Skinny, 5-foot-6 mayor Dennis Kucinich, looking younger than his 31 years and seemingly overwhelmed by events as he sits behind the huge desk in his high-domed office, asks plaintively, "Is that any reason to throw me out?"
He is referring to widespread outrage over his appointment of a 21-year-old woman, undereducated and inexperienced, as assistant director of safety, supervising the police department. That is only one of many bizarre events during the seven months since his election that have generated pressure for his recall from office. Yet even political enemies privately agree with Kucinich that no documentary case can be made for his ouster.
Rather, his sudden decline quickly following his spectacular rise reflects the pathology of American politics today, particularly in the big city. With the breakdown of party organization and of ideological loyalties, the neo-populism of a Kucinich only superficially fills the politcal vacuum. While embarrassed Clevelanders call events here a "national joke," the "joke" is but an exaggerated form of what is happening everywhere.
Cleveland's problem is familiar. The middle-class exodus to the suburbs has reduced the city's population by one-third over the last 25 years, leaving disproportionate numbers of the poor, the old, the unskilled, the black and the hopeless. City employee salary demands strain the budget. Racial conflict threatens. Organized crime infiltrates the power structure.
After inadequate administrations in city hall, Kucinich - called Dennis by enemy and friend alike - suddenly emerged as the savior. He became advocate of the city's white ethnic West Side a decade ago as the boy city councilman attacking black mayor Carl Stokes, and is a steadfast foe of school busing ordered to begin here soon. But his basic campaign appeal in 1977, transcending mere racism, was his challenge to the calcified establishment, vowing higher taxes on big business.
Kucinich became a national figure overnight, celebrated in the news magazines. In an eccentric political departure, he hired Richard Hongisto, the permissive sheriff of San Francisco, as police chief and thereby gained a gilt-edged liberal passport. After his ortory brought standing ovations from ultra-liberals at a California convention, politicians here wondered: Could it possibly be Dennis-for-president on the 1984 Democratic ticket?
His sudden decline has no rational explanation. Firing Hongisto over live television was the climax, not the cause. Harsh treatment of opponents, arrogance, brashness of young aides and overblown rhetoric hurt Kucinich. But, as with the 21-year-old woman running the police department, he justifiably asks of all this, "Is that any reason to throw me out?" Certainly, Hongisto never substantiated the charges of corruption in Kucinich's city hall that got him sacked.
How, then, did the mayor's base on the West Side erode to the point that today he would probably lose recall election if the courts decide recall petitions are valid? The best answer is that a despondent electorate chose Kucinich to champion them in their misery and turned against him when he proved merely mortal, or perhaps a shade less. Lacking clear philosophy, he now lacks a base.
"I am electric," he told us. He listed his political heroes: Richard J. Daley, Bobby Kennedy and Huey Long. He also admires Republican Gov. James Rhodes of Ohio and Vice President Mondale. After praising Chicago's Daley as "a very good mayor," Kucinich said somewhat confusingly: "They say you can't fight city hall, but I did - I fought city hall."
That reflects a condition not unknown in Washington: the outsider in power, still fighting city hall. For the mayor this is compound by reliance on his assistant, Sherwood (Bob) Weissman, a former radical turned labor leader who set the administration's abrasive tone when he informed business leaders meeting at the exclusive Union Club that the mayor did not need their help. That contemptuous tone is echoed in the mayor's refusal to encourage construction projects by SOHIO and Republic Steel desperately needed in Cleveland.
Are "special interests" behind the effort to recall him? Kucinich warned to the question: real estate and banking, the privately owned electric utility, the regular Democratic Party of Cuyahoga County and, mostly, organized crime. "The recall," he added, "is an attack on our system of government. I believe it is un-American."
His immediate problem is not so grandiose: the specter of municipal banmkruptcy. Kucinich inherited severe fiscal problems. He intensified them a little by generous municipal wage increases and a lot by refusing to sell a municipal light plant. The mayor concedes the city will be flat broke if a bond sale is not approved.
But his fall from grace was not caused by mundane fiscal problems. Instead, Kucinich is both product and victim of a new political system grounded on televised confrontations and populistic rhetoric. We asked a young liberal Democratic politician here, spawned in the protest politics of Vietnam, whether he preferred the structured old politics that produced Cleveland's stodgy mayors of the 1950s and early 1960s or the unstructured new politics that produced Dennis Kucinich. He quickly opted for the good old days.