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Election
Road to the White House: Kucinich's political history is one of survival

Sunday, December 28, 2003

By James O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dec. 15 once would have seemed an anniversary that Dennis J. Kucinich would like to forget.

That was the date 25 years ago when Kucinich, then the Boy Wonder mayor of Cleveland, defied the banks of the cash-strapped city in refusing to sell a publicly owned electric power company. The banks responded by pushing Cleveland into default, refusing to roll over municipal debt.

Jim Lee, The Sioux City Journal via AP

DENNIS JOHN KUCINICH

Age: 57.

Political experience: Cleveland City Council, 1969-75; municipal court clerk, 1976-77; mayor of Cleveland, 1977, 1979; Ohio state Senate, 1995-96; U.S. congressman, 1997-present.

Education: B.A., M.A., Case Western Reserve University.

Marital status: Divorced.

Children: Daughter, Jackie, 21.

Money raised: $1.7 million (Oct. 15 report).

Signature issues: Bring troops home from Iraq; withdraw from multilateral deals such as NAFTA; create a single-payer universal health-care system.

Quote: "You can't fix NAFTA; this promise of free trade is an illusion."

Web site: www.kucinich.us


Index to all Democratic candidate profiles

Kucinich, his national reputation transformed from wunderkind to Dennis the Menace, survived a recall election by a mere 256 votes. The reprieve was brief. He was defeated for re-election the next year. His political career appeared to have flamed out.

Two weeks ago, Kucinich celebrated the anniversary of his refusal to sell the power company, pausing in a presidential campaign that would have seemed wildly improbable two decades ago. The populist Kucinich now frequently cites the once notorious episode as a proud credential for his White House bid, an example of his willingness to confront corporate power.

Though he is on no one's list of early favorites in the race, the Ohio congressman's distinctive campaign has found a still small but enthusiastic constituency with the most consistently across-the-board liberal positions of any candidate in the Democratic race. He has had particular success winning support in the celebrity world. On Saturday, musicians including Bonnie Raitt, will join Willie Nelson in an Austin concert raising money for the congressman.

Kucinich was born in Cleveland, the son of a truck driver. He proudly proclaims his proletarian credentials, reminding audiences, as he did at a debate in Pittsburgh before the Urban League earlier this year, "I lived in 21 different places by the time I was 17, and that included a couple of cars."

Kucinich was elected to Cleveland City Council in 1969, at the age of 23. At 31, he won the top job in city hall only to founder in the city's financial straits. His once-promising political career went into eclipse.

He lost primary elections for Congress in one district in 1988, and in another in 1992. Things started to turn around when he was elected a state senator, defeating a Republican incumbent in 1994. In 1996, the election year in which President Clinton clobbered GOP nominee Bob Dole for president, Kucinich beat another GOP incumbent to win a seat in Congress with just 49 percent of the vote. He has been re-elected in general election landslides in the three subsequent elections in a district that includes most of the West side of his native Cleveland along with an adjacent band of middle-class-to-affluent suburbs stretching along the shore of Lake Erie.

In his first election to Congress, one of Kucinich's central issues was trade, one that remains at the core of his White House bid. He attacked his GOP foe for supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade, the predecessor to the World Trade Organization. On the campaign trail this year, he regularly wins applause from union groups with his pledge to abrogate trade pacts.

"You and I know our trade agreements have facilitated a race to the bottom," he told a Beaver County audience earlier this year. "My first act in office will be to cancel NAFTA and the WTO."

He promises universal health care, scorning as halfway measures the plans to expand access to health care offered by some better funded rivals such as Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

"We need a second opinion, Dr. Dean," he thundered to one group as he called for a comprehensive, single-payer health care operated by the government, a goal he has also pressed unsuccessfully through legislation proposed in the House.

Kucinich, who argued against the Patriot Act on the House floor, would send the measure to the same scrap heap as the trade agreements he opposes.

"The Patriot Act is not what American patriots have fought and died for," he told the Urban League. "To allow our Bill of Rights to be nullified without judicial supervision invites tyranny. The attorney general has been handed unfettered power to wiretap, search, jail and invade our most sacred right to privacy. The government must not be allowed, without probable cause or warrant, to snoop on our communications, medical records, library records and student records."

Kucinich opposes the death penalty, and for most of his public career he was also an opponent of abortion. Like his rival Gephardt, however, he moved toward the pro-choice position on abortion around the same time he began contemplating a run for the Democratic nomination.

On the war in Iraq, Kucinich has staked out a position even more antithetical to the Bush administration than those of rivals such as Dean and former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun. He has opposed the war from before its start, as one of a minority of House Democrats who voted no on the war authorization resolution supporting the administration. He then joined an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to prevent Bush from going to war without a returning to Congress for a formal declaration of war.

Kucinich calls for an immediate removal of the U.S. forces occupying Iraq, arguing that the American administration should be disbanded and control handed over to the UN. He voted against the appropriation of $87 million for the Iraqi reconstruction effort.

Kucinich's aversion to the Iraq war is in keeping with his general approach to deploying U.S. troops aboard. He opposed the Clinton administration's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia over persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a campaign that was directed by his current rival, former Gen. Wesley Clark. He promises that one of his White House initiatives would be the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Peace.

A chief goal of his administration would be the elimination of all nuclear weapons. He would cancel all new U.S. nuclear arms programs and pursue talks with all all nuclear powers aimed at universal disarmament.

Kucinich is short, his waistline a trim testament to a strict vegan diet. He can be a fiery speaker on the stump, energetically denouncing corporate inhumanity to workers at revival meeting volume.

Kucinich stands apart from his rivals in the realm of tactics as well as policy. He disputes the conventional wisdom that the nomination will be determined early due to the front-loaded primary schedule. Instead, he says, a handful of candidates will divvy up the fragmented support of the party's rank-and-file with no single contender emerging as dominant.

"The race is going right to the convention," he said.

That Kucinich has some real pockets of support was suggested by his kid-gloves treatment from Dean, one of the race's front-runners, at a debate last month in Des Moines. Dean had irritated Kucinich earlier in the campaign by airing a commercial in New Hampshire stating that he himself was the only candidate to oppose the war. Dean took pains at the Iowa forum to favorably note Kucinich's early disagreement with the administration on Iraq.

Dean might have had motives beyond simple civility in acknowledging his opponent. In the Iowa caucus system, candidates must surpass a viability threshold by gaining the support of 15 percent of the participants in a first round of voting. The partisans of candidates who do not pass the viability test are then up for grabs for the surviving contenders. Several labor officials in Iowa said recently that Kucinich, due to his angry stand on trade issues, and his forceful position on the war, has pockets of support in Iowa. Dean organizers see themselves as the natural heirs to the anti-war constituency, and Gephardt's union supporters would hope to gain from those stirred by the trade issue.

Kucinich can become irritated at such tactical debates, as evidenced in what may have been the most visible performance of his campaign. At a debate in New Hampshire this month, he upbraided host Ted Koppel for prodding the contenders to discuss horse-race questions rather than the substance of their campaigns.

"Well, I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country," Kucinich said to the loudest applause of the evening. "We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls, and then we're talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people. ...

"I'm the only up here on the stage that actually voted against the Patriot Act and voted against the war -- the only one on this stage. ... I'm also one of the few candidates up here who's talking about taking our health-care system from this for-profit system to a not-for-profit, single-payer universal health care for all. I'm also the only one who has talked about getting out of NAFTA and the WTO"

As Koppel sought to interrupt him, Kucinich concluded sternly, "I may be inconvenient for some of those in the media, but, you know, I'm sorry about that."

Rather than acknowledging the long-shot status conferred by conventional wisdom, Kucinich has insisted that he is, in fact, the Democrat with the best chance of defeating George Bush. His reasoning for that singular analysis is that, with his liberal stands, he is uniquely positioned to attract the support of disaffected voters, notably the Green Party adherents credited -- or blamed -- for tipping the electoral vote majority to Bush in 2000.

While pursuing what he insists is a realistic campaign for the White House, Kucinich is pragmatically hedging his bets by running for re-election to his House seat. Of that decision, he commented to Congressional Quarterly, "It's just a way of suggesting that, one way or another, I expect to be sworn in at the Capitol in January of 2005."

In December of 1978, that is a prospect that would have seemed unlikely under any circumstances.


James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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