Cleveland has been spiraling downward. It’s one of the poorest cities in the country, beset by worsening violent crime, poverty and decaying infrastructure. Now, 42 years after the end of his first term as mayor, Dennis Kucinich is ready for his second.
Kucinich won a race for mayor of Cleveland at age 31 and promptly infuriated the power structure, which could not accept his insistence that the city’s electric utility should remain under public control. Mayor Kucinich challenged and mocked the greed and anti-democratic zeal of the banks that drove the city into bankruptcy when he refused to accede to the corrupt demands that the Municipal Light Plant be sold off. After defeating a recall campaign in 1978, he lost a bid for re-election the next year — but left an enduring legacy.
Today, the local Center for Public History describes the events this way: “In a political battle with the City Council, Kucinich agreed to ask the voters to decide: would Cleveland sell the Municipal Light Plant, or nearly triple the income tax rate of residents? The election was an overwhelming landslide in the favor of Kucinich and the Municipal Light Plant. Though this only worsened Cleveland’s financial situation and prevented Kucinich’s re-election, the decision helped Cleveland maintain its own municipal light system even to this day.”
As years went by, it became clear even to many of his foes, including corporate media, that Dennis Kucinich was correct — that he’d been willing to sacrifice his political fortunes for the good of city residents rather than private profits. The reality sunk in that his principled tenacity saved Clevelanders millions of dollars. In 1996, Kucinich won a congressional seat, and he kept being re-elected until 2012, when power brokers in the Ohio legislature gerrymandered him out of Congress.
Now, while he’s well known around the nation, Kucinich is focused laser-like on his city. “My first responsibility is to the people of Cleveland,” he told me, hours before filing his official papers with the board of elections on Wednesday afternoon. Talking about a widespread sense of “desperation” among many in the city, he reeled off grim numbers about “an extraordinary rise in crime.” Many neighborhoods, he said, “are teetering on the brink of disaster.”
To hear Kucinich tell it, crime and poverty are twin evils, and both must be stopped. “There’s no question that crime is the number one concern in Cleveland,” he said. And, “We can’t talk about having a truly peaceful community when so many people are suffering.”
Kucinich went on to discuss his plans for a “civic peace department,” an echo of his tireless advocacy as a Congress member for a Department of Peace in the federal government. Noting that Cleveland’s mayor is in charge of public schools, he spoke of the need for a “peace curriculum.”
While the Kucinich for Mayor campaign revs up, his new book — titled “The Division of Light and Power” — is drawing a lot of praise. It’s a stunning page-turner and barnburner that combines the genres of political memoir and real-life narrative thriller — a luminous book that goes to shadowy places with the resolve of Diogenes holding a lantern high. While offering the inside story of historic events, the book also implicitly takes us to the real time of the present.
The book’s narrative travels through a potentially uplifting yet often debilitating political landscape. The achievements of the book mirror its subject and its author — truth-telling and courage despite political taboos and illegitimate power — showing how people from many walks of life can work together to overcome the forces of petty opportunism and corporate greed.
In 2021, Kucinich has returned to municipal politics in an era of mayoral mediocrity across the country. Try to think of the names of big-city mayors who’ve shown determination and ability to implement a truly progressive agenda rather than bend to corporate domination. There aren’t many.
While progressive rhetoric and populist posturing are routine, so is acquiescence to the brutal economic and political forces symbolized by tall steel-and-glass office buildings. Rare bright spots can be found in a few mid-sized cities, such as Jackson, Mississippi (Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba) or Durham, North Carolina (Mayor Steve Schewel).
Such bright spots could widen and grow brighter. In St. Louis a promising new mayor, Tishaura Jones, took office two months ago. In Pittsburgh another progressive-leaning politician, Ed Gainey, won the Democratic primary and is almost certain to be elected mayor in November. Now, in Buffalo, early voting has begun in a race where a strongly progressive mayoral candidate, India Walton, is challenging the incumbent.
If Kucinich can emerge from the September primary and November runoff as Cleveland’s next mayor, City Hall could become a beacon for progressive change in urban America.
I asked what he has concluded from his several decades of work as a city, state and federal elected official. “Government has become an exclusive, closed-loop system,” he replied, “a secret society, which does not grant entry unless, as in my first successful election, you remove the doors. Access to government has become, then, ever more exclusive. Only an enlightened, active citizenry can remove the barriers.”
He added: “Big money and corporate leverage have driven Cleveland politics for the past four decades. City Hall is a Potemkin village. Break through the facade and you see corporate interests which control local government, with no discernible benefit to people who live in the city.”
You can bet that the Kucinich for Mayor campaign has already set off alarm bells among economic elites in Cleveland and far beyond. Mayor Kucinich could set an example for what a city government can do to serve everyone instead of just the interests of the wealthy.
Announcing his campaign for mayor earlier this week, Dennis Kucinich spoke with forceful yet nuanced eloquence about the city’s grave ills and its possibilities to create a nurturing future for its residents. His speech foreshadowed another epic battle between progressive populism and the forces of cruel corporate greed.