Kucinich is Back…in Cleveland

Dennis Kucinich has come out with a timely new book that has people talking. You may have followed him at any point during his long and controversial political career — as the youngest mayor of Cleveland (1977–1979) as a U.S. congressman (1997 -2013) and as a presidential candidate (2004 and 2008). Now he takes us on a journey into his evolution as a politician, and the lessons he learned from taking on the powers -that -be in America’s “No 3 Corporate City,” (Cleveland being a major base for US corporations).He spent two years writing The Division of Light and Power with a singular aim: “to provide an inside look at how power really functions at the level of city politics.” He delivers with a tour-de-force exposé of deeply-imbedded corruption in Cleveland — while getting you to think about what is happening in your own backyard.

Understanding power, this reviewer believes, has long escaped the attention of most people (especially the powerless, and I include women in this category) because they have been kept from it, or they steer clear of it because they know that power corrupts. Kucinich’s book is a welcome primer, told in very human, easily understood terms. It is centered around a David v. Goliath struggle to save a municipally-owned utility company from corporate predators and their devious efforts to increase utility rates to improve their profits. Fast-paced and well documented, it’s also essential reading for anyone who wants to enter the fray with the aim of challenging Old Boy networks in order to bring about essential changes that meet the needs of the people.

To a certain degree, Kucinich had street smarts going for him. Growing up in the inner city, he easily recognized “the hustlers, the practiced deceivers“ in his neighborhood. But once he got involved in city politics, he soon discovered a whole new level of skullduggery.

Most people don’t think about what goes on at the municipal level, Kucinich says, but it is important to do so in order to understand why people are paying high electric bills, why their taxes are unfair, and why some people get lucrative connections and others don’t. City Hall, he says, is not just the building; it’s a web of hidden relationships that, in the case of Cleveland, involved a major bank, a private utility company, and their connections to most of the manufacturers in the city.

The lessons he learned went way beyond city politics, however. During my interview with him, I had mentioned that many people best knew him for his stands as a U.S. congressman against George W. Bush’s illegal war in Iraq. He admitted that his successful battle to save Cleveland’s publicly owned Division of Light and Power (aka Muni Light) from a corporate takeover actually prepared him “to challenge the war in Iraq, and to have a better understanding of not just its complexities, but the deceit that underpinned US foreign policy.”

So Cleveland was his proving ground.

Dennis Kucinich today. Photo property of Dennis Kucinich

How it all began

The book opens with this young, wet -behind- the- ears councilman being welcomed by fellow city councilors anxious to show him “how things are done.” They advise him, with “restrained congeniality,” that he’s in for a lucrative ride, with many side benefits — provided he learns how to play the game. “There was a general claim to emoluments,” he writes, in which “members could access at the right place, the right time, or by cutting the right deal with the right person.” Then there were the people he witnessed wearing expensive suits who liked to hang around the Council offices — much more than Council officials did — who were on the “hunt for money and privilege but on an exponentially larger scale.”

It wasn’t long before Kucinich discovered that larger scale, prompted by a city-wide blackout on Memorial Day that forced him to contend with one of Cleveland’s biggest players, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, or CEI. It’s game, he discovered, was to engineer blackouts, often during holidays, to convince the public that CEI’s municipally owned competitor, Muny Light, was responsible for the blackout and thus had to be sold…and privatized. To his growing disgust, CEI’s pressure campaign had succeeded in “winning over a sympathetic mayor, a cooperative news media, and an uncanny knack for capitalizing on Muny Light’s blackouts.”

It became clear to him that most of Cleveland’s councilors had become cynical servants of corporate lobbyists. As one councilman told him, “You can’t do business with [these] people thinking they are lying to you all the time.” In other words, go with the flow and don’t ask questions. Kucinich admits he was over his head, “not knowing the ways of business competition. I was learning that anything goes in the pursuit of money and power.”

But what CEI’s supporters hadn’t reckoned on was this boyish looking councilman digging in his heels, determined to fight back in order to save Muny Light — and, most importantly, save its lower utility rates (20% lower than CEI’s) for Cleveland’s residents.

Once he became mayor, Kucinich gained a fuller understanding of how CEI had unleashed “a military- type strategy on the city of Cleveland.” It began, he explains “with a form of corporate espionage, of interfering with the finances of the city, and interfering in the operations of the municipal electric system causing blackouts on the system.” They had a plan, he discovered. Part of that plan, apparently, was to enlist the services of the mob, which proceeded to carry out an assassination plot against him. It obviously failed, but it goes to show how far a corporation will go to preserve its profit margin and gain leverage over its competitors.

How to Fight City Hall…from the inside

In the book Kucinich narrates, in diary- like fashion, his steep learning curve on every page, dropping nuggets of insight like “The toughest part of politics is worrying about what people think…how could you stand up and fight for those things you know are true — and remain in office?”) Seeking outside help proved invaluable. He credits the assistance of a Cleveland attorney, Milt Schulman, who “helped propel my early Council career” by providing “documents on land frauds, corrupt federal programs, and capital development boondoggles.” One of them was Cleveland’s Justice Center, which was going to cost the taxpayers $62 million, then $120 million, then $200 million. “It’s anything but justice,” Schulnan explained. “It’s about law firms, bond counsels, underwriters, investors, rating services and Wall Street.” And, he insisted, “it wasn’t even needed.”

By taking copious notes (first as a councilman and later as mayor) Kucinich memorialized his daily encounters with Cleveland’s powers-that-be. By doing his homework ahead of a meeting, he was able to counter arguments that selling Muni was best for the city. “You have to be assiduous in gathering information and documenting it,” he advises, “so you can ask the right questions and come up with the right conclusions.” All too often, you will discover that you have been lied to. That doesn’t mean you have to accept the deceits. Kucinich silently adopted the stance, “Who died and made you Mayor, Mr. Bank. Mr. Utility?”

On many different levels, this book will resonate with readers. For example, I was reminded of what happened in Vermont, when its then-Governor, Peter Shumlin, discovered that officials with the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant had lied to him about underground pipes leaking radioactive tritium. Shumlin exposed the lies with the help of an enlightened press, angry protestors and Vermont legislators, all forcing the aging plant to close.

One of Mayor Kucinich’s “aha moments” occurred when his law director told him about a congressional study, done more than a decade before he came into office, showing that Cleveland Trust, the city’s largest bank, “owned, either directly or indirectly, a substantial part of industries in the Cleveland area.” It had, in short, “built a banking empire based on financing, manufacturing and utilities.” By taking on CEI, the mayor was taking on the whole corporate establishment in Cleveland. This helped explain why Cleveland’s banks reneged on a deal in which the people of Cleveland, in order to save Muny Light, were willing to pay off debts incurred under a previous administration. Instead, Cleveland Trust “kept us in default — and this was used to defeat us in the 1979 elections.”

The ties between Cleveland Trust and CEI “went beyond interlocking directorates,” he explains. “Cleveland Trust was one of CEI’s top stockholders and would have profited directly from the takeover of Muny Light…adding 46,000 customers to CEI’s accounts.” CEI, meanwhile, owed millions to the bank for a nuclear power building program that was in trouble.

By disclosing the previously hidden study of CEI, the mayor was able to persuade some local reporters to take a closer look at CEI and the money trail that led to the highest levels in America’s “Number Three Corporate City.” Several reporters lost their jobs for criticizing CEI. A reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Robert Holden, was taken off the beat after CEI called one of the paper’s editors and suggested his reporting was not going to be fair. A turning point occurred when Holden’s fellow reporters, disgusted by the Plain Dealer’s internal corruption, rebelled and forced the paper to look at the court files on CEI, revealing all of its high-level connections and dirty tricks.

“Keep in mind,” he reflects, “that my own education was not in the intricacies of Wall Street. I didn’t grow up thinking about interlocking directorates. I was more schooled in how poverty interlocked with not having a roof over your head.”

Kucinich’s Armor

Kucinich attributes his sense of mission to his working class background.

He grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood, the oldest of 7 children and the son of a truck driver who worked hard but could barely make rent. Remarkably, as the family got larger, it had to move 21 times by the time he was age 17. He remembers the scene of the Sheriff knocking on the door with an eviction notice, and belongings being thrown out on the curbstone. On one occasion his family had to sleep in a car. All around him he saw people being cheated as they tried to pay exorbitant bills and survive. But one of his sharpest memories was watching his parent drop pennies into a jar so they could pay the electric bill. The click, click, click of the pennies became a constant reminder as he fought to save Muny Light.

His father enjoyed mixing with all sorts of people in the neighborhood and often told his family what he had learned– something Kucinich would incorporate into his political life by going door to door and listening to constituents about their problems. His mother taught him how to read at age 3, and from then on, he was reading “everything I could get my hands on.” He continues to be an avid reader, and in Division mentions books that influenced his political thinking about corruption, notably Plunkitt of Tamany Hall (a textbook on graft. “I see my opportunities and I take them,)” The Book of Daniel, (“King Nebuchadnezzar decreed whoever does not fall down and worship will, at the same moment, be thrown into the fiery furnace”) and My Story, perhaps the most influential, written by Cleveland’s turn of the century mayor, Tom Johnson, who founded Muny Light and who espoused public ownership of public services, warning “If you do not own them, they will own you. They will corrupt your politics, rule your institutions, and finally destroying your liberties.”

Kucinich was educated in Catholic schools and was particularly indebted to the teachings of one Sister Helena, who combined her own sense of street smarts with lessons in how to function in society, “by being honest and being ethical and acting with integrity.” She had “everything to do with how I looked at my responsibilities as a public official,” he told me, recalling a particular incident in which she disciplined an unruly classroom by having students write a poem called “The Minute” 50 times as homework. Kucinich can recite it word for word today, noting that the poem’s simple message is to be mindful of the consequences of every action you take, minute by minute. “She was my spirit guide,” he says, while relaying an incident that happened when someone showed him a suitcase full cash, intended for a candidate he was supporting. “Sister Leona was there at this moment.” He turned the money away, remembering that “we have to have some principles, a code of ethics to live by. “

The Division of Light and Power, he hopes, will be important for people today who are concerned about corporate corruption and attempts to overthrow democratic governance, or are faced with the challenges of privatization. Once the American renewal plan money runs out, he warns, “these corporations will be licking their chops, reaching out to acquire electric systems, water systems, sewer systems, other city services in order to capitalize on them. They will charge the public much more than people are ordinarily paying, with higher profits going to shareholders, increased dividends, and higher salaries for executives. We are at the threshold of a fight to protect a small ‘d’ democratic tradition of public ownership,” he concludes, and “this book will assist people to take a stand and defend the public interest in their own community.”

Having shown his readers how to take on the powerful, he is now gearing up for yet another run for office. In June, he announced he was again running for Mayor of Cleveland after Mayor Frank Jackson announced he would not seek a fifth term. “The message of my career to the young people here is never quit,” Kucinich said. “My approach has always been to keep hope alive. My hope is to once again be of service to the people of this community.”

You can follow his campaign at www.Kucinich.com.

Charlotte Dennett is an investigative journalist. Her most recent book, now out in paperback, is Follow the Pipelines: Uncovering the Mystery of a Lost Spy and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil.