The Political Phoenix From Cleveland
By Kevin Merida
The busboys were already entering to clear the tables but Dennis Kucinich was still there. The freshman House Democrat from Cleveland, the last member of Congress to depart the breakfast hosted by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, was enjoying the moment. "I admire you from your days as mayor," one college president had told him. "Well, thank you," Kucinich replied. "It's good to be here, good to be back."
At age 50, Kucinich is back, all right. Back from oblivion.
"One of the most gratifying things about my career," he says during a series of on-the-run interviews, "is I have a career again."
In 1977, Kucinich was elected Cleveland's mayor at age 31, the youngest big-city mayor in the country. The victory capped a storybook rise in local politics that began with his election to the city council at age 23.
But then his career started to crumble. A self-described urban populist, he clashed with the city's business establishment, fired the police chief on live television and burnished a reputation for being bombastic, confrontational, a thrower of temper tantrums. He was so disliked that death threats forced him to wear a bulletproof vest to toss the ceremonial first ball at a Cleveland Indians game. A recall effort came within 236 votes of ousting him.
The defining moment of his political collapse occurred on Dec. 15, 1978, when he rebuffed what was effectively an ultimatum from city bankers: Either sell the municipal electric plant to a private company or watch Cleveland go down the fiscal drain. When Cleveland became the first major American city since the Depression to go into default, it became the butt of national jokes and voters sent Kucinich packing in the 1979 election.
He couldn't even land a decent job; his 1982 federal income tax return listed total earnings at $38.
There is some irony then that the electric plant ultimately proved in some measure to be his vindication. His fight to stave off a takeover of the ailing city-owned Municipal Light System is now regarded by many as wise, fostering competition between public and private utilities that has resulted in reduced electric bills for residents.
"There is a vindication, no question," says Kucinich. "But I didn't look for vindication. Vindication found me."
The Comeback is a mythic event in American politics. Those who are able to reemerge from the political ashes often become larger figures in resurrection. In 1950, Florida's Claude Pepper lost his Senate seat in a nasty campaign that ushered in the McCarthy era. He was labeled "Red Pepper" and "a spellbinding pinko" and his career was thought to be over. But in 1962 he won a newly created House seat and became an immortal figure among senior citizens.
And what of Jack Kemp? He was exiled by his party after an ill-fated, last-minute endorsement of Steve Forbes in the GOP presidential race, a symbol of out-of-step ideas and unfulfilled potential. But then Bob Dole picked him as his running mate and he is back in business, a leading contender for the Republican nomination in 2000. And the "Comeback Kid" himself, Bill Clinton? In 1980, he lost his Arkansas governorship just as he was bursting onto the national stage; he regained it and went on to become president.
"Defeat does something for you," observes Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor who got a second chance after the voters rejected him in 1978. "It's painful, but instructive. I learned some things about listening, about building coalitions and gaining consensus instead of always doing it my way."
There is still great debate in Cleveland about whether Kucinich is to blame for plunging the city into near bankruptcy. But time and the city's much heralded revitalization has certainly softened the censure. Kucinich won a state Senate seat in 1994, and that gave him a platform to launch his fifth congressional bid last year. After losing House races in '72, '74, '88 and '92, he finally made it, toppling Republican incumbent Martin Hoke with a strong grass-roots campaign and the considerable help of organized labor.
"It's a very humbling experience to have gone through the struggle of being out in the desert for a while and then getting a chance to come back and serve," he says.
Kucinich looks like a cross between the school prankster and the school nerd. He has a mop of brown hair that hangs over his forehead, big ears that call your attention and the same baby face that earned him the nickname "boy mayor." He says he is 5 feet 7, but that may be a stretch.
A vegetarian, he cracks open a box of Rice Dream non-dairy carob drink and begins to guzzle from the carton. He is a man of few pretensions, but one of unmistakable zeal. Today's hot topics are the first-edition copy of a William Jennings Bryan book he has acquired, a framed photo of Abraham Lincoln that he is anxious to hang in his sparse office and Walt Whitman, whom he (approximately) quotes: "I have multitudes of humanity within me."
"When I was mayor of Cleveland it was necessary for me to take a strong stand in the public interest, and I did that with all my heart and soul," he says. "And as a result, I got labeled as being confrontational.
"But over the years," he continues, "I've had an opportunity to learn diplomacy, too. And I'd much rather handle things in a diplomatic way. It's more fun."
As Kucinich strolls the halls of Congress, he stoops to pick up litter, stops to gaze at portraits in committee hearing rooms, introduces himself to elevator operators and pops into colleagues' offices unannounced just to say hi. To observe him on Capitol Hill is to watch the unbridled enthusiasm, the wonder, of a once disgraced politician who has been given another chance.
But if Kucinich is almost comically giddy about joining the congressional ranks, who can blame him? For a long time he was on the outs. Now all of a sudden he is back in style.
President Clinton's new budget, for instance, increases funding for a NASA facility that employs close to 2,500 workers in his district. And he is still accepting congratulations for a "Saturday Night Live"-quality performance at last month's Washington Press Club Foundation dinner. Accompanied by an easel with charts, Kucinich did a spoof on Speaker Newt Gingrich's controversial former college course about renewing American civilization. Kucinich's remedy for the breakdown of civilization: polka, bowling, kielbasa.
"The response, I can't figure it out," he says. "It's like you take the humor of a Cleveland ward club and you put it on the national stage. I didn't know if it would play."
At the State of the Union address, Kucinich recounted, Vice President Gore asked if he would send him a videotape of the routine. It doesn't get much better than that for a freshman, especially for one who was once derided as "Dennis the Menace."
"I feel comfortable here," Kucinich says. "It seems like where I belong. It's like Washington is my kind of town."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company