Politics & Policy

Dennis’s Menace

Defeat for a congressional punchline?

Cleveland, Ohio – Dennis Kucinich may have dropped out of the presidential race, but his name is still on some Ohio ballots today: The six-term congressman is running for reelection, and if he wants to keep representing his Cleveland-area district, he’ll have to beat a mischievous primary opponent named Joe Cimperman who has been passing out “Missing” posters featuring Kucinich’s picture. Discontent over his preoccupation with presidential politics has prompted the first serious challenge Kucinich has faced since he won his seat in 1996, and it’s not at all clear that he’ll prevail. If he does, though, would it be possible for a Republican to knock off Cleveland’s moon man in November? Jim Trakas thinks so.

Trakas, a former state representative, plans to run against Kucinich in the fall. Over coffee at Hanna Deli in downtown Cleveland, the affable campaigner acknowledges that it will be an uphill climb, but points out several reasons why he’s optimistic enough to try it.

First, he says, “There’s a universal desire from the greater Cleveland business community, as well as the elites in town of all political persuasions, that Congressman Kucinich just hasn’t gotten the job done, so it’s time for somebody new. The question is can you win.” Trakas anticipates that today’s primary will show that he can, by revealing that Kucinich “has been tremendously wounded in the district.”

The primary has given influential Cleveland Democrats a chance to express their impatience with Kucinich’s antics. The Cleveland Plain Dealer endorsed Kucinich’s chief primary rival, Cleveland councilman Joe Cimperman, in an editorial that read, “Dennis Kucinich has finally faced up to reality and shelved his presidential fantasy for at least another four years. Now it is up to the Democrats of the 10th Congressional District to face up to reality and tell him his services are no longer required in Congress, either.” The cover story in the current issue of the left-leaning alt-weekly Cleveland Scene encourages readers to get behind the idea of “Dumping Dennis,” on the grounds that he’s an absentee congressman who has engaged in more quixotic crusades than winnable fights.

Were he Kucinich’s only challenger, Cimperman would probably have the votes to prevail. As it is, he’s just one of four Democrats vying for Kucinich’s seat. Kucinich will benefit from these lesser-known challengers splitting the vote, and it’s likely (though not certain) that his hard-core supporters — ethnic, working-class Cleveland Democrats who see him as one of them — will turn out in big-enough numbers to put him over the top.

Trakas will need a big portion of the Democrats who vote against Kucinich today to vote against Kucinich again in November — even if that means voting for a Republican. He says he plans to win these voters over by running as a “progressive conservative.”

“I don’t mean progressive in the leftist sense,” he adds quickly. “I mean progressive in terms of having different, dynamic ideas, and conservative meaning they have to match with what really works.” For instance, Trakas would depart from traditional conservatism by pushing for more import restrictions on products coming from China and other less-developed countries. Nor would he be shy about steering federal dollars to Ohio for investment in technologies to reduce oil dependence.

On the other hand, Trakas speaks out stridently against the Democrats’ health-care proposals and favors market solutions to the problems of rising costs; he would push for fewer regulations and a lighter tax burden on American businesses; and he opposes cap-and-trade proposals and amnesty for illegal immigrants.

These last two positions put him at odds with likely Republican nominee John McCain, but he says he’s happy to have McCain on the ticket: “Senator McCain helps me in my district, because he’s viewed as more moderate and willing to accommodate Democratic ideals, and this is a Democratic-leaning district,” Trakas says. As for progress in Iraq, McCain’s main issue, Trakas says, “I’m proud to run on the victory bandwagon.”

He says the people in his district “want to win. They may have disagreed with going to war, and maybe they don’t like the way the war has been prosecuted. But they don’t want to lose. And Dennis Kucinich and Barack Obama are trying to outbid each other as to how big the white flag of surrender is going to be.”

When I ask which Democrat he’d prefer to see at the top of the ticket, Trakas argues that it won’t affect his race that much. “My race is really with Congressman Kucinich… it won’t have the same trends” as the rest of the country. “I think the Democratic party could gain Senate and House seats, and I could win.

“The fact is, he’s got 100-percent name recognition and most of it’s negative,” Trakas says. “So you don’t have to raise $2 million. You just have to reinforce that you’re a viable alternative, and I won’t have to go a long way to point out flaws in Congressman Kucinich. He’s done that on his own very successfully.”

It’s not just Kucinich’s bizarre behavior, either. It’s things like his abrupt 180 “from being endorsed by Ohio right-to-life to supporting government-paid-for, partial-birth abortions,” Trakas says. “I don’t even have to talk about stuff like that. It speaks for itself.”

As we’re wrapping up the interview, Joe Cimperman, the Democrat challenging Kucinich, stops by the deli to shake hands with some men sitting at the bar, and soon he and Trakas are greeting each other like old friends and laughing over something that happened at one of their recent debates. When Trakas sits back down, he shakes his head, gives me a wry smile and says something to the effect of, “If that guy wins, it’s all over.”

And it’s true. Cleveland should be a safe Democratic seat, and probably will be even if Kucinich wins today. But Kucinich has alienated Cleveland voters on both sides of the political spectrum to a degree that is hard to grasp until you come here and talk to Clevelanders, who have had enough of the UFO sightings, the strange diets, the loony pacifism, and the hopelessly doomed presidential campaigns. Frankly, as they will tell you, the town has enough problems without being represented by a walking punchline.

  – Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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