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'Boy Mayor' Kucinich Took Charge in Utility Debt Crisis

Cleveland went bust and ousted him, but his tough stand ultimately reignited his career.

January 23, 2004|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

Dennis J. Kucinich's political career was extinguished like a burned-out light bulb on a cold winter night 25 years ago. Journalists came from as far away as England and Japan to record his demise.

As the clock ticked toward midnight -- the moment Cleveland would go bankrupt if its mayor didn't surrender to the banks -- a local TV station started a countdown, as though it were New Year's Eve.

The date was Dec. 15, 1978, and Kucinich -- precocious, pugnacious and ambitious -- was, at 31, the nation's youngest big-city mayor. He had won office on a promise to cancel the sale of Cleveland's municipal power company, Muny Light, to a competing private utility. But six banks threatened not to renew the city's credit on $15 million in loans unless Kucinich agreed to sell by midnight.

Downstairs in the Italian-marbled City Hall, Cleveland's treasurer and the president of one of the banks watched the minutes tick by, waiting to see if Kucinich would back down. Upstairs, the mayor and council bickered. Kucinich stood firm. The clock struck midnight, and Cleveland became the first American city to default on its debts since the Great Depression.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Kucinich profile -- An article about Democratic presidential candidate Dennis J. Kucinich in Friday's Section A incorrectly reported the timing of an unsuccessful recall that Kucinich faced as mayor of Cleveland. The recall attempt was in August 1978, before the city defaulted on its debts, not after it defaulted in December 1978. Also, the article misquoted the last line of a Langston Hughes poem, "Mother to Son." The line is: "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair," not "star."

The boyish-looking 5-foot-7, 140-pound mayor, nicknamed Dennis the Menace by the business community he had alienated, held to his belief that the private utility, Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., and its banking friends, most of whom were CEI shareholders, were out to gouge the city.

If Muny Light had been swallowed by CEI, he believed, it would have cost Cleveland millions of dollars in higher rates and especially burdened working-class homeowners.

"Two things about Dennis have never changed," said Jack Schulman, a Harvard-educated lawyer who worked in the beleaguered Kucinich administration. "One, he is absolutely honest and you never have to wonder whether he's taken a position because someone bought him off. Two, he's committed to working people."

The default, and the exile that followed, became both Kucinich's political coffin and his eventual springboard to redemption. It clung to him like a shadow, from the West where he fled after the Cleveland debacle in pursuit of a new life to Iowa and New Hampshire where, in the winter of 2004, he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination using a light bulb as his symbol and the slogan "Light Up America."

"You come to certain moments in your life, which are key and defining moments, which tell a lot about who you are," Kucinich told Cleveland magazine in 1996. "And for me, everything came down to that moment. Who I was. Where I'd been. Who I grew up with. How I grew up. What my aspirations were. What I hoped to do. What I hoped to be.... And it all came down to my saying, 'No, I'm not going to sell that electric system no matter what the consequences are to me personally.' "

After the default, Kucinich survived a recall by 236 votes. But savaged in the local media and unpopular with the black and business communities, the Police Department and city hall bureaucrats, he was swept out of office in a landslide in 1979. He had dreamed as a child of being Cleveland's mayor, and his two-year fulfillment of that dream had been marked by tumult, national derision and, in the end, a humiliating defeat.

TV talk-show hosts joked about Kucinich's legacy, about Cleveland -- "the crisis capital of America" -- and its "boy mayor," whose assistant director of public works was 21 and whose head of city education was fined for "mooning" his brother on an interstate highway. Kucinich was nearly broke by the time he was voted out of office. His second marriage was collapsing. Prospective employers didn't return phone calls. He flew west, seeking equilibrium.

For several years, he paced the streets of cities in California, New Mexico and Oregon. He looked for jobs, and when they didn't materialize he knew the ghosts of Cleveland still haunted him. Occasionally he'd return to his hometown for public forums. Crowds saw him and chanted, "Default! Default!"

Bunker Hill Period

In Los Angeles one day, he found himself in MacArthur Park, among the poor and dispossessed. He remembered the words of Langston Hughes, the seaman-turned-poet whose first book was titled "Weary Blues": "Life for me ain't been no crystal star."

"I knew what it was like for all these people out there trying to get their lives together and figure out where they're going," Kucinich recalled. "I'd been there.... I remember thinking, 'Man, I put 10 years into a career in Cleveland and it just floated away.' "

He started writing his autobiography in the Bunker Hill apartment of a friend, Robert Scheer, then a political writer for The Times. He laughs now when asked if the writing was cathartic. He was still years from achieving catharsis, he said. He had always believed life works out if you do the right thing. What he hadn't realized, he said, was the learning curve: It would take him 15 years to get his dreams back on track.

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