Congressman plans run on workers' rights, fair trade, common sense
By Carl Chancellor
Beacon Journal staff writer
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Dennis J. Kucinich says he hears voices. And more telling, he admits to listening to those voices.
He's listening to a rising chorus urging the one-time ``boy mayor'' of Cleveland to run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
``I'm hearing from thousands of people from all across the country asking me to run. I am listening,'' Kucinich said in late January as he delivered the Congressional Progressive Caucus' Alternative State of the Union address.
Over the weekend, he made it official.
On Sunday, the fourth-term Democratic congressman from Lakewood said he is considering running for president because he wants to bring workers' rights, fair trade policies and common sense back to the Democratic Party.
He told the Associated Press that he will file papers Tuesday to begin a presidential exploratory committee. He will announce by June whether he has enough support and money to run for the White House.
``It would be a cold day and probably a snowy day in hell before a liberal Democrat could get back to the White House, but it looks like my time has arrived,'' Kucinich said while driving on a snow-covered highway to meet with Democratic Party activists in Iowa, a testing ground for potential presidential candidates.
Kucinich's statements over the weekend came after weeks of rising political attention, as Kucinich has crisscrossedthe country spreading his eclectic brand of liberal, populist, pro-environment, anti-war, working-class politics.
Kucinich chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus -- 54 of the most liberal members of Congress.
On a chilly afternoon in Janu = [100.0]ary as he sat in his seventh-floor Congressional office preparing to attend the President's State of the Union address later that evening, Kucinich said he was ``honored'' to even be considered as a presidential candidate.
All of 140 pounds draped on a 5-7 frame, thanks to his strict vegan diet, Kucinich, at 56, still has a boyish air about him -- a wide-eyed, high-energy, roll-up-the-sleeves enthusiasm that undergirds his ``anything is possible'' personality.
Dozens of white binders, their contents reflected by block lettered labels -- 9/11, Corporate Reform, Global Warming, Department of Peace, Genetic Engineering of Food -- cover his desk, bookshelves and office chairs, letting visitors know what's on Kucinich's mind. Four old wooden diner booths, bowling balls, labor union plaques and photographs of Cleveland landmarks let one know what's in his heart.
``The wooden booths are from a diner near Capitol Hill on Pennsylvania Avenue. I used to go there when I first came to Congress. It was a folksy, neighborhood place, a longtime gathering spot. It was closed and replaced by a Starbucks,'' said Kucinich, who eschews the corporate takeover of his America.
``I keep the booths to make a statement,'' he said, leaning forward to rest his chin on his hands.
``A neighborhood diner represents the people in the broadest sense. A diner is a very democratic place. It's community based, a gathering place for working-class people, and a diner is unpretentious. The wooden booths reflect who we are and what we do.''
Proud of childhood
The son of a truck driver and the oldest of seven children, Kucinich is proud of his hardscrabble formative years growing up in the ethnically and racially diverse center city neighborhoods of Cleveland.
``We lived in 21 different places, including several cars, by the time I was 17,'' said Kucinich, who calls his childhood the foundation of his ``holistic world view.''
His political career began when he was elected to the Cleveland City Council in 1969 as a 23-year-old college student, first at Cleveland State and later at Case Western Reserve where he graduated with degrees in speech and communications in 1973.
``Because I'm a true child of the inner city, I have a passion and a willingness to take a stand, to take a position. I'm willing to speak out,'' he said.
Kucinich has been the loudest and most persistent voice against a war with Iraq. He has been sharply critical of theBush administration's economic and energy policies. Kucinich says he senses that there is an ``unarticulated consciousness'' in the country just waiting to be heard.
``I want to be that spokesperson,'' Kucinich said.
A follower of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Kucinich is pushing hard for the creation of a Department of Peace.
``A government puts things considered priorities in departments. We have the department of defense, education, agriculture... of equal importance should be peace.''
His emergence onto the national political stage came out of nowhere last February when he spoke to a group of California activist liberals, calling into question the Bush administration's handling of the war on terrorism in what became known as his Prayer for America speech.
At that gathering, Kucinich was interrupted by several standing ovations as he urged the nation to not give into fear that he said has led to the embrace of war as a response to terrorism.
The speech resonated so with progressives and liberals that supporters began urging Kucinich to run for president. Shortly after the California rally, a Web site -- www.draftkucinich.com -- was created. It's been popular.
The fact that Kucinich's name is even being mentioned in the same breath as presidential bid is almost inconceivable, nearly as unfathomable as his political comeback. After all, the ink hadn't dried on the national headlines trumpeting his election as Cleveland's mayor at the tender age of 31 before the headlines turned vicious.
It seems the man, who had been roasted by a Cleveland radio personality dressed as a court jester during his mayoral inauguration, had overnight switched places with the clown. He had become the butt of cruel jokes and worse, as Cleveland fell into default, thanks in large measure to his unwillingness to sell the city-owned power plant to a private electric company.
That financial disaster led to a recall effort that he was barely able to fight off. Things got so bad for Kucinich, who was being referred to as ``Dennis the Menace,'' that he had to wear a bulletproof vest when he tossed out the ceremonial first pitch for the 1978 Indians opener.
The next year, after just one contentious term, he was out -- replaced by Republican George Voinovich, now a U.S. senator.
With his political life in shambles, his personal life followed suit, including a divorce and difficulty finding a job. It would be almost 15 year before he would again win an election.
Ironically, Dennis Kucinich's political life was resurrected by the same issue that had buried it years earlier -- Muny Light.
In the 1990s, the still-city owned Muny Light -- now Cleveland Public Power -- expanded.
The utility has been praised for saving its thousands of customers more than $200 million over the years, compared with what they would have spent if the power company had fallen into private hands. Kucinich would be honored by the Cleveland City Council for ``having the courage and foresight to refuse to sell the city's municipal electric system.''
He built on the success of the light plant to springboard himself into the Ohio Senate in 1994. Just two years later, he would defeat Republican U.S. House incumbent Martin Hoke in Ohio's 10th District.
Perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of his political re-ascent is the fact that he spends almost nothing on television and radio ads, instead relying on grass-roots, door-to-door campaigning, a sea of yard signs, and a nonstoppublic appearance schedule.
He also has mended fences with long-ago critics.
``He's just not making waves to be making waves,'' said former Cleveland City Council President George Forbes, who talks regularly with Kucinich.
``For lack of a better term, he is a populist candidate. He clearly understood the people of Cleveland. He is very popular with the people. The question is, Can he parlay that nationally?'' asked Forbes.
Forbes says Kucinich, who was viewed as bombastic, confrontational, uncompromising and anti-business, has mellowed with age.
Kucinich, who probably wouldn't admit to mellowing, does admit his approach has changed.
``I have become more reflective. I consider the contradictions in life and also understand how creative life is,'' he said.
Shifting in his seat that January day, Kucinich turned to look at the Washington Monument framed in his office window.
``I used to go out there on the roof area, right out the window and sit and think,'' he said.
``You can see down to the National Mall. But I can't do that since 9/11,'' he said, acknowledging the many changes since the day of the terrorist attacks.
``I remember seeing the smoke from the Pentagon,'' he said, bemoaning that the national response to the attacks was to bomb Afghanistan.
``War is a confession that we don't believe in ourselves, that we have more belief in the instruments of violence,'' he said.
Yet the man who views violence as a failure of imagination, a lack of creativity, also believes in himself.
``I believe I can change any outcome,'' he said.
With that he rose from his seat and retrieved a leather-bound script of Man of La Mancha from a bookcase.
``It's a signed, working script from the original 1965 Broadway production,'' he said, delightedly explaining the play about the quest of the noble knight Don Quixote ``to right theunrightable wrongs.''
So, would Kucinich, the man who has time and again overcome great odds, consider his quest to be president an impossible dream?
``When I'm told that I can't do something, I see other possibilities,'' he said. ``If you apply creativity to a situation you can change the outcome.... My approach to life is that anything is possible.''
The Beacon Journal
Mon, Feb. 17, 2003