Kucinich Took On Powerful Interests in Mayoral Race Dennis Kucinich's populist rhetoric and willingness to battle the city's political and business elites helped him win the race for mayor of Cleveland when he was only 31. But he struggled to hold on to popular support in the turbulent term that followed.
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Kucinich Took On Powerful Interests in Mayoral Race

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Kucinich Took On Powerful Interests in Mayoral Race

Kucinich Took On Powerful Interests in Mayoral Race

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Of course, one of the Democrats on the campaign trail is Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. In fact, he spent most of his life campaigning for political office. When Kucinich ran for mayor of Cleveland in the '70s, he was already an elected official, but it was that first campaign to lead the city and the turbulent term that followed which brought Kucinich both fame and infamy.

As part of our First Campaign series, NPR's Cheryl Corley traveled to Cleveland and has this report.

CHERYL CORLEY: On this night, the Cleveland City Council is on the road. The weekly meeting is being held at the Slovenian Workman's Home.

Unidentified Man: Because it's great to take the council out in the neighborhood.

CORLEY: This would have been a familiar spot for Dennis Kucinich. He was 23 when he was first elected to the city council, 30 when he ran for mayor.

Ms. CELESTE FROLO(ph): I was here in 1977 when Kucinich ran.

CORLEY: Celeste Frolo and colleague Ken Kleinheims(ph) represent one side and the split opinion here about Dennis Kucinich and his 1977 campaign.

Ms. FROLO: All I know is we ended up in default and didn't look very good nationally.

Mr. KEN KLEINHEIMS: He was anti-business - absolutely anti-business.

CORLEY: Outside the building, 10th Ward City Councilman Roosevelt Coates says he was a United Steel Workers representative 30 years ago, and he says many people considered Dennis Kucinich a political savior.

Councilman ROOSEVELT COATES (Democrat, Cleveland): Because he came along and said, look, we're going to rejuvenize this city, we're going to save the poor, and we're going to throw those rich rascals out.

CORLEY: Kucinich grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in Cleveland. He began his rise in local politics early, and he was already a well-known populist when he campaigned as an independent Democrat for mayor. He railed against the city's tax policy and its plan to sell the struggling municipal power company to a private competing utility in which local banks had vested interest.

Here's Kucinich during a debate before the City Club of Cleveland in 1977.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): The next mayor of the City of Cleveland must be his own man, must be willing to take the chances in going after the utility interests, the banking interests, the big business interests who are exploiting this community.

CORLEY: Kucinich and State Representative Edward Feighan won the top spots in the city's non-partisan primary, ousting the incumbent mayor. They faced each other in a runoff election. Feighan was the Democrat's endorsed party candidate.

State Representative EDWARD FEIGHAN (Democrat, Ohio): This was a very intense campaign. In 1977, the city of Cleveland was in a great deal of distress, particularly because of the economic dislocation it had been experiencing through the '60s and '70s.

CORLEY: Thousands had left Cleveland by 1977. The city was on thin financial ice, a combination of deficit spending, tricky financing and the longstanding refusal of Cleveland voters to approve tax hikes.

Tim Hagan, Cuyahoga County commissioner and a Feighan supporter, says Cleveland was also struggling in the aftermath of racial unrest, and the Kucinich campaign took advantage of that.

Commissioner TIM HAGAN (Cuyahoga County Board of County Commissioners): He exploited the race issue among his constituents, who were reacting to, at the time, the black power and the whole assertion, rightfully so, of African-Americans in the country, and Kucinich was a part of that anti-black sentiment.

CORLEY: Hagan says Kucinich was subtle, but his campaign distributed literature in white neighborhoods, which disparaged some of Cleveland's black leaders, especially black city council president George Forbes, who fought against Kucinich and endorsed his opponent.

Even so, Forbes says Kucinich simply understood his constituency and knew how to appeal to white ethnic voters.

Mr. GEORGE FORBES (President, Cleveland City Council): I accuse him of practicing polka dot politics, I called it. But we both used that in order to get a step ahead of each other. He wasn't a racist.

CORLEY: Instead, Forbes says, Kucinich was a smooth, shrewd operator. With his populist rhetoric about the economic challenges Clevelanders faced, Kucinich won just enough support in the black community to narrowly win the election.

Cleveland columnist Dick Feagler says as the youngest mayor of a major city, Kucinich brought a new tone to City Hall.

Mr. DICK FEAGLER (Columnist, Cleveland Plain Dealer): When he got elected mayor, he had what he called, as I remember, a people's inauguration, which he held in Public Hall, which is our main auditorium here. And instead of having any kind of formal dinner, everybody trooped in and had, I don't know, hot dogs and sauerkraut or something. I don't remember the menu.

CORLEY: But the city with the boy wonder mayor would also become the city of laughs for the rest of the nation. His young, inexperienced staff was often ridiculed. And the battlefield at city hall between the mayor, the council and the business community over the light plant, tax abatements and other issues left voters fed up.

Unidentified Man: Ma'am, are either of you interested in signing the petition to remove the mayor?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Unidentified Woman: I voted for him. I'm sorry I did.

CORLEY: It was just a few months into his term when Kucinich opponents began collecting signatures in an effort to remove him from office. Kucinich would win the recall by 236 votes. But the fight over the city utility led to a default for Cleveland, the first for a major city since the Depression. Kucinich lost a reelection bid and after another term in the city council, he dropped off the political map for more than a decade.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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