Populism for Power

Cleveland's Dennis Kucinich is supposed to be a "new Urban populist"—but he's really after power to Kucinich, not "power to the people."


One of Dennis Kucinich's first official acts after taking office in December 1977 as Cleveland's youngest mayor was to direct a crew of workmen east along Cleveland's Shoreway, which parallels Lake Erie, to the run-down main generating facility of the city's municipally owned electric light plant, known to all as Muny Light. Kucinich had the workmen erect overnight a new sign on the facility in full view of all the commuters who daily travel the Shoreway on their way to work in downtown Cleveland. POWER TO THE PEOPLE the sign blared in bold black letters on a white background with an ominous black streak of lightning below. The legend underneath was only slightly smaller: Muny Light—Dennis J. Kucinich, Mayor.

The sign was pure Dennis. A self-styled populist, Kucinich had defeated the former mayor, Republican Ralph Perk, in a nonpartisan primary by attacking, among other things, Perk's decision to sell the deficit-ridden Muny Light. Perk must have experienced a sense of déjà vu in that election—six years earlier, he had used the same issue to defeat Cleveland School Board President Arnold Pinckney, a black, by screaming that the "millionaires" and the blacks were conspiring to sell Muny Light.


Even if it was self-applied, Kucinich came by his "populist" tag honestly. "You want it? You got it," was his standard response to voter requests during the campaign. Among his many campaign promises: a 25 percent reduction in Muny Light bills for the elderly; "free" downtown transit; neighborhood prosecutor offices; a return to 25-cent hot dogs at Cleveland's convention center. The hot dogs do now cost 25 cents; but no one is riding the buses downtown for free, the elderly still pay the full rate on their electricity, and there are fewer prosecutors now than when Kucinich took office. Even the 25-cent hot dogs have a catch: the vendor no longer pays a commission to the city for each sale.

Economics was never a major strength for Kucinich, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in communication. Since his election, he has been heard to offer the opinion that the nation's major economic problems are a maldistribution of wealth and the growth of monopoly capital. He believes inflation can be controlled by limiting the profits that businesses derive from higher prices.

One of Kucinich's chief political heroes is Huey Long. Last September before the National Press Club in Washington he gave a speech, "The New Urban Populism," that would have made the Kingfish proud:

Our city government in Cleveland, Ohio, has a mission. It is dedicated to championing the economic rights of poor and working people.…We reject the cynical and destructive philosophy which challenges citizens to lower their expectations of government while government lowers its performance. We believe that government can and must do more.…

It soon became obvious to certain members of Cleveland's big business elite that our city administration was an obstacle to the proper functioning of the sacrosanct "system." In siding with the poor and working people on economic issues we found ourselves locked in mortal combat with every mighty institution in Cleveland.…

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that no one can win and hold elective office without the permission of the business establishment, without the help of the political parties, and in the face of unrelenting opposition from the media.

The new urban populism is proving them wrong. Here's how: We're uniting poor and working people, both black and white, on economic issues. We're improving the working man's ability to retain the income he has by vigorously resisting government's continuous tendency to increase taxes. We have not nor will we increase taxes [sic]. We're making sure that big business pays a fair share of the taxes without tax concessions. When big business pays its fair share, government is better able to collect the revenues necessary to maintain services.…

Our urban populism advocates are using the authority of local government to protect and further the economic well-being of the poor and working people in our society. Economic democracy is a pre-condition of political democracy. The defense of the economic rights of the weak is an essential part of renewing the great spirit of our nation. We must firmly establish a political agenda which is based on economic justice for each and every individual and which survives the programmed inertia of the conflicting and polarized society.

The left was delighted. It had a new hero.


Here was a genuine working-class ethnic with a Croatian-Irish heritage sufficient to make him a card-carrying member of Richard Nixon's majority. Yet he was talking about economic issues in colorful language that hadn't been seriously uttered since the '30s—"maldistribution of wealth" and the "growth of monopoly capital." He had even given a speech in March 1978 before the California Democratic Council in which he attacked "the barons of big business."

The left quickly moved to anoint Kucinich. His troubles of the recent past—an unprecedented recall election after less than a year in office, followed by the first official default of a major city (we all know New York was really the first; they just found a different word) since the depression—were forgotten. The New York Times ran a story on its Sunday Op-Ed page that talked of "an impoverished city with a populist mayor" and a "major clash" with "a wealthy, conservative corporate class." The Village Voice held him up as a new folk hero—a David doing battle with the corporate Goliath.

The Nation, however, was beside itself. "Something akin to class warfare" has broken out in Cleveland, the aging left-wing journal announced with barely concealed excitement—with visions of "the great populist struggles of the early 20th century." Writing as if Cleveland's Euclid Avenue and its East Side still housed a "Millionaires' Row" where the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and Mark Hanna used to reside, the Nation informed its readers that Kucinich has been "deadly serious about shifting resources [in Cleveland] from the affluent to the middle class and poor."

It was the occasion for scorning those comfortable middle-class liberals who "have been vainly awaiting a rebirth of the…socially oriented movements of the sixties." In Cleveland, the Nation said proudly, "something quite different" has occurred: it is nothing less than "a new movement of activists, in their 20's and early 30's with a solid base in their working-class neighborhoods where they were raised," who have taken power in Cleveland on "a program of economic justice and democracy." It "may well be the forerunner of a new urban electoral populism, focused on working-class issues, which could sweep the country in the decade to come."

It just goes to show: the ones at home are the last to know. Many people in Cleveland had always thought that Dennis Kucinich was a vicious little demagogue who would walk over his own grandmother if she stood in the way of his climb to higher office—that his personal arrest and detention of a seven-year-old boy for trespassing (the child was retrieving a ball from inside the fence of a city swimming pool) to dramatize his crusade against youth vandalism was evidence of this; that all of his young, inexperienced supporters were spread throughout his administration, Nixon-fashion, to serve, because of their unquestioned loyalty, as his resident spies; that his appointments of a 19-year-old woman as assistant safety director and an ex-alcoholic social worker with no law enforcement experience as police chief were extensions of this policy; that the abrasive "us or them" mentality at City Hall was a symptom of both their immaturity and their leader's paranoia; and that the wild speeches Dennis was giving around the country were simply an extension of the publicity-seeking tactics he had long employed at home. If Clevelanders had only known they were witnessing the birth of a new movement destined to sweep the country in the '80s, they might have treated the little guy with more respect.


Those who are looking to get in on the ground floor of the country's next sweeping movement, however, should be a mite more cautious, once they look more closely at the ugly and divisive brand of politics to which Dennis Kucinich and his followers have been subjecting Cleveland. Kucinich's populism is not really a fight for the average Cleveland resident against corporate interests. It is more like a fight on behalf of the average Kucinich supporter with the rest of Cleveland as the ultimate loser.

Muny Light, the Nation tells us, "has become the symbol" of Kucinich's new urban populism. Some symbol. Muny Light is a mere distributor of electric power. It no longer generates any power of its own, largely because Kucinich and the previous two city administrations spent Muny's capital replacement fund for general city operating expenses. It is $20 million in debt and hasn't shown a profit in 10 years. The power it distributes comes almost exclusively on a wholesale basis from the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI), an "investor-owned" public utility that serves the greater Cleveland region.

The service areas of these two utilities overlap, and Muny Light is actually able to deliver electric power to its customers for a few pennies less than CEI, mostly because Muny Light doesn't have to pay the city any taxes. According to Kucinichian economics, this spectacle of a city government buying wholesale electric power from an officially sanctioned and state-regulated monopoly like CEI and then, after a markup, passing it on to its citizens constitutes "competition."

CEI has unfortunately added to this illusion. Rather than treating Muny Light as what it is—just another large power customer like the huge steel plants in Cleveland's industrial valley—CEI reacted as if Muny Light was a competitor. CEI apparently knows as little about competition as does Kucinich. According to findings of the US Atomic Safety and Licensing Board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, CEI refused to sell power to Muny Light at the same rate charged to large industrial users, required it to agree to rate-fixing as a condition of selling it power, required it to buy more power than it needed, and arranged for the transfer of emergency power in a way that caused blackouts for Muny Light. All of these allegations are presently being litigated before a federal judge in Cleveland as part of a massive antitrust suit against CEI by the city.


This gave Kucinich the ammunition he needed to explain his way out of Cleveland's default last December. Default was purely political, he cried; four of the five major banks were agreeable to refinancing the $15 million in short-term notes that were due, but Cleveland Trust (the largest bank) refused to go along unless the city sold Muny Light to CEI. Thereafter, Kucinich continued to rave against "white-collar criminals" who were trying to "steal" Muny Light for their own selfish profit.

Kucinich was lying. Cleveland Trust had imposed no such condition. The truth came out much later, however, after a Kucinich and Ralph Nader-inspired investigation of Cleveland Trust by the Federal Reserve Board. The Fed's investigators took statements from all participants, including a major Kucinich campaign contributor. The Fed determined, in essence, that Dennis had too vivid an imagination and that Cleveland Trust and other Cleveland banks had in the past been too lenient in extending credit to the city.

In July of this year, Kucinich took his lie to Washington, where he repeated it for the benefit of the House Banking Committee's Subcommittee on Financial Institutions. Fortunately for Kucinich, his statement was not made under oath. The subcommittee subsequently agreed with the Fed that Cleveland banks had been too lenient with the city.

At the time, however, Kucinich was repeating his lie as loudly and as frequently as he could find a television camera. He even arranged a truce with Cleveland's City Council long enough to agree to place two issues on the ballot in a special February election—a 50 percent increase in Cleveland's income tax and a referendum on whether the city should sell Muny Light. It was a trade-off. Kucinich desperately needed more money to pay the city's bills, and the City Council wanted to get rid of what they perceived to be a white elephant whose only value lay in its use by Kucinich as a political weapon.

City Council members largely campaigned for the tax and for the sale of Muny Light. Kucinich campaigned for the tax and against the sale. On Muny Light, Kucinich won and the City Council lost, aided in no small part by CEI itself. Demonstrating an awareness of politics comparable to its familiarity with competition, CEI announced significant rate increases immediately prior to the election, much to the consternation of the City Council and the business community, which was also supporting the sale of Muny Light. Kucinich loved it. See what those corporate thieves are capable of, he cried; imagine how they will act after they get their hands on Muny Light.

Elections are won and lost every year on smaller blunders than this. The people of Cleveland were convinced. The vast majority of them receive power from CEI, not Muny Light, and their electric bills were already high enough. They voted to keep Muny Light. Surprising as it may seem in this era of the tax revolt, however, there was no organized opposition to the tax increase, and it passed easily. On the other hand, as Kucinich constantly emphasized, over 70 percent of the increase would be borne by suburbanites who work, but can't vote, in Cleveland.


How do you explain the almost mystical attachment of Dennis Kucinich to Muny Light—the "soul of the city," as he calls it? The Nation has an ideological answer. Keeping Muny Light means that "the 'New Urban Populism' will have a concrete public alternative to the kind of noncompetitive private sector control exemplified by CEI." Private-sector control, however, is hardly an accurate description of CEI. It is, after all, a state-sanctioned monopoly licensed and regulated by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

The answer lies in ideology no more than in economics. To find the solution to the riddle of the importance to Kucinich of Muny Light, we need look no further than old-fashioned political self-interest. Muny Light only serves 20 percent of the people in Cleveland. Yet that 20 percent is largely white, ethnic, and crucial to the political future of Dennis Kucinich. It is literally his political base.

Kucinich has run in two city-wide campaigns in less than a year: his original campaign for mayor in the fall of 1977, and his recall campaign in the summer of 1978. Three wards in Cleveland each had more than 5,000 Muny Light customers; Kucinich won all three. Ten wards had between 1,000 and 5,000 Muny Light customers; Kucinich won six of those ten. Eight wards had no Muny Light customers; Kucinich lost seven. Eleven wards had between 100 and 800 Muny Light customers; Kucinich lost eight of those wards. The pattern is unmistakable. White ethnic voters in the strong Muny Light wards supported Kucinich in both elections by a wide margin—62 percent in the recall alone, and he survived this election by less than 1 percent.

Underneath all that rhetoric, the New Urban Populism is really the same old story of government ripping off one group (those who buy expensive power from a CEI that gets no city tax relief) to subsidize another (those few who can buy cheaper power from a Muny Light that pays no city taxes). And it is no accident that many blacks are being ripped off to subsidize cheap electric power for Kucinich's white ethnic political base. It is an all-too-real symbol of the ugly underside of the Kucinich administration that the national press has ignored.

Ralph Nader is a recent example. Nader of late has been a desperate man. No longer does his name strike fear into the hearts of businessmen and bureaucrats; no longer are his calls promptly returned by suppliant politicians; no longer does he have direct access to the halls of the mighty. Nader did gain access to Cleveland's City Hall, however, where he found a willing, even eager, ally in Kucinich and an unlikely foe in one of the most prominent black politicians in Cleveland.

Kucinich's chief political enemy is a black lawyer, George Forbes, the president of the City Council—a shrewd, street-wise politician who was active in the civil rights movement in the South during the '60s. Well aware of the high unemployment rate among his constituents, particularly young blacks, Forbes has of late worked closely with business interests to encourage them to create more jobs in Cleveland.

Forbes was also more politically vulnerable than he had been in the past. He, along with several other councilmen, had been indicted for allegedly funneling money from a street carnival operator to neighborhood organizations and churches. Forbes's supporters had charged that the indictments were politically and racially inspired. (Forbes stood trial in the summer. The prosecutor's case turned out to be so weak that all charges were dismissed after the state rested, thereby giving credence to the suspicions of Forbes's supporters that the indictment was the result of a political vendetta against Forbes by the county prosecutor and the Kucinich Police Department).


Nader had a dilemma. Like Kucinich, he hates corporations and banks. While he's never had any particular sympathy for civil rights or blacks in general, many of his supporters have. What to do? Would he risk alienating some of his supporters simply for the sake of headlines? He didn't think twice. Would he be able to avoid the racial confrontations that characterize Cleveland politics? He didn't even try. Forbes, Nader grandly announced, is an "Uncle Tom" for the "emperor" of Cleveland's banking establishment. Strong language. Did Nader know Forbes? No. Had he ever met him? No.

Forbes responded in measured tones, offering the calm opinion that he always thought Nader was an ass and none of Nader's recent pronouncements had changed his opinion. He also suggested that Nader come to Cleveland and repeat the racist slur to his face, perhaps in a debate. No way, responded the white knight of consumerism, repeating the slander: he won't debate an "Uncle Tom." A pity, because Forbes's substantive response to the Nader charges deserved wider circulation:

You've got to understand from whence I've come.…I'm the guy who was known as militant, who used to wear dashikis,…in the days of nationalism, probably the most second hated black in the city of Cleveland behind Carl Stokes. I'm probably up to No. 1 now.

The business community was literally afraid of me.…To be portrayed now as a spokesman for them, I accept it as a compliment [but] I'm not a spokesman for the business community.

What has happened is I think I've grown, I've developed as a public official, as a politician, to decipher the problems of all men.

I never, never want to be known as anything other than a black man. I generally tried to speak to those things that are essential to black people.

But, I've learned that there are other people, another community.…

There's nothing wrong with profit for business as long as it means salaries for people.

…if you build a Sohio building you're going to have 15,000 employees and I have enough sense to know that if you get 15,000 employees, 5,000 are going to be black.


Kucinich, when asked to repudiate Nader's racist slur, declined. "If the shoe fits," he said, "wear it." The comment was characteristic of Kucinich's racist brand of politics, a phenomenon yet to be discovered by the Nation, the Village Voice, or the New York Times. It was, however, merely the latest in a long series of race-oriented tactics utilized by Kucinich in his 10-year rise to power in Cleveland:

• His first campaign for City Council was marred by his supporters' charges that his incumbent opponent was a "nigger lover," charges Kucinich never repudiated.

• In one of his unsuccessful campaigns for Congress, Kucinich accused his opponent (well known for his position against busing to achieve integration) of supporting a Martin Luther King National Holiday.

• During his recall election Kucinich continually repeated the false charge that Council President Forbes would succeed him as mayor, playing on his white supporters' fears of a black mayor, all the while innocently denying that he was injecting race into the campaign.

• During the recall campaign, Kucinich sent white voters material attacking Forbes, while black voters received material attacking the Cleveland police for being afraid to provide adequate protection.

• During the recall campaign, the father of Kucinich's law director, while addressing an antibusing rally, called NAACP lawyers "animals" and charged that "15-year-old whores" would be bused under court-ordered desegregation. Although asked about them, Kucinich never disavowed the inflammatory comments.

• Kucinich deliberately snubbed Gary, Indiana, mayor Richard Hatcher (the second black, after Cleveland's Carl Stokes, to be elected mayor of a major American city) when he spoke at an Urban League banquet in Cleveland. Kucinich had been invited but didn't even bother to send a representative. After being publicly criticized, Kucinich—several months later—apologized for the snub and claimed he had to attend a basketball game instead.

• During the recent special election on the income tax increase and the sale of Muny Light, Kucinich openly opposed a 44-unit public housing project in an all-white area because it "would destroy the social fabric of one of Cleveland's most stable neighborhoods…[and has] extreme opposition by neighborhood residents."

For Kucinich, the "social fabric" comment was a rare public slip, and he was uncomfortable with it. "Forget, forget this issue of race," he said, "because it is a phony issue." Kucinich doesn't use race gratuitously; he uses it politically and in a sophisticated fashion. His safety director is black, and Kucinich makes a point of visiting black churches on Sundays and quoting liberally from the Bible. But when he goes back to the white ethnic wards that form his political base and attacks George Forbes for trying to run the city, he doesn't have to tell them that Forbes is black—they already know.

As he moves onto a wider stage as the darling of the left, Kucinich is trying to obscure the racist image he presents to his supporters. One tactic is to deny the existence of a race problem in Cleveland. "I think Clevelanders are very mature when it comes to racial problems," says the mayor. The truth is, most Clevelanders are about as mature on race as the law director's father. It should be remembered that, virtually right up to the edge of default, Kucinich also insisted there was no fiscal crisis and the city was solvent.

Another Kucinich tactic is to claim that a "social issue" like civil rights is "irrelevant social ideology" that "evades our responsibility to face economic issues." The face of Kucinich's biggest economic issue, however—Muny Light—is unmistakably white.


A lot can be learned about a politician's career by studying how he reacts in a crisis. LBJ flunked his test over Vietnam; Nixon flunked on Watergate. Kucinich, not even two years in office, has had more than his share of crises. And even his strong supporters are disappointed with his responses.

Roldo Bartimole is a local free-lance radical journalist whose biweekly newsletter Point of View regularly attacks Cleveland's corporate, banking, and media establishments in terms evocative of Kucinich at his most vitriolic. He is understandably sympathetic to Kucinich. Yet even Bartimole has written of the "climate of fear and resentment" created by the Kucinich administration, the "unwholesome tone of City Hall," his "continual use of racism," and his "compulsion to authoritarian methods." In October 1977, shortly before Kucinich's election, Bartimole prophetically expressed the hope that if Kucinich won there would be "someone close to him to tell him that he can slow down his rapid flight to success and higher office; that it is possible to look within himself and find some good human qualities to accent rather than allowing ambition to dominate solely."

Cleveland has long since had an answer to Bartimole's wish: either there was no one close to Kucinich to tell him this, or worse, Kucinich did look within himself and couldn't find such qualities.

What is Kucinich after? What does he want? In a word, power. Forget the New Urban Populism. Forget Muny Light. Power. It is the only answer that consistently explains all of Kucinich's actions.

For a drama class assignment in college that required the adaptation of nondramatic material to the stage, Kucinich created a unique play entitled "Insanity." He adapted it from a book of short free-verse poetry by a psychiatrist, based on impressions of his patients. It took place in a mental institution. One verse chosen by Kucinich is particularly intriguing:

In my childhood my parents did all for me,
Ran to my crib at my merest cry
Admired my least word, comforted my least complaint.
Is it any wonder I thought I was the center of the universe,
And that the universe, of all people, all things existed only to serve me?
Now grown, I cannot stop thinking so. My demands have grown with me.
I am the center of the universe;
All things, all people, must serve only me.
I will not tolerate any disaffection.…

If the Nation is correct and Kucinich does have a movement "which could sweep the country in the decade to come," people will do well to remember this verse. Kucinich is a young man with a long memory. He knows—and won't forget—which people out there have been telling all those Cleveland jokes.

Michael McMenamin is an attorney with a law firm in Cleveland. He is a frequent REASON contributor, most recently in the July 1979 issue with an article on Robert Taft's foreign policy. Copyright © 1979 Michael McMenamin.

Earle Turner is a Cleveland city councilman. He is a Democrat but is reportedly not looked upon with favor by Mayor Dennis Kucinich.