The defeat of eight-term Congressman Dennis Kucinich in last week’s Democratic primary was a huge disappointment to the voters of Cuyahoga County, as well as progressive people nationwide and around the world.
Although Kucinich put up a strong fight, the outcome was not entirely unexpected and mostly predetermined when the Republicans, who won power across the board in Ohio in 2010, redrew Congressional districts earlier this year.
In a state that can swing either way, the GOP, under direct instructions from House Speaker John Boehner, resorted to extreme gerrymandering to limit Democrats to only four of Ohio’s 16 districts. Major sections of Kucinich’s old district in Cuyahoga County were removed, and he was forced into a new district running for 100 miles along the shore of Lake Erie to Toledo, the home base of Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, another member of the House Progressive Caucus who similarly had solid support from organized labor in her community.
Kaptur won 95 percent of the vote in Lucas County (Toledo) and also led Kucinich in the intervening counties including narrowly winning in Lorain County. On the other hand, Kucinich only won 72 percent of the vote in what was left of his former district in Cuyahoga County with the result that Kaptur took the new district with 56 percent of the vote.
Kucinich and his many supporters were bitter that Kaptur, his former friend and ally, ran a campaign he called “utterly lacking in integrity, with false statements, half-truths and misrepresentations.” Even PolitiFact Ohio, the fact-checking arm of the Plain Dealer, which endorsed Kaptur, rated her television ads as HalfTrue and False.
“That’s not who I am,” Kucinich said at a press conference after the election. “Our politics have to be lifted up. They don’t belong in the gutter.”
Kucinich has been a target of the corporate establishment for the past three decades ever since his refusal as Cleveland mayor to sell the city’s municipally owned electric power system to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., now part of First Energy. The banks, closely tied to CEI, retaliated by refusing to roll over loans and forced the city into default. From that time on Kucinich became the symbol of the fight of ordinary people against corporate power and was relentlessly ridiculed and denigrated by the mouthpieces of big business, which continually sought to drive him from public office.
As a Congressman, he not only co-sponsored progressive legislation including comprehensive jobs bills and a national single-payer health care system, he was also a grassroots activist, rallying strikers on picket lines, joining community efforts to save hospitals, public services and plants facing shutdown.
He was viciously attacked by the Plain Dealer for intervening with unions and community forces in a successful effort to stop the closing of LTV’s steel mill, the base for thousands of jobs in the area. The company’s top officials, pillars of Cleveland society, had filed for bankruptcy and sought to junk the plant and escape with enormous golden parachutes. Mobilizing mass public pressure and joining the fight of the Steelworkers in court, Kucinich led an unprecedented effort that found a buyer and the plant, now owned by Arcelor Mittal, claims to be the most productive steel mill in the world.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Kucinich strongly opposed the Patriot Act as a massive and unnecessary assault on the Bill of Rights, and became an outspoken opponent of the drive by the administration of George W. Bush for the Iraq war, which he denounced as “based on lies.” He later initiated an unsuccessful attempt to impeach both the President and Vice President Dick Cheney for illegally launching the war.
In 2004 Kucinich took his anti-war campaign to the national stage with the first of two largely symbolic runs for President urging establishment of a U.S. Department of Peace.
He used the campaigns to courageously promote the most advanced positions for the rights of immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBT community, as well as family services and reproductive rights for women and protection of the environment. He traveled to the Middle East and became a staunch advocate for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
This greatly angered right-wing groups in the Jewish community who, together with his usual corporate enemies, funded a candidate for Congress against him in 2008 when he became vulnerable during his second run for President. At the urging of the Cleveland labor movement, he dropped that effort in time to preserve his seat in Congress.
Kucinich’s office has been a model of diversity with staff including African-Americans, whites and Hispanics, Jews and Muslims, gays and straights, men and women, young and old, who have provided extraordinary service to constituents.
Clevelanders are fearful that, even though Kaptur is a generally solid, pro-labor progressive, they will not get the same service Kucinich, with his deep local roots and working class commitment, has given. In recent weeks he was on the picket line of the striking Cleveland Red Cross workers and held a rally with building trades unions and community residents facing a threatened cut off in funds for a critical bridge project.
Despite deep political differences, many Congressional Republicans considered Kucinich a friend and occasionally found grounds for co-operation, especially Rep. Steve LaTourette, a moderate from northeastern Ohio, with whom Kucinich co-sponsored bills for massive rebuilding of the infrastructure.
Kaptur, while less advanced in many areas, has probably a stronger record of delivering funds for local projects and a closer relationship with the Obama Administration. At times, Kucinich has seemed unwilling to see the over-riding danger of right-wing extremism and too ready to criticize the President.
While his presence in Congress will be sorely missed, it is hard to imagine that anyone with Kucinich’s energy, national support network, and commitment will not find ways to continue as a powerful voice for progressive change, for an America that puts people before profits.
Photo: Kucinich talks during a debate in Cleveland. Mark Duncan/AP