Sam Allard / Scene
Dennis Kucinich listens to an audience question during a City Club forum (2/27/2018).
In 1977, shortly before he announced his candidacy for Cleveland mayor, a young Dennis Kucinich, then a municipal court clerk, addressed the City Club of Cleveland to oppose the sale of Muny Light to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI).
Leaning heavily on the words and wisdom of Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson (1901-1910), Kucinich laid out a 14-point plan to retain Muny Light and restructure its debt to CEI. He said he was prepared to launch a voter referendum effort if then-Mayor Ralph Perk pushed a sale through. He never had to. He was elected Mayor later that year.
But Kucinich's attacks on Perk at the City Club were savage. He lambasted the "fire sale" mentality that characterized Perk's administration. He said Perk "cloaked himself in the robes of a fiscal Merlin," while deliberately misleading the public about the utility's financial health. He said that the sale of Muny Light — which he said was driven by corporate greed — would further cement Perk's "grotesque legacy" as Mayor of Cleveland.
"Isn't it bewildering that the Perk administration consistently proposes to bail out bankrupt facilities and invest in harebrained schemes while at the same time insisting that it has to sell the viable assets of the city?" Kucinich asked the City Club audience. "He would spend millions on electric-powered people movers, James Rhodes bond issues, studies for a jetport, yesterday's sports arena, bankrupt hotels and costly computer services, while our recreation facilities, our parks, our neighborhood business districts and now our light system is threatened with extinction."
Kucinich served for two years as Cleveland Mayor and later served from 1997 to 2013 in the U.S House of Representative. Now 71, and still unabashedly the enemy of moneyed special interests, he likely represents the stiffest competition for Richard Cordray in the Ohio Democratic gubernatorial race. (He was last week endorsed
by the Bernie Sanders-affiliated progressive outfit, Our Revolution.)
He appeared at the City Club Tuesday afternoon to lay out his platform. But he also unleashed a storm of attacks on Cordray — who also has gone negative in recent days
— for his record of 2nd Amendment support and his close relationship with the NRA and its Ohio affiliates.
Kucinich said he would have been content to run on his existing platform and the 48 specific initiatives he has laid out on his website thus far: initiatives like ridding the state of fracking, ending for-profit charters and for-profit prisons, instituting free college tuition (for two years), legalizing marijuana, reforming the criminal justice system, promoting regenerative agriculture (to sequester carbon in nutrient-rich soil?) and worker rights, all while working to secure state broadband access, public transit funding and healthcare for all.
But the election changed, Kucinich said, with the shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead earlier this month. Kucinich and his running mate, Akron City Councilwoman Tara Samples, are now pushing for a statewide assault weapons ban.
Kucinich is a principled, people-first politician, but he's also a savvy one. He understands the sharp fault line that separates him and Cordray on this hot-button issue, and he has been quick to make guns the central plank of his campaign. Indeed, he used the bulk of his speech Tuesday to tout the merits of a statewide assault weapons ban and to decry Richard Cordray's efforts as Ohio Attorney General, in which capacity Cordray initiated legal action that overturned a Cleveland assault weapons ban enacted in 1991.
Kucinich even recited the names and ages of the students and staff who died in the Parkland shooting. He once again called the current moment a "tipping point" in the national conversation around gun violence and called for bipartisan unity on the issue. Last week, at a Cleveland rally, he called for individual cities to pass resolutions urging the state to enact an assault weapons ban (something that Governor John Kasich himself, in a reversal of his consistent pro-gun positions, seemed to endorse on national TV). And last night, Akron became the first city in Ohio to do so, passing its resolution by a vote of 11-2
While Kucinich urged current candidates to refrain from partisan name-calling — answering a question about his ability to work with presumed Republican majorities in the Ohio legislature — he was not shy about ruthlessly chronicling Cordray's pro-gun record. That record included making Ohio's home rule authority subservient to the gun lobby and once, according to Kucinich's research, even greenlighting an armed rally on statehouse grounds.
"For his efforts in the Ohio Supreme Court on behalf of the gun lobby, he earned an 'A' from the NRA, and was the first Democratic state official in the nation to work with them." Kucinich reported, talking about a specific case. "As attorney general, Richard Cordray clearly used his office as an extension of the NRA, even bragging that he seized the opportunity to use the power of his office to represent gun owners' interests on assault weapons and all gun issues."
Kucinich also rejected Cordray's claim that he had been "legally obligated" as AG to work against Cleveland's assault weapons ban. If Cordray had had any "pangs of conscience," Kucinich said, he could have hired outside counsel in that matter, as the Attorney General is independently elected and has sole discretion over the legal action he or she pursues.
In the question-and-answer period, Kucinich successfully painted himself as the product of his hometown (Cleveland) and of his record, a politician who has long been unafraid to take on powerful groups — the mob, the banks, the utilities — and a leader who would faithfully serve his constituents.
"I will be your governor and no one else's," he said. "My only interest is the good of the people and of the State of Ohio."
The most persistent ongoing attacks against Kucinich as a candidate — his association with and apologia for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his stint as a Fox News contributor — were duly mentioned by City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop in introductory remarks but went unprobed by the (presumably receptive) City Club audience.
In a response to one important question on systemic racism, though, Kucinich failed to rouse much enthusiasm. He spoke solemnly about his own experiences growing up in communities of color and the need for unity, the need to see beyond physical appearances. It had the whiff of antiquated wishful-thinking rhetoric.
Kucinich did say, in that answer's strongest moment, that half of his mayoral appointments had been black — "It enabled the African-American community to see itself reflected in institutional power," he said — but his summation, while sincere, felt stiff and old-fashioned and not fully appreciative of racism's institutional history and power.
"When we get past appearances, we come to a point where race doesn't matter or shouldn't," he said. "Where it does, Tara Samples and I will root out any evidence of any sort of misunderstanding, or racism."
All four Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Richard Cordray, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Schiavoni and Bill O'Neill — are white males. Kucinich and "Hayloft"
O'Neill are both running alongside black female Lt. Governor candidates.