U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich’s exit from Congress is among many setbacks defining his 42-year political career, dating to a 1978 attempt to recall him as the “boy mayor” of Cleveland.
The 65-year-old Ohio Democrat is among the first casualties in at least 10 contests between House members of the same party in districts created after the 2010 census. Kucinich lost March 6 to long-time colleague Marcy Kaptur and will leave Congress after this year.
“Nine lives isn’t even a fair representation,” said Greg Haas, a Democratic strategist from Columbus who has known Kucinich since 1977. “Anyone who thinks that Dennis Kucinich’s career’s over hasn’t been watching him from the very beginning.”
Elected mayor in 1977 at age 31, Kucinich survived the recall effort, though he subsequently lost the mayor’s job to Republican George Voinovich in 1979.
Even that wasn’t his first brush with political demise. After Kucinich was elected to the Cleveland City Council at age 23 in 1969, the council divided his ward four ways in 1971. He won re-election by moving to a new ward.
“I’ve never had a fear of losing,” Kucinich said in an interview yesterday. “If a member of Congress conducts himself or herself from a place of fear, it’s ultimately destructive for our country.”
Kucinich transformed himself from a Midwestern mayor with anti-abortion views and uneasy relations with black politicians to a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, spirited critic of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and presidential candidate.
In the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination race, Kucinich dropped out after picking up no delegates in the Iowa caucuses and getting 1 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary.
To avoid this year’s primary against Kaptur, the congressman explored moving to Washington state, which has a large base of progressive activists as well as an open seat in a newly drawn district. Kucinich decided against the move.
“I didn’t feel I should walk away” from the district, Kucinich said. “I made the effort and now the election’s not even a day old and I’m really generally not ready to speculate as to what I might do next.”
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said Kucinich has a fighting spirit and he isn’t counting the congressman out of future public service.
“Sometimes the door shuts and windows open,” Hastert said in an interview. He recalled Kucinich showing a picture of himself as a young man on a football team.
“Here’s this little short guy, probably never had a chance to play,” Hastert said. “But he stuck it out.”
In Congress, Kucinich became a vocal antiwar critic. He was the only Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 who had voted against invading Iraq in 2002. He refused to visit Iraq during a 2007 trip to the Middle East.
Kucinich, a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, tried to bring articles of impeachment against former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for alleged illegal acts, including war crimes.
Last year, Kucinich forced a House vote on his resolution seeking to end U.S. support for North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes in Libya. In the interview, Kucinich cited his biggest contributions over his political career as “exposing the war in Iraq as a lie,” making efforts toward peace in the Middle East, investigating the subprime mortgage meltdown and challenging the Patriot Act.
Challenge the Party
“My role has always been to try to challenge the party to stay focused on establishing real alternatives to what the Republicans have” and “to say things others wouldn’t want to say,” said Kucinich.
Back home, Haas said Kucinich is known as a crusader for his older, working-class constituents, taking on utility companies, for instance.
“The war became the national Dennis Kucinich, but it really wasn’t part of what his core constituency and base was all about,” Haas said.
The son of a truck driver who was often unemployed, Kucinich is the oldest of seven children and went to work at age 12 as a shoeshine boy. His family frequently changed residences within the city.
“His life was terribly wrenching,” said Tim Hagan, a Cuyahoga County commissioner who has known Kucinich since the 1970s. “He is one of those political personalities who made himself.”
After serving on the Cleveland City Council, Kucinich became the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city at age 31. The city was in poor financial health and Kucinich faced a revolt from bankers who called in their loans after he refused to sell city-owned properties. He narrowly survived Cleveland’s first mayoral recall the following year after firing his police chief on live television.
At the time, Kucinich’s appeal was primarily to white, working-class and Catholic voters, said Hagan, who worked for Kucinich’s unsuccessful mayoral opponent, Edward Feighan, in 1977.
“He was anti-Carl Stokes, who was the first black mayor of Cleveland,” Hagan said. “He evolved into somebody that Congressman Louis Stokes, the first black member of Congress from Ohio, supported.”
Louis Stokes said his late brother, Carl, and Kucinich became good friends following the early tensions. “When Carl passed, he and Dennis were very close personal friends” and saw each other frequently, said Stokes.
“I wouldn’t count Dennis out,” Stokes said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he finds some means of continuing his life in public service.”
After losing the mayor’s office to Voinovich, Kucinich taught at Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University, hosted a radio talk show and was a television reporter. He won an Ohio state Senate seat in 1994.
Since his first election to Congress in 1996, Kucinich has been an advocate for labor unions, which contributed more than $114,000, the most of any group, to his 2010 re-election campaign.
He called for U.S. withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying the 1994 treaty with Canada and Mexico doesn’t adequately protect U.S. workers’ jobs.
Kucinich has also been the source of political satire. In a 2007 debate hosted by NBC News, Kucinich said actress Shirley MacLaine was accurate when she wrote in her book that he had sighted an unidentified flying object over her home in Washington state.
“It’s unidentified. I saw something,” Kucinich said. “You have to keep in mind that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO, and also that more people in this country have seen UFOs than I think approve of George Bush’s presidency.”
He introduced the Space Preservation Act in 2001 to “preserve the cooperative, peaceful uses of space for the benefit of all humankind.” He has also called for a Department of Peace.
“There’s a part of him that was outside the intellectual norm,” Hagan said.
On his congressional website, Kucinich has a link for polka activities, including to Frank Yankovic, the “Polka King,” as well as to bowling and sausage websites.
Kucinich’s personal life became the source of headlines in 2005 when he married his third wife, Elizabeth Harper, who is 31 years his junior. He and his wife are vegans.