Throughout high school I've done quite a bit of creative writing and have enjoyed it. Someday I intend to be an author, but I consider this secondary. My main ambition is, and will be, a career in national politics .
Dennis Kucinich, age 14
Mayor Dennis Kucinich, 32, is sitting in a barber chair as Tony Scibulia trims his thick, dark hair. The next day the mayor will leave for Los Angeles to appear on the "Tomorrow" show; these days about the only person on television who says nice things about Dennis Kucinich is... Dennis Kucinich.
As Tony begins to work the scissors around the mayor's ears, the evening's top news stories blare from the TV set in the corner of the barber shop:
An auction of surplus land by the Cleveland school board brings in less money than expected.
The governor of Ohio, despite the mayor's objections, announces he'll appoint a nine-person committee to steer Cleveland out of its fiscal crisis.
A grand jury is investigating the mayor's chief political adviser on charges that he disrupted a radio broadcast by deliberately pulling the plug on a station covering a press conference at city hall.
For budget reasons, the fire department expects soon to cut back its work force.
Kucinich watches the local news without expression. What does he think of all this bad news in the city he governs?
Kucinich is cool, very cool. He blinks once.
"Since I always know the story behind the story," he says, "I don't get too upset."
Adds Tony between snips: "He's used to it."
Indeed. By now all of Cleveland is used to it, this stream of grim news that makes the city a comedian's dream. Even in Cleveland the jokes prosper. A town whose slogan was once "The Greatest Location in the Nation" is now "The Mistake on the Lake." Stores sell T-shirts that read "Cleveland: You Gotta Be Tough."
Ignore the earlier true stories, about the time the city's river, choked with pollution, caught fire. About the time then-mayor Ralph Perk -- the one whose wife turned down a White House invitation because it conflicted with her bowling night -- caught his hair on fire when he mishandled a blow torch at an official ceremony. To some extent, the tradition has continued: Last year the city accidentally paved over power company manholes, the school board president was nabbed by a highway patrolman for "mooning" his brother from a car on an interstate, and one of the mayor's brothers was arrested for allegedly robbing a bank.
But those are antics that distract from the fight in the city's center ring: Dennis Kucinich versus just about everyone else.
"If I stood with the mighty and the powerful," he says, "they'd wrap their protective cloak around my administration and deflect the most serious criticism as they did for previous administration."
Kucinich likes that kind of tough talk. His enemies are the "mighty and powerful," he's fighting "a corporate dictatorship," and his only strength lies with "the people." During his 12-year climb from a seat on the city council to the leather chair in the high-ceilinged, ornate mayor's office, Kucinich's political career has been marked by confrontation. He thrives on it, and argues that it is necessary if his brand of populism is to succeed in Cleveland.
Since his election in 1977, Kucinich has made enemies of the newspapers that endorsed him, the city council, the city's largest bank and most business executives. In a town that boasts 33 national corporate headquarters and, after New York and Chicago, is home to more of the nation's top 1,000 corporations than any other metropolitan area, that's a lot of enemies. Commercial real estate brokers bemoan the slack in business since Kucinich ended tax abatements, and Cleveland trailer rental firms must continually import trailers; most are rented for one-way trips -- out of Cleveland.
Kucinich has survived several assassination attempts (police guard his home around the clock and he travels with a detective who serves as a bodyguard and driver). And last August he weathered a recall attempt by 236 votes. "For the grace of God," he said after the recall attempt failed, "this is still a people's government...." Said a writer for Cleveland magazine: "If this is God's grace, we'd hate to see His wrath ."
This week Kucinich faces a test of a different sort. Cleveland's voters will decide whether to increase their city income tax by 50 percent and whether to sell the city's small power plant that keeps Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. from achieving a monopoly position in the power business.
Should voters approve the tax increase, as most observers expect, the city may be able to afford to pay its bills again. And Kucinich, who wrote 19 years ago that he coveted national office, might keep alive that ambition despite his mighty ability to irritate and antagonize.
Dennis Kucinich was the oldest of seven children born to a Cleveland truck driver and his wife. When the size of the family changed, so did the Kucinich home, and the family's move from one rented house to another introduced young Dennis to Cleveland's ethnic neighborhoods, a fact of life that would hold him in good political stead later.
Kucinich said it wasn't until he was 9 or 10 that he realized "everyone wasn't poor," that every child didn't wear the same checkered shirt and turquoise pants to school for two years.
"I'd say from an early age I've been keenly aware of the inequities of life," says Kucinich. "I know what poverty means and I know some of the reasons people remain poor. When I talk about poor people, I'm not a missionary; I grew up in the territory."
In grade school his days began at 5:30 in the morning, when Kucinich attended mass. He worked his way through parochial school scrubbing and waxing the school's hardwood floors; he's always been short for his age, and he recalls being dwarfed by the floor polisher.
He earned high grades, and in high school Kucinich placed second out of 23,000 essayists for his paper, "Why I Want to Be the Cleveland Indian Bat Boy." At 4 feet 9,98 pounds, he warmed the bench as a football player.
During summers he worked as a caddy at a suburban country club -- "seeing how the other half lived" -- waking at 5:30, hitchiking 12 miles to the golf course, walking 35 holes a day, six days a week. He would have worked seven days a week, he says, but the course closed Monday for maintenance. That paid his high school tuition. It also, if Kucinich isn't putting too fine a point on his youth, provided the basis for his political conscience.
"I learned the worth of an individual doesn't depend on what one has, on possessions or trappings of wealth," he says. "An individual's worth depends on not having but being , on what you believe in and the moral standards by which you live.
"I could lose whatever it is I have materially and not let it bother me," says Kucinich, who is paid $50,000 a year as mayor. He and his wife live in a modest home purchased in 1971 for about $22,500.
At age 17, Kucinich left his home "to learn how the world was put together." He worked as a hospital orderly during the day. At night he worked as a copy boy at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Did that schedule allow for a social life?
"When you work at a hospital that has a school of nursing, it has its advantages," says Kucinich. "So the answer to that is yes, but I had to schedule it in."
(Kucinich answers questions slowly, with dramatic pauses even for simple answers. On television this can suggest great thought or wisdom. Ventriloquism is a hobby. In a cabinet in his office he keeps a dummy named Sherwood, named after Sherwood "Bob" Weissman, a former United Auto Workers officer who serves as Kucinich's chief of staff and political mentor. When school children visit city hall, Kucinich sometimes props Sherwood on his lap and conducts a quick course on populist politics. Kucinich, however, declined to pose for a picture with Sherwood because "it would be undignified." Perhaps because of his boyish looks, Kucinich is very image-conscious; he favors dark, three-piece suits.)
In 1967, while a student at Cleveland State University, Kucinich answered a phone in the Plain Dealer newsroom. A drunk calling from a bar told Kucinich he intended to run for city council. It occurred to Kucinich that he could run for city council.
His three-room apartment overlooked the city's steel mills; his neighborhood was populated by elderly citizens, many of Polish and Ukranian background. Puerto Rican and West Virginian families were moving in. Those voters became, and remain, a large bloc of his constituency. He walked the neighborhood.
"This was the best resource I had," he says, tapping the bottom of his shoe. He lost by 500 votes.
While he waited for the next election, Kucinich took a job as a copyreader at The Wall Street Journal and began acting like a councilman. He took gripes from his neighbors to the appropriate city office, talking about chuckholes, streetlights and recreation areas.
"If it hadn't been for my youth," says Kucinich, "people would have thought I was a councilman. I spent more time at city hall than the incumbent."
In 1969, after a bitter election battle, Kucinich won a city council seat by 16 votes. His youth and brashness garnered newspaper headlines, but most politicos considered him a one-term wonder whose fall would be as sudden as his rise.
Spitting at the Big Boys
When he was running for mayor in 1977, Kucinich called an old friend with whom he'd worked at the Plain Dealer. His friend, Joe Eszterhas, had left Cleveland to write for Rolling Stone magazine, and Kucinich wanted to know if Eszterhas could get his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.
"Dennis went to great lengths to develop his skills in the communications field," recalls Jim Stanton, a former congressman from Cleveland, now a Washington lawyer. While pursuing his college degree in a speech communications honors program, Kucinich wrote his thesis about the media coverage that accompanied Stanton's clashes as city council president with then-mayor Carl Stokes.
Kucinich's press secretary, Andy Junowicz, attributes his boss' talent to his early start in politics. He says Kucinich isn't particularly close to any Cleveland reporters. Rather, Kucinich simply knows how to be quotable, and journalism is a profession that thrives on the controversy Kucinich leaves in his wake.
"I think he's probably one of the most astute people I've ever met in terms of handling television," says Stanton. "He's made a study of it, a science of it. Like eating breakfast at Tony's Diner. He uses the media, he sets the location -- all the symbolism that's related to being in a workingman's diner plays very well."
Since Kucinich took office, Tony's Diner in West Park has become the Duke Ziebert's of Cleveland. There, owner Mary Zappone fusses over Kucinich, who huddles in a booth with reporters and friends. His appeal as mayor is to the kind of people who frequent diners. In the wealthy suburbs of Cleveland his name is spoken in disgust by people who work in his city but, because they don't live in Cleveland, can't vote against him.
But talk to Jerry Vencl, who runs a downtown moving company. He's watched the neighborhood in which he grew up change from a Czech and Polish enclave to a black community. (Which, incidentally, didn't hurt business for his firm.) Vencl remembers Kucinich as the candidate who came to all the beer festivals and parties before he was elected councilman.
"I don't think the problems are caused by Kucinich," says Vencl. "He's just a young guy who has stepped on too many feet."
This image of the feisty little hero appeals to voters, and Kucinich doesn't miss many opportunities to step on feet in a way that makes the evening news.
When Gov. James Rhodes announced last month his intention to appoint a committee to oversee Cleveland's finances, Kucinich told the media Rhodes wanted "to put the city on his mantle next to Kent State." (Rhodes was governor when National Guardsmen opened fire on students at Kent State in 1970.) Kucinich told the governor to "keep his nose out of Cleveland government," that if he wanted to be mayor, "he can put his name on the ballot in November."
Kucinich enjoys spitting in the faces of the big boys, which his supporters argue is necessary if control of Cleveland is to be wrested from special interest groups. Kucinich surrounded himself with loyal, young aides, men and women Stanton says have been described as "suffering from a Manson cult complex."
Total loyalty is required, and tough politics are the order of the day.
When a Kucinich aide wanted to inspect the files of the former city commissioner for economic development, she ordered a night raid of his files. The raiders found some liquor and proceeded to have a private party, punching a hole in the wall and dropping a safe on a man's foot. (In defense of the escapade, the official who'd ordered the raid said, "People are born at night, people die at night. I guess we can go into people's offices at night.")
Kucinich's second wife, Sandy, is a former school teacher who occupies an office in city hall. As Cleveland's First Lady, she works without pay in support of her husband, often going to events he can't attend to take notes on his behalf. Sometimes she'll put her thoughts into memo form for her husband to study at his leisure.
Kucinich is an intense young man who has suffered from a stomach ulcer. His passion for control is evident in his speech patterns, dress and unequivocal approach to political morality. Once, flying from Washington to Cleveland on a commercial jet, Kucinich complained about a bumpy takeoff from National Airport. Some mild turbulence en route bothered him. And a slight change in the angle of the plane's nose during landing elicited a sharp, "Are we going up again ?"
His seatmate asked him if he was afraid of flying. No, he said, it was just that he always liked to be in... control, a luxury he could not enjoy aboard a 727. Just being in the cockpit would reassure him, he said, that the pilots were not drinking or napping on the job.
Whether Kucinich can control his city well enough to be assured reelection this November is an open question. All about him -- in business, political and labor camps -- people are plotting his downfall. Ohio's Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, who endorsed Kucinich's candidacy in 1977, won't say as much this year.
"Dennis is an extremely capable and able young man," says Metzenbaum, "but the question of his maturing is still.... Let me put it this way, let me change it... I guess I have to say the jury is still out determining what kind of adminstration he's going to have."
At one point last year Ohio boasted three big-city mayors under the age of 34: Jerry Springer of Cincinnati, Douglas DeGood of Toledo and Kucinich. (Springer nicknamed the trio "DeGood, DeBad and DeUgly.") Springer hesitates to criticize Kucinich's style, but notes "a city is an investment, and people will not invest in something they don't have confidence in. They must have confidence to invest in it, to live in it and to visit it. I'm not sure confrontation politics lends itself to those kind of arrangements. Sometimes in the process of being mayor you have to sit down with people you probably don't like very much and whose political views you probably don't support."
Kucinich has sat down with his enemies upon occasion, but everyone has gotten up from the table disagreeing. The moneymen in Cleveland don't think much of the political gospel Kucinich labels "urban populism," his term for his approach to government that he says evinces concern for the poor and powerless.
"For the first time in this government's recent history," says Kucinich, "the raw economic power is being encountered and put to the test of crediblity and integrity by the government of a big city. The fundamental issues are economic: tax abatement, the sale of the city's light company, consumerism, law enforcement and pollution control.
"Talk about my personality is superficial and transparent. When big interests try to make economics into a personal argument, it's an attempt to divert attention. Who could be more arrogant than the chairman of a board of a bank who demands that a city sell its electric company as a precondition to extending credit? Arrogance to me implies an unwillingness to tolerate pluralism, a democratic ideal of a government of, for and by the people."
Says long-time Kucinich-watcher Stanton: "Dennis has gotten written up in Rolling Stone. [Though he wasn't on the cover.] He always wanted to be a national figure, and now he is, for good or bad. If Jerry Brown becomes president, so could Dennis Kucinich."