I first met Dennis Kucinich in the early days of his Cleveland mayoral campaign in 1977. He had invited me on the phone to spend a day on the trail in his improbable quest to dump Ralph Perk as the beleaguered city’s chief executive. I pecked through the city’s west side in uncertainty before finding his modest home. A few taps on the door and it swung open . A diminutive figure greeted me: “You’re late!” he scolded. (five minutes or so). Little did I realize that it would be the beginning of an epic challenge to a political reporter’s customary life.
We criss-crossed the city, his indefatigable one-man campaign dogging Perk at every stop at high school gyms, churches, diners , ethnic social centers, wherever a crowd could gather for the moment. Kucinich, at 31, was the city’s clerk of courts, knew every brick and cobblestone, and with a master’s thesis from Cleveland State University in confrontation politics, figured there was no better time to clean house than the day he announced his candidacy: he railed against political “crooks,”” denounced banks and utilities, saw little to gain from either political party (in which both Democratic chairmen were preparing to resign); while ferreting out every other scandal that came to mind.
The city and school system were both on life support. Racial tensions were running high from a federal busing order. Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major city, was not easily forgotten by many on both sides of Cuyahoga River, particularly in the Balkanlized nationality neighborhoods. There had been a serious riot. My sources wondered whether Dennis the Menace was certifiably crazy to even consider the top spot at City Hall.
He was the center of storm In a racially divided city led by an old world mayor who proudly considered himself The Ethnic Mayor. (Kucinich is Croatian-Irish). The place had 10 nationality newspapers. Perk had built his in-house cheering section with loyal payrollers Kucinich blistered as “crooks, political hacks and incompetents” wherever he went. The Democrats didn’t like Kucinich nor Perk, a Republican.
Even the Plain Dealer was so caught up in the confusing landscape act it didn’t endorse Kucinich in the primary, but switched to him in the general. a shocking surrender to a runty street warrior, which unsettled the proper readers in Pepper Pike and Hunting Valley. I called Tom Vail, the editor and publisher who longed to live in winner’s circles He was delighted by the attention.”We decided that Dennis was street smart,” Vail told me. expressing confidence that Kucinich, at 31, could handle the city’s many problems..
Kucinich won and with Vail at his side arrived at the PD news room to claim his prize. From that election he went on to win eight terms in the U.S. House and fail two presidential candidacies.
I lost track of him until the old Kucinich was back, now denouncing charter schools with a formal crusade – town halls, press conferences, etc. – against a shadowy system where disorder prevails while private operators generate a lot of taxpayer cash for themselves. Bravissimo! for the old boy wonder at City Hall. He’s ready to pick another brawl.
The history of the well-funded charters is troubled by internal and public fantasies in which the big wallets – $10 billion from the caretaker state since 1999 with no evidence that the millions stripped from public education have been worth the state’s investment. Kucinich is ready to declare the General Assembly “corrupt’ while “public education ’s financial base is being destroyed by private, for-profit corporate interests. When state revenue for public schools decreases because of money which goes to private for-profit charters. public school officials must make the up the difference by asking local property taxpayers for more money…It represents a deliberate, destructive undermining of the public education of Ohio’s children. What is our education philosophy today? Let for-profit corporations exploit the mass of children by controlling the state government?”
I sense that Dennis considers the charter scandal something more than a public disturbance. With him committed to the mix, this one is likely to shake up some fixed notions about our education policies. As a battle -hardened product of Cleveland’s wars, he doesn’t flinch.