"Dennis can take it," said Scheer, who now writes a weekly opinion column for The Times. "I never saw him show self-pity. I never saw him show regret. Never saw him say the world is cruel; 'How could this happen to me?' Even in hard times, Dennis was fun to be with. He's always been an optimist."
Dennis John Kucinich grew up a virtual transient in a loving but dysfunctional Cleveland family. He was the eldest of seven children of Virginia and Frank Kucinich, a truck driver who never quite caught up with his bills. Before he turned 18, Dennis had lived in 21 places, including the backseat of a couple of cars.
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."
He scrubbed the floors of his Catholic school at the age of 12 for 60 cents an hour to help pay his tuition. He was a surrogate parent to his siblings. He got good grades, and as a 5-foot-4, 98-pound high school freshman made the football team as a backup quarterback with a penchant for flattening bigger players who blocked his path. His athletic career ended as a senior because of a heart murmur (which would later keep him out of the military during the Vietnam War).
When he was 17, he moved into his own apartment to escape the bedlam at home. It was a $50-a-month walk-up in Cleveland's tough Tremont area. He wore a black raincoat in those days and carried a gun, a starter pistol loaded with blanks, to scare off muggers.
"My ambition is, and will be, a career in national politics," he wrote in an autobiography for school.
Soon he was working two jobs, as a surgical technician during the day and a copy boy at the Cleveland Plain Dealer at night. He also enrolled at Cleveland State College and started attending Cleveland City Council meetings, pestering the elected officials with questions and challenges. He ran for a seat on the council in 1967, even though he was only 20 and not old enough to vote.
"If I win this one, I can go all the way," he said at the time, and given his ambition and cocksure attitude, friends had no doubt that he was referring to nothing less than the presidency of the United States.
A Need to Achieve
Kucinich lost that election but won a council seat in 1969 and the mayoral post in 1977. People considered him a talented politician and an impulsive, difficult person to do business with. He didn't compromise, and he seemed consumed by the need to achieve, to prove he could play on the same field as the big guys.
Once, although he seldom drank, he bet a group of reporters at Cleveland's Rockwell Inn $5 each that he could put down 10 martinis in 30 minutes. He won the bet in 27 minutes, went outside to vomit and was sick for days. But he had made a point: He didn't back down in the face of challenge.
Cleveland magazine found his behavior as mayor so peculiar that it asked two unidentified psychiatrists to assess his personality. Opined one: "Dennis seems to have a need to be a person significant in size. Since he's not physically big, he has to establish it in another way, so that when he enters a room, people say, 'Here comes a significant person, a formidable person.' "
But even his critics came to admit that Kucinich was formidable. Knocked out of the political arena in 1979, he returned to Cleveland from his Western wanderings in 1983 and won a seat on the council.
"I don't think anyone, including me, thought this was a big comeback," he said. "I was only back to where I started. But I was reconnected."
Perhaps more important, Clevelanders were starting to believe Kucinich had been right about Muny Light, especially after members of a congressional staff concluded, in 1980, that the default had been politically motivated. History was about to be rewritten by the loser.
In 1993, then-Cleveland Mayor Michael White cited Kucinich's "wisdom" in not selling the utility, and in 1998 the council honored the deposed mayor for having the "courage and foresight" to stand up to the banks. The utility, now known as Cleveland Public Power, provides low-cost electricity that saved the city an estimated $195 million between 1985 and 1995. One of the new buildings in its expanded plant is named for Kucinich.
Kucinich completed his comeback in 1994, winning a seat in the Ohio Senate -- one of the few Democrats in the country to defeat a seated Republican state senator that year. President Clinton took note and urged Kucinich to consider national office. Kucinich was elected in 1996 to Congress, where he speaks with one of the most liberal voices.
His presidential aspirations took form in February 2002, when he was scheduled to speak, along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor Warren Beatty, to the Americans For Democratic Action in Los Angeles. He was staying at the Westwood home of a friend, Emmy-winning TV producer and writer Lila Garrett, one of the event's organizers.