent.
"I'm telling you this is all within this guy. It's all inside him," says Burges. "He has a knack for connecting with a constituency and then being energized by that. And he doesn't give up."
"One of Dennis' greatest talents as a politician is that people like him, they genuinely like him," says veteran politics reporter Mary Anne Sharkey. "He's exactly like a rock star. People just spot him and they'll come running out of their front doors just to shake his hand. I've been around a lot of politicians, and that's rare. Very rare."
"Dennis is almost like a cult hero," says Republican state Sen. Gary Suhadonik. "We were at a national conference of state legislators last year in Milwaukee and people were coming over like ..." He slips into a dramatic whisper. "Are you Dennis Kucinich? Are you the former mayor of Cleveland? Even people from other states. He has a nationwide following out there. It's just unbelievable."
This core group of disciples who collectively sighed with each loss - his attempt for secretary of state in '82, his killing against Mary Rose Oakar for the 10th Congressional District in '88, his bid for the 19th Congressional District in '92 - has grown tremendously in recent years.
While some were temporarily sated by his election to Cleveland City Council in 1983, not even his most devout followers would have believed that in 1994. 15 years after he practically crawled out of the mayor's office, he'd cause the president of the United States to sit up and take notice. In a year when Kucinich was one of only three Democrats in the country to defeat a sitting Republican state senator, it's no wonder President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Congressman Dick Gephardt have each met with him with one goal in mind: Let's get this guy to give Congress a go.
"They should!" Burges practically shouts. "He's like a damned rock star. His name identification is better than any of theirs in that district."
But others cringe at the possibility of Kucinich going to Congress. "I just go back to what he did to this city with the default." says Paul Russo, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party. "He did enough damage to Cleveland in those years that to send him to Washington would be a disaster."
So how did the Democratic populist Sharkey says was "as low as a snake belly" in 1979 rise like a phoenix from beneath the ashes of Cleveland's default? Combine the city's recognition of the value of Muny Light (now Cleveland Public Power) with the workingman's fear of a Newt Gingrich-led Congress and you've got a climate most politicians "would fall to their knees for.
But according to Burges, Kucinich's springboard to office was put into place in 1992, when he challenged Eric Fingerhut in the primary for the 19th Congressional District seat.
"If you recall, '92 was the year of the reformer, '92 was the year of 'throw the bums out,' '92 was the huge freshman class," Burges says. "So in that milieu, I think there was a natural convergence of who Dennis was and what people were looking for. And he played the bounce off that very skillfully into the state Senate race."
But Kucinich's resilience was wearing thin after that loss. "Bruised and battered and bloodied," Sharkey says, "the guy kept getting back in the ring." What did it take to convince the lightweight to wipe off the blood and climb over the ropes one more time? State Rep. Barbara Pringle picked up the phone. "She says, 'You've got to come over right away. I've got to talk to you,'" Kucinich recalls. Pringle, who served on Cleveland City Council when Kucinich was mayor, was studying a map of the newly redrawn 23rd state Senate District in her home. In it, she saw a Kucinich gold mine: three of his former city council wards.
"She says, 'You're going to the state Senate. I'm telling you you've got to run for this,'" Kucinich remembers. "I just laughed. She says, 'No. I'm telling you this district was made for you.'"
So in a race that never quite became the bloodbath that people expected, Republican incumbent Anthony Sinagra, the well-respected former mayor of Lakewood, dodged Kucinich's allegations of corruption at Lakewood City Hall as Kucinich deflected Sinagra's finger-pointing about Cleveland's default. Exactly 1,062 campaign stops, 1,000 volunteers and 10,000 street signs later, Kucinich embraced his then-12-year-old daughter, Jackie, with the news that he'd won.
At his swearing-in ceremony, Kucinich traveled back to the moment when it all began, a moment immortalized in a black-and-white photo he would hang behind his state Senate desk. There, a frightened 13-vear-old boy stands behind a podium at Tremont's St. John Cantius High School, dressed for the occasion in his Uncle Lenny's suit. The night before, his uncle had dropped the suit off so Kucinich "would look proper for this audience, the ninth-grade class that had chosen his nephew to deliver their freshman induction speech.
Nearly 35 years later, as Kucinich took his oath of office behind that same podium, he spotted some of the people who had applauded him in that gymnasium three decades before.
Before he turned 18, Kucinich lived in 21 places - including a car.
Sitting in Dimitri's, a 24-hour Greek joint located in Cleveland on Lorain Avenue, Kucinich brushes a lemon wedge off the paper place mat in front of him and jots each address down. He starts with the home he lived in as a baby, and painstakingly - pausing for minutes between some - he adds each address.
That first address was his grandparent's house on Carnegie Avenue, an old wooden home that Kucinich's mother carried him into after she gave birth in October 1946. She demonstrated her devotion to her firstborn through hours of reading. By age 3, Dennis could read, and by adulthood, whenever he felt lost, the words of the greats that he first heard through his mother's soft voice would guide him.
As the oldest of seven, Kucinich was thrust into a position of leadership early in life. When his father, a Croatian truck-driver, was ill or out of town, it was Dennis who made sure that his siblings excelled. "He'd be the one who was out there under the streetlights late at night passing the football with me," says Gary Kucinich, a former Cleveland School Board member and one of Dennis' brothers. "Before a football game, Dennis used to get me pumped up. He used to hit me on the shoulder pad and say, 'Do you want to win this game? Do you want to win this game? Go out there and win!'"
As the family continued to grow and Kucinich's father's income didn't, they were forced in and out of homes all over Cleveland's inner city, with Catholic schools being the children's only stability. At St. Clair Avenue's St. Aloysius School, Sister Leona Nieberding took special notice of Dennis.
"I just had one pair of pants that I wore for a whole year," Kucinich remembers. "They were turquoise pants with black stitch piping on the side. Finally, some kids caught on that I was wearing this pair of pants every day. It was not a lot of fun.
"The good Sister caught what was going on and she immediately had boxes of clothes sent over to the house. Also, she gave me an opportunity to work off some of the fees that we had at the time."
Handing him a floor scrubber and a metal bucket brimming with soap water, Sister Leona watched as Dennis dunked his 12-year-old hands in the water and maneuvered the machine that dwarfed his small body. "They still tell stories at St. Colman about the time when I went to use the floor scrubber and it took off with me," Kucinich says, with a laugh. For 60 cents an hour, the young Dennis scoured grime off the floors of these schools and many others to pay for his and his siblings' tuition.
In 1957, the family endured one of its hardest times. Kucinich recalls sitting with his three brothers and sister in the backseat of the car at age 11, combing the newspaper ads to find a new home. Few, if any, at that time would rent to a family of seven. "But we needed a place. We couldn't find anything."
His father got around it the only way he knew how, leaving three kids behind when he signed the lease. "When the landlord came," Kucinich recalls, "three of us would go clown the back stairs and run a couple yards away until he made the rounds. At least one time, two of us ended up hiding in the closet waiting for the landlord to leave."
Just before that, they lived in their car. "I was always jockeying for positions to sleep on the floorboards of the backseat," Kucinich recalls. But that was OK, because they were together, and less than a year before that they were not.
It was Thanksgiving 1956, and Kucinich's mother, hospitalized for months after giving birth to her fifth child, was ill with what Kucinich now thinks was postpartum depression. While their father worked to try to put things back together again, the kids were sent to Parmadale Children's Village, a Catholic orphanage and receiving home. Christmastime stands out in Kucinich's memory.
"I remember I hadn't seen Gary for weeks and I felt really bad about it," he says. "We went out to play and it was a very cold winter day. They had these hills in the back and kids would be making snowmen and having snowball fights. I was looking for Gary and I thought I saw him; I remember running across this field to go and see him. I ran and ran and ran up to this kid. And it wasn't him. It was horrible."
Three months later, the children were taken in by some relatives in Michigan, and eventually, after their mother recovered, she joined them. Each week, they'd wait for their father to visit from Cleveland, when they'd take drives out to the country to a place Kucinich describes as magical, a place where adults would dance and children would play.
"I remember sitting in the backseat as we were driving there thinking, God, I hope we can keep this family together. Just literally praying that would happen," he says. "What it was like to just be there and watch my parents dance ..." Kucinich's voice trails off and he looks away. "It was really neat," he adds, shaken by the memory. "The idea that we were all together again.
"There was a lot of poverty," he later says. "As life goes on, it strengthened me."
"I didn't want to disturb you. I just wanted to say hello because I was with you for a whole lot of years."
A craggy old man has approached Kucinich at Dimitri's, his hand outstretched and his voice booming with a slight drawl.
"My name is M.J. McNeeley," he says. "And I did work for the Illuminating Company."
Kucinich smiles. "I'll be darned," he says.
"And all the guys from the U.W.U.A. were right there with you," McNeeley says. "And you're still there," he adds, his voice fading as he walks away. "God bless."
That a former CEI employee would go out of his way to thank Kucinich might be considered ironic to some. But McNeeley is a workingman, and Kucinich has always been their champion.
Kucinich's efforts to prevent CEI from taking over Muny Light is as much aligned with him as his fight for the working poor. To Kucinich, his fight to save the city-owned utility defines not only his mayoral term but explains much of his political strife. To others, it was that and much more.
Chuckling affectionately, former Cleveland Press editor Herb Kamm relays his lasting memory of Kucinich: "It was just the picture, the constant picture every week of Dennis walking into the rather impressive chamber of city council," he says. "And this little cocker, as we call him, this little pisser walks into that room where great men of previous eras had achieved great things for Cleveland. And he's like the little boy with a horn who's going to blow down the walls of Jericho."
With his fists clenched and an in-your-face style, Kucinich waltzed into the mayor's office eager to defend the rights of working people at any cost. The youngest big-city mayor in the country at the time, this 31-year-old urban populist all but ended the fox trot the business community had enjoyed with previous mayoral administrations. All over Cleveland, business leaders clutched their hearts with each bold move: He said no to tax abatements; he transferred funds from the corporate sector to inner-city neighborhoods; and he took what they considered to be irresponsible risks, such as forbidding Republic Steel Corp. to build an ore dock in Cleveland's port even as they threatened to leave.
"This was well before the renaissance. Cleveland was in a valley," says Kamm. "And here comes this cocky, irresponsible boy mayor whose mere image made people laugh. They said, 'What the hell is this kid doing running a city?'"
But it was more than just that. Kucinich's personnel choices made him so vulnerable that even if his loyal cadre had sat down and behaved themselves they would still have been criticized.
Most famous for their youth and their gall - his assistant director of public safety was just 21 years old - Kucinich and his administration provided great fodder for the media to sink its teeth into, chewing up stories and spitting them out in newspapers all over the country. How could they resist such temptation as the time when the head of the city's board of education was fined for "mooning" his brother on an interstate highway? Or the time when the feisty and media-hungry mayor fired police chief Richard Hongisto during a live press conference on WJW TV-8?
"I gave them the excuse to push the recall forward which had already been planned," Kucinich admits, "when I rather unceremoniously fired the chief of police live on the 6 o'clock news on Good Friday. When people were in a very forgiving and penitential mood, I was going in the opposite direction."
As Kucinich and his then-wife, Sandy, fled to Chautauqua, N.Y., after he barely won a recall election in August 1978, people hungry for his exile in Cleveland recounted the votes. Though the recall was supported by virtually every powerful group in the city, 236 votes of 120,000 cast saved him. At least for the moment.
"He had tete-a-tetes with everybody," says Tom Campbell, a retired Cleveland State professor and one of the leaders of the recall movement. Kucinich and Council President George Forbes had shouting matches. He and the oft-striking police department were at odds much of the time. He even had skirmishes with neighborhood groups. Most damaging and most dangerous, however, was his and his administration's biting rhetoric against the establishment of the city- what most people blame for the mayor's eventual demise.
A mischievous look lights up Kucinich's eyes as he reflects on these confrontations. It's clear that his sense of humor is about to come to his aid.
"It certainly would have been better if all discourse could have been conducted in a manner of the politesse of a social tea," he says. "It would have been lovely if someone could have been there at the appropriate moment to say: 'Pass the biscuits, please.' If you could hear people clucking: 'Here, here. Tut-tut. Cheerio' in the background. We're talking Cleveland!" he roars. "It was raucous and it was contentious and it was confrontational and it was difficult! And welcome to democracy, warts and all!
"Were we perfect? No. Would some of that rock 'n' roll have been better not happening? Sure. Did I like everything that went on? No. You live, you leam. I'm not copping a plea, but I was 30, 31, 32 years old through that time and I've learned a lot about life. And there were a lot of things happening at the time that I just didn't understand."
Pacing back and forth behind his state Senate desk, Kucinich recalls the headline on the front page of The Plain Dealer the morning of Dec. 15, 1978: "Cleveland Trust: Pay Up. Bank Would Relent If Muny Light Were Sold, Forbes Believes."
"I looked at it as being the most subtantial collection notice I'd ever seen in my life," Kucinich says. "Talk about a dun letter."
Ahh, the default. Even today it's a divisive issue. The only thing people seem to agree on is what a gift the default truly was.
"In the end, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Cleveland," says Richard Pogue, retired managing partner of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue. "It traumatized the community and brought everybody together and got people to say, 'Hey wait. We can't let the city go down the drain this way. We've got to do something.'"
James Biggar, president and CEO Glencairn Corp., agrees. "If you look back in history," he says, "we probably ought to give Dennis Kucinich the MVP award for Cleveland's comeback."
But what people are in complete disagreement over is what role Kucinich played in Cleveland's default. While some say he is totally to blame, others - including members of a 1979 congressional staff who conducted a study of the default - suggest the bankruptcy was politically motivated. In short, some say Kucinich's attempts to save Muny Light put his foot in the grave, while his confrontational style with the business community caused them to push him in.
Throughout his political career, Kucinich's battle cry had been to save Muny Light. The brainchild and dream of Kucinich hero and populist Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson, Muny Light was born in 1914, and from its inception, fought off CEI's efforts to put it out of business.
Until 1968, Muny Light enjoyed success, generating $31.5 million in profits. But between 1969 and 1977, things went downhill: Poor service, frequent outages and a marketing blast by CEI on its weaknesses caused it to lose customers and money: $31.1 million in the hole, the city's general fund was forced to subsidize the utility.
Tempers flared over whether the city should sell Muny Light to CEI. Some thought it ridiculous to hold on to Muny, an ailing plant that, in 1975, could no longer generate its own power. Others saw the city-owned utility as the only way to provide a check against CEI's electricity rates.
Meanwhile, in 1975, the Perk administration filed a $330 million antitrust suit against CEI based on charges that the company was trying to undermine Muny as a competitor. Then, in January 1977, a ruling of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission all but saved Muny Light. Stating that CEI had "deliberately rigged the interconnection policies to cause Muny Light's power failures," it demanded CEI "wheel" power from the Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY) to Muny over its lines - a condition to its granting CEI licenses to operate nuclear power plants. This action was a huge Muny Light victory: Prior to this, Muny couldn't purchase electricity from outside sources. Because PASNY power was cheaper, the ruling was Muny's ticket to getting out of the red.
Furious, CEI took the city to court. During Carl Stokes' and Ralph Perk's mayoral terms, Muny had built up a $16 million debt to CEI, and the company wanted its money. After city council's attempt to raise property taxes to pay the debt failed at the polls community pressure mounted to sell. In May 1977, city council approved the sal of Muny Light to CEI for $150 million. That's when a 5-foot-7-inch, 135-pund obstacle stood in everybody's way.
Clerk of Courts at the time, Kucinich created the Save Muny Light Committee, collecting nearly 30,000 signatures to put the decision of whether to sell Muny Light on the ballot. While a court battle ensued over the legality of the petitions, his efforts successfully froze the sale until he stepped into the mayor's office in November 1977 - based on the campaign promise to save Muny Light.But there was no mayoral honeymoon for Kucinich over this issue. Almost immediately, CEI filed a lien on city land and property through federal court, which ordered Cleveland to pay its now $18 million debt to CEI. Having walked into a general fund deficit of millions, Kucinich resorted to using the city's operating funds to pay off the debt. Pressure mounted when six Cleveland banks refused to refinance $14 million in short-term loans that would come due on Dec. 15, 1978 - an unusual move considering these banks had routinely rolled over such loans for Perk's administration. And the city needed those banks - shut out of the national bond market, it relied on local banks for financing.
As the deadline approached, Kucinich appealed to the banks with a most unpopulist-like offer, asking for time to hold a special election proposing an income tax hike to pay off the loans. Each bank consented but one: Cleveland Trust Co. chairman and CEO Brock Weir refused to go along with the deal.
On Dec. 15, 1978, Kucinich could pay Muny's debt to CEI, but had no funds to pay the banks. Then, Weir made Kucinich an offer: If the mayor agreed to sell Muny Light to CEI, his bank would not only roll over the notes, it would loan the city another $50 million. Still, Kucinich's answer was a resounding no.
Later that day, city council agreed to put an income tax increase before the voters if the mayor would sell Muny. Kucinich refused again, but offered a compromise: Certain that Muny Light would now be profitable because PASNY's interconnect, he suggested thev wait 18 months to see if the utility made money. If it didn't, he'd sell.
"I remember him standing one time in the mayor's opulent office," says Sandy Kucinich. "And him saying, 'If I have to go along with this, I might as well resign.' And I remember sitting there and looking at him and saying, 'But you can't do that.' And he said, 'No, I can't. So my other option is to stand up for what I believe in and say no.'" She pauses. "If we only knew it wasn't that easy."
What wasn't easy was the predicament Kucinich was in. "The city was in no worse financial shape under Kucinich than it had been under his predecessor, Ralph Perk," says Todd Swanstrom, a former Cleveland city planner who is now associate professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany. "He became a scapegoat for the failures of the economy.... And his career was based upon defending Muny Light. So when they insisted that he sell Muny Light or go into default, he was really up against the wall."
So why was Muny Light brought into the negotiations? Some say that because Perk had sold off major municipal assets while he was mayor - including the sewer and transit systems - to try and balance the books, Muny Light was one of only a few assets left in the city and Kucinich had no choice but to sell. But others suggest that the situation presented a marvelou
12:00 AM EST
May 1, 1996