Why is Dennis Kucinich running for president?
Forty years after launching his career as an angry champion of Cleveland's working class, he's reinvented himself as an international missionary for peace. Kucinich is not content, like most people are, to work at his job and do a little good for others when he gets the chance. That would mean staying on Capitol Hill, wheeling and dealing for federal funding and casting an occasional antiwar vote. Instead, he flies to Syria, to Iowa, to California, because he really, literally, no cliche, thinks it's his calling to save the world.
Kucinich is running for president because he made a promise to a little boy while standing over his grave in Lebanon. In summer 2006, just after the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Kucinich and his wife, Elizabeth, visited a town where an American-made Israeli bomb had killed dozens of women and children. They found several graves with photos of the dead propped against them.
"We stopped at one grave and were absolutely transfixed at this picture of this little boy, who could have only been a year old or so, who had a red sweater and a blue shirt and had a beautiful smile," Kucinich tells a crowd of 50 supporters at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, in October. "I began to cry." A villager reached out to comfort Kucinich, then pointed out his wife and children's grave. Others, gathering around, shouted: "Tell the American people we love them." "We don't hate Israel." "We want to live in peace." Moved by their forgiveness, Kucinich says, he knelt at the boy's grave.
"I said a prayer," he says. "I promised that little boy that I was going to work to create a world where children would not perish in wars, where all over the world, children could grow up free of fear that themselves or their parents will be annihilated."
It takes an epic leap of selfless virtue and self-important confidence to think that creating a world without war is your calling in life. For 40 years, Clevelanders have argued: Is Kucinich noble or egotistical? The answer is, he's both. His virtues and faults are intertwined.
In Cleveland, he's long been a principled opportunist: It's not that he doesn't believe in his causes, from public electrical power to keeping hospitals open, it's that he knows so well how to wrap himself in them. They become part of his life story of selfless glory.
Now, ever since his February 2002 speech "A Prayer For America" made him a nationwide figure on the left, Kucinich, who wanted to be a priest as a boy, has talked in spiritual language about ending war.
Kucinich's missionary zeal makes him immune to the fact that he'll never be president, that his 2004 campaign for the White House was a failure in terms of actual votes cast, and that he's doing no better this year. It only seems to feed his desire to run when critics at home rage that he's wasting his time, pursuing the ego-stroke of celebrity and becoming a national punch line.
His self-image as the solitary hero is key to understanding him. He often says he's the only person who will stand up for certain people and causes. He will insist he is alone on an issue even when he is not. And he's convinced that if he holds true to his conscience, he'll be proven right. (It's happened before, he's the first to point out.)
His obsessive drive and his conversion from angry populist to peace missionary are motivated by violence and wounds in his childhood that he has never talked about publicly, until now.
"I have a book coming out in about a month," he tells the Dubuque audience, "that will talk about violence that occurred inside of a home: child abuse, spousal abuse." His proposed U.S. Department of Peace, he says, would offer counseling to families hurt by domestic violence.
Kucinich can't bring himself to tell the crowd this, but his new memoir, published this November, makes it clear: He's talking about his childhood home, his late parents' ferocious nightly fights, and the abuse he suffered and witnessed.
But is a peace missionary what Cleveland needs in a congressman? Some local leaders of both political parties -- and of course, people who'd like Kucinich's job -- say he's neglecting Cleveland to run for president, spending time on the road when he should be in Ohio and Washington. His solitary stands for losing causes, which go to the core of his life's mission, have led them to argue that Cleveland needs a practical compromiser and deal-maker on Capitol Hill instead.
One stark fact backs up their argument. Kucinich has brought home much less federal funding this year than Northeast Ohio's other congresspeople.
Yet Kucinich and his supporters seem unflappable. After his speech in Dubuque, two middle-aged women and an older couple take an elevator to the parking lot. "I've told people, 'He's great, he's great, he's great!' No one would believe me," one woman says. She was alone at her local Democratic caucus in 2004, the only Kucinich voter in the room as Kerry, Edwards, Dean and Gephardt supporters got together elsewhere. "But I think I might do it again."
Another woman sympathizes. "It'd be nice to click our heels and have him be president, wouldn't it?"
Dennis Kucinich was Cleveland Magazine's inaugural cover boy. The illustration on the April 1972 issue depicts him doffing an Uncle Sam hat while the White House leaps from his head, like a dream. "If I win this one, I can go all the way," reads the caption.
The quote is from an unguarded moment in 1967 when 21-year-old Kucinich, in his first City Council race, revealed his highest ambition to journalist Roldo Bartimole. Two years later, Kucinich won the council seat.
Cleveland Magazine's first cover story began: "On November 5, 1969, a lapsed poet, precocious Dennis Kucinich, his face alight with lambent ambition, quietly launched his campaign for the presidency of the United States."
I mention that to Kucinich this October, as we're standing behind a giant barn outside Iowa City. Hundreds of eager voters are buzzing inside. He's the first of five presidential candidates speaking at the Johnson County Democrats' annual barbecue on a hot, humid afternoon. I ask what he thought writer Terence Sheridan saw in him that led to the prediction he'd be here, running for president, 35 years later.
Kucinich is silent. Politicians rarely admit to ambition. They'd rather say they reluctantly, humbly followed the people's call to serve. So Kucinich does what he often does when he dislikes a question: He gives a cryptic, puzzling answer.
"Everyman," he says. "Everyman. That's what he said."
Actually, the word "everyman" doesn't appear in Sheridan's story, but the 1972 profile captures his supporters' enduring image of him as a populist champion --"Here comes our little fighter," goes one quote. Meanwhile, his adversaries rage and curse -- "He didn't do a goddamn thing in his old ward" -- making the same argument that dogs Kucinich today: That he's all talk and no results.
"A consummate political Pony Express rider," Sheridan called him, "picking up and dropping off controversial issues as fast as he can con the media into using them."
So began Cleveland Magazine writers' decades-long preoccupation with Kucinich, the epic Cleveland political figure of our time. In June 1978, during Kucinich's wild, confrontational term as mayor, writer Frank Kuznik even tried to psychoanalyze him, with the help of two anonymous shrinks, in "Kucinich on the Couch." "Why is he acting like that?" Kuznik kept asking, meaning Kucinich and his aides' vindictive management style, built on shouting, threats and sudden firings. But Kuznik and the shrinks were just as nasty and condescending, speculating that the mayor was a little man trying to act big, that he'd never accepted discipline, that he lacked a father figure.
"Why is he acting like that?" they asked, but they didn't really know.
"I didn't know what Mom and Dad were arguing about, but they were battling again in the kitchen," Kucinich writes in his memoir, "The Courage to Survive," released last month. "Butter knives, forks, spoons, pots, pans and steel griddles would fly, dishes would break, windows would smash, screens would be knocked out, holes would be put in every wall of our rented place. ... Sometimes a split lip, sometimes a bruised arm, sometimes a chipped tooth, inflicted carelessly amidst screams and roars, taunts and threats, dangerous home-grown violence."
The Kucinich family's poverty --moving countless times, sleeping in a car -- is a major theme in his political biography, the source of his sympathy for the working class. Yet "The Courage to Survive," the story of Kucinich's life up to age 22, surprises with its pathos, violence and revealed secrets. His parents start fighting on page 4. First-grader Dennis watches his uncle chase his 7-year-old cousin, trying to burn her with a cigarette lighter while she waves a knife to defend herself. And after young Dennis sneaks out of the house to play an angel in a First Communion procession, his father beats him with a belt.
Kucinich says he never talked publicly about the violence in his family until writing his memoir. Over the phone, from the U.S. Capitol, his voice falters a bit: "It gave me the background to propose the Department of Peace."
Every politician's memoir is, on some level, a campaign book -- stories of redemption help endear candidates to the public -- and the jacket copy on Kucinich's memoir calls it "a must-read for all voters." But for its genre, the book is unusually well-written. It even hints that the wounds it reveals never completely healed: in the acknowledgements, Kucinich says of Elizabeth (his third wife, whom he married in 2005), "She has taught me to know love."
The book reveals one more key to Kucinich's personality: the origins of his stubborn drive, his solitary, missionary zeal.
"I was sure I was going to be a priest," Kucinich recalls of his 10-year-old altar boy self. Through reading the lives of the saints, "I came to believe in a higher purpose for my own life, one that transcended the turmoil at home."
A year later, alone in the Parmadale orphanage, unsure if he'd see his troubled parents again, he prayed for a chance to "be somebody, someday," and help people "who were poor, and lonely and without hope."
By age 15, inspired by John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, Kucinich had found his calling. "My main ambition is and will be a career in national politics," he wrote in an essay as a high school sophomore, "and I'm going to aim for the very top." He told a friend he'd be mayor of Cleveland by age 30. (He was elected mayor a month after turning 31.)
"You can be anything you want to be," a nun at his high school often told him -- leading Kucinich to the single-minded determination that has made him so loved and so hated in Cleveland for decades: the sense that, if he pushes hard enough and believes in his causes, he can beat tremendous odds and prove those around him wrong.
At the book's end, Kucinich leaves St. Alexis Hospital after a doctor removed 8 feet of his intestines to treat his Crohn's disease and a priest had given him last rites. Kucinich walks through Tremont, where he'd lost one council race but would soon win the rematch, and reaches the top of a hill: "It was at the moment, right then and there, that I decided I could accomplish anything."
"Hello, Iowa!" Kucinich says from a stage decorated with hay bales and 7-foot-tall cornstalks. Several hundred Democrats, some in straw hats, some in Iowa Hawkeyes ball caps, have squeezed under the big barn's arched wooden roof. They fan themselves to cope with the humidity.
"This campaign is about calling forth the courage of the American people to reject not just the occupation in Iraq, not just a potential attack on Iran, but to reject war as an instrument of policy!" Kucinich says.
Cheers fill the barn. He's talking to Democratic activists from liberal Iowa City who mostly agree with him, even if they don't plan to vote for him. "We must end the occupation, close the bases, send the troops home," he tells them. "No weasel words about it -- get 'em out!" His body shakes with fury. He punches the air. "We have to end this war now! Not 2008, not 2009, not 2013, but today!"
Riding to the Eastern Iowa Airport with Kucinich after the speech, I ask him how the Democratic presidential debates would be different without him. "I'm the only one who voted against the war, and the only one who consistently voted against funding the war," he replies. "And I'm the only one who stands for a not-for-profit health care system." That's his campaign theme, right there: his top two issues and that repeated phrase -- the only one.
Kucinich sees Iraq as a test of potential presidents' judgment. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards "weren't just wrong, they were dead wrong" when they voted to authorize war in 2002, he says. "And when Clinton and Edwards say of Iran, all options are on the table, back to the future! It's Iraq II." He often points voters to a September debate, when NBC's Tim Russert asked the Democratic candidates if they'd pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of their first term as president -- in 2013. The front-runners -- Clinton, Barack Obama and Edwards -- refused.
I ask Kucinich if his candidacy has forced the three of them to change positions on any issues. "No, what it's done is forced them to learn how to tap dance," he says. "They don't want to change their positions. They want to make it appear that they stand for an end to the war."
Kucinich is a classic example of an advocacy candidate -- a long shot who runs for president largely to affect the agenda. He has thrilled audiences at debates sponsored by labor and gay groups, putting centrist candidates on the spot by pledging to cancel trade agreements and support gay marriage. He uses the debates to seek support for his Iraq bill and single-payer health care, even quoting the bill numbers (H.R. 1234 and H.R. 676, if you're curious). He's the rabble-rouser, chafing at the debates' limitations: "There's got to be people at home saying, 'Hey, you haven't talked about me losing my job!' " he said during the Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia.
That's why Genie Gratto, 34, of Iowa City, a voter at the barbecue, likes Kucinich and may caucus for him in January. The Democrats might ignore "issues that need to be heard" if he weren't running, she says. "It's important that they're not toeing the middle line." Gratto says she agrees with many of Kucinich's stances, but isn't totally sold on him. "I'm not sure he's a viable candidate."
On a hot issue like health care, "a top-tier candidate can't afford to ignore someone like Dennis Kucinich," says Victoria Farrar-Myers, president of the American Political Science Association's Presidency Research Group. He's introduced the issue of sustainability -- managing growth to conserve resources -- into the debates, she says. "Kucinich kept hitting that home, and Obama later on had to release a statement [on] sustainability."
But Kucinich is attracting little support. He is fifth or sixth in national polls, with 1 percent to 3 percent. He's raised less money than in his last run -- $2.1 million through September, compared to $3.4 million by September 2003.
Other antiwar candidates are overshadowing Kucinich, just as Howard Dean did four years ago, says Wayne Steger, a DePaul University political scientist who's studied long-shot presidential campaigns. "There's virtually no disagreement among the Democrats about leaving Iraq -- just about when."
Absolute opposition to the Iraq war is Kucinich's main reason for running for president. He decided to run again last December, he says, because he was enraged that the new Democratic majority in Congress wouldn't cut off war funds. As evidence of his sound judgment, Kucinich often points to his October 2002 anti-war speech. "There is no credible evidence that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction," he said -- a foresight very few people had then.
Kucinich's position on Iraq is not as unique as he claims, however. Voters rewarding foresight can also vote for Obama, who touts his own 2002 antiwar speech. Voters who want the U.S. out of Iraq can also vote for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, whose withdrawal plan is very similar to Kucinich's.
His uniqueness on Iraq isn't practical so much as emotional. To Kucinich, the Iraq war isn't a vexing problem to be solved or better managed -- it's a sin, a bloodstain on the national fabric, and he wants us to atone, to do penance. To make up for a "war based on lies," he argues, the U.S. should pay reparations to Iraq.
"People of two nations are being destroyed by this war," he said in Dubuque, borrowing from a Martin Luther King speech on Vietnam. "We're losing our moral authority." That's why he'll keep running for president, even if he not only loses, but if his arguments have no effect on his opponents.
His certainty in his one-man peace mission also led Kucinich to Damascus in September for his much-criticized meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Some Republicans characterized the visit as near-treasonous, but Kucinich defends it as an important congressional fact-finding trip. He says Assad told him he wants to help start peace negotiations in the region. "They could be important partners to ensure peace talks involving Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Jordan and the Palestinians," Kucinich says. He thinks Syria and Iran should be part of a Muslim peacekeeping force replacing U.S. troops in Iraq. Trusting Syria to have a peaceful influence on its neighbors is very dangerous -- its influence on Lebanon has been meddling and murderous -- yet wary diplomacy with Assad might get more results than President Bush's decision to shun him.
On Iran, again, Kucinich is both too-trusting and insightful. He says he doesn't think Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon -- despite suspicious evidence, from highly enriched uranium to blueprints for uranium spheres used only in nuclear weapons. But when Kucinich says Congress must restrain President Bush from attacking Iran, it's because he thinks "a very broad war" could result: "This is much more dangerous than Iraq, because Iran has an army that could easily go into Iraq and swamp our troops."
Finally, consider Kucinich's bill to create a U.S. Department of Peace. Don't laugh. It's been the butt of jokes, but it has 69 co-sponsors in Congress. It calls for spending $5 billion -- 1 percent of the Department of Defense budget -- on promoting non-violence: training peacekeepers, arms-embargo inspectors and post-war reconstruction personnel; funding programs at home to deal with domestic violence, substance abuse, gang violence and handgun deaths; and teaching peaceful conflict resolution to schoolkids. What's so funny?
"Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich introduced articles of impeachment against Vice President Dick Cheney this week," Jay Leno told "Tonight Show" viewers in May. "Pundits say Dennis Kucinich is that rare candidate capable of waging two hopeless campaigns at the same time."
Kucinich's run for president has become a national punch line, today's version of the Cleveland joke. Comedians pick at his meager fundraising and poll numbers, his eccentricities -- David Letterman has played footage of him singing "16 Tons" at a January event hosted by Jesse Jackson -- and his thin 5-foot-7 frame and unusual face: "The Democratic Party headquarters house elf," Stephen Colbert called him on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report."
Kucinich plays the laughs for publicity, appearing on Leno, Letterman and Colbert's shows to talk issues and tell his oft-told tale that he lost the 1979 mayor's race for defending Cleveland's electrical system. The hosts drool over his tall, pretty, red-headed, 30-year-old wife and crack jokes about the unusual coupling.
Elizabeth Kucinich's looks attract lots of media attention, but she is also an effective spokeswoman for her husband. She's been campaigning for him in New Hampshire. Idea-wise, she is the perfect wife for Kucinich: She has a master's degree in international conflict analysis. "She's so bright, and absorbs information so quickly, that she has the ability to truly represent me in forums anywhere," he says.
"Dennis and I are from completely and utterly different backgrounds," says Elizabeth, "and yet we come to government and policy stands and approaches and philosophies to life at exactly the same point. We're completely aligned in outlook."
Elizabeth Kucinich is just as idealistic as her husband, but she can come off as more graceful and candid than the candidate himself. "He's accomplishing things all the time," she says of the campaign's results. "You see the change in people from when they walk in [to his events] to when they walk out."
She's turned some of her husband's campaign events into rallies for personal activism. She took a class at Case Western Reserve University on appreciative inquiry, a method for turning people's positive memories into models for action, and now she's taken it on the road.
At events, she asks people to share their own stories, she says, of "when they felt the most courage, the most secure, the most inspired by government or most represented by government." The idea, she says, is to give people the sort of confidence her husband has, the willingness to go for whatever they think possible. "People leave feeling very, very inspired."
Even "The Colbert Report" has picked up on Kucinich's extreme optimism, with a routine on his habit of digging stuff out of his pockets during debates and interviews: the Constitution, the prayer of St. Francis, Rocky Colavito and Lou Boudreau baseball cards, tea bags and a quote from philosopher Miguel de Unamuno: "Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible."
"After all," noted Colbert, "it worked when he asked out his absurdly hot wife!"
Some of the jokes are unfair to Kucinich, a reflection of how often people judge presidential candidates by appearance instead of ideas, character or judgment. But sometimes it's irresistible to make fun of Kucinich -- and wonder how his personality reflects on Clevelanders before a national audience.
During the Oct. 30 debate, Tim Russert asked: "The godmother of your daughter, Shirley MacLaine, writes in her new book that you sighted a UFO over her home in Washington state, that you found the encounter extremely moving, that it was a triangular craft, silent and hovering, that you felt a connection to your heart and heard directions in your mind. Now, did you see a UFO?"
"Uh, I did," Kucinich replied. As audience members laughed, he added: "It was an unidentified flying object, OK? It's like -- it's unidentified. I saw something." He planned to move his campaign office to Roswell, N.M., he joked, and pointed out that President Jimmy Carter, too, once saw a UFO.
As of press time, he hadn't revealed what the "directions in his mind" had told him to do.
Dennis Kucinich learned a lesson as Cleveland's mayor, but not the one you think.
"In the words of [Percy Bysshe] Shelley in 'Prometheus Unbound,' you can 'defy Power, which seems omnipotent,' " he says, casting himself in the role of a solitary Romantic hero. "It's important to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what the risks are."
Kucinich is talking, of course, about his 1978 decision not to sell Cleveland's municipal electric system, despite local banks' refusal to renew their loans to the city unless he did. The impasse sent the city into default. "We live in a world that rewards people who sell out," he says, "but there's a greater reward in staying true to your principles and defending the rights of the people."
Kucinich has invested a lot in the Muny Light story. "Because he was right" and "Light up Congress" were the slogans of his 1990s comeback campaigns, after Cleveland Public Power expanded and saved customers hundreds of millions of dollars on electric bills. (Today, CPP's rates are roughly comparable with The Illuminating Co.'s -- both were charging 11 cents per kilowatt-hour this October.) He believes he accomplished a lot more as mayor: stopping tax abatements, cutting city spending, focusing development funds on neighborhoods and running a strong consumer protection department. But hanging his career narrative on Muny Light is valuable, because it changes the subject from unattractive aspects of his late-'70s personality.
Many Clevelanders have forgotten that the recall election he barely survived happened before the December 1978 default, and that it was inspired by his attacks on adversaries and vengeful City Hall firings.
I ask Kucinich what mistakes he made as mayor. "It was a mistake to fire the police chief on the 6 o'clock news, live." He thinks a minute, then decides he's done. "I'm not someone who wears a hairshirt."
Why should Clevelanders who didn't like the way he treated people as mayor support him now? "When you do the right thing, you don't apologize," he answers.
Kucinich does say he's a more peaceful person today. "The more you get to know about life, the more you realize how fragile life is, and why it's always better to work for peace." That extends to adversaries. "One has to be very cautious about aggression at any level. It's easier to be a happy person when you're not afflicted with thoughts about other people."
Being proven right on the electric issue, Kucinich says, taught him the biggest lesson in his life: He could change the outcome of events that seemed inevitable. "The same ability and the same courage that led me to save an electric system, to divert trains from heavily populated residential areas, to save a steel mill, to save a couple of hospitals, is the same thing that leads me to understand that it's possible to end war as an instrument of policy, that it's possible to have a single-payer, not-for-profit health-care system, that it's possible to have jobs for all and education for all. And where did I get all this training? In Cleveland, Ohio."
Most of Kucinich's points are arguable. He claims his intervention in LTV's 2001 bankruptcy blocked the dying company from a cold shutdown that would have destroyed its mill's steelmaking capacity, making its sale impossible -- but LTV claimed then that it had planned a hot, not cold, shutdown. St. Michael Hospital in Cleveland closed three years after Kucinich's intervention, though he credits himself for the fact that a Richmond Heights hospital, sold with it, is still open.
There's also a logical fallacy at the heart of Kucinich's self-confidence: He thinks that because he was right on some issues, he's always right. Actually, his judgment on public power and Iraq says nothing about the wisdom of a government takeover of health care. But his career-spanning connection-drawing is as complete a statement of Kucinich's motivation and self-image as you can hope for.
"My presence in the presidential campaign ends up being an extension of my work as a congressman," he says, "because it's the people I represent who are not being represented in the presidential election, except for me." He says he's speaking for Cleveland by pushing working-class issues: health care, canceling free-trade agreements, protecting the steel industry.
"I'm the person who's Cleveland's message to America," Kucinich says.
Of course, not everyone buys that.
"While Dennis wishes upon a star, Cleveland has become one of the poorest cities in America. Again," read the captions in a Web video released by Rosemary Palmer, who's challenging Kucinich in March's Democratic congressional primary. As the chords of "When You Wish Upon A Star" play over a scene of a condemned house, the clip mocks Kucinich's campaign travels, including a speech at Disney World. The ad nails Kucinich's limitless optimism better than Palmer could have known: Kucinich actually quotes "When You Wish Upon A Star," without irony, in his new memoir.
Palmer, whose son died in Iraq, used to support Kucinich for his antiwar stance until he voted against Democratic bills that funded the war but pressed for an exit strategy. "A progressive has to progress," Palmer says, "not draw lines in the sand, giving up the possible, looking for perfect. It doesn't matter what the ideal might be if you can't get close to it. It's all words."
Critics say Kucinich's travels take time and energy from his actual job. In four months, July through October, Kucinich spent all or part of 47 days campaigning outside Ohio and Washington, D.C., according to Slate.com's Map the Candidates database. He made 88 appearances in 14 other states, including eight days in New Hampshire, two days in Hawaii (plus a day off), and 14 days in California.
Some Democrats in Kucinich's district have grown angry. Three Democratic mayors considered running against him next year -- Dean DePiero of Parma, Martin Zanotti of Parma Heights and Thomas O'Grady of North Olmsted --though none may run in the end.
O'Grady, an Army veteran who was weighing a primary challenge to Kucinich as of October, says Democrats need to end the war, but adds: "I think you need to build consensus in all things you do. I would be working with moderate voices and moderate thinkers who will approach this in an intelligent way."
Zanotti decided against challenging Kucinich as an independent, but he's still furious at him. "For five years now, he's put his personal agenda ahead of the needs of the district," he says. "While we're sitting here struggling with a tough economy, trying to work to make things happen, he's not at the table."
"He's a self promoter, and a pretty shameless one at that," complains Rob Frost, chairman of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party, which has started a long-shot petition drive to get Kucinich expelled from Congress on charges he's neglected his district, told voters he wouldn't run for president and conducted disloyal diplomacy with Syria. All of Kucinich's career successes, Frost argues, are due to his "control-freak mentality, just a singular obsession. Not in any sense have I ever witnessed any ability to work with others."
Kucinich's critics often point to Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican who represents some Cuyahoga County suburbs, as an example of a more effective congressman. But LaTourette, a Kucinich friend, defends him. "I've found Dennis to be a great partner with things local," he says, citing funding for NASA Glenn and the LTV steel closing. Arguing that Kucinich's run for president hurts Cleveland, LaTourette says, is "like saying he can't walk and chew gum at the same time."
Kucinich defends his work for Cleveland with his office's constituent service record. It's a common way for congressmen more liberal or conservative than their districts to win voters' loyalty, and Kucinich takes it very seriously, even hiring social workers to handle it. He says his office has served 100,000 people. "That's the basis for my strong support in the district," he says. "People know I'm the one person they can count on when their family needs help." There it is again: the one person.
But the price of electing a solitary missionary as congressman can be that he produces more solitary stands on principle than results.
Kucinich has brought back a lot less federal money for his district than Northeast Ohio's other representatives this year. He's gotten $4.15 million for his district into House spending bills, from $1 million for road improvements in Garfield Heights to $300,000 for Cuyahoga County's preschool program to $1.5 million for advanced-technology companies in Westlake and Lakewood.
Meanwhile, LaTourette has gotten $18.5 million for his district into House bills this year, even though he's in the Republican minority, according to the databases compiled by the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones has gotten $8.8 million. Rep. Betty Sutton, in her first term in Congress, has gotten $11.7 million. And Rep. Tim Ryan has used his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, which exerts a powerful influence on Congress' spending, to get $25 million for the Youngstown area.
"You've got to look over the long run," Kucinich says. "I've had great success in getting funding for the district." He says he's brought home $186 million in transportation funding over several years, for train traffic abatement, road work, park trails and Hopkins airport improvements.
Kucinich infuriated the Appropriations Committee's chairman, David Obey, this May by claiming that a war funding bill's goals for Iraqi reconciliation would require Iraq to privatize its oil. "I told him to read the goddamn language," Obey told the Web site Politico.
In fact, the word privatization doesn't appear in Obey's bill, just a call for Iraq to share oil money fairly among ethnic groups. Kucinich thought it would pressure Iraq into passing a proposed law that also allowed foreign investment in its oil fields. But by misstating what Obey's bill actually said, Kucinich alienated a Democratic leader with his hand on Congress' purse strings. "He doesn't like me and I don't like him," Obey told Politico.
Kucinich says bygones are bygones, that he and Obey shook hands and laughed it off days later. He still believes he had to say something: "There's no question Congress was being asked to promote a bill to require the privatization of Iraq's oil."
Kucinich says his greatest accomplishments in Washington include blocking changes to the Clean Air Act and becoming a leading antiwar voice. He notes that the subcommittee he chairs, Domestic Policy, has held hearings on subprime loans and payday lending -- but he hasn't proposed bills on either subject. Kucinich has put his stamp on four bills this year, his office says: He helped get $7.5 million for a study of multisymptom illnesses among Gulf War veterans, got a bill on an Underground Railroad education program through the House, and got amendments passed adding energy audits to the Green Jobs Act and requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency to plan for the effects of global warming.
To measure Kucinich's priorities in Washington, I sorted through 97 faxes his office sent out between mid-April and October, and found 21 mentioned the Cleveland area, on issues from subprime lending to flood control to auto plant closings. He sent out 28 releases on Iraq, three on Iran, six on impeaching Dick Cheney, eight on health care, eight on gas prices, and 13 on other issues his subcommittee covers.
Kucinich's voting record is full of uncompromising positions. Consider three just from September and October. When Congress passed a condolence resolution for Sept. 11 victims by a 334-1 margin, he was the no vote, complaining the bill didn't denounce Bush for using Sept. 11 to justify the Iraq war. When a domestic terrorism prevention bill passed 404-6 in October, he again voted no, believing it policed ideas, not conduct. Infuriating his usual supporters, he voted against a children's health insurance program because it excluded legal immigrants (though he later voted to override Bush's veto of it). He also recently called for a U.S. government takeover of American oil companies.
Those stances make him one of the most radical and unbending members of Congress. But they fit Kucinich's self-image as a solitary, incorruptible missionary: "Whether or not I'm running for president," he tells me, "I'm someone who people know they can count on to be their voice when all the others will say nothing."
Kucinich will be hard to beat when he runs for re-election next year. His district leans Democratic, liberals will be loath to unseat him in a primary, and observers say a challenger would need a $1 million war chest to beat him.
Also, consider what voters in Lakewood told me in late October. Knocking on doors in a neighborhood where his share of the vote mirrors his districtwide support, I talk to six Kucinich supporters and three voters who don't like him.
Two supporters complain about his presidential campaign. "He's spending most of his time running for president," says retired teacher Donald Strater, 76. "At some point, I think he'd realize he has a very poor chance of succeeding." He's considering voting against Kucinich in the primary.
But Bob Heba, 50, a machinist who thinks Kucinich should "stay local," says he'll still vote for him. He's liked him since the 1970s, when, as a councilman, he crusaded against grocery-store packaging that cut people's hands. Other supporters mention personal connections to Kucinich: One woman's father served with him on City Council, another says he's visited her mosque, and a third says Kucinich tried to get her soldier nephew home from Iraq when his father died.
Whatever he does outside Cleveland, Kucinich has built a bond with local voters that no one is likely to break.
If Kucinich isn't elected president in 2008, will he try again?
"My candidacy for president of the United States arose when I saw my Democratic Party reneging on a promise it made to the American people to end the war in Iraq," he replies. "I'm hopeful my party will keep its promise."
Translation: He may run in 2012. The 2008 front-runners in the race either won't say when they'd pull out of Iraq, or say they'd pull most troops out but leave a smaller force. So let's say it's December 2010, and Dennis Kucinich has just won an eighth term in Congress, and the "war based on lies," as he puts it, still isn't over.
Will he run a third time if U.S. troops are still in Iraq in three years? "I don't know. I'm not going to answer that question, because I don't know."
Will the missionary for peace be content to stay in Cleveland and Washington? Or will he convince himself again that he can stop the war if he runs for president? All it'll take is for him to tell himself, once more, that anything is possible. And he's been certain of that all his life.
To read Cleveland Magazine's past articles on Dennis Kucinich, from the 1970s to today, visit our archive, The Complete Kucinich. <http://www.clevelandmagazine.com/completekucinich>