Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards may be the Democratic frontrunners, but make no mistake: Liberal activists love Dennis Kucinich. The editors of the Nation say the long-shot presidential candidate "comes closest to embodying the ideals of this magazine," celebrating the fact that "Kucinich has used his presidential campaigns to champion issues like cutting the military budget and abolishing nuclear weapons; universal, single-payer healthcare; campaign finance reform; same-sex marriage and an end to the death penalty and the war on drugs."
Ohio's Tenth Congressional District, which Kucinich has represented for six terms, may be heavily Democratic but few of those positions would poll well there. Faced with a congressman whose interests and ideology increasingly lie outside the district, some Cleveland natives are getting restless. "Who is minding the store and doing my business in Washington while he is flittering around the world?" Lakewood's George Stragisher memorably asked the Cleveland Plain Dealer in late September.
As he campaigns in Iowa, Kucinich faces no fewer than five opponents back home -- three of them current or former elected officials. Both North Olmsted Mayor Tom O'Grady and ten-year Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman have jumped into the Democratic primary, joining perennial candidate Barbara Ferris and antiwar activist Rosemary Palmer.
"I'm running because I want results," Cimperman said in his announcement speech earlier this month. "I'm tired of the rhetoric and empty promises. I'm running for congressman because it's the only job I want." While Kucinich describes himself to Hawaii Democrats as "the aloha candidate," Cimperman uses a different phrase: "out of touch."
The complaints from Kucinich's first declared Republican challenger are similar. Jim Trakas, a former majority whip in the Ohio House of Representatives -- and, in the interest of full disclosure, an old friend and former boss during my stint at Cuyahoga County Republican headquarters a decade ago -- also questions the incumbent's effectiveness.
"I actually like Dennis personally," Trakas told TAS. "He has a great Horatio Alger story. But when it comes to saving steel companies and hospitals or just protecting jobs and economic growth in the district, he really hasn't delivered. And I think people are starting to wonder if he is the same Dennis they knew and sent to Washington."
KUCINICH IS PERHAPS best known for his remarkable political comeback after leading Cleveland into bankruptcy during his tenure as the city's "Boy Mayor." (Trakas formally kicked off his campaign on the anniversary of the city going into default.) Yet his transformation from working-class favorite of lunch-bucket Democrats to darling of the latte-sipping set has been almost as noteworthy.
Since his election to Congress, Kucinich has moved to the left on social issues. Shortly before his ill-fated 2004 presidential bid, he flip-flopped from pro-life to pro-choice on abortion. He went so far as to promise he would nominate any gay, lesbian or transsexual person to the Supreme Court "as long as they were ready to uphold Roe v. Wade."
In place of his past social conservatism, Kucinich now backs legislation making Spanish a second official language of the United States. He favors reparations to black Americans for slavery and to Iraqis for the Iraq war. Kucinich would slash defense spending and create a Cabinet-level Department of Peace.
Trakas points out that this liberal philosophy has pushed the Democratic incumbent far from the mainstream on the war against terror. Kucinich was the only member of Congress who voted against a resolution remembering the victims of the 9/11 attacks, following on the heels of his trip to Damascus for a visit with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Kucinich's local critics aren't impressed with his shuttle diplomacy or national progressive leadership. Deborah Sutherland, the Republican mayor of Bay Village, has called his presidential campaign "a distraction." Parma Heights Mayor Marty Zanotti, Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan, and Parma Mayor Dean DePiero, all Democrats, have questioned Kucinich's effectiveness as a congressman. "I'm glad Dennis has significant opposition," Zanotti told Cleveland's WKYC. "I think he has taken the district for granted."
WHETHER THE OPPOSITION is significant enough remains to be seen. Kucinich defeated Barbara Ferris in the 2006 Democratic primary with over 76 percent of the vote. He went on to win 66 percent against Republican Mike Dovilla. After similar local complaints about Kucinich's failed presidential bid in 2004, some observers -- including me -- wondered if Republican Ed Herman might have a chance. Kucinich won easily, drawing 60 percent.
In the primary, the four challengers might split the anti-Kucinich vote. In the general election, the Plain Dealer's Brent Larkin recently argued that the GOP has no chance to carry the district.
Seasoned opponents like O'Grady, Trakas, and Cimperman nevertheless sense an opportunity against an incumbent who agrees with the Nation more than his district and who is as likely to campaign in Hawaii as Lakewood or Parma Heights. They each hope to remind Kucinich that aloha can also mean goodbye.
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