Mayoralty of Dennis Kucinich

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Dennis Kucinich served as mayor of Cleveland, Ohio from 1977 to 1979. The Kucinich administration is often regarded as one of the most tumultuous in Cleveland's history.[1][2] Kucinich relied heavily on confrontation politics as a solution to problems, a style that made him seem bombastic to the general public.[1] His cabinet was often criticized for including members who were too young or inexperienced to handle their respective positions.[1][2] For example, Kucinich appointed 24-year-old attorney Joseph Tegreene as his finance director, a move that alarmed business leaders due to Tegreene's minimal financial experience (eight months as a stockbroker).[2] Kucinich was ranked the 7th worst mayor in US history in a 1993 survey by Melvin G. Holli.[3]

1977 Cleveland mayoral election[edit]

In 1977, Cleveland's mayoral elections became nonpartisan. Initially, Kucinich supported Ralph J. Perk, the incumbent Republican mayor. However, he started to criticize Perk, eventually broke off with him, and began making plans to run for mayor himself. Democratic support went to Edward F. Feighan, who was then a member of the Ohio House of Representatives.[4]

Many expected the real race to be between Kucinich and Feighan battling for the second spot and a run off against Perk. However, by the time of the mayoral primary, it became increasingly difficult for the city to meet its expenses. Some felt the city's publicly owned electric company, Municipal Light (Muny Light) should be sold to a private electric company, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI). Perk agreed to the sale, a move that became one of the most heated election issues during the primary. Both Kucinich and Feighan pounded the mayor on the issue, demanding that the sale be canceled. As a result, Perk finished third behind both candidates.[4]

In his campaign, Kucinich hearkened back to Cleveland's glory days, especially of Tom L. Johnson, the former progressive mayor who governed the city from 1901 to 1909. Kucinich ran on Johnson's populist philosophy, which he felt would ultimately solve the city's problems.[1] Tax abatement became the new issue held against Feighan. As a state representative, Feighan chaired the committee that passed tax abatement legislation in the Ohio House and now was unable to backtrack on the issue. In the general election, Kucinich won with 93,047 votes, against Feighan received 90,074 votes.[4] At 31, he was the youngest mayor of a major city in the United States.[5]

Beginning of administration[edit]

Kucinich's term as mayor began in January 1978, a time when Cleveland and most of Cuyahoga County was suffering from unrelenting snowfall (to the point where the area was considered a "disaster zone"). Additionally on January 26, the worst blizzard in the city's history hit with winds exceeding 100 miles an hour.[6]

Despite this, Kucinich, once in office, moved to reverse actions of the previous Ralph Perk administration that he campaigned against. He rejected a $41 million federal grant for a Urban Mass Transportation Administration people mover to be built in Downtown Cleveland.[2][7] In 1976, Cleveland was one of four cities to receive federal support on such a project. The mayor commented afterwards that the people mover ought to go "back to Disneyland where it belongs."[7] He also vetoed eight ordinances, most of which were tax abatements and subsidies.[2]

The Hongisto feud[edit]

As mayor-elect, Kucinich appointed the former San Francisco sheriff, Richard D. Hongisto as chief of police, a decision he would later come to regret.[6] Hongisto became immensely popular in Cleveland, especially with the city's ethnic Eastern European community. The chief was also popular with the media, especially after Hongisto saved a person from a snow bank during the 1978 snowstorm.[1] However, on March 23, Kucinich publicly suspended Hongisto for refusing to accept civilian control. Hongisto asserted that Kucinich interfered with the operation of the Cleveland Police Department.[2] Specifically, he stated that Kucinich's executive secretary Bob Weissman had pressured him to "punish" Kucinich opponents on City Council and to reward police jobs to Kucinich supporters with "questionable ethics." In turn, Kucinich charged Hongisto with insubordination.[2]

In a press conference televised on Good Friday, Kucinich gave Hongisto 24 hours to back up his charges. Then the mayor fired the chief in front of the live television cameras.[2]

Recall election[edit]

After Hongisto's discharge, both critics and former supporters alike felt that Kucinich's actions against the police were too rash and that his administration was not capable of governing a struggling city. A drive began to remove the mayor from his post through a recall election.

The first recall election in the city's history was set for August 13. Kucinich ended up winning, but by a narrow margin of 236 votes.

Canceling the sale of Municipal Light[edit]

Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) was responsible for numerous violations of federal antitrust law in its attempt to put Municipal Light (also known as Muny Light) out of business. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that CEI blocked Muny Light from making repairs to its generator by lobbying the city council to place restrictive conditions on Muny Light bonds. Because of the delay in repairs, Muny Light had to purchase power. CEI then worked behind the scenes to block Muny Light from purchasing power from other power companies. CEI became the only power company Muny Light could buy from. At that point, CEI began price gouging—sharply increasing (even tripling) the cost of power to Muny Light. As a result, Muny Light began to lose money. CEI went to court to demand that Muny pay $14 million in damages for power it had purchased. Former mayor Ralph Perk had intended to pay that light bill by selling the light system, simultaneously disposing of a $328 million antitrust suit the city had filed against CEI.

The Kucinich administration not only stopped the sale, but also kept the lawsuit alive. CEI went to a United States federal court to get an order attaching city equipment. Kucinich moved quickly to pay the bill by cutting city spending. However, Ohio's largest bank, Cleveland Trust (now part of Key Bank), told Kucinich that they would not renew the city's credit on $15 million of loans taken out by the previous administration unless Kucinich would agree to sell. The Council sided with the banks and pressured the mayor to make the sale, but Kucinich's answer was still "No."

Instead, he proposed saving money by laying off 600 employees, including 400 police officers and firefighters, and proposed a $50 million bond issue to pay the Muny debt to CEI. He even agreed to seek an increase in the city income tax, something he had steadfastly refused in the past.

Council was still adamant. George L. Forbes stated that he "spoke to the chairman of Cleveland Trust and he indicated he could go with the sale of the Municipal Light Plant."

As the week dragged on, the mayor appeared on Good Morning America and repeated his vow not to sell. Three of the six banks that held Cleveland's $14 million in notes presented the notes for redemption at the office of the city treasurer at Cleveland City Hall. They stated that they were willing to listen if the city developed "a financial plan satisfactory to all parties involved." Meanwhile, news reporters from around the nation flocked to Cleveland to watch as the situation intensified.

On December 14 at 11 p.m. (EST), Council met to consider a resolution that only gave Kucinich but one alternative: sell Muny Light or claim default. At the same session, Kucinich handed each Council member a letter advising him or her that he was exercising the right given to him to call the special council meeting. Council refused.

In a dramatic closed-door meeting, Kucinich administration officials, CEI business leaders, and council members packed City Hall and watched the clock as Cleveland became the first major American city to default on its financial obligations since the Great Depression at midnight on December 15, 1978.

The Plain Dealer later revealed that Cleveland Trust and CEI had seven interlocking directors, making Trust CEI's bank. Together with another bank, Cleveland Trust owned a substantial share of CEI stock and had numerous other mutual interests.

The city's surrounding suburbs offered little financial support. Only 12 of the 59 agreed to help in a plan led by University Heights mayor Beryl Rotheschild. These suburbs included Bay Village, Bedford, Fairview Park, Garfield Heights, Lakewood, Maple Heights, Newburgh Heights, North Royalton, Orange, Richmond Heights, University Heights, and Westlake.

On February 27, 1979, a special election was held to decide two ballot issues: the sale of Muny Light and an income tax increase. "I have always opposed unnecessary and unfair tax increases," Kucinich stated in a leaflet distributed throughout Cleveland. "Today I am asking for your support for Issue #2–a 1/2% tax increase–only because Cleveland has no other choice."

Issue #1 failed and Muny Light was never sold. Issue #2 passed, increasing the city's income tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent to provide more revenue. Public power was continued in Cleveland.[8]

1979 mayoral election[edit]

As election season approached, Kucinich decided to run again in the mayoral primary. In April, state senator, Charles Butts announced that he would enter the race. On July 5, council majority leader, Basil Russo joined the race. Finally, after off-and-on remarks of his candidacy, Republican George V. Voinovich, who initially supported Kucinich in 1977, decided to give up his position as lieutenant governor of Ohio to run on July 26.

Unlike the 1977 race, however, there were very few debates. The Plain Dealer endorsed Voinovich while the Cleveland Press endorsed Butts. On primary night at Kucinich headquarters, the band played the theme from Rocky, while Kucinich spoke of the race in the form of a football metaphor: "We are trailing at the half, but what counts is who's winning at the end of the fourth quarter." In the end, the mayor finished second to Voinovich, 47,000 to 36,000 votes.

Most expected a heated campaign between both politicians of Eastern European descent, with Kucinich being a Croat and Voinovich a Serb. Early in the race, Kucinich jumped on a quote that Voinovich made to The New York Times on August 26: "I like fat cats. I want as many in Cleveland as I can get. Cleveland needs their tax dollars and the jobs they bring." In response Kucinich stated: "George Voinovich has proven conclusively...–he is the candidate of the fat cats...and he would love to become the mayor of the fat cats so he can repay their generosity." Part of Kucinich's campaign tactics involved distributing political pamphlets throughout the city entitled "Who Owns Voinovich?" On the cover was an illustration of three fat cats and Voinovich in front of them on his knees with handfuls of money. The cats tell Voinovich that "We will buy you city hall as long as we can run it." The crudely drawn Voinovich responds, "That's all right with me, 'cuz 'I like fat cats.' Besides, I don't really want to be mayor. I want to be governor."

He also appealed to fellow Democrats for support. In response, however, county chairman Tim Hagan stated, "There is no way in hell anyone can call Dennis Kucinich a Democrat." Others were more welcoming of support. "He's unbeatable!" Bob Weissman boasted of his boss. Kucinich also received endorsement by his former foe, Carl B. Stokes, the former mayor of Cleveland and the first African American mayor of a major city. "If Voinovich wins," Stokes said in a November 1979 edition of the Cleveland Press, "the Democrats might as well forget about the state of Ohio in 1980."

However, everything came to a virtual halt when Voinovich's nine-year-old daughter was struck by a van and killed. Kucinich could no longer continue his aggressive campaigning against Voinovich. Polls, which were already leaning in Voinovich's favor, now showed overwhelming support for the former lieutenant governor. On November 6, he won the general election with 94,541 votes to 73,755. Kucinich ended up winning only eight of Cleveland's then-33 wards.

Overview[edit]

Critics of Kucinich's performance as mayor cite the city's economic decline during his stewardship. Kucinich was often satirized in editorials and editorial cartoons as "Dennis the Menace," a reference to the Dennis the Menace comic strip, Kucinich's name and youthful appearance, and his positions, which in that context were often characterized as extremist and anti-business. His confrontational style of politics was also lampooned. One issue of the Cleveland Magazine published in 1979 even featured a lengthy cartoon that depicted Kucinich as an Adolf Hitler-esque dictator. Melvin G. Holli, in consultation with a panel of experts, placed Kucinich among the ten worst big-city mayors of all time in the book, Best and Worst of the Big-City Leaders 1820-1993.

However, Kucinich's supporters say that Kucinich kept his campaign promise of refusing to sell Muny Light to CEI and was brave for not giving into big business. "There is little debate," wrote Cleveland Magazine in May 1996, "over the value of Muny Light today. Now Cleveland Public Power, it is a proven asset to the city that between 1985 and 1995 saved its customers $195,148,520 over what they would have paid CEI." Kucinich's move also preserved hundreds of union jobs. In 1998, city council granted Kucinich amnesty, stating that he had "the courage and foresight to refuse to sell the city's municipal electric system."

Muny Light and CEI in the post-Kucinich era[edit]

During his administration, Kucinich's successor, George Voinovich defended Muny Light as CEI continued making attempts to take it over. CEI itself was subsequently acquired and is now part of FirstEnergy. Muny Light is now known as Cleveland Public Power and is still in city hands, used today throughout parts of Cleveland. After the 2003 North America blackout, First Energy was identified as a contributor to the disaster due to various failures. Kucinich began to advocate for liability proceedings.

Further information: Voinovich and Municipal Light

References[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e The Crisis of Growth Politics: Cleveland, Kucinich, and the Challenge of Urban Populism by Todd Swanstrom ISBN 0-87722-366-1
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h The Plain Dealer, August 1, 1999. Our Century: 'Boy Mayor' Leads Battle Into Default by Fred McGunagle.
  3. ^ Holli, Melvin. "The American Mayor, The Best & The Worst Big-City Leaders". 
  4. ^ a b c 25 Years of Cleveland Mayors: Who Really Governs? by Roldo Bartimole
  5. ^ Kucinich's Hard Childhood A 'Gift' Yielding Strength, Compassion
  6. ^ a b Cleveland: Prodigy of the Western Reserve by George E. Condon ISBN B0006DX6QQ
  7. ^ a b The Battle of Cleveland: Public Interest Challenges Corporate Power by Dan Marschall
  8. ^ Chapman, Audrey S. (May 1996). "Dennis Kucinich: The Story". Cleveland Magazine. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 


Further references on mayoral tenure[edit]

  • The Encyclopedia Of Cleveland History by Cleveland Bicentennial Commission (Cleveland, Ohio), David D. Van Tassel (Editor), and John J. Grabowski (Editor) ISBN 0-253-33056-4
  • Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796-1996 by Carol Poh Miller and Robert Anthony Wheeler ISBN 0-253-21147-6
  • The Crisis of Growth Politics: Cleveland, Kucinich, and the Challenge of Urban Populism by Todd Swanstrom ISBN 0-87722-366-1
  • The Battle of Cleveland: Public Interest Challenges Corporate Power by Dan Marschall
  • Seven Making History: A Mayoral Retrospective by The League of Women Voters of Cleveland
  • 25 Years of Cleveland Mayors: Who Really Governs? by Roldo Bartimole
  • The Plain Dealer, July 11, 1978. Kucinich, Cabinet Walk Out on Council by David T. Abbott.
  • The Cleveland Press, December 15, 1978. Default Time Arrives As The Nation Watches by Peter Phipps.
  • The Cleveland Press, December 15, 1978. Suburbs to Cleveland: Drop Dead!
  • The New York Times, August 26, 1979. Mayor Kucinich Himself Is Issue In Upcoming Cleveland Primary by Edward Schumaker.
  • The Cleveland Press, September 21, 1979. Mayor Accuses Rival On Funding by Walt Bogdanich.
  • The Plain Dealer, August 1, 1999. Our Century: 'Boy Mayor' Leads Battle Into Default by Fred McGunagle.
  • The Plain Dealer, August 7, 1999. Our Century: Muny Survives, But Kucinich Is Out of Power by Fred McGunagle.