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Dennis J. Kucinich

The Onetime Boy Mayor of Cleveland Is Still a Maverick After All These Years and Proudly Wears the Liberal Label

July 13, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

Opening day, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, April 1978. On the mound, to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, the 31-year-old maverick mayor and enfant terrible of Ohio politics. He is wearing a bulletproof vest. Police sharpshooters ring the ballpark roof. Dennis J. Kucinich looks up at the crowd. When he is in attendance and Indian fans yell "Kill the bum," he knows they aren't talking about the umpire.

His appearance on the field brings a chorus of boos from 75,000 fans. Kucinich, who had just fired the popular police chief live on TV, on Good Friday, adjusts his body armor. He winds up and fires a waist-high strike to Indians catcher Gary Alexander. The catcalls give way to scattered applause and cheers. Politics and sports, he thinks: They are fickle businesses.

Kucinich lasted only one term as the nation's youngest mayor of a major city. During that time he narrowly survived a recall, made as many enemies as headlines and presided over the first bankruptcy of an American city since the Depression. "Dennis the Menace," as the press labeled him, was trounced in his bid for reelection. A political cadaver, he packed his bags and headed west to reevaluate his life.

Now, 25 years later, on a Saturday morning in June, Kucinich is stuck in freeway traffic outside Los Angeles. A vegan, he is in the back seat, drinking apple juice and eating pita bread loaded with hummus. It is his 10th campaign trip to California, and a few miles away, at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, 500 people are waiting for the comeback politician -- a four-term Ohio congressman and one of nine candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Most of the people here are activists," said Marsie Murray as the crowd filed into the auditorium. "Dennis raises important issues we care about. He questions why we went to war in Iraq. He talks about health care, the environment, putting people back to work. He speaks for a lot of people unhappy with the direction of the country."

Though the national media have paid scant attention to his longshot candidacy -- "That's OK, I'll benefit from exceeding expectations," he says -- Kucinich's grass-roots, underfinanced campaign has attracted more than $1 million in individual contributions (corporate donations are eschewed) and enthusiastic crowds, particularly among the pro-labor, antiwar core of the Democratic Party. The Bush administration, he tells audiences, "led the nation into war based on lies."

He finished second to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in a recent poll of 317,000 Democrats by MoveOn.org, a liberal online organization. Dean got 43.9%, Kucinich 23.9% and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry 15.7%

"More folks than I thought are jumping on his bandwagon at this point," said David Loebsack, a political scientist at Cornell College in Iowa. "I think he's tapping into many of those who would normally go with Dean. It's the angry crowd, the Democrats who are almost as mad at Democrats as they are at George Bush."

At Taft High School, and later at a fund-raiser at the Van Nuys home of actress Mimi Kennedy and before a group of American Muslims in Long Beach, Kucinich drew standing ovations and cheers as he quoted Emerson and Churchill and outlined a progressive platform: Repeal the USA Patriot Act (for taking away civil liberties), nullify NAFTA, halt antimissile defense technology development, transfer money from the Pentagon to education. He supports global nuclear disarmament, universal health care, setting up a Cabinet-level Department of Peace to make nonviolence a cornerstone of domestic and foreign policy. A Catholic, he wavered on abortion before taking a solidly pro-abortion rights stance.

Kucinich stands 5 feet 7 in shoes with thick soles and weighs 135 pounds. On the desk of his Washington office is a portrait of Lincoln and in the closet, a dummy named W.C. that Kucinich, an amateur ventriloquist, uses from time to time to delight children. With net assets listed at less than $32,000, he is one Congress's least affluent members. He still has a $40,000 mortgage on the modest Cleveland home he bought 32 years ago. When people talk about inner-city poverty, he replies, "I know the territory."

As a pint-sized boy, he worked his way through parochial school scrubbing and waxing floors, dwarfed by the electrical floor polisher he pushed around. His father was a truck driver who found it difficult keeping the landlord at bay while supporting a wife and seven children.

By the time Kucinich was 17, his family had lived at 21 different addresses, "including a couple of cars." He moved into his own apartment as a high school senior to escape the chaos of home. It took him two years to get used to the quiet.

"One year I had just one pair of pants -- bright turquoise with black pipe stitching on the side," Kucinich recalled. "They were more appropriate for a psychedelic penal institution than a school. Finally some kids figured out I was wearing the same pants every day. It wasn't much fun.

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