Talk show host Larry King was peering down a long table in an auditorium at the University of Southern California. It was February 2004, and the candidates contending for the Democratic presidential nomination had assembled for a debate. At the far end, ﬁxed in King’s gaze, was Dennis Kucinich, then a member of Congress from Cleveland.
Filling the remaining seats were then-Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, then-Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Already, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, then-Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, among others, had dropped out of the race. King wanted to know when Kucinich would make his exit as well. “Logically, it appears like you’re up against it,” he said. “Why stay in?”
“I’m the voice for getting out of Iraq,” Kucinich recited earnestly. “For universal single-payer health care. For getting out of NAFTA and the WTO. For having our children go to college tuition-free.”
“You’re here to make statements then?” King said.
King moved on to same-sex marriage. This was years before establishment Democrats started announcing they had “evolved” on the subject. “Isn’t marriage inherently a man and a woman?” King asked. “No,” said Kucinich. He was for same-sex marriage.
King gave Kucinich a chance to detail his health-care ideas.
“Coverage for everyone,” said Kucinich. “All medically necessary procedures.”
“In other words, socialism,” said King, using a slur that still carried force at the time, a dozen years before a socialist would win nearly half the popular vote in the Democratic presidential primaries.
Kucinich tried to elaborate on health care but noticed that King was looking away.
“Larry, in 2000 — Larry?”
“I’m paying attention to you, Dennis,” King said, unconvincingly. The crowd laughed.
Almost everybody laughed at Dennis Kucinich during that race, except a fervent coalition of students and antiwar protesters who believed in him. He was the last to bow out to Kerry, right before the party convention, yet he had fewer than 100 delegates — about 3 percent of the total required to be nominated. He lost his own state of Ohio and even his congressional district.
“I feel like Johnny Appleseed,” he told the New York Times before the end. “I’m planting seeds all over this country: seeds of peace, seeds of hope. At some point, maybe years from now, there will be orchards.”
Today, Kucinich, 71, is running for the Democratic nomination for governor of Ohio, and those orchards aren’t just blooming — they are on the verge of taking over the entire landscape of American politics. It has been six years since he lost his congressional seat, but the stunning beatdown of both the Democratic and Republican establishments during the 2016 presidential campaign was Kucinich’s invitation to come in from the fringe. Populist causes that he has championed forever despite derision and dismissal — universal health care, free college tuition, rethinking trade agreements, reining in the surveillance state, bringing troops home, making huge investments in infrastructure — are now mainstream positions within his own party.
“Kucinich was ahead of his time in terms of having that progressive politics before it’s popular, before it’s cool,” says Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, the national progressive advocacy group born out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. (Our Revolution has endorsed Kucinich in the governor’s race, though Sanders himself has not taken a position.)
But Kucinich didn’t just anticipate where the left was headed. He previewed elements of where the right was going, too. “I have multitudes of humanity within me,” Kucinich has said, paraphrasing Walt Whitman, and those multitudes reflect both the rainbow utopianism of Sanders and the working-class populism of President Trump’s campaign (if not always his administration). Kucinich — who spent some of his time away from elected office serving as a Fox News contributor — is a rare politician who is now occupying that sweet spot where Sandersism meets elements of Trumpism. He is not the only sentinel posted at this curious crossroads, but he may be the most prominent one currently running for office.
The candidate himself is too humble and shrewd to take credit for the drift of the times. “To me, it’s arrogant to say, ‘Well, everyone has caught up to me,’ ” Kucinich told me recently. “In terms of where I fit in all this, I was holding that space in the party for 16 years [in Congress] relating to what America’s priorities should be. Trade that included workers’ rights, human rights, environmental-quality principles, a universal single-payer not-for-profit health-care system. And stopping these wars.”
It is indeed too much to say that Kucinich begot Sanders or Trump. Sanders himself was advocating for progressive causes for decades before he picked up 1,900 delegates to Hillary Clinton’s 2,800 in the 2016 primaries — far outstripping Kucinich’s total in 2004. Moreover, Kucinich himself has always had limitations as a politician, and in his upcoming race, he may well lose the nomination to Richard Cordray, who is supported by huge swaths of the Democratic establishment.
Win or lose, however, it is undeniable that Kucinich has long been tuned to a political frequency that few heard until it became a roar. He has vied for offices at nearly every level of American democracy and failed spectacularly while running for the presidency in both 2004 and 2008; nobody has been a has-been in quite the way Dennis Kucinich has been. And yet, right now, there may be no better guide to the strange condition of American politics in 2018.
“Bernie came after the 2008 financial crisis, which changed everything in terms of people’s faith in the global economic system, in capitalism,” says Glenn Greenwald, a political analyst and investigative reporter for the Intercept who is sympathetic to aspects of Kucinich’s worldview. “It introduced a whole generation of primarily millennials to the idea that the American Dream was basically over for them.” He adds: “In 2004, [Kucinich] was kind of dismissed as this … clown because the war on terror was predominating. I think the time is right for him in a lot of ways, for the same reason that it was right for Sanders and right for Trump.”
Clad in a pea-green poncho with a peaked hood, and standing 5-foot-7, Kucinich looks more elfin than usual at midday on a recent Saturday, flitting from one group of union members to another at a rain-soaked labor rally on the lawn of the Statehouse in Columbus. The turnout of chanting, sign-waving thousands despite the weather at this Working People’s Day of Action is a measure of the fervor on the left boiling in Ohio and elsewhere.
Kucinich works the crowd fast with his running mate, Akron council member Tara Samples, shaking hands and passing out literature with their campaign motto: #PowerToWeThePeople. His platform includes banning assault weapons, banning fracking, investing in infrastructure, providing not-for-profit health care to all, curtailing for-profit charter schools, ending private prisons and setting a $15 minimum wage.
“Dennis is what we need for sure, for all the reasons people are protesting, for all the women’s marches and the anti-Trump protests,” Brian Garry, a social and environmental justice advocate running for city council in Cincinnati, told me as Kucinich charged past. “He used to give a talk, ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ It would put the crowd in a trance. It was mystical. He’s like an early resister, or a pre-resister — an original resister.”
Then there was the group of retired steelworkers I met sheltering under a Cleveland Browns umbrella. Trump’s promise to save American steel had caught their attention, and yet, in their eyes, Kucinich was a generation ahead of the president: When the steel mill in Cleveland was failing in 2000, Kucinich, then in Congress, played a role with other officials in seeing that the bankruptcy and sale preserved as many jobs as possible. Now, under a new owner, with a reduced workforce, the plant is thriving.
“When everybody else said issues were impossible or too far-reaching, Dennis would stand for actual solutions that moved the entire political agenda forward for working people,” said Bruce Bostick, a leader of the state chapter of retired steelworkers. John Gallo, the guy holding the Browns umbrella, put it this way: “There ain’t a bad candidate in the race. But not all of them saved the steel mill.”
The steelworkers predicted — correctly, as it would turn out 10 days later — that the Ohio AFL-CIO would endorse Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Barack Obama. At 58, he is 13 years younger than Kucinich but can’t help projecting an aura years older. Sober. Responsible. A little joyless. He’s also a five-time “Jeopardy!” winner.
It’s easy to understand why a powerful establishment labor coalition might have chosen Cordray. In any other race, he would have been the progressive knight — he has been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is a standard-bearer for national progressive Democrats, and he was entrusted by Obama to tackle Wall Street cheats on behalf of consumers. Against Kucinich, though, he has the misfortune of having to campaign less as a crusader than as an accountant, suggesting to voters that the world might be more complicated and nuanced than Kucinich portrays with his nearly Trumpian parables of good and evil. That Cordray was able to raise $2 million in less than two months only fortified the more poorly bankrolled Kucinich’s claim to be the insurgent candidate of “we the people.” The race is close, according to early polls, though a large share of likely voters remain undecided.
I see the two of them together at a Democratic forum in Marysville, in one of the state’s most heavily Republican rural counties. The other Democrats seeking the nomination — state Sen. Joe Schiavoni and former Ohio Supreme Court justice Bill O’Neill — are also there, but the yin and the yang of Kucinich’s left-populism and Cordray’s mainstream liberalism is clearly driving the race.
When it’s his turn to speak, Kucinich takes the microphone and walks to the front of the stage like a tent-revival crusader. He’s dressed in skinny jeans, wingtip boots with thick treads, jacket and tie. His default facial expression is delight, and he wears it now as he prepares to sketch a two-minute fable of how Ohio, and America, got here.
“The Democratic Party lost its soul when they made book with corporate America and started taking corporate America’s money, and it blurred the differences between the two parties,” he says in the voice of a larger man, building in volume and pitch. “The American people caught on because the trade agreements that were made under Democratic administrations said they were going to protect jobs, the environment, workers’ rights. None of those things happened. And so all across this state people got used to the idea that the Democrats would say one thing and do another and wouldn’t deliver. And that opened the door for the candidate who won in 2016.” Trump took Ohio by 8 points. “I can be the person who can bring those people who voted for Donald Trump back into the party,” he declares.
The school shooting in Parkland, Fla., occurred 11 days before the forum, and Kucinich seizes on it to separate himself from the other candidates. In coming days, his campaign will circulate a video of Cordray, as state attorney general, speaking at a Second Amendment rally in 2010 after having submitted a brief in support of a Supreme Court case pursued by gun-rights advocates. “Rich, there’s a reason why you got an A from the NRA and why I got an F,” Kucinich says. “I stand for an assault-weapon ban in the state of Ohio, for the possession, the sale. Where do you stand?”
Rising to rebut Kucinich, Cordray speaks with the focused burn of a welding torch. “It’s easy to jerk a knee and have an answer that sounds good and it’s a slogan,” Cordray says of the gun issue. He’s for more moderate measures such as banning bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, and establishing universal background checks. “My job here is to find concrete, practical solutions,” he adds — “concrete” and “practical” being two of his favorite adjectives when parrying Kucinich.
Cordray’s quiet outrage continues: “Not all of us lost our way as Democrats on this stage. Not all of us became paid commentators for Fox News and praised Donald Trump’s inaugural address as a great speech.”
It’s true: After Trump’s inaugural address, Kucinich tweeted, “Great #inauguration speech @RealDonaldTrump! Congratulations & best wishes.” Then, appearing on Fox, he elaborated in a way that perfectly captured how American politics have become unmoored from the traditional left-right continuum — how, in the age of Trump, an uber-populist progressive who is as far left as anyone on social issues, on the environment, on guns, can also have more in common with a Republican president’s rhetoric on economics and foreign policy than do many Democrats who are closer to the center: “Things I’ve been talking about for 30 and more years, about doing something about these trade agreements that are causing our cities to be hollowed out and factories to be closed, about standing up for the American worker, about rebuilding the infrastructure, putting millions of people back to work, about stopping the foreign interventions, wasting trillions of dollars abroad — he covered those points, and frankly, I think that it’s important for America to read what he said, not just hear it, but to read what he said and to consider that there might be some way that we can bring this country together on the kind of principles that he laid out in the inaugural.”
A couple of days after appearing in Marysville, Kucinich and Cordray are at it again in Youngstown. “Dennis Kucinich is a well-meaning candidate,” Cordray says. “He’s too extreme for Ohio. He may not say it here, but he’s against all the oil and gas drilling in the state of Ohio. And he’s for confiscating certain weapons in Ohio, and that’s too extreme for eastern Ohio. We will turn it over to the Republicans until kingdom come if that’s what we do.”
Kucinich has the last word: “Mr. Cordray paid me a compliment in calling me extreme,” he begins, and lists special interests that may consider him extreme — the banks, the privatizers of education, “and of course the NRA thinks I’m extreme because I say it’s time to stop the threat to our schools and get rid of these assault weapons. And if that becomes extreme, that’s who I am.”
Kucinich grew up poor in inner-city neighborhoods, the oldest of seven children of a truck driver and a homemaker. The family had lived in 21 places by the time he was 17, “including a couple cars,” and sometimes relied on charity, he told me: “I just kind of told myself, if I ever get in the position to do something about it, I’m going to remember these experiences.”
In 1968, the year after Kucinich lost his first campaign, a race for the Cleveland City Council, he became so sick from complications of Crohn’s disease that a priest gave him last rites in the hospital. The surgeon removed eight feet of his small and large intestines and recommended against the stress of a career in politics. After he recovered, he had a big decision to make. The only pursuit that captured his imagination as much as politics was theater. At Cleveland State University he had written a play — called “Insanity” — that was staged and received a good review in the local paper. The opportunity arose to take it on the road, but that would make it impossible to mount his second run for City Council. He went to see his theater professor and mentor, Joe Garry, for advice.
Garry, a noted director credited with helping save Cleveland’s theater district, had been mesmerized by “Insanity.” It was a play-within-a-play adaptation of monologues of people in an insane asylum that reminded him of the avant-garde masterpiece “Marat/Sade.” “I thought, this is no 17-year-old boy from the west side,” Garry told me on a visit to his apartment with a panoramic view of Cleveland. “Where did he come from? What ancient source are we dealing with here?”
Garry described how an anxious Kucinich came to see him at Cleveland State. “He said, ‘Should I have a life in politics or a life in theater?’ ” Garry recalled. “And I said, ‘Dennis, they’re the same, except the scripts are better in the theater.’ ”
In the years since, Kucinich has never shied from a sense of theatricality. It’s another thing he has in common with Trump: Whether singing “Sixteen Tons” on the presidential campaign trail (“another day older and deeper in debt”), giving a presentation at a Washington gala on polka, kielbasa and bowling as the building blocks of civilization, or demonstrating his ventriloquist’s skills with a dummy on “The Daily Show,” he has long projected an eccentricity that you rarely see on the political stage. In a debate during the 2008 presidential campaign, he told moderator Tim Russert that he had once seen a UFO, and as the audience laughed, Kucinich quipped that he was moving a campaign office to Roswell, N.M.
He also never forgot his scary brush with the health-care system, and how lucky he was to have insurance for such lifesaving treatment. The insurance came from a job as a proofreader for a newspaper. “If I had not had insurance at that point, I would have been destitute, or I would have died,” he told me. “And then you think, what do other people do?” It was a reason he became committed to universal health care as far back as his unsuccessful first race for Congress in 1972.
Elected to Cleveland’s top office in 1977 at the age of 31, he was quickly dubbed the “boy mayor.” His tenure was filled with drama: He fired the police chief on live television, and his zeal even led the Cleveland mob to order a hit on him for $25,000, according to news accounts and U.S. Senate testimony. The plot was dropped before an attempt was made.
The most telling tempest, however, the template for all his future crusades, was the battle over Cleveland’s municipal electric system, known as Muny Light. Kucinich had run on a populist promise not to sell Muny Light, which was competition to a private electric company. Residents could choose either one, and supporters of Muny Light said it kept rates down. But Cleveland was going broke, and bankers and other corporate and civic pooh-bahs urged the sale. When Kucinich refused, the bankers called the city’s loans, and Cleveland became the first major city to go into default since the Great Depression.
“He was unwavering on the principles that he had run on, even though things were getting pretty adverse,” says Rich Barton, who was manager of the city power commission in Kucinich’s day and has continued as an assistant commissioner under Democrats and Republicans. “You wouldn’t want to be the first mayor to go into bankruptcy, but he felt strongly enough that he was going to defend the principles.”
Kucinich barely survived a recall election, then was voted out of office in the next general election. He was seen as a brash, idealistic failure, and it would be 15 years before he would have another significant job in politics. But in 1994 he emerged from political exile as a state senator, and in 1996 he was elected to Congress from a district covering northeastern Ohio. He held the seat for eight terms, often winning reelection by wide margins.
By the late 1990s, meanwhile, it was becoming clear that holding on to Muny Light had been the right call. In 1998, the Cleveland City Council passed a resolution honoring Kucinich for his “courage” in refusing to sell. His stubbornness saved customers an estimated $195 million. Funny how the work of brash, idealistic failures sometimes looks in hindsight.
The redhead watching like a drama critic from the third row at the forum in Marysville, chatting up precinct captains in Youngstown, and nibbling a salad through speeches at the City Club of Cleveland gets almost as much attention as the candidate. And Kucinich likes it that way.
“You definitely married up in every way!” a Marysville Democrat enthuses after the forum, seeking a picture with Elizabeth and Dennis Kucinich. The candidate beams triumphantly. He never gets tired of the incredulous ogling, the same old height jokes about him and the love of his life, 31 years his junior and a few inches taller.
“Let me tell you how it feels to be living with the most beautiful, brilliant woman in the world,” Kucinich said to me one day when we were sitting by the window in a vegan restaurant in Cleveland. He spoke without taking his eyes off Elizabeth, who was crossing the street outside in a blue dress with purple flowers and black heels. “Living the dream.”
They did not meet through the tongue-in-cheek “contest” to find a wife that Kucinich played along with during the 2004 presidential campaign. One day in 2005, Kucinich was lamenting his love life to guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an old acquaintance. Shankar advised him to stop looking and the special someone would appear. A few hours later, Elizabeth Harper arrived at his congressional office for a meeting on monetary policy. They each experienced what they called “soul recognition.” They were married 3 1/2 months later in a plaza in downtown Cleveland. (He has been married twice before; his only child, Jackie Kucinich, is Washington bureau chief for the Daily Beast and used to write for The Washington Post.)
“It was basically a divinely arranged marriage,” Elizabeth Kucinich told me. “I call him Peter Pan. He’s got that youthful energy. The older he gets, the younger he gets.” Born in Britain, she is an expert in sustainable and regenerative agriculture and the producer of well-regarded documentaries on genetically modified organisms and radioactive contamination of groundwater. She also picks the candidate’s clothes, cuts the rebellious thatch that is his hair, helps prep him for debates and sometimes finishes his thoughts.
During the round of fan photos in Marysville, I notice that she subtly bends her knees to not quite equalize their heights, which seems only fair when she’s wearing those heels.
“Shall we, darling?” the candidate asks, taking her arm in preparation for departure.
“Yes, baby,” she says.
A pair of opposition trackers with video cameras awaits them in the parking lot. One tells me he’s with America Rising, a political action committee devoted to undermining Democrats. “How are the friendly trackers today?” the candidate says cheerfully. “I want you to know I hope you’re getting $15 an hour, and when I’m governor, you will get $15 an hour.” The trackers say nothing and keep recording. He invites them to dinner, but they decline.
The search is on for vegan food. Kucinich committed to this diet in 1994 when he noticed it reduced the effects of his Crohn’s disease. He added Chinese herbal medicine, and he says the combination made the Crohn’s disappear.
Two of the Marysville Democrats lead the Kuciniches, plus running mate Tara Samples and her husband, Antwyone, to a Chinese restaurant, where Dennis Kucinich wishes the hostess a happy new year in Mandarin. Then, over vegetables and spring rolls, for the benefit of the local Dems and me, Kucinich sketches his political trajectory, holding hands with his wife almost the whole time. He touches on his early races for City Council in Cleveland; the 12,000 annual requests for constituent services he says his congressional office handled; the redistricting that cost him his House seat in 2012, and which he blames on state Democrats; and his recent passion for regenerative agriculture policies, inspired by Elizabeth’s expertise in the field.
On the way out of the restaurant, one of the local Dems offers to send Kucinich historical photos with which to decorate the governor’s mansion. “I’m going to turn the governor’s mansion into a homeless shelter!” Kucinich says. “I’m not kidding.”
At a Democratic Club meeting one evening in South Euclid, outside Cleveland, a member asks Kucinich what is the biggest problem facing the country. “America’s biggest challenge right now is that we’re at war all over the world,” he says. “We have spent since 2001, since 9/11, over $6 trillion in terms of immediate and long-term costs, extrapolating some of these into the future. And so many of these adventures are based on lies. … Why don’t we have the federal government come with its money to Cleveland? … What about coming to Columbus, what about Cincinnati? We have so many needs in this country.”
It sounds uncannily like what Trump used to say when he was campaigning. Here was Trump at a 2015 debate in Las Vegas: “We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that, frankly, if they were there and if we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems, our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would have been a lot better off, I can tell you that right now.”
Granted, since he was elected, Trump has done nothing to follow through and turn bombs into bridges. Still, the rhetorical echo is not lost on the club members in South Euclid. “So Trump is right?” says one.
Quick on his feet, Kucinich retorts: “No, I’m right,” and the crowd chuckles appreciatively.
But there is another related alignment of Kucinich and Trump that troubles some Democrats, such as Mark Friedlander, a writer and performer who attends the meeting. He shows me a page where he has excerpts of Kucinich’s punditry on Fox News.
“How do I balance everything I was hearing tonight — which I agree with — with the defense of Trump on Fox News?” Friedlander says to me after the meeting ends without his getting a chance to ask Kucinich directly. “Why are you on Fox? Why are you sitting there with Sean Hannity?”
It wasn’t just his praise of Trump’s inaugural address. On Fox, Kucinich has also cast a skeptical eye on the Russia investigation and asserted that some within the intelligence community are trying to undermine Trump.
“What’s going on in the intelligence community with this new president is unprecedented,” he told Fox host Maria Bartiromo in February 2017, after anonymous sources gave reporters information on former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russians. “They’re making every effort to upend him.” The following May, after sources said that Trump had shared classified intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office and that he had asked FBI director James B. Comey to back off the investigation of Flynn, Kucinich told Hannity: “You have a politicization of the agencies that is resulting in leaks from anonymous, unknown people. And the intention is to take down a president.”
In both appearances, Kucinich seemed less intent on narrowly defending Trump than on defending the presidency and espousing his broad distrust of the intelligence and military establishments — a position consistent with his long record as an ardent peace advocate. “This isn’t about whether you’re for or against Donald Trump,” he said to Bartiromo. “This is about whether or not the American people are bystanders in a power play inside the intelligence community.”
When I asked him about his gig as a Fox News contributor, which ended when he started running for governor, he said he’ll use any channel to reach people. He pointed to stands he has taken in his gubernatorial campaign on guns, health care, education, energy and the environment that would be anathema to Trump. “I find myself disagreeing with the president on most everything,” he said. But he told me he can’t help sharing Trump’s wariness toward America’s secret agencies. He cited the discredited evidence used to justify the invasion of Iraq as another example of intelligence sources shaping policy in dubious ways. And he described his own strange personal brush with alleged wiretapping: In 2015, reporters for the Washington Times played for Kucinich a recording of a telephone conversation he had in his congressional office four years earlier with Saif Gaddafi, son of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. The son was reaching out to Kucinich because he was a leading American voice against the intervention in Libya. The Times reporters did not reveal from whom they got the recordings, which the story said were “recovered from Tripoli.” Kucinich told me the plausible source was a “U.S. or U.S.-related agency,” though he can’t prove it. Later, in early 2017, after Trump charged that Obama had wiretapped him, Fox host Bill O’Reilly invited Kucinich on the air to talk about the Libyan recordings. “If a member of Congress can have his phone tapped on a policy matter, hey, this could happen to anybody,” Kucinich told O’Reilly.
Kucinich’s suspicions about intelligence agencies and worries about tension with Russia are things liberals fretted over a couple of generations ago. Today they are an affront to mainstream Democrats and Trump haters, even as they are shared by right-wing followers of Trump and left-wing skeptics of the liberal and moderate establishments of both parties. In a shaken-up America, Kucinich’s views on foreign policy and related matters mark a new kind of ideological convergence. As Glenn Greenwald suggested to me, “There is a kind of union between neocon centrist Republicans and centrist Democrats against people who are outsiders on the right and outsiders on the left, who are starting to see a lot of things in similar ways as well. And Kucinich is a perfect example of that.”
And yet, I can’t help thinking what a twist of fate it is that just when Kucinich’s hour may finally be at hand, he’s running for a job that isn’t a natural platform for holding forth on many of the questions that have stirred him most deeply. He has thought about that, too. “I think it’s important for a governor to have a world view,” he told me. He vowed “to be a spokesperson for governors who are concerned about the resources, the trillions of dollars that are going for this mindless and soulless war machine. … The governor doesn’t have any direct role in foreign policy, except that my state is adversely affected with every bomb that we drop on another country.”
Kucinich has wandered widely, yet he has always returned not just to Cleveland, but to the house he bought for $22,500 in 1971, a compact yellow-clapboard abode with 1,200 square feet of living space, now valued at about $60,000, according to property records. He almost lost it in the lean years after he was booted from City Hall. He says his friend, the actress Shirley MacLaine, loaned him money at one point to pay his mortgage, which he paid back. In the driveway is his 2009 Ford Escape, with 112,000 miles on it.
During a break from the campaign trail, he and Elizabeth sit together on the couch and we sip mate tea while their two beagle mixes, Harry and Lucy, putter and snooze. The couple have been together for 10 campaigns in 13 years, counting primaries. Dennis mentions that he considered running for governor four years ago, but the time wasn’t right.
Elizabeth says: “I remember traveling the country with him and realizing that politics is as much as anything an exercise in psychology, and not the psychology of the candidate, but the psychology of the electorate. And at that point, the electorate didn’t believe that they could actually get what they wanted. Or that they actually had the power to elect what it was that they stood for.”
The Kuciniches relished his second sojourn in the political wilderness after his 2012 defeat. Besides talking on Fox, he penned a few pieces on the other end of the ideological spectrum for the Nation, and wrote a 600-page manuscript about the battle over Muny Light that he hopes to publish. “We’ve been deinstitutionalizing ourselves and getting back into the world, which is an important pursuit,” Elizabeth says. Kucinich adds: “And to get in touch with the slower rhythms of life, where there is beauty and love and peace and things that make life worthwhile.”
Then 2016 happened. The amazing spectacle of Trump and Sanders. Kucinich felt more politically relevant than ever. “There is a shift in consciousness,” he says. “There’s an awareness that exists among people everywhere that the conditions that we are living in are not acceptable. They’re not acceptable for our health, for our safety, for our future. … Most people know I’m the only one who’s going to disrupt the status quo.” On the Democratic side, he says, “I’m running to upend the party.”
“To transform it,” Elizabeth says.
“To upend it and transform it,” Kucinich says.
Sometimes he does his transforming closer to home. One day nearly two years ago, Elizabeth returned to the house to find the living room furniture gone. She mentions it offhandedly, using the incident as a chronological aid in a conversation about something else. But now I want to know what happened to the furniture. Kucinich saw a family moving in around the corner. He went over to say hello and realized they had several kids and little furniture, so he invited them to take his. Kucinich is vague about the family, says he hasn’t seen them since, doesn’t know if they’re still there.
After I say goodbye to the Kuciniches, I go around the corner and knock. Quentin Spraggins Jr. opens the door. When I ask him about the furniture, he smiles, revealing shiny gold grills on top and bottom. He ushers me in and gives me a tour of the sofa bed, two overstuffed armchairs and an ottoman that he got from a neighbor whose name he forgets and hasn’t seen since. He learned later from another neighbor that the man had been a member of Congress. Spraggins, who works in construction, and his fiancee, Eboni Brown, who works in a hair salon, had just moved from a tough section of east Cleveland with their three daughters.
“My first experience is an old guy knocking on my door saying, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’ asking me, do I need anything, which I’ve never even seen in the movies,” Spraggins says. “He told us some pointers in life. ‘As you’re a young family, some times may be hard, but look at it like this: This can be your first start, your first piece of furniture.’ ” Now the house is filled with furniture, and the couple has two more baby girls. “We’re doing a little bit better,” Spraggins says, “and it all started from one person’s kindness.”
One Thursday night at the Steelyard Tavern in Cleveland, I feel as though I’ve walked into another experimental play written by Dennis Kucinich. The cast: two customers and a bartender, all of whom stand for different perspectives on the protagonist.
“I have nothing against him, but he’s like the Browns,” says Mike Webb, a bricklayer in a Browns cap and shirt, sipping Crown Royal with his Bud Light. “Don’t bet on him.” Webb’s version of Kucinich is the quixotic campaigner: “He’s always fighting the losing battle. He stands up to corporate. He stands up for the right purposes. But it never works out for him.”
Another Mike, a retired delivery man drinking Miller Lite, wants to withhold his last name in order to tell a story involving his ex: “They fricked her out of her Medicaid. The Social Security lady said, ‘You’re not gonna get it.’ So she emailed Kucinich. Boom!” Mike pounds the bar. “The next day she got her Medicaid.” Mike’s Kucinich is the bare-knuckle fixer who gets results for hard-luck people. “The guy don’t take no s—, man,” Mike says. “He got it done.”
But it’s the third version of Kucinich that explains so much about the state of American politics in 2018. Tending bar and talking to me over the music of Guns N’ Roses is Christina Schmitz. She recently graduated from community college and is a paramedic who is working at the tavern while she waits for a job to come through at a hospital. Like many in her generation, she surveys her city, her state and her nation and sees wreckage in the economy, special interests looking out for themselves and mismanagement on many levels by elected officials. Her Kucinich “is one of those politicians that make you feel like you can believe in politicians again,” she says. “We need to believe in politicians again.”
However you want to characterize the remixed politics of today — outsiders vs. insiders, far left meeting far right — they’re all tokens of a deep discontent in the country, coupled with a yearning for something ostentatiously different. Which is why, even though Dennis Kucinich the candidate may not become governor, Dennis Kucinich the concept just may be America’s future.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.