Published on Friday, January 2, 2004 by the New York Times
Past Defeat and Personal Quest Shape Long-Shot Kucinich Bid
by Sheryl Gay Stolberg
WASHINGTON, Jan. 1 Dennis J. Kucinich was 33 when, having been drummed out of the Cleveland mayor's office, he set out on what he calls his "quest for meaning." His city was in financial default the embarrassment of the nation. His political career was in tatters, his bank account dangerously low. Not even the radio talk shows would hire him.
So he left the Rust Belt in the winter of 1979, headed west to California and, eventually, New Mexico, to write and think. There, in the austere beauty of the desert outside Santa Fe, he sought out a spiritual healer who, he says, led him on a path toward inner peace. "That," Mr. Kucinich said, "is where I discovered that war is not inevitable."
Now, after a stunning political comeback that culminated with his election to the House of Representatives in 1996, Mr. Kucinich the boy mayor who was so bombastic he fired his police chief live on the 6 o'clock news is seeking the White House, on a platform of "nonviolence as an organizing principle of society." He wants to pull out of Iraq, sharply reduce the Pentagon budget and establish a cabinet-level Department of Peace.
At 57, he keeps to a strict vegan diet; on a cold December night in Cleveland, Mr. Kucinich padded about his kitchen in stocking feet no shoes are allowed in the Kucinich home and ate Chinese bean curd for dinner. He is twice divorced but open to a new relationship, even going so far as to advertise his availability during a candidates' debate. His campaign manager is a "transformational kinesiologist" a practitioner of the healing arts who has never before worked in politics.
As he hopscotches around the country, delivering speeches that blend the themes of John Lennon with an ardent defense of the working class, Mr. Kucinich a slim man at 5-foot-7, 135 pounds has become the boutique candidate for peace activists and Hollywood liberals. Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt are the headliners of a fund-raiser concert for him this week. Ed Asner, the actor, likens Mr. Kucinich to "a prophet speaking the truth."
Yet his poll numbers are in the single digits, and not one member of his own Ohio Congressional delegation has endorsed him. He has raised $5 million, vastly more than the Rev. Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, but a pittance compared to the $40 million raised by Howard Dean.
Still Mr. Kucinich runs, perhaps because that is all he knows how to do. Perhaps it fulfills his belief, held since boyhood, that the White House is his destiny. Or perhaps, those who know him say, Mr. Kucinich runs out of a deep-seated desire forged as the eldest of seven children in a desperately poor family to rise above his roots.
"I think he has had to fight a terrible emptiness that many of us have been blessed not to have," said Tim Hagan, a former Democratic candidate for governor in Ohio who has known Mr. Kucinich for 30 years. "I think that's what drives him. He is driven by a sense of affirming to the world that he counts, that his voice should be heard, that he is somebody to be taken with real seriousness."
That he does not seem to stand a chance does not faze Mr. Kucinich. He is convinced, he says, that there is "a readiness on the part of the electorate to embrace" his vision for America, if only they have an opportunity to hear it. No matter that voters outside the ethnic wards of Cleveland can barely pronounce his Croatian surname. (It is pronounced koo-SIN-itch.)
The candidate says they will learn.
"I make the impossible possible," he told a radio interviewer in Houston, from the cellphone in his kitchen that cold December night. "That's what I specialize in."
Setting a Goal
St. John Cantius School, a tiny Roman Catholic high school on Cleveland's west side, has been shuttered for years now, a victim of declining enrollment. Lorene Wolski Mihalko remembers the first day she saw Dennis Kucinich there, at their freshman induction ceremony in the fall of 1960, a sprite of a boy delivering "the most dynamic speech" she had ever heard.
"He looked," Mrs. Mihalko said, "like he was 9 years old."
He was the kind of kid who threw himself into everything. He played basketball, and, at 4-foot-9, 97 pounds, third-string quarterback. ("I was the football," Mr. Kucinich says.) He was an editor of the school newspaper, a member of the debate team, a candidate for student council president, one of many races he would lose.
Yet by the time he was a senior, young Dennis Kucinich was declaring he would be president one day. Once, he told his best friend, Dan Backus, he would be mayor of Cleveland by the time he was 30. "He always had a plan," Mr. Backus said.
If Mr. Kucinich immersed himself in school, perhaps it was because life at home was so difficult. His father, Frank, a truck driver, and mother, Virginia, struggled to make ends meet. By the time he was 17, Mr. Kucinich had lived in 21 places, including an orphanage, where he and his siblings spent Christmas one year while their mother fought post-partum depression. Between apartments, the family stayed in a car.
"The car," Mr. Kucinich recalled, "was parked near a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant. My mother would go down to the store and ask them to heat up a bottle for the baby. We'd go to a delicatessen and buy processed foods and come back and eat. My dad was trying to keep working. It was total chaos."
Out of that chaos came a populist streak that has characterized Mr. Kucinich's career since he first ran for office in 1967 at age 21, taking on a veteran City Council member. He pulls out his union card he is a member of the cameramen's union every chance he gets. As president, he says, he would withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization. He advocates universal health care, through a single-payer system.
Mr. Kucinich lost that first race. But a decade later in 1977, after a stint as Cleveland's clerk of courts, Mr. Kucinich's boyhood prediction to Mr. Backus just about came true. At 31, he became the youngest mayor of any major American city.
The nation knew him as "the boy mayor." But in Cleveland, he was Dennis the Menace, impetuous to a fault, surrounded by aides who were young and arrogant and ready for a fight. By August 1978 he had narrowly survived a recall.
"When Dennis would take on a fight, he saw things in terms of good and evil," said Joseph Tegreene, who served as Mr. Kucinich's finance director and had such a bitter falling out with his old boss that they did not speak to each other for 15 years.
The blowup that cost Mr. Kucinich his job was a showdown with Cleveland's banks and the City Council over the city's public utility company, known as Muny Light. The banks, holding city loans, demanded the mayor sell Muny Light. Mr. Kucinich refused; Cleveland went into default. In November 1979, voters turned him out of office. Thus began what the congressman describes as a period of "almost relentless reflection" into the deepest corners of his life, and why it was so filled with conflict.
"I never had the time to do that before," Mr. Kucinich said. "The people of Cleveland gave me something I never gave myself: time off."
He began by going to California, where he turned to a friend, Shirley MacLaine, the actress known for her excursions into the metaphysical. She introduced Mr. Kucinich to Christine Griscom, a self-described spiritual teacher and healer whose Light Institute in Galisteo, N.M., promises "multi-incarnational exploration" and "access to your higher self."
"Chris is the person who has really worked on matters relating to peace, both inner peace and peace in the world," Mr. Kucinich said. "I met her and began a series of discussions on the nature of life, truth, purpose."
That conversation, Ms. Griscom said, continues today; she and Mr. Kucinich have discussed matters like abortion and Iraq. "He comes to New Mexico to contemplate, regenerate himself, but he always brings the world with him," Ms. Griscom said. "He doesn't come here for retreat. Dennis doesn't know what that word means."
His political exile was as difficult personally as it was professionally. His second marriage (his first had ended in divorce) broke up in 1986, five years after the birth of his daughter. With a master's degree in communications, Mr. Kucinich supported himself by lecturing and consulting, but he was desperate to get back into politics.
"But every time I tried," Mr. Kucinich said, "I couldn't win."
A Career Revival His big break came in 1993. A reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer was investigating Mr. Kucinich's decision not to sell Muny Light, and concluded that the move benefited consumers. Mr. Kucinich was "on a beach in Malibu, watching the dolphins play," he said, when the reporter called for his comment.
With a light bulb as his logo and the slogan "Because he was right," Mr. Kucinich won election to the Ohio Senate in 1994, and the United States House in 1996.
After 15 years in the political wilderness, the boy mayor calmer, less impetuous, as determined as ever was back.
On Feb. 17, 2002, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, was a featured speaker at a conference sponsored by the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action. As co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Mr. Kucinich had made a name for himself as an outspoken foe of what he sees as the Bush administration's bellicose foreign policy.
One thousand people packed a hall at the University of Southern California to hear him attack the war in Afghanistan and the buildup to war in Iraq, the primary antiterrorism legislation and the treatment of detainees at Guantαnamo Bay.
The "prayer for America" speech, as Mr. Kucinich called it, was, like many of his speeches, long on passion and short on policy specifics. But to people in the hall, it was electrifying.
"It was like someone singing opera," said Judith Bustany, president of Southern California Americans for Democratic Action.
Soon, peace activists were pressing Mr. Kucinich to run for the White House.
"The response," Mr. Kucinich said, "was something I never could have predicted." He decided 2004 was his year.
On the Campaign Trail
This is what the Kucinich for president campaign looks like:
The candidate is jammed into the backseat of a little red Honda at 9:30 p.m. on a bitter cold night in Cleveland, cellphone pressed to his ear, telling yet another radio interviewer how he is the only candidate who has actually voted against the war in Iraq. He ends, as he always does, saying "how grateful" he is for the opportunity to express his views.
On a swing through New Hampshire, Mr. Kucinich is invited to address union members whom he calls "brothers and sisters" at a low-slung wood-paneled hall outside Manchester. Burly men in union jackets usher him into a holding room while his rival Howard Dean is rushed to the podium like some kind of rock star. Mr. Kucinich shrugs off the indignity, saying he came a little ahead of schedule.
It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Kucinich as nothing more than a vanity candidate, to mock his veganism and his relationship with Shirley MacLaine, and some do. One member of Congress, a Republican, called him "a flake." A Democrat, more charitably, described him as a loner, "a solo guy."
But those who know Mr. Kucinich best insist he is a serious man with serious ideas, who believes with every fiber of his being that it is his obligation, his duty, to offer his vision for repairing the world.
"He's a good politician, and he knows that in this country, people vote their pocketbook," said Paul Tipps, a lobbyist in Columbus who has known Mr. Kucinich for decades. "But that doesn't mean that Dennis has to campaign for their pocketbook. He's willing to campaign for their hearts and their minds."
There is almost an ascetic quality about Mr. Kucinich; his home, in a forlorn, working-class section on Cleveland's west side, is so sparsely furnished as to be practically bare. He appears to have little life outside his work. He had a girlfriend for eight years, a Cleveland lawyer two decades his junior, who, he said, remains "very important to me." But the relationship broke off because "the partnership stuff was just too hard."
Some say Mr. Kucinich runs because there is no reason not to. His campaign has elevated his name recognition, which could come in handy if he decides to seek the Ohio governor's office or run for the Senate. Besides that, Mr. Kucinich clearly enjoys being on the campaign trail and has raised enough money to do so.
"He doesn't need a lot of money," said Jerry Austin, an Ohio Democratic campaign consultant. "He stays in Motel 6's and takes Southwest Airlines. He'll stay in as long as he can afford to get from one place to another, because he wants to be heard."
Running, though, has not been without its costs. A longtime opponent of abortion, Mr. Kucinich now supports Roe v. Wade, a decision he says he reached after consulting with "the women in my life." That, plus his firm embrace of gay marriage, has put him at odds with many voters in his largely Roman Catholic district.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Kucinich is constantly asked when he will pull out of the race. The questions irritate him, and he has lately taken to berating the media for focusing only on polls and money.
But he still seems aware of the challenge he faces. At a fund-raiser in an Italian restaurant in Cleveland's downtown, the Ohio primary, in March, was on his mind. He swept into the room and stood on a chair, delivering a brief speech that, in its simplicity, perfectly summed up his campaign.
"We are in a position in this room to redirect the future of this country," Mr. Kucinich said, to much applause.
"But," he added, "we've got to deliver Ohio."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company