Cleveland to Dennis Kucinich: Phone home

Back in Ohio, the left's favorite long shot is paying the price for his presidential ambitions. Calling him out of touch, four Democrats will try to take his House seat Tuesday.

By Edward McClelland
Published March 3, 2008 12:43PM (EST)

Dennis Kucinich wanted to take part in a debate on the campus of Cleveland State University last week. But not this one. Kucinich wanted to be at the Wolitzer Center on Tuesday, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, putting forth his antiwar message on national TV. Instead, he was in a school concert hall on Friday, defending his congressional seat against a city councilman, a nonprofit executive, a suburban mayor and a Gold Star mother. He faces all four in a Democratic primary March 4.

Most Clevelanders were proud of their irrepressible congressman when he ran for president in 2004. He spoke out against the Iraq war when it wasn't politically safe to do so, and if he reveled too much in the spotlight -- appearing in a "Dating Game" skit with Jay Leno, for example -- well, the rest of America was just getting a look at their Dennis, an eccentric but iconic Cleveland character.

The second time around, though, Kucinich's White House bid looked like pure ego trip, especially to voters who had thought they'd heard him promise not to run for president again. Cleveland is leading the nation in home foreclosures, they grumbled, while Dennis is out West with crunchy celebrities. Then Kucinich claimed to have seen a UFO. Cleveland is touchy about its image, and Dennis, they said, was making the city look like a joke again.

Kucinich was a few minutes late for the debate, creeping down the auditorium stairs and smoothing his forelock as a local talk-radio host introduced the candidates. Once he took his seat, though, he looked like the soberest man in the room. Kucinich's hair is still dark, his suit was baggy, but it's hard now to see the Boy Mayor in his gnarled, deep-set, 61-year-old features. Every once in a while, his face twinkled when he caught sight of his wife, Elizabeth, sitting in the third row, but most of the time, he looked like a worn Balkan judge, doggedly taking notes with a felt-tip pen.

Before Kucinich even had a chance to speak, his main rival, City Councilman Joe Cimperman, unloaded on him. Cimperman is the first serious challenger Kucinich has faced in his 12-year congressional career; his half-million dollar war chest forced Kucinich out of the presidential race, and back home to Cleveland.

"I feel very passionately about the fact that our congressman has been absent," Cimperman said. "We wouldn't have this group up here today if someone hadn't run for president twice, and that person is Mr. Kucinich."

Kucinich was unapologetic. National issues are Cleveland issues, he countered.

"I led the effort in the United States Congress in challenging this administration's march into this illegal war," he said. "Is this war not an issue for Cleveland? This war has cost every household already $16,000. We've lost brave young men and women from Cleveland. I made that war an issue in the presidential campaign. Is healthcare not a Cleveland issue, with one-third of Clevelanders uninsured and underinsured? I'm proud to represent Cleveland, and I've represented it with honesty and integrity, in a career that goes back a long way, starting on this campus."

He spoke slowly and gravely, not like the excitable rat dog of his local legend, but like the near-elderly antiwar sage he has become. One of the few times Kucinich raised his voice was when an opponent pointed out that he has passed only two pieces of legislation in 12 years -- one to allow a local museum to show a government film.

"In a Republican Congress!" Kucinich snapped.

After the debate, Kucinich told Salon that his presidential runs had nothing to do with putting four opponents on that stage. He never promised not to run for president -- "I said that I had no intention of running, and what happened was the Democrats decided they were going to continue to fund the war, and I felt it was important to challenge that."

Kucinich, a lifelong master at firing up his supporters with us-vs.-them campaigns, said his opponents are funded by Cleveland developers who have hated him since he was mayor in the late 1970s.

"These interest groups have a lock on the politics of this city, but they've never had a lock on me," he said. "I beat them years ago, and they see this as an opportunity to just grab this congressional seat for the purposes of their own moneyed interests."

Dennis Kucinich has been Cleveland's most polarizing politician for nearly 40 years, since he was elected to a city council seat at age 23. In a single two-year term as mayor, he fired his police chief on live TV, drove the city into default by refusing to sell the public electric utility, Municipal Light, and survived a recall by 231 votes. After losing reelection, and a race for governor, he spent several years in New Mexico on "a quest for meaning," reemerging in 1994 to win a seat in the Ohio state Senate. Defiantly, he ran on his City Hall record. Keeping the utility in public hands saved Clevelanders millions of dollars, so his campaign button was a light bulb with the slogan "Because He Was Right."

Even Kucinich's detractors admire his idealism, but they say he's more interested in grandstanding and self-righteous crusades than passing bills that would ease the economic woes of Cleveland, which has twice been named "poorest city in America." Kucinich voted against expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program, because it didn't cover children of immigrants. (He later voted to override President Bush's veto of the same bill.)

"He gives up the good in order to get the perfect," primary opponent Rosemary Palmer, who got involved in politics after her son was killed in Iraq in 2005, told Salon. "That's wonderful to have someone to rally the troops if you have someone else to bring home the bacon."

Yet Kucinich has a deep emotional hold on Clevelanders, especially older working-class voters, many of them from similar Eastern European backgrounds, who see him as a champion of their hardscrabble town, and an embodiment of its spirit. No one denies that his constituent services are the one truly effective element of his populism. He rerouted freight trains that were hooting and rumbling through the suburbs. When Cleveland's LTV Steel declared bankruptcy in 2000, Kucinich held hearings until a buyer was found -- as a result, the local plant still employs more than 1,500 steelworkers.

"It was the opposite of grandstanding," said Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the North Coast Federation of Labor. "He kept plugging away. He was like a dog with a bone. It's very unusual for a congressman to do this kind of thing. I find him very attentive to working people."

Kucinich is so much a part of Cleveland lore that he's known by his first name only. All over the West Side, where the congressman lives in a house he bought for $22,500 in 1971, snowy lawns sport yellow "Dennis!" signs, with a peace sign dotting the exclamation point. In his campaign office, on Lorain Avenue in Cleveland, campaign volunteer Arthur Ebenger was toting an armload of Dennis!wear -- T-shirts, rain slickers -- out to the precincts. A retired pipefitter, Ebenger grew up playing baseball and basketball with Kucinich, when both were altar boys in the monumental brick churches that define Cleveland's ethnic neighborhoods.

"I went to St. Colman's, and he went to St. John Cantius," Ebenger said.

Even as a teenager, Kucinich was feisty and political, fighting to increase access to a neighborhood recreation center. When Ebenger boxed, Kucinich rooted him on. Ebenger was a die-hard supporter of Kucinich's presidential campaigns -- he's supported everything Kucinich has ever done, including changing his position on abortion to pro-choice -- and is convinced that his boyhood friend will someday be a serious candidate.

"If I live long enough, I'll see him in contention for the presidency," Ebenger insisted. "When he believes in something, watch out -- full-bore, coming down the track. That's my boy Dennis."

A few blocks down the street is Caffe Roma, the storefront Italian joint where Kucinich, a vegan, often stops in for spaghetti alla olio. When one of the cooks had a visa problem, Kucinich straightened it out, said owner Joe Coreno. Coreno also owns the video store across the street, where Kucinich rents his movies.

"He doesn't go to Blockbuster," Coreno said. "That's more than I can say for some people."

Will Corino vote for Kucinich on Tuesday?

"I vote for Dennis all the time, no matter what he's running for."

Kucinich is less of an icon to Cleveland's young professionals, who don't remember the mop-haired kid standing up to the bankers who wanted to take over Municipal Light three decades ago. Their candidate is Cimperman, a 37-year-old who presents himself as a more practical, post-Rust Belt version of Kucinich, but with the same kind of blue-collar Eastern European roots. "[Kucinich] comes from an ethnic background, like I did," Cimperman told me. "My mom was born in Slovenia. My dad was a union machinist."

Cimperman was once such an admirer that he raised $30,000 for a mayoral portrait of Kucinich (Kucinich never sat for the painter), but "the bloom really came off the rose when he announced that he was running for president again, and just the joke he made of this community on Letterman and Leno."

Some of Cimperman's contributions are from developers, as Kucinich charges. In late January, Kucinich was badly behind in fundraising, but the celebrity that has made him a target also gave him the means to fight back -- on his campaign site, he posted a fundraising appeal claiming he was "under attack by corporate interests." He ran an ad on the Nation's home page. The president of the far left knows how to rally his constituents. He quickly collected $700,000, including donations from Bonnie Raitt and Marianne Williamson. Sean Penn came to Cleveland, where he joined Kucinich onstage at a rock concert.

One of Cimperman's campaign events was a party, heavily attended by upscale thirtysomethings, in a gentrified old house that could stand in for the set of "A Christmas Story." During a Q-and-A with Cimperman, the host took a snarky dig at Kucinich's celebrity friendships.

"If you're elected to Congress, will you become yoga partners with Shirley MacLaine?" Mark DiDonato asked.

But another guest, Bobbi Reichtell, seemed anguished about abandoning a politician who's been the most consistent voice against a war that she, too, loathes.

"In the past, he was a different kind of congressman," Reichtell told Salon. "This is a very difficult decision for me, because I'm with him 100 percent on the war. But he hasn't done anything on foreclosures." (Kucinich says he has held three hearings on the subprime lending crisis.)

"He was an outspoken advocate, and he didn't worry about whose toes he was stepping on, and I think that, in the ethnic community, that's really admired," Reichtell continued. "I think there are people who just identify with someone who wasn't given a silver spoon, and fights for the underdog."

That enduring image, plus a fractured opposition, will save Kucinich's seat, predicts Bob Conklin, host of "In the Spotlight," a public access political show. Kucinich, according to Conklin, will get between 46 and 49 percent of the vote. The most recent polls say Kucinich may get 55 percent, Cimperman 30. And Kucinich will have two more years to promote his Department of Peace, and the federal healthcare plan for which he's signed up 88 co-sponsors. They'll probably never become reality, but that won't temper Kucinich's passion for the causes.

"They say that every president can be defined with one sentence," Conklin said in an interview. "Well, Dennis Kucinich can be defined with one word, and that word is 'scrappiness.'"

Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland is the author of "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

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2008 Elections Democratic Party Dennis Kucinich