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Kucinich's hard childhood a 'gift' yielding strength, compassion

By LYNN OKAMOTO
Register Staff Writer
09/07/2003

Cleveland, Ohio - Dennis Kucinich's unsinkable optimism stems from a poor and chaotic childhood in which he lived in 21 places, including the back seats of cars, and spent a holiday season in an orphanage.

"That childhood actually prepared me for just about anything," said Kucinich, 56, an Ohio congressman who is one of nine Democratic presidential candidates. "It was a gift that remains as a great source of strength today, and a gift of compassion for understanding the kind of stuff that people can go through."

Kucinich is hailed by supporters as a fighter for the little guy and champion of grass-roots politics, even as critics point to his weak fund-raising and poll showings, and say he should step out of the race.

"For him to understand where the rest of us have been, are now and could be - that gives him such an insight that the George Bushes of the world could never understand," said Janice Lascko, a military veteran and single mother of three who works at the American Legion in Cleveland.

The eldest of seven children in a family of Croatian-Irish heritage, Kucinich remembers the difficulty his parents had finding a place to live. His father was a truck driver and his mother a homemaker. They never owned a house and were considered to have too many children for most apartments, so the family was sometimes evicted.

When Dennis Kucinich was in the sixth grade, caring for the children got to be too much for his mother, and she fell sick. Kucinich and his siblings were sent to a Catholic orphanage called Parmadale that Thanksgiving Day, and they spent the next five months there.

"It was a time when no one else would take us in," said Kucinich's brother, Gary, who manages a car dealership in Cleveland. "I remember that being a sad time because we were separated from both of our parents and were in very unfamiliar surroundings."

From those humble beginnings came a man who once dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Dennis Kucinich found himself drawn to politics when President Kennedy challenged Americans: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

"I really felt that as a call to service," said Kucinich, who was 14 at the time. "When he spoke in his inaugural about the torch being passed to a new generation, everyone who was 13, 14 years old felt he was talking to them."

As he entered high school, Kucinich moved into an apartment to escape the chaos of his family life. He worked as a caddie to help pay for attending St. John Cantius, a private Catholic high school in Cleveland. Classmates say he didn't talk much about his home life, but loved sports and took part in the school newspaper, yearbook, plays and the debate team.

"He was an opinionated person even then," said JoAnn Koneval, a classmate who now works on the Kucinich campaign. "He did say that someday he would be president."

Kucinich was elected to the Cleveland City Council at the age of 23. And in 1977, he became mayor at the age of 31 - so young that he was dubbed "the boy mayor."

His two-year term was controversial and almost led to his being recalled. He fired Cabinet members and named his campaign director and friend, Joseph Tegreene, then 24, to be the city's finance director. A 19-year-old woman was named service director.

"It was like amateur day at the races," said Jim Trakas, the county Republican Party chairman in Cleveland who is also a state lawmaker. "It was probably the most disastrous two years we've ever had. His tenure was just awful."

As mayor, Kucinich fired the city's popular police chief on live television at 6 p.m. He also cut the electricity on the city's largest radio station during a broadcast of a mayor's news conference because he didn't like the questions being asked, Trakas said.

In August 1978, unhappy residents voted on whether Kucinich should be recalled as mayor. The special election was scheduled on a Sunday, and Kucinich survived by 236 votes.

Supporters tell a different story about that time. They say Kucinich stood up to people who wanted to give tax abatements to companies. They say he kept a campaign promise by not selling off the city-owned power system to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., even if it caused Cleveland to default on bank loans in December 1978.

"Dennis is consistently rooted in a sense of principles and ideals," said Cleveland City Councilman Jay Westbrook. "He's been willing to risk what would often be viewed as success to stand for higher goals."

The decision cost Kucinich his re-election. But supporters say residents later thanked Kucinich, because keeping the city-owned power system saved them millions of dollars on their electricity bills compared to what they would have paid a privately owned utility.

"He was in political Siberia in the 1980s," said Tegreene, the former finance director who is now a Cleveland attorney. "It was only when it became clear to people that he was right . . . he got belated recognition for the things that he did."

Even critics are amazed at how Kucinich made a political comeback after his time as mayor. Using the turn in public opinion on the utility situation, he won a state Senate seat in 1994. He was a state lawmaker for two years before voters sent him to Congress instead of incumbent Republican Martin Hoke.

"You really have to appreciate the remarkable nature of his political comeback," said Brent Larkin, editorial director of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. "Any reasonable person would have concluded that he was finished politically. The fact that he even recovered from default to even become a member of Congress is nothing short of remarkable."

Trakas, the county Republican Party chairman, describes it as an amazing ability that Kucinich has to transform himself. He said Kucinich has changed dramatically from his time as mayor, becoming more effective and using his "flashes of brilliance" to get things done.

Many Cleveland residents credit Kucinich with using his influence as a congressman to save a hospital slated for closure in the city's "Slavic Village," an ethnically diverse working-class neighborhood where he spent some of his childhood.

They also say he prevented closure of a steel mill that is a key to Cleveland's economy.

"Everything he does is mostly to protect the little people," said Dr. Javier Lopez, 69, a surgeon and longtime family friend. "He never forgot where he came from. This neighborhood owes a lot to him."

In Congress, Kucinich has been an avid peace activist who opposed the war in Iraq. He is also a leading liberal who led the Progressive Caucus in 2001. Some criticize him as being too far to the left.

"Where he's going is so far out of the mainstream," said Molly Smith, executive director of Cleveland Right to Life. "I don't think America's ready for that kind of president yet."

But supporters say they like his big proposals for change, such as canceling the North American Free Trade Agreement and returning to bilateral trade. They say they are tired of half-steps and compromising.

"People hate mealy-mouth stuff," said Harriet Applegate, a Cleveland field representative of the American Federation of Labor.

What's clear to both camps is that Kucinich is an underdog in the race for president.

David Hamm, co-owner of Kaufmann Poultry in Cleveland's West Side Market, a popular stopping spot for presidential candidates, said he likes Kucinich but just can't see him as president.

Neither can Joseph Rice, a Cleveland consultant and former reporter who covered politics for 18 years. "I just don't think he's taken that seriously," Rice said.

Larkin, the editorial director, noted in a May newspaper column that Kucinich's presidential campaign wasn't going well and lent this advice: "Perhaps it's time for Kucinich to rethink this thing about the presidency."

Even Tegreene, who has been a friend of Kucinich's for 32 years, is not supporting Kucinich for president. He said he is instead leaning toward backing U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, whose national security background appeals to him.

"In the wake of Sept. 11 and the Iraqi war, the American public is going to be focused on security issues as well as economic issues," Tegreene said. "Kerry is better able to address issues that are more salient with voters than Dennis, who has no military experience."

Kucinich vigorously defends his candidacy. He said that in all his elections, people have questioned his ability to win. He has won elections for mayor, state Senate and Congress anyway. He is now serving his fourth term in Congress.

"I've proven I can win elections in places where Democrats haven't always done well," he said. "I'll win this election, too, because I have the ability to go out there and get people excited in a campaign."

Kucinich will have to make up a lot of ground between now and Iowa's Jan. 19 first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

His fund-raising of $1.7 million as of June 30 ranked third from last among the candidates, only above former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton. The latest Des Moines Register poll showed him sixth among the nine candidates.

But those from his hometown have seen Kucinich beat the odds in the past. They say one has to see it to believe it.

"Dennis does share with (Bill) Clinton the ability to pull rabbits out of hats," said Applegate, the union representative. "He is a dark horse, but dark horses can win."


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