Part 1: The Past
“Time is an illusion to me,” the former mayor, state senator, and congressman said in a recent interview. “I don’t give it any thought at all.”
This campaign veteran is running against six rivals: Justin Bibb, a nonprofit executive; lawyer Ross DiBello; Councilman Basheer Jones; Council President Kevin Kelley; former Councilman Zack Reed; and State Senator Sandra Williams. Most have raised far more money. None have had longer careers.
Kucinich, turning 75 in October, plays up his past on the stump. He talks about having lived in 21 childhood homes, including a couple of cars. He talks about having owned a barely 1,200-square-foot house on the west side since the 1970s. And he talks about having saved Muny Light (officially the Municipal Electric Light Plant back then, now Cleveland Public Power).
His campaign slogan is “Light Up Cleveland.” He poses for Zoom forums in front of an old photo of the light plant with a banner saying “Power to the People.” He touts his book, “The Division of Light and Power,” a 660-page chronicle of his war with the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., which coveted Muny Light, and with local bankers, who declared Cleveland in default one midnight when he wouldn’t sell the system. He shows audiences replicas of several Plain Dealer front pages about the struggle. He boasts about saving customers hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and rates; Muny’s were much lower than the Illuminating Co.’s.
Kucinich says we need to keep fighting corporate corruption and government collusion today. During his mayoralty, the Illuminating Co. admitted in court to blacking out customers of Muny Light, which relied on the private utility for power. This June, the Illuminating Co.’s parent corporation, First Energy, admitted to steering about $60 million in bribes to state officials for an estimated $1 billion bailout.
He often quotes Tom L. Johnson, the acclaimed progressive mayor of Cleveland from 1901 to 1909: “I believe in public ownership of all public service monopolies…. If you do not own them, they will in time own you.”
Boyish and brash
Journalists from out of town have long mocked “Dennis the Menace” for his youthful looks, slight build, elfin ears, and former mop top.
They play up his brash and quirky style: his yellow “Dennis!” signs, vegan diet, herbal treatments, ventriloquism talent, supposed UFO sighting, celebrity pals like actress Shirley MacLaine, and many campaigns as a Democrat or independent. They play up his three marriages, including the current one from 2005 to a woman several inches taller and 31 years younger.
Those journalists recount a tumultuous two years in office for the contentious “Boy Mayor” and his contentious lieutenants, who were as young as 21. They recount him insulting police and council members. They recount him firing his police chief on live TV during Good Friday. They play up his progressive efforts to impeach George W. Bush, ban civilian handguns, abolish nuclear weapons, and create a federal peace department. They also cite some not-so-progressive actions, such as Fox News appearances, divisive campaign tactics, former opposition to abortion, meetings with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and an initially undisclosed $20,000 speaking fee from a group supporting al-Assad.
Local leaders and observers acknowledge Kucinich’s quirks and conflicts but praise his energy, savvy, constituent service, and honesty. They say he proved right about Muny Light. They also say he’s mellowed.
“He had a confrontational mean streak in him in the early ‘70s,” said Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer editorial director turned columnist. “It has disappeared. He is a kinder, gentler soul than he was.”
Campaigning since age 20
Dennis John Kucinich was the oldest of seven children of a Teamster and a homemaker, who were prone to drinking and quarreling. At St. John Cantius High School, the sophomore wrote, “My main ambition is and will be a career in national politics, and I’m going to aim for the very top.”
He turned 21 during a close but vain bid for a council seat in 1967. He won the job two years later by 16 votes and went on to two more terms. He lost bids for Congress in 1972 and 1974. He won the municipal court clerk’s job in 1975. Meanwhile, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Case Western Reserve University in speech communications.
Kucinich took some progressive stances, opposing the Vietnam War, proposing free public transit, and championing consumer rights. Still, he opposed forced busing. His campaign also sent out a mailer highlighting a rival’s support for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. But Kucinich says that the mailer was unauthorized, and he disapproved of it. Another mailer purported to show Black Council President George Forbes ogling white council candidate Mary Rose Oakar and attempted to portray her as a pawn of leaders “east of the river.” Yet he voted on council for that holiday and put several Black leaders in his mayoral cabinet.
In 1971, Kucinich led Democrats for Perk, helping Republican Ralph Perk beat Democrat Arnold Pinkney for mayor. In 1977, Kucinich ran for mayor, calling to stop Perk and council from selling Muny Light. Perk trailed him and Cuyahoga County Commissioner Edward Feighan in the nonpartisan primary. Kucinich prevailed in the general election on Nov. 8 for a two-year term starting just six days later.
In January, he faced what’s still arguably Ohio’s fiercest blizzard. Things never calmed down.
“I was the mayor and I fought City Hall,” Kucinich writes in his book. He describes huge debts, baffling ledgers, missing equipment, corporate cronies, and gambling rings at city workplaces.
Bob Weissman, Kucinich’s intense campaign leader turned chief of staff, dumped hundreds of workers, including an 86-year-old coordinator of patriotic affairs. He also stopped the Little Sisters of the Poor from soliciting at City Hall.
Meanwhile, Kucinich blasted council members. “If they aren’t stupid, then they are crooked, or maybe both,” he told the media. “This council is a bunch of buffoons intent on degrading itself. This is the most reactionary group of fakers to ever hold office.”
He called police “bullies, bigots, and crybabies.” He fired 13 of them for refusing orders to patrol county housing projects alone. The police had two bouts of “blue flu.”
Cleveland Magazine’s Frank Kuznik wrote that the mayor inspired feelings “from almost religious admiration to the most irrational hatred.” Professor Richard Perloff, a Cleveland State expert in political communication, wrote in The Plain Dealer in 2017 that Mayor Kucinich “seemed to delight in confrontation with everyone.”
On Easter Sunday, two days after the police chief’s ouster, a bullet pierced Kucinich’s house and missed him. Police reported further plots on his life. At the Indians’ home opener, he wore a bullet-proof vest, drew jeers, threw out the first pitch — a strike — and drew cheers.
Supporters say he had other victories, too. He helped the schools carry out a controversial busing order in peace. He vetoed corporate tax abatements. He refused to build an exclusive ore dock for mighty Republic Steel. He persuaded voters to save Muny Light and to raise the city income tax from 1.0% to 1.5%.
During his first August in office, Kucinich survived a recall by 236 votes. In 1979, a month before the general election, the 9-year-old daughter of Republican rival George Voinovich was killed by a car. Kucinich toned down his campaign, lost by 12 percentage points, and became the youngest former mayor of a big U.S. city.
Kucinich seldom expresses regrets about his mayoral term. But he told The Plain Dealer in 2018, “I’ve learned to try to resolve matters in a more peaceful way.” In this year’s book, he said, “As I learned, personnel matters are best resolved privately.” He also told Ideastream recently that he’d hire a chief from the local police instead of the outside, like the one he fired.
Perloff wrote that Kucinich’s mayoral stint looks somewhat better in hindsight. “His confrontational rhetoric, unwillingness to find ways to compromise with the banks and disdain of the art of give-and-take contributed substantially to the default. But Kucinich got the big picture right. Just about every book or article written on the topic pins blame on CEI’s predatory greed. In an era of effete, careful political speech, Kucinich took chances, offended, advocated, drew rhetorical blood – but mostly displayed compassion for people in need.”
Public power survived, but it took time for Kucinich to recharge his career. He consulted, lectured, and hosted on radio. For 1982, he reported $38 in income. That year, he lost a primary for Ohio secretary of state. He returned to council in 1983 and left for a brief 1986 bid for governor. He later lost two more campaigns for Congress.
In 1996, he won a seat in the Ohio Senate. In 1998, he finally won a seat in Congress. There he chaired the House’s progressive caucus. He opposed the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. He promoted causes with little support back then but more now, including free college, legalized marijuana, single-payer health care, and free pre-kindergarten classes.
Gary Starr, former mayor of Middleburg Heights, said recently, “He had this flamboyant kind of grandstanding reputation, but you know what? He was in the trenches working hard for his constituents.”
Former Cleveland Councilman Benny Bonanno said, “His Congressional office was second to none in constituent services.”
That office handled more than 110,000 requests per year from citizens, sometimes from other districts. It helped them with Social Security, green cards, and many other needs.
The congressman also handled community problems. He helped keep a U.S. Customs office in Middleburg Heights and a Social Security office in Lakewood. He led a fight that stopped train traffic from multiplying in western suburbs and won overpasses to reduce rail crossings.
In 2004 and 2008, Kucinich campaigned for the presidential nomination but drew few votes. In 2012, he lost a primary to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo for their somewhat merged district. In 2018, he lost a primary for governor.
In recent years, he and his wife, Elizabeth, have run Kucinich Consulting. Its website says they “work to strengthen the capacity of institutions, companies, causes and individuals working to bring global social, economic, health, food, agricultural and ecological systems into balance.”
Kucinich said that much of the firm’s work is confidential but has included business plans and prospectuses. The firm reported earning about $120,000 in 2016, nearly all of it from the Center for Food Safety for lobbying for states’ rights to test and label food.
Mayoral terms now start in January and last four years. If he wins, Kucinich would become the oldest mayor in Cleveland history a few days into the term.
Over the decades, he’s spent a lot of time in D.C. and the west. But he’s kept that small house in Cleveland all the while and says his heart’s here, too. “I still have the energy and the spirit and the passion and the willingness to take this city we all love and lift it up and transform it.”
Part 2: The Present
In his frequent campaigns, Dennis Kucinich has often told voters, “You want it, you got it.”
Now trying to regain the mayor’s job after 42 years, Kucinich is promising 400 more police, 100 unarmed crisis intervention staff, an overarching department of civil peace, and other responses to Cleveland’s surge in violent crime.
He’s also vowing to slash public utility rates, green the city, build 20,000 new homes, offer health checkups at the schools, and do much more.
These promises don’t surprise Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer editorial director turned columnist. “In ’77, Dennis promised everything,” Larkin said in a recent interview. “He even promised more dogcatchers.”
Back then, he broke some promises by calling in the National Guard and raising taxes, blaming the former on a “blue flu” and the latter on hidden inherited debts. But he kept some by hiring more police, famously saving Muny Light and, yes, adding more dogcatchers.
The question is, what would he do this time? And will the famously brash, confrontational Kucinich return, or will we get a mellower, aged version of the Boy Mayor?
Said The Plain Dealer’s Larkin, “I suspect he would surround himself with a better group. He would not be as confrontational, as quick to accuse. It would be a kinder, gentler version.”
In the race for mayor, Kucinich faces six rivals: nonprofit executive Justin Bibb, lawyer Ross DiBello, Councilman Basheer Jones, Council President Kevin Kelley, former Councilman Zack Reed, and State Senator Shirley Williams.
To keep all his costly new promises, would Kucinich raise taxes? “Absolutely not,” he said in a recent interview. “The people of Cleveland are overtaxed already. The city’s flush with cash.”
As of Jan. 1, the city had about $81 million in unencumbered funds and a rainy day fund. It also has big surpluses in utility funds and an unallocated $550 million in federal pandemic aid.
Kucinich likes to say that the rainy day has come. “It’s raining bullets in our neighborhoods.”
City income tax receipts fell from $442 million in 2019 to $410 in 2020 and have been projected at $424 million this year. Kucinich spokesman Andy Juniewicz says the 400 cops would cost about $40 million per year. Juniewicz also says that safety would spur growth, and that Kucinich would slash waste and abuse as in the 1970s, when he cut expenses by 18 percent.
Larry Bresler, head of Organize Ohio, worries about draining coffers during the pandemic, when many employees have lost jobs or started working at home in the suburbs. The state’s current budget redirects income taxes to the community where the work takes place.
Kucinich’s top campaign issue is crime. His team has emailed press releases with inflammatory subject lines like “Violence, chaos” and “Marauders terrorize city.” It also issued a mailer showing one of the popular script “Cleveland” signs riddled and bloodied by bullets.
Candidate Bibb tweeted that the mailer was “dangerous, divisive and damaging.” He said, “Clevelanders will not be fooled by this fear mongering.”
In endorsing Bibb, The Plain Dealer said, “Whatever you do, don’t vote for Dennis Kucinich.” It blasted Kucinich’s “reckless promises” and ‘constant violence-mongering.”
Some critics are reminded of divisive Kucinich campaigns in the 1970s that criticized busing and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Lewis Katz, a law professor and former Democratic Congressional nominee, hosted a mayoral forum at Case Western Reserve university. Afterwards, Katz said, “He sounded like the Dennis Kucinich of 1967, not the Dennis Kucinich who was a liberal leader later.”
Kucinich said recently that he’s offended by murders, not mailers. “I’m prepared to deal with the reality, not the make-believe of the civic tub-thumpers.”
But he doesn’t just want to thump crime. He says he’d decriminalize non-violent drug offenses and offer addiction treatment. He’d boost police training in racial sensitivity and constitutional rights. He’d boost community policing, building ties between police and residents. He’d seek restorative justice, where offenders undo some of the harm. His peace department would tackle crime’s causes and try to nip it in the bud. And he’d crack down on law enforcers who break the law.
“The days of bullies with badges are over.”
Like most candidates, Kucinich opposes November’s referendum for a revamped Civilian Police Review Board and a new Community Police Commission. He says the commission would be so powerful, it could arguably remove the mayor.
Kucinich’s campaign plays up Muny Light, now Cleveland Public Power. He boasts about enduring default to keep Muny Light, saving. the system, coveted by The Illuminating Co. He says he saved residents hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes and rates. Most leaders and observers say he proved right. But now Cleveland Public Power charges about 10 percent more than the Illuminating Co. Kucinich vows to trim the system’s management, undo a 50-year contract for power, cut customers’ rates by 10 percent right away, cut them more later, make similar cuts in city water rates, and seek comparable ones in transit and sewer charges, which are set by regional boards with some mayoral appointees.
Kucinich also wants to help the environment. He says he’d bring waterfront trees, floating islands, nontoxic lawns, rooftop gardens, pollen corridors, walkable and bikeable streets, and a park replacing Burke Lakefront Airport.
He’d put residents on line. He’d raze unsalvageable homes. He’d replace lead pipes.
Now that the schools report to the mayor, Kucinich claims he would freeze closings, boost extra-curriculars, teach peacemaking, and offer free checkups of children’s physical, mental, and dental health.
One of his press releases scoffed at calls to “re-imagine” the 109–year-old West Side Market. After two recent blackouts there, he’d rather provide a back-up generator and other improvements long sought by vendors.
He touted another goal in a release issued on July 30, the day Councilman Kenneth Johnson was convicted of 15 federal counts for false expense claims and related wrongs: “City Hall is a cesspool of corruption, and I intend to clean it up.”
Kucinich said he’s a businessman who’ll cooperate with businesses when the public benefits. For instance, the city has awarded Sherwin-Williams about $100 million in incentives to rebuild its headquarters downtown. He said he’d have sought company shares for the city in return.
In a City Club forum this month, Kucinich said too little information had been released to judge a recent pledge of public aid to renovate Progressive Field. “The deal’s like a black box.”
Local leaders gauge Kucinich
Former adversaries say Kucinich has mellowed. “He’s grown immensely,” said Rev. E. Theophilus Caviness, a former councilman. “He realizes he was kind of fast on the draw.”
Mary Rose Oakar, former councilwoman and Congresswoman, called Kucinich “a rascal when he was younger.” But she largely blames his late aide Weissman.the late Bob Weissman, Kucinich’s intense campaign leader and mayoral chief of staff. “Dennis has matured tremendously,” said Oakar. “He’s a brilliant fellow and very honest. He has a big heart. He sticks up for the little guy.”
This year, some residents have welcomed Kucinich on the campaign trail. After a Collinwood forum, resident Caroline Peak said, “He brings a lot of history, dedication and knowledge to the city.”
In West Park, Kucinich was the grand marshal of a July 5 parade. He drew many greetings and cheers.
Said spectator Rae Anderson, “I’d vote for Dennis for anything, anytime, anywhere.”
Still, not every greeter has been a supporter. Sheila Downs, a Bibb supporter, said at the parade, “We just like to wave at Dennis. He’s like a presidential candidate campaigning for mayor.”
Kucinich has been endorsed by the North Shore Federation of Labor, Teamsters, Ohio State Council of Machinists, National Association of Letter Carriers, and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents many Cleveland city workers.
His supporters include William Nix, who leads the local Amalgamated Transit Union. Nix said Kucinich was the only candidate who’d asked what Nix’s members need — safer buses, trains, and streets for drivers and riders.
When and how Cleveland votes
The top two vote-getters in Sept. 14’s nonpartisan primary will square off in the Nov. 2 general election. No polls have been released since May, when a Baldwin-Wallace University one showed Kucinich leading the race, 18 percent to Jones’ 13 percent and others’ smaller shares. But 48 percent of the respondents were undecided.
Pollster Tom Sutton said Kucinich and Kelley should benefit from being the only well-known white candidates, versus four African-American candidates, all well-known, and the white, obscure DiBello.
Sutton gives Kelley the best shot at making the runoff and Kucinich the second best. He also expects more turnout than usual, this being the first mayoral race in 20 years without an incumbent candidate.
Eligible Clevelanders not yet registered with their current names and addresses have through Aug. 16 to take care of that, and they can do so online. Registered voters have three ways to vote. They can apply for mail ballots. They can vote early starting Aug. 17 at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, 2925 Euclid Ave. Or they can vote on Sept. 14 at their neighborhood polling places. For schedules and other details, see boe.cuyahogacounty.gov.
Kucinich trails most of his rivals financially. By June 30, he’d only spent about $53,000 on the race and banked about $37,000, compared to more than $537,000 banked by Kelley. Spokesman Juniewicz said recently, “We’ll have more than enough to communicate everything that needs to be communicated.”
Three years ago, Kucinich got just 23 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial primary. But he led the field in Cleveland.
In younger years, Kucinich, faced many threats to his health, including Crohn’s disease, kidney stones, a heart murmur, a nearly fatal ulcer, and assassination attempts. “My health now is better than it’s ever been,” he said. “I have more energy. I have more resilience. I can put in an 18-hour day without blinking an eye.”
He sounds confident about winning the job and doing it well. “I’m ready on Day One,” he said. “There’s no training wheels on me.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mischaracterized Kucinich’s stance on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. He has also published freelance articles, fiction, and “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford University Press).