Kucinich working to change minds

Ofelia Casillas
Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, center left, and his wife Elizabeth, center right, appear at a forum hosted by the AFL-CIO at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois, August 7, 2007. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO -- On the eve of another grim anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, members of Congress voted on a symbolic resolution to establish an official remembrance, expression of sympathy and honoring of heroes.

It was the kind of measure on which, surely, everyone could agree.

Everyone, that is, except Rep. Dennis Kucinich, elected and sent to Capitol Hill in 1996 to represent a district that includes Cleveland, the city where he was dubbed the boy mayor at age 31.

In explaining why his was the lone dissenting vote, Kucinich said Congress needs to "wake up to the truth and exercise its obligation under the Constitution to save our nation from being destroyed from the lies that led us into Iraq, the lies that keep us there, the lies that are being used to set the stage for war against Iran and the lies that have undermined our basic civil liberties at home."

For Kucinich, self-doubt isn't a problem, and half-measures won't do. His position on the war? Complete withdrawal, now. Health insurance? Everybody should have it, now. International trade agreements? Abandon them, now.

Back for a second, quixotic attempt to win the Democratic nomination for president, Kucinich is in perfect form as the perfect foil to a slate of politically pragmatic candidates. His is a world of essential, immutable, not-up-for-compromise truths. Look no further than the slogan that marked his political comeback 13 years ago in a race for the Ohio legislature, following a disastrous term as the mayor of Cleveland: "Because he was right."

He carries that air of authority with him like a badge of honor: the one person in the race for the White House who will not bend. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll in September showed him polling in the low single digits in the first three major nominating states. It is a wonderful position to be in, having so little chance to win that you can really hew to a standard of purity and perfection.

You see it with him everywhere he goes, whether campaigning before Hollywood types in California, where he has many friends and supporters, or onstage for the numerous debates with his fellow Democratic presidential candidates. There is a glint in his eyes, conviction in his voice and a finger-wagging rejoinder to those who won't believe in his world of absolutes.

Kucinich has made a life and career of overcoming obstacles, challenging expectations and making unpopular decisions simply by trusting his gut. His second run for president is no different.

Fundraising figures from this summer show Kucinich trailing other candidates, who have raised many times his total. He had raised slightly more than $1 million.

Kucinich is now in the sleek, eighth-floor conference room at the Creative Artists Agency in California. It is an easy crowd for him. They want a pure message, and he gives it to them.

"I come from a core belief that's unshakable, to get right to the truth, focus on it and stand by it," said the youthful-looking 61-year-old. "I put my career on the line back in Cleveland, because I knew what to do in the moment."

Dennis John Kucinich was born in Cleveland in 1946, the oldest of seven children. He grew up poor and by age 17 had moved 21 times. At one point, his family slept in a car parked near steel mills that illuminated the night.

"Throughout my life that has always been a symbol of hope, this light against the dark sky," Kucinich said.

After high school, Kucinich became a newspaper copy boy at The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He attended Cleveland State University and got a bachelor's and master's degree from Case Western Reserve University.

Kucinich first married in 1970, divorcing six years later. He married a second time in 1977, divorcing in 1986. He has one daughter from his second marriage, Jacqueline, 25.

At age 23, Kucinich won a City Council seat. He aimed higher and at 31 became the youngest mayor of any major American city. At the time, his two-year term seemed to be both his peak and his valley.

While mayor, Kucinich refused to sell the municipal light system after banks threatened to call in their loans. He saved the public utility, but banks threw the City of Cleveland into default. He lost his 1979 bid for a second term, and the stigma of the financial default extinguished his political career. Or so it seemed.

Between 1979 and 1992, Kucinich hosted a radio talk show, gave lectures and worked as a television reporter. He spent time in California as well as New Mexico, staying with friends.

He returned briefly to the Cleveland City Council and ran unsuccessful campaigns to become Ohio's secretary of state and governor.

In the early 1990s, an investigation by The Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed that his decision not to sell the municipal light system had saved residents millions of dollars because of the public utility's cheaper rates, setting the stage for Kucinich's remarkable political comeback -- a seat in the Ohio legislature that he won in 1994 with the slogan: "Because he was right."

Two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Congress (his slogan: "Light up Congress"). He's working on "Light up America," he tells the conference room of Hollywood agents.

His road to the White House? It is decidedly off the beaten path.

That doesn't keep Kucinich out of the public square, however, and certainly doesn't deny him a role in the public debate. Many Democrats see in him the only candidate who does not seem the product of well-crafted, focus-group-tested, audience research.

"Dennis is uninhibited ... and he raises issues of conscience," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "He puts light in dark places."

Kucinich is an elfin figure who rises to his wing-tipped toes when speaking publicly. There is a perpetual sunniness to him that makes his strong words go down easier. And while he perfunctorily tells a Hollywood executive, "Of course I can win," it is hard to know if, even on his most vainglorious day, he really believes it.

That is not to say he doesn't play a role in the presidential campaign, for clearly he does. He is pushing the debate to the left on topics including national health care, gay marriage and trade agreements. In the process, he helps to animate the party base.

"He is providing ardent Democrats with strong rhetoric," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.

During a recent forum in Los Angeles, the moderator remarked on Kucinich's popularity "on the Left Coast."

When asked if there is any gay-rights issue he was against, Kucinich concluded: "No." He said the symbol for marriage equality -- two rings -- should be enclosed in a heart. "Because what we are really talking about here is human love," he said.

That message connected with rock singer Melissa Etheridge. "I'm fawning," she said at the forum. "I wasn't supposed to."

At a reception after the forum at a gay disco, Kucinich said he could not imagine not being able to marry the woman he loves. Then, he spoke about meeting his third wife, Elizabeth, 29, who walked into his office in 2005 for a meeting on monetary policy and married him a few months later.

Elizabeth Kucinich has become a fixture on the campaign trail -- supporters want to be photographed with her, and her presence, in the front row at speeches, puts the candidate at ease. The couple stands out -- she is half his age and 6 inches taller (or more, in heels) than his 5-foot-6 frame.

Back home, though, "there is increasing amount of chatter about an absentee congressman," said Brent Larkin, editorial page director for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper. "He made his point in 2004. Now it's gotten a little bit old."

Letters about Kucinich have streamed in to the paper.

"People are embarrassed by him," Larkin said. "His support is not a mile wide. It's very small, but they are very loyal."

Cleveland Councilman Michael Polensek said the city has historically been hard hit by "inept political leadership" and now looks to Kucinich to improve it.

"He is diverting his attention and efforts away from those issues that we think are critical -- that is a perception that is growing," Polensek added.

Others say two Kucinich public personas have emerged -- one, the national left-wing darling; the other, that of a hardworking, populist congressman.

"In California, he is the noble cause," said Cuyahoga County Commissioner Timothy Hagan from his Cleveland office. "In the district, he runs on constituent service -- Dennis Kucinich, he works for you."

Kucinich believes his campaign platform encompasses the same issues that are so important to his constituents in Cleveland -- therefore he's not setting them aside in his race for the nomination. He might invite a challenge by spending so much time on a presidential campaign, but his fine-tuned, detail-oriented constituent service, his ability to rally behind issues at the heart of his district, are what have kept him safely in his congressional seat.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said Kucinich has fought for his district, whether it was hosting an emergency summit to protect the auto industry or filing court motions to rescue a steelmaker.

"Even though Dennis may seem on a wild goose chase, I can pick up this phone right now," said John Kilbane, business manager of Laborers' International Union of North America Local 310. "He has not forgotten where his priorities are."

Indeed, potential voters from around the country have said Kucinich represents the America they want. But they doubt he can win.

In Chicago, Mike Janecek, 50, a painter, said Kucinich was right about the Iraq war. "He doesn't have much of a chance but America would have a much better chance if he did have a chance," Janecek said.

Bob Losi, 52, a postal worker from Boston, said Kucinich is bright. "The problem -- he's not electable," Losi said.

In Los Angeles, two women agreed with Kucinich in principle but said he stands no chance of winning the primary.

"I'd vote for him in a second," said Gloria Myles, a flight attendant. "He stands for the things America stands for."

Barbara Schneyer, a legal assistant, said, "He doesn't stand a chance to win, unfortunately."

Kucinich has been here before.

"This is what I know how to do," he said. "I know how to reach into a situation that everyone says is hopeless and change the outcome."



... about Dennis John Kucinich

BORN: Oct. 8, 1946, in Cleveland

EDUCATION: Case Western Reserve University (bachelor's in speech communications, 1973; master's in speech communications, 1974)

POLITICAL CAREER: Cleveland City Councilman, 1969-1973; clerk of courts, Cleveland, 1975; Cleveland mayor, 1977-1979; Ohio state senator, 1995-1996; U.S. representative from Ohio, 1996-present.

FAMILY: Six younger siblings. Three marriages: 1970 to 1976; 1977 to 1986 (daughter Jacqueline, now 25); 2005 to present, to Elizabeth Kucinich, 29.

RELIGION: Catholic

LITERARY HISTORY: Mother started reading him Irish and Scottish poetry as a toddler. He could read a newspaper, he says, by age 3.

POLITICAL HERO: Abraham Lincoln

GREAT MOMENT, POLITICS: John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech.

GREAT MOMENT, POP CULTURE: Warehouse worker Paul Potts knocking `em dead with his operatic aria on the "Britain's Got Talent" TV show. "I found it so inspirational," Kucinich says. "I listen to it before I do debates."

FAVORITE NON-CAMPAIGN MOMENTS: "Three-dog-night cinema," when he and his wife watch rented movies with their three dogs.

MOST RECENT 3-DOG SELECTION: "Pride & Prejudice."

CAPSULE REVIEW: "Mr. Darcy! Mr. Darcy!" (yelled in an English accent). Kucinich explains that he took a nap during the movie and that's all he remembers.

MUSIC LOVES: The Beatles, the Eagles, Jefferson Starship, Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson, polka music.

FAVORITE FOOD: Just about anything vegan.

EARLIEST CAMPAIGN MEMORY: Kucinich knocked on his first door and waited, telling himself if he got this vote, he would win the seat for City Council. "She opened the door and reached out her hand and said, `I thought I already paid you for the paper.'"

EARLY SIGN OF THINGS TO COME: A palm card from Kucinich's 1994 race for the Ohio legislature depicts him in high school at 4 foot 9 and 97 pounds, a third-string quarterback smallest among the football players. "That's just Dennis," said his brother Gary of Strongsville, Ohio, a car dealership manager. "He just never, ever, ever gives up."


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