Dennis Kucinich: Conscience of the Congress
March 9, 2012
John Nichols / The Nation & Robert Scheer / TruthDig
Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a two-time presidential candidate who for the past decade has been the most consistent critic of war and militarism in the US House of Representatives, was defeated in a Democratic primary that pitted him against fellow progressive Marcy Kaptur. A Republican governor and legislature carved up Ohio districts with an eye toward eliminating at least one Democratic seat by forcing Kucinich and Kaptur to compete for the same district.
The Nation: What's Lost When Dennis Kucinich Lost
John Nichols / The Nation
(March 8, 2012) -- Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a two-time presidential candidate who for the past decade has been the most consistent critic of war and militarism in the US House of Representatives, was defeated Tuesday in a Democratic primary that pitted him against fellow progressive Marcy Kaptur.
Kucinich was the first electoral victim of the current round of redistricting, which saw congressional districts redrawn in states across the country after the 2010 Census. A Republican governor and legislature carved up northern Ohio districts with an eye toward eliminating at least one Democratic seat, and they achieved their goal by forcing Kucinich and Kaptur into the same district.
That district favored Kaptur and, after a hard-fought race she prevailed by a fifty-six to thirty-nine margin, with the remainder going to a third candidate.
Though the race in Ohio's 9th District received scant attention compared with the Republican presidential contest in the state, the result will have national consequences.
A Congress without Dennis Kucinich will be a lesser branch. It's not just that the loss of the former leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus will rob the House of its most consistent critic of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and one its steadiest critics of corporate power.
Since he arrived on the Hill in 1997, Kucinich has been one of a handful of absolutely engaged members. When issues have arisen, be it domestic or international, low profile or high, Kucinich has been at the ready -- often with the first statement, the strongest demand and the boldest plan.
A master of parliamentary procedure, and a Constitutional purist, Kucinich has given Democratic and Republican congressional leaders their share of headaches. And he has been more than willing to break with Democratic and Republican presidents on matters of principle. But even as he frustrated the most powerful players in Washington, Kucinich won an enthusiastic base of supporters who backed him for the Democratic presidential nominations in 2004 and 2008.
Though he never got near the nomination in either year, Kucinich earned high marks for forcing the other contenders to address fundamental issues of war and peace, civil liberties and trade policy. At the same time, he remained sufficiently in touch with his blue-collar Cleveland-area district -- turf that had previously elected a Republican -- to keep his seat in the face of primary and general election challenges from candidate backed by the political and media elites that had been after Kucinich since his days as the uncompromising "boy mayor" of Cleveland.
Had his district remained intact, Kucinich would have won Tuesday's primary. But the 2010 election put Republican Governor John Kasich and his conservative allies in charge of the Ohio redistricting process. With encouragement from House Speaker John Boehner, they targeted Kucinich from the start. Everyone knew Kucinich was threatened, and the congressman even entertained the prospect of moving to Washington state, where he has long been a favorite of progressive activists and where population shifts had created an open seat that might be friendly to his ambitions.
Ultimately, however, Kucinich opted for a race in a redrawn Ohio district that included portions of his Cleveland base. The district also included Toledo, the home of Congresswomen Kaptur, a Democrat with whom Kucinich had frequently allied over the years.
Kucinich and Kaptur have both served in Congress as outsiders, members of the Progressive Caucus, with records of opposing wars, free-trade deals and economic policies that favor the 1 percent over the 99 percent. Both have 95 percent AFL-CIO records. Both have 100 percent ACLU records.
There were, to be sure, distinctions. Kucinich, who for many years voted with opponents of reproductive rights, switched his position before the 2004 presidential election and ran this year as the more socially liberal contender. Kaptur, the longest serving woman in the House and a champion of many feminist causes, was ranked as a "mixed choice" by NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Kucinich was always the purest anti-war champion, and he made a point of highlighting that in the race with Kaptur, a ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, who the Cleveland congressman argued should have done much more to cut the Pentagon budget.
But Kaptur, who came to national prominence as an outspoken foe of the 2008 bank bailout, emerged as a national hero of union and community activists who shared her determination to "bust the banksters." She was a star of the film Capitalism, a Love Story, in which she told filmmaker Michael Moore that the 2008 bailout was a "a financial coup d'état."
Kaptur's boldness in opposing the big banks and Wall Street, as well as her passionate advocacy on behalf organized labor, would have been missed, as well, in a Congress that needs all the economic populists it can get.
But losing Kucinich will be hard. In some of the toughest days for the American experiment as a Republican administration plotted to wage a war of whim in Iraq, Democratic "leaders" stood down. It was Dennis Kucinich who spoke up for peace and who kept speaking up with a determination that gave hope to activists across the United States and around the world.
The Republican mapmakers in Ohio may have drawn Dennis Kucinich out of his district, and out of Congress. But they will not draw him out of the history of these times. Indeed, when the story of America in the first years of the 21st century is told, Dennis Kucinich will be remembered as the rare member of Congress who opposed wars that could not be justified, who defended rights that could not be surrendered, who demanded accountability from the presidents and vice presidents who could not be allowed to have their way with the republic.
John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation as its Washington correspondent.
Dennis Kucinich: Conscience of the Congress
Robert Scheer / TruthDig
(March 8, 2012) -- "Dennis will be back, you can count on it; he's on the right side of things." I recall those words from a printer in Cleveland who had rented Dennis Kucinich a room in the back of her plant when that city's former "boy mayor" was living in suddenly reduced circumstances.
He was as sanguine then as he was Tuesday night when I spoke with him by phone about his gerrymandered eviction from the U.S. House of Representatives. Although he had just lost the position he has held for eight terms, by the end of our conversation he was optimistic and promised to continue the fight: "I am not about to abandon what I stand for."
Most of the newly drawn district was made up of the Toledo home base of the fellow Democrat who defeated Kucinich in Tuesday's primary, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, his more conservative colleague in Ohio's congressional delegation. What remained of his Cleveland base, which he carried by 75 percent, was not sufficient to stave off the defeat the Republican-controlled state Legislature had intended when it drew the new boundaries in response to Ohio's loss of two House seats.
Kucinich knew it would be a tough primary fight, especially in the face of unexpected attack ads from his former friend in Congress.
With late returns still coming in Tuesday night, he was already thinking of new ways to energize the public discourse. I lightheartedly offered him a job writing a column for Truthdig paying in the low threes. But I was quick to add that I no longer had that spare studio in Los Angeles where he had spent four months writing a book after previously losing office.
We're all downsizing these days -- unless you're among the bailed-out bankers who are successors of those who four decades ago forced Cleveland into bankruptcy and Kucinich from the mayor's office.
Back in 1979, I interviewed Mayor Kucinich for the Los Angeles Times, where I was working, and for Playboy. The Playboy interview caused him some discomfort with his solid base of Catholic voters, but they and other Clevelanders were warm to his populist instinct, the force that has driven him since his starkly impoverished youth.
That populist passion caused him to rouse the ire of the banking elite that insisted that the city divest its municipal power plant to benefit a huge private power company.
When Kucinich refused to play ball with the downtown banking interests they pulled the plug on Cleveland finances and temporarily derailed his career. But 14 years later the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which has savaged him since his mayoral days, ran a headline conceding "Dennis Was Right" as it belatedly acknowledged that his refusal to sell the plant had provided needed competition to private power, resulting in lower energy costs for consumers.
Dennis early on made a choice to rise politically by faithfully representing his people rather than betraying them, as is the norm in politics. In our Playboy interview he made a joke concerning the criticism of all the idealistic young people who had joined him in administering Cleveland: "The real reason the young people I've appointed have been criticized is that they haven't learned to steal yet. If they learned to take bribes they'd be praised as innovative and bright."
So, too, Kucinich, who has been unfailingly resilient in advocating for the vulnerable, whether they were the working poor in his district or the folks our government bombed throughout the world. He was defeated this week by a fellow House member who prides herself on bringing home government bucks, particularly in defense expenditures. Her pitch to the voters was that her role on the House Appropriations Committee would help keep the pork barrel open, big-city Dem style.
Kucinich never competed in that way. He has been a national symbol of resistance to excessive government power and waste. He also has been a champion of social justice. His has been a rare voice, and one way or another it must continue to be heard. Simply put, when it came to the struggle for peace over war, Dennis was the conscience of the Congress. And he was always at the forefront in defending the rights of unionized workers who once formed the backbone of a solid middle class and who are now threatened with extinction.
Kucinich will surely be back for another turn in public life. As he put it in our Playboy interview:
"I appreciate Woody Allen's humor because one of my safety valves is an appreciation for life's absurdities. His message is that life isn't a funeral march to the grave. It's a polka."
Dance on, Dennis.
Robert Scheer is editor in chief of the progressive Internet site Truthdig. He has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist.