The pierogis sat in bubbling butter, the kielbasa in brown grease. Yellow and black streamers reached down from the gym's basketball hoop and men in plaid shirts dined with women in dainty sweaters. The party was as far from a black-tie fund-raiser as one can get — and that was exactly the point.
The crowd of 300 gathered at Tremont's Ola/St. Joseph Center on a sunny October Sunday to help give congressman and former Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich his due. Because Kucinich's two brawling years in office, from 1977 to '79, left city fathers aghast, they refused to follow tradition and pay for a portrait of him for City Hall.
"The people of the city are going to take matters into our hands," Mayor Jane Campbell told the crowd. "This is about righting a wrong."
The faithful snatched up $20 tickets for a classic Cleveland meal and a moment with the man. Some donors gave more and the event raised about $12,000 to help pay a portrait artist. When the guest of honor arrived, about an hour into the party, he didn't partake of the kielbasa. (Kucinich is a vegan.)
To the elderly loyalists at the tables, the event acknowledged their old battles and vindicated their affection. Alma Zager, 86, wore a giant campaign button from the 1978 recall election that showed Kucinich gazing upward, hands clasped below his chin in saintlike penitence. Zager spent years lobbying council for a Kucinich portrait, adding, "I didn't think I'd live long enough to see this happen."