Dennis Kucinich has decided not to run for Congress from Washington State, he said in an e-mail sent to supporters Wednesday evening. After nine consecutive terms, a nice run, he will leave Congress in January. Squeezed out by redistricting in Ohio, earlier this year he jumped into the Democratic primary in the district that on the new map came closest to matching his old District 10, which had covered the West Side of Cleveland and surrounding suburbs. He lost to 15-term incumbent Marcy Kaptur in March.
The political obituaries that followed were actually premature. For about a year, ever since the completion of the redistricting process, Kucinich had been looking into what his possibilities might be in Washington, which gained a congressional seat after the 2010 census — and where the political climate was more suited to his peace-and-justice brand than in, say, Texas, which gained four seats. He found some support at the grass roots in the Evergreen State but was embarrassed when the state chairman of the Democratic party issued a press release saying, “Keep Kucinich, Send Us the Cavs.”
“Dennis Kucinich has spent his life fighting for the little guy,” Cleveland Scene, a left-leaning weekly, wrote back in 2003 after he announced he was running for president, “and that little guy is Dennis.”
Opportunistic, sanctimonious New Age windbag? Sure, if you’re talking about the stock character who walked onto the national stage about ten years ago.
In Cleveland, though, his natural habitat, people perceive him differently. There he will always be the “boy mayor” of the late 1970s, when the city fell into default, he narrowly survived a recall election, the Mafia tried to kill him, and . . . Nobody remembers anymore the exact order of events. Chaos ensued from incompetence. City Hall was a zoo. You got the impression that the mayor was your younger brother way in over his head. Quick, somebody get him out of there before he hurts himself and blows the rest of us up.
If you watched it on the local news from a safe distance in the suburbs, it was reality-show entertainment before its time. He and his archrival, the city council president, George Forbes, would go at it over issues that everyone assumed were only the seasoning to the red meat, which was the business of continuing what felt like a thousand years’ war between East Side and West Side and, the city being de facto segregated, between black and white.
Kucinich has faced accusations that he played the race card in those early, hardscrabble days of his political career. Yes? And what if he did? So said Forbes, in effect, many years later: “[Kucinich] played to his constituency, and I played to mine. But out of all that,” he insisted, “I can tell you right now that he was not a racist.”
The boy mayor was mayor for two years, but it felt like twenty. Asked on national TV about the growing sense that he was a lame duck, he responded with a single syllable: “Quack.” He did lose his reelection bid in 1979, to George Voinovich, who later went on to represent Ohio for two terms in the U.S. Senate.
After living in California for a few years, where he became friends with Shirley MacLaine and presumably took his first lessons in how to speak Left Coast, Kucinich returned to Cleveland and served briefly on the city council before heading west again, to New Mexico, to find “meaning.”
Cleveland soon called him back, as it tends to do. In 1996 he ran for and was elected to Congress. He inherited the constituency that for ten terms elected Mary Rose Oakar, whose pro-life voting record was consistent with, not a contradiction of, her profile as a liberal Democrat. At least that’s how she was understood on her home turf. No one uses the term “seamless-garment Catholic” much anymore, but it was useful shorthand for how in the years immediately after Roe v. Wade certain liberal instincts — to oppose war, to defend the weak — led some on the left straight into the anti-abortion camp.
Kucinich picked up that baton and ran with it nicely for about four terms. Then, on the eve of his announcement in 2003 that he was running for president in the Democratic primaries, he flipped, declaring himself pro-choice. He may well have concluded that his being a peacenik pro-life liberal Democrat would have been too interesting and too hard to explain to national media. And it was an identity unlikely to go over well in parts of the country that are unlike northeast Ohio, which is as socially conservative as it is pro-labor, a pair of attributes that in the larger context of American politics don’t easily cohere.
You can take the boy out of Cleveland, but can you take the Cleveland out of the boy? At 65, Kucinich is now looking to “serve from outside Congress.” Having risen from local to national fame, he may find the prospect of serving from Cleveland a step backward. Is that really where he would find the meaning that he went searching for in the desert all those years ago? Maybe not, although it may be where he stands the best chance of finding himself.