Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur on Sept 20, 2011, in Solon, Ohio. The state's new congressional district map has the two veteran Democrats now competing for the same congressional seat.
Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur on Sept 20, 2011, in Solon, Ohio. The state's new congressional district map has the two veteran Democrats now competing for the same congressional seat. Amy Sancetta/AP
Rep. Dennis Kucinich is most in his element when he's fighting against social injustice.
Wherever he sees an outrage against the little guy, you'll find the Ohio Democrat railing against it — like at a recent public meeting about a new trash-to-energy facility Cleveland wants to install in a west side neighborhood.
"This is about our community, where we live," the former Cleveland mayor told the gathering. "And we're not going to live in a place where there's a garbage incinerator that's ruining our community. So I'm going to take a strong stand on this. We'll use the full power that we can summon from Congress on this and we're going to stand with this community to make sure this garbage incinerator never happens."
That's typical Kucinich, whether he's protesting the war or running for president — as he has done twice.
"My approach [is] well-known: fearless, willing to take a stand when maybe others wouldn't, and not worried about rockin' the boat," says Kucinich.
And it's what probably most sets him apart from his longtime ally, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a fellow Democrat in Congress.
Ohio's New 9th Congressional District
When Ohio lost two congressional seats after the last census count, many saw Kucinich's seat ripe for elimination. His reputation as a liberal purist and penchant for the national spotlight made him a favorite Republican punching bag.
And Ohio's new Republican-drawn congressional map pits Kucinich against Kaptur of Toledo in a new district stretching 120 miles along the Lake Erie shoreline.
Kaptur, while close to Kucinich in ideology, is much more comfortable as part of the Democratic power structure in Congress, says Dave Cohen, who teaches political science at the University of Akron.
"Kaptur strikes me very much as a coalition builder and someone that ... is an inside player and will work and strike deals," says Cohen. "Kucinich strikes me as more of an outsider."
Kaptur's long experience in the House — nearly 30 years — is her biggest selling point. It's earned her a coveted spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which she says has helped send millions of dollars to her district.
"That is a very important committee in the Congress, and I have risen now to the No. 2 position," she says. "That seniority doesn't belong to me. That belongs to Ohio."
Kaptur's biggest challenge is attracting Kucinich supporters in the new district over to her side. On the day of a primary election, voters may request a ballot to vote in any one party's election, and there are about 60 percent more registered Democrats in Kucinich's home turf than in Kaptur's.
Battle For New Terrain
But there's a swath of the new district not currently represented by either candidate, and both are trying to win those voters.
At a recent labor-sponsored meet-the-candidates event in Lorain — about 30 miles west of Cleveland — Joel Arredondo, who sits on the Lorain City Council, says Kaptur will get his vote.
"I firmly believe that ... she brings a lot more to the table with her experience and her expertise, so that's who I'm supporting," says Arredondo.
Others like that she's a woman who wields considerable clout. But Kucinich has his supporters too, like Lorain resident Jim Ward.
"It's his passion for the issues, that he doesn't waver on the issues," says Ward. "He says what he stands for, and what other else might play into it, he'll stand by what he says."
Any edge Kucinich may have in popularity or name recognition is countered by Kaptur's clear advantage in fundraising. As of Sept. 30, Kucinich's campaign had under $100,000 on hand, while Kaptur's had more than $600,000, enough to pay for TV ads in Kucinich's home territory.