Kucinich: fervently unconventional

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Dressed in a long black overcoat, looking a little like a wizened wizard from the snowy New Hampshire woods, Dennis Kucinich strides confidently into a chilly toolshed at Derek Owen's 200-acre organic farm. As he stops to survey the 30 or so locals who have come to hear him speak, he grins: These are his people.

There's Mr. Owen - his gray mutton-chop beard still flecked with snow - holding dirty yellow work gloves as he extends his greeting. His green cap, stuck with a feather, reads, "Farm Here to Eternity." Over there, in the corner, is Mark Lathrop, the burly proprietor of the Monadnock Hemporium, wearing a broad-brimmed leather cowboy hat. He's a fierce advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana. Opposite him, near the door, stands Elizabeth Obelenus, smiling. She's the tall office manager for the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the informal sponsor of the talk tonight, and she's most worried about the unknown dangers of genetically modified organisms.

They're all applauding. "Good job last night!" says one of an older couple near the pegboard on the wall. "You were our hero!" the other adds. As the diminutive Cleveland congressman shakes their hands and nods, he tells them he's been hearing the same all day. He'd created a bit of a buzz the night before after lashing out at Ted Koppel, the moderator of the debate in nearby Concord, and scolding him for focusing on polls and endorsements rather than important issues.

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Like his nonconformist audience this evening, Mr. Kucinich is a candidate with quirks. A strict vegan, he would hardly be the type to throw a Crawford, Texas, barbecue. A skilled ventriloquist, he keeps a dummy in his office to entertain school kids who visit him on field trips. Twice divorced, he recently went on an early-morning blind date with a woman who had beaten out 79 others in a "Who Wants to Be a First Lady" contest, put on by the website PoliticsNH.com.

And though he comes from the Rust Belt shores of Lake Erie, he often speaks more as a New England transcendentalist, straight from Walden Pond. "We need to be certain that we have agricultural policies that are rooted in a philosophy which connects us to the power of nature itself," Kucinich tells the bundled-up country folk gathered in the shed. "We need to recognize the important role agriculture plays - like Derek's cap says, 'Farm Here to Eternity.' "

One of his top priorities as president, he explains, would be to break up the big corporations that control the food supply and threaten the small farmers who have long been the foundation of American democracy. In the same 19th-century vein, Kucinich often urges his audiences to read Emerson's "Self-Reliance," an essay he says he's read at least once a year since he was a boy. "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string," he often quotes. "To believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius."

Nonconformists, however, are by definition few and far between, and Kucinich is near the bottom of the polls. Beyond this band of pastoral farmers, few have even heard of Dennis Kucinich - "Is he the one with the ears?"

Yet it's become a refrain as he travels the well-worn New Hampshire campaign trail: When people do hear him speak, many admire his passion and "spin free" fervor. As co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Kucinich has been one of the most outspoken liberal voices in the Democratic Party. Since he stakes out positions that a more cautious candidate might consider, well, politically eccentric, some voters find him both curious and refreshing - though they think he cannot win. "The others, they're all so boring - except for Kucinich," says Ms. Obelenus. "Sure, he's a long shot, but at first you've got to vote on principle, don't you?" But then, hesitating, she asks with a worried tone, "Do you think I'm throwing away my vote?"

As an unabashed liberal, Kucinich stands apart from the other candidates. Earnest as a prophet, he proclaims the need for a single-payer national healthcare system - as do Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun. But he is the only to have offered a congressional bill, outlining a concrete plan. And while Howard Dean has been an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq, Kucinich is the only candidate to have actually cast a vote against the resolution approving the US invasion. He also continues to call for the immediate withdrawal of US troops.

He also proclaims he would extend free public education all the way through college (which he implies would be paid for by reducing the Pentagon budget and repealing the Bush tax cuts), decriminalize marijuana, and ban genetically modified organisms. He also envisions a cabinet-level Department of Peace, which would, according to his platform, redirect 1 percent of the Pentagon budget to "establish non-violence as an organizing principle in both domestic and international affairs."

Though most find such ideas audacious, they rarely find Kucinich politically calculating or insincere, and this has won him a number of admirers.

Momentary boost

The next day, as Kucinich bounds up the steps of the Simon Center at New England College, Eleanor Kjellman stands beaming on the porch above him, waiting to shake his hand.

The blue campaign button on her coat is blazoned with CLARK04, but while watching the nine candidates debate, she, too, had been most impressed by the strength and poise of the Ohio congressman. Kjellman and her husband, John, both longtime residents in Henniker, were so thrilled they came to offer a show of support.

"We just wanted to thank you for speaking out the other night," she says as Kucinich hops up and clasps her outstretched hand. "You really took charge there and said what needed to be said." Still, while the Kjellmans smile and explain how the others lack his earnest, no-nonsense style, they later concede Kucinich "probably doesn't have a chance" - and that they don't intend to stop supporting Wesley Clark.

Call it voter sophistication or just a sympathetic respect for a futile, quixotic campaign, but so far, many of his new admirers haven't become actual supporters. Although he has raised about $5 million this year - a respectable amount for his type of campaign - this is far less than top-tier candidates like Dr. Dean, and Kucinich's poll numbers languish at 1 to 3 percent.

Still, he has overcome enormous obstacles throughout his life. The oldest of seven children, Kucinich grew up in an Ohio family that struggled with poverty. They moved to 21 places - "including a couple cars," he says - by the time he was 17. And despite being a flyweight 5-foot-6 kid in high school, he went out for football and made third-string quarterback.

He entered politics at a very young age, winning a seat on the Cleveland City Council when he was 23. Eight years later, in 1977, he ran for mayor and became the youngest person ever to head a major US city. After hiring and then firing a popular police chief, however, he barely survived a recall a year later.

While mayor, he also refused to sell the city-owned utility, Muny Light. A number of the city's creditors were demanding he sell the power company to a private competitor, and when Mayor Kucinich refused, they called in $15 million of Cleveland's debt, plunging the city into default. Kucinich lost the next election.

Over a decade later, most observers believed his refusal to sell Muny saved taxpayers more than $200 million. The stage was set for a political comeback. Using a light bulb as his campaign symbol, Kucinich won a seat in the Ohio State Senate in 1994 and then a seat in the US House in 1996. In 2002, he won his district with 74 percent of the vote.

An overt spirituality

There is a mystical quality to the boyish Cleveland congressman, and he may be the most overtly spiritual of the Democratic candidates. Some have described him as fiery, but when his oratory becomes animated, it can seem more an enlivened gentleness. He often pauses when he speaks - long pauses with vacant stares that seem like contemplation. Indeed, in his introductions at campaign appearances, he always tells his audience that his politics is grounded in "a spiritual sense of the interconnectedness of the world," and he nearly always invokes the Gospels in explaining the themes of his campaign.

"With all those who understood the deeper meaning of the Gospels in Matthew 25, when Christ said, 'When I was hungry did you feed me? When I was homeless did you shelter me?' and then went on to say, 'Whatever you did for the least of my brethren, you did for me' - that's the interconnectedness," he said in an interview with the Monitor. "That is the leitmotif of interconnectedness, right there, it says it all. And so my work in public life resounds with that connection to higher principles and with an understanding of the power of the human heart."

Growing up Roman Catholic, Kucinich pored over the Scriptures in Latin, studied the lives of the saints, and read the economic issues reflected in papal encyclicals. He also became very influenced by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers Movement. Spiritual principles, he believes, can transform the material world.

"My politics derives an understanding from this," Kucinich explains. "While our fathers understood well the importance of the separation of church and state, they never meant America to be separate from spiritual values. Spiritual values can improve our own health, our spirit, our nation, and the world."

In many ways, Kucinich taps into a unique form of American optimism, rooted in spiritual principles. His rhetoric often echoes the famous image first preached by the Puritan leader John Winthrop, who proclaimed that America would become a "city upon a hill" if its people remained obedient to God's commands.

"It is your light which will shine in the darkness," he proclaimed to workers at a union rally earlier this year. "It is you who will lay the foundation for ages to come. It is you who will repair the breach. It is you who will lead the American Restoration."

At the union hall

It's just after noon, and some 300 lunch-pail workers are gathered at the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Hall in Hooksett. In an adjacent room, Kucinich has that nervous look people get before speaking. He tugs at his cuffs, straightens his tie, and sets his jaw in determination.

Just as he's about to stride into the rally, however, the union leader at the podium yells, "Is Governor Dean in the building? No?" It seems the Democratic front-runner is making an unplanned stop. He'll speak first, so Kucinich must wait.

When Dean finally arrives, he's beaming like a rooster, leading an entourage of almost 60 reporters - TV people with boom mikes and cameras. It's a very different type of scene now.

When Dean leaves, many of the union workers leave, too. Kucinich's crowd is down to less than 200 - plus the six or so newspaper reporters following him.

As he takes the podium and surveys the room, Kucinich pauses. He considers these his people, too. "Brothers and sisters," he says as he pulls out his AFL-CIO membership card from his wallet, "there's a lot of alligator tears being shed for the 'poor workers,' but who's addressing these issues about what we need to do about NAFTA and the WTO?"

The crowd is tepid at first, but slowly, as Kucinich's voice begins to rise, they start to cheer. Soon, they erupt and yell as the gentle wizard before them gestures with his index finger and proclaims the rights of workers: "It's about the right to decent wages and benefits, the right to a safe workplace, the right to a secure retirement. It's about electing a president you can call your own, and that's me!"

The crowd is buzzing. One man turns to another and says, "Wow, he was great!" The button on his coat, however, reads "Organized Labor for Gephardt."

The Kucinich File

Born: Dennis John Kucinich, Oct. 8, 1946.

Parents: Frank, a truck driver; and Virginia.

Religion: Roman Catholic.

Family: Married and divorced twice; he has one daughter, Jackie, 21 [from 2nd marriage].

Education: BA, speech communications, Case Western Reserve University, 1973; MA, communication sciences, Case Western, 1974.

Itineracy: Lived in 21 places by age 17, including back seats of cars, and spent five months in a Catholic orphanage with his siblings while in the sixth grade. He moved into an apartment at the beginning of high school, to escape a chaotic family life.

Previous occupations: Worked as a caddie to help pay his tuition at St. John Cantius, a private Catholic high school in Cleveland; Municipal courts clerk, 1976-77; radio talk-show host, 1979; lecturer, 1980-83; media consultant, 1986-94; television reporter, 1989-92; also worked as a copy editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Wall Street Journal, and as a surgical technician at Cleveland's St. Alexis Hospital.

Military history: None. He was declared ineligible for the draft due to a heart murmur.

Diet: He's a vegan - a strict vegetarian who avoids all animal and dairy products.

Favorite song: 'Imagine' by John Lennon.

Political highlights:

• Cleveland City Council, 1970-75 (elected at age 23).

• Cleveland mayor, 1977-79 (elected at age 31 and was called the 'boy mayor'; survived a recall effort by 236 votes).

• Ohio State Senate, 1994-96.

• Member of the US House of Representatives, 1996-present.

• Chair of Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Campaign touchstones:

• Would eliminate NAFTA and the World Trade Organization.

• Wants to make healthcare and education constitutional rights.

• Proposes a 15 percent cut in Pentagon spending and a 'Department of Peace.'

• Supports gay marriage as 'a fundamental civil rights issue.'

• Supports abortion rights, though he once opposed abortion.

Key legislative positions:

• Opposed the Iraq war; has urged President Bush to withdraw all American soldiers from Iraq and cede control to the UN.

• Opposed Bush's proposal for $87 billion to fund Iraq and Afghanistan operations.

• Critic of the USA Patriot Act, sweeping antiterror legislation post-9/11.

Sources: Compiled from wire services, CNN, Slate, San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily Oklahoman, The New York Times, The Des Moines Register, The Washington Post, Austin American-Statesman, Chicago Tribune, Cleveland Plain Dealer.

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