Sam Allard / Scene
Dennis Kucinich electrifies the crowd at the Lakewood Women's Pavilion (3/29/2018).
Thursday evening, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dennis Kucinich delivered the best and brightest speech of the 2018 primary campaign. In high-volume, high-velocity remarks, he electrified a standing-room only gathering of the Lakewood Democratic Club at the Lakewood Women's Pavilion.
Kucinich was, after all, on home turf, and his thunderous remarks had the familiar crowd by turns rolling with laughter and roaring with applause. It was one of the most impressive appearances of the governor's race — certainly the most impressive I've seen in person — and the most fun I've had at a political event in several years.
The man knows how to fire up a crowd. Perhaps he was energized by being in Lakewood, the home of his congressional district office for years. Or perhaps he was emboldened by recent poll numbers, which last week found
that Richard Cordray and Kucinich are now neck and neck, each controlling about 21 percent of the Democratic vote. Near the end of his remarks, he relayed a message that he said came from his wife: Now that voters see him as a viable candidate, as a bona fide challenger to Cordray, maybe they'll give themselves permission to vote for him.
Whatever the cause, the effect was emphatic. And doubly so, because it came on the heels of one of the strongest and most assured performance yet from Cordray.
In his remarks, Cordray, at last, spoke with something approaching conviction. Instead of his preferred catch-all phrases — "the Ohio way," "kitchen-table issues" — Cordray addressed the importance of women's reproductive healthcare, organized labor, criminal justice reform, and even gun violence.
What a breath of fresh air! Cordray's efforts to distance himself from the NRA were ambivalently received by the savvy Lakewood crowd, clearly familiar with his record on guns, but his presentation was met with frequent affirmation and applause.
"We stand unapologetically for a progressive Ohio that we will govern proudly on progressive principles," Cordray declared.
Now that his campaign website boasted an "issues" tab
— Cordray had been chastised for an unwillingness to state a position on anything
— he was able to identify and expound upon key legislative areas that he and his running mate Betty Sutton would prioritize.
But the problem was his delivery. Cordray uttered his remarks in a low, lawyerly register that rarely fluctuated. Even when making slam-dunk points, he never italicized his comments with a raised voice, or other standard oratory flair.
Take, for example, this moment, which ought to have landed like dynamite:
"We have a legislature that is obsessed with hot-button, retrograde ideological issues such as abortion," Cordray said. "They have passed 20 restrictions in the past seven years. I don't begrudge anybody who is pro-life, but Betty and I are proudly pro-choice and have been throughout our careers ... [applause]. That obsession in the legislature has cost us the bandwidth we need to deal with broader women's health issues: pre-natal care, post-natal care. And it's cost us the ability to deal with infant mortality, which is a scandal in this state."
This a strong campaign message, and would seem to represent an area where he might be able to create some distance between him and his opponent. Kucinich is a proponent of universal single-payer healthcare — a much more "progressive" position — and has made Women's Rights the topmost issue on his "Issues" tab
, but he hasn't emphasized women's health on the campaign trail in the way that he has emphasized other issues. (He was also a pro-life candidate for many years.)
Sam Allard / Scene
Richard Cordray, speaking at the Lakewood Women's Pavilion, (3/29/2018).
But Cordray might as well have been reciting ingredients off the back of a cereal box. He just didn't come alive.
The rhetorical strategy in evidence was to peg areas of policy focus, and to label himself repeatedly as a progressive candidate. The words 'progressive' and 'progressively' were peppered throughout his remarks. See above, and also, e.g.: "We have been, and will continue to be, proudly and progressively pro-worker in this state."
His strongest moment arrived, though, when a bit of personality shone through. He may have lost his place in his speech, or else he delivered the following off the cuff, but it was the only time when the crowd laughed. And it was a great moment! He was discussing his record on LGBTQ issues and got a jab in at the Republicans.
"We need to understand that, no longer can we say ... By the way, the Republicans haven't yet reconciled themselves to gay marriage," he interrupted himself. "They still want to somehow roll that back or rescind that. I don't know how they're gonna do that. We have many people being happily married, and some even being unhappily divorced, and we've moved on from that." [Laughs].
But after Dennis, Cordray's speech seemed wispy and rote in retrospect. State Senate candidates Nickie Antonio and Martin Sweeney introduced themselves to voters in between the governor candidates, and as they fielded a question before Kucinich was introduced (MORE ON THIS IN A MOMENT), Dennis could be seen prowling near the doorway, hungry for the podium.
He looked downright goofy in his suit jacket and jeans, but he got off to such a whirlwind start that the only fashion statement the attendees likely took note of was an 'F' pin on his lapel, representing his grade from the NRA.
He launched into remarks overflowing with gratitude for Lakewood, Ohio, referencing attendees by name. He told the crowd that Lakewood had the power to influence statewide races and announced that if elected, he'd open a local office in Lakewood. [Hoots of praise and civic pride.]
The majority of his speech was a sustained crescendo of both outrage and optimism that testified to the exclamation point that once followed his name on congressional campaign signage.
"There aren't many politicians in Ohio who can claim that they're free and independent of interest groups," he shouted, "but I can, because when I represented you as a state senator and as a U.S. Congressman, no one could tap me on the shoulder and tell me to vote against the interests of my constituents! I did not have to be informed as to what those interests were. I knew! And so I stood up, fearlessly, and with integrity, and with a willingness to speak the truth whether people wanted to hear it or not. Columbus is a cesspool today! These interest groups have a death grip ... a death grip on the Democratic party as well. The Democrats need a new spirit! A new energy! A new dynamism! I've been driving from one end of the state to the other, and there's a readiness. There's a new Democratic party rising!"
On health care
: "We must get ahead of our health care costs, and the way to do that is to lead the way [on nonprofit single-payer]!"
On oil and gas
: "They're making a pin cushion out of southeast Ohio, ruining the air, ruining the water, ruining the land, and making Ohio a sacrifice zone, for what? For export! What are we,the suckers of the United States? I say no!"
: "It's time to legalize marijuana. What's so hard about that? Are we not past the days of Reefer Madness? ... Are we not ready to understand that if we go to a rock concert, the law has already been made by the people?"
On guns: "
It's time to say NO to assault weapons, once and for all! These are weapons of war, and the war has come home."
Kucinich knows that as a politician on the trail he must also be an entertainer. His speech, while heavy on issues, was also a show, and the crowd was entertained. The atmosphere, in fact, was almost giggly,
in part because one could feel the contagion of the candidate's energy spreading through the room. The response was almost involuntary, but the people, (median age: ~62) were moved.
To be clear, Cordray was not at all weak on the issues [though guns remain on everyone's mind, and it's an inescapable vulnerability for him], but the difference in personality could not have been more dramatic.
Both of these guys have been pinballing from Toledo to Dayton to Youngstown to Athens, and they are, quite justifiably, exhausted.
But only Cordray looked it. After a brief Q&A, Cordray walked from the podium to the exit with his left hand raised — an approximation of a wave? — and said, feebly, "I'm going home now." I can't have been the only one to see, in that moment, the cave-mannishly bearded Tom Hanks, as Forrest Gump, concluding his iconic multi-year run thus
Dennis, on the other hand, was as spry as a grasshopper
. At one point, when his mic failed during the Q&A, he walked in front of the podium with a smile on his face and exclaimed:
"Who would've known, that at 71, and all my life people telling me that I'm ahead of the curve — 'You're ahead of your time Dennis, you're ahead of you're time,' — that at 71, I'm right on time! And I'll tell you what, I'm in the best shape of my life, and I am ready for battle! We're going to redefine what it means to be in the 70s."
He assumed a classic pugilist's stance, did a little one-two punch for a crowd that was loving
him, standing now to cheer him on. He resembled, for all intents and purposes, a boy.
A NOTE ON NICKIE AND MARTY
Good God, this Lakewood crowd had no trepidation whatsoever
about asking tough questions. Cordray's first three in his Q&A were directly or indirectly related to guns. My assumption at the time was that the crowd was picking on him, exposing his primary weakness, but the same questions were asked of Dennis. Gun legislation truly seems to be something people are hungry for. (Thanks, students.)
But when Nickie Antonio and Marty Sweeney, candidates for State Senate District 23, fielded questions, a man asked Nickie about the #MeToo movement.
"We've seen a lot of people on the other side of the aisle do some pretty atrocious things and say some atrocious things," he said, "and even people within our own party. How would you continue to fight for women in the state of Ohio?"
Antonio gave a measured response, speaking of her involvement on a bi-partisan congressional task force dealing with sexual harassment, arguing that the level of professionalism had to be raised at the statehouse. She said the rights of her colleagues and her constituents had to be "not only respected, but protected."
The question appeared to be a not-so-subtle reference to Sweeney's misconduct on Cleveland City Council. (The city paid to settle a Sweeney harassment claim in 2007
). And indeed, immediately after Antonio finished and the applause died down, a woman raised a piece of paper and pointed it at Sweeney: "Mr. Sweeney, how do you feel about what she just said?"
"How do I want to answer this," Sweeney said, approaching the mic. "What she said? 100 percent accurate. Some work's going to be done at the Statehouse. We're gonna be fully supportive of it, as I have been. And if you want to go in depth on other topics, I'm happy to talk to you."
"Hashtag MeToo," the woman said, knowingly.
"Okay..." Sweeney, now deeply uncomfortable. "Okay, that was fun."
It was not the first time Sweeney dashed
from a podium.