25 years before he first ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, 31-year-old Dennis Kucinich was elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. At the time, that made him the youngest mayor of a major city in the country. His tenure would be dominated by the fight to prevent the privatization of the city’s public electric utility, a fight that would pit Kucinich against powerful politicians, the Cleveland Trust bank, and even the mob. Kucinich tells the story of the fight to save public power in his new book, “The Division of Light and Power.”
Ryan Grim: On January 1, 1970, a 23-year-old named Dennis Kucinich was sworn into office as a city councilman. He was, as Hunter Thompson would say a year later in a slightly different context, “riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.” There was another wave coming, however, and Kucinich, first as councilman, then as clerk of courts, then as mayor of Cleveland, would spend the next decade fighting it.
A wave of privatization was sweeping the country, as federal, state, and local governments set about selling off public assets, a centerpiece of what would come to be known as the politics of neoliberalism. For Mayor Kucinich, the challenge came when the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, or CEI, launched an effort to acquire the city’s publicly owned power plant and infrastructure
Newscaster: Headlines throughout the media broadcast the battle between the Kucinich administration and privately-owned CEI over who would own the city’s municipal power plant. While “Muny” was the issue, it was Cleveland’s banking community that applied heavy pressure on 31-year-old Mayor Dennis Kucinich to sell the power plant or they wouldn’t refinance the city’s outstanding bond debt.
Mayor Dennis Kucinich: We’ll see if Cleveland Trust is ready to destroy this city in the interest of CEI.
Newscaster: But Kucinich applied some pressure of his own. Known as “the people’s mayor,” Kucinich rallied 100s of people to join him in withdrawing his savings from Cleveland Trust.
DK: This bank is trying to destroy a city government through blackmail and intimidation. I’m taking my money out because I don’t want clean money in a bank which is dirty.
RG: For Kucinich, this was serious business. He survived at least one mob-linked assassination attempt during this period. But he continued his public campaign against the sale, which would have given CEI a monopoly position in the Cleveland energy market. He continued it even when the city fell into default and he was savaged in the local press.
Newscaster: At 12:01, the morning of December 15, the city fell into its darkest hour. Time for another news conference, where Kucinich unveiled his latest plan: Take it to the people.
DK: The Kucinich Administration will sponsor a charter amendment on the question of Muny Light to give the people of Cleveland a choice.
Newscaster: The rest is history. The people voted to keep their power plant, while it cost their mayor his political career.
RG: 15 years later, a local news station surveyed people on the streets of Cleveland, asking them what they thought of Mayor Kucinich’s decision to prevent the privatization of Muny Light.
Person 1: He had his faults, but now he’s gettin’ some stuff that he was right.
Person 2: Smart move!
Person 2: Because if the city of Cleveland wouldn’t have had no competition, the prices would have naturally gone much higher.
Person 3: He had the guts to do it! It was good.
Reporter: You think he made the right decision?
Person 3: Well, yes. I’d say yes.
Reporter: So with CPP rates about 30 percent lower than CEI’s, it’s hard to find anyone, except maybe a few people at CEI, who would say that Kucinich was wrong.
RG: Kucinich was able to hold off the tides of privatization during his term as mayor, but the wave still swept him out of office.
As we’re now finally digging out from that period, we’re going to have to relearn what it means for the public to assert its right to govern in its own interest. That’s particularly the case in confronting climate change. Because the benefits of mitigating climate change are diffuse, there’s no single individual or company with sufficient incentive to go all in on dealing with it. The free market can’t handle it. That means the government has to step in, and it’s going to have to do a lot of it through public ownership.
Public ownership of energy-related infrastructure sounds borderline communist after some four decades of neoliberal dominance, but Kucinich’s story is a reminder of the value people put in public control of their destinies.
Kucinich is the author of a phenomenal new memoir called “The Division of Light and Power.” He served a term as mayor from 1977 to 1979, and recently announced he’ll be running in 2021 again for mayor of Cleveland, a nonpartisan office. He served in Congress from 1994 until 2010, and ran for president in 2004 and 2008.
RG: Alright, we’re joined now by former mayor of Cleveland, former Congressman, Dennis Kucinich.
Congressman, welcome to Deconstructed.
DK: I am very grateful to be on this. So with you, Ryan, and look forward to our discussion.
RG: Yes, same here. And I actually wanted to start by sharing a story with you — I don’t expect that you would even remember it, but it was sort of informative for me as a congressional reporter.
So I joined Politico’s congressional team in late 2006, early 2007. And because they thought of me as kind of the crazy lefty in the newsroom, they put me on the anti-war beat.
At the time, as you certainly will recall, Democrats had sort of run on the idea that they were going to do something — you know, a new direction — when it came to the war in Iraq. Rahm Emanuel wanted to make sure that they didn’t get tarred as anti-war hippies. But the mood of the country was quite hostile to the Iraq war. And so then in 2007, the question was, what would Democrats do about this?
And so, one of my first days on Capitol Hill, I was in the Speaker’s lobby, which, for people who don’t know, is kind of this this area outside of the floor of the Capitol, which actually became infamous as the place where Ashley Babbitt was trying to break into when she was shot and killed by Capitol Police officers on January 6. And so I saw you heading on to the House floor, and I stopped you and I said, “Hey, Congressman Kucinich?” and I don’t remember exactly what question I asked, but it was something about the Status of Forces Agreement, and its relationship to U.S. oil interests in Iraq.
And I remember you started toward the floor. And then you kind of stopped and did a double take. And you said, “Wait, what did you just say?” And I asked the question again, and you were stunned, and you were like, “That’s a very unusual question for a reporter and in the Capitol to be asking.” Because, I guess, you just weren’t supposed to talk about oil as it related to the war in Iraq; it was something that everybody just understood, but it couldn’t be spoken out loud.
And so at this point, you know, you are now 40 years into your political career, and we’re accustomed to dealing with kind of establishment forces, I would assume you wouldn’t remember a random encounter with a cub reporter, but can you talk a little bit about why a question like that, coming from somebody in the garb of a mainstream reporter, would have taken you aback a bit?
DK: I do remember being intercepted with questions about oil, because it was so unusual. Incredibly unusual.
RG: [Laughs.] Oh, wow.
DK: And you have to remember that I was doing interviews in national media, one with Meet the Press, Tim Russert, in which I was on the show with Richard Perle. And one of the things I asked in that interview, I said, “People want to know: How did our oil get under their sand?” There was no question it was about oil, because all the pretexts for the invasion were immediately discounted. If any of your listeners and readers would go to “Kucinich Iraq War Analysis October 2, 2002,” they will see that even before Congress voted on that, I had a complete analysis as to why the call for war was 100 percent wrong. And when you’re able to discount the prima facie case for a war, then you have to say, “What is it really about?” And of course, it was about oil.
And Ryan, the reason why I was able to get to that point is because of my experience in Cleveland, in challenging this media and corporate establishment that was determined to use their power to force the sale of this little municipal electric system. Having had that experience, oh, was I ready for Congress.
RG: And the situations are different in scale. But, as you said, they’re actually both about energy — one was a utility in Cleveland. And what I found so remarkable and unusual about your memoir, which is absolutely tremendous, by the way. It’s not just an important book, but it’s a page turner; it’s very readable as well.
DK: Thank you.
RG: And it has one of the best titles you could ever come up with. The title of the book is “The Division of Light and Power,” which is such a literary gift to you that the government division, under which a lot of this unfolded, was called the Division of Light and Power, because it gives you this incredible title.
But what I found so unusual about the memoir is that it isn’t a typical politician’s memoir, in that it just runs through all of the different famous people they’ve met and the big fights that they’ve had — you’ve been involved in a lot of them and you could have written that memoir — instead, this focuses very tightly on your fight in Cleveland against the power company that was trying to take over, Muny Light, and really doesn’t leave the 1970s.
It’s also a book of substantial weight. [Sound of Ryan picking up the book.] It’s readable, but it’s also, flipping through here, well over 500 pages, though it doesn’t feel that way. How long have you been working on this? And is this sort of like a life project that you’ve been working on over your career? Or did you only embark on this over the last couple years?
DK: Ryan, I began writing the book in November of 1979, after I left office. But I was so close to the story that I just couldn’t write it. It was an emotionally searing experience to go into a situation where you know you’re doing the right thing in trying to protect the public interest, but you’re being condemned for it. And it was an inversion of reality, kind of the whole town was being gaslit. And so when you’re in that kind of an environment, I needed the time and space to sort it out. So I started in November of ’79.
What you see, with “The Division of Light and Power” that’s in your hands, that’s the seventh draft. And I began that seventh draft in the spring of 2018. And I wrote nonstop from there, although I had a lot of the research done over decades. I carried around over 100 boxes of records and of supporting material for 40 years. They were like Marley’s chains in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and I couldn’t shake them. The book is thoroughly documented as a result of protecting those files and, frankly, I didn’t know if I’d ever finish it — ever! Because, first of all, 16 years in Congress, I wasn’t working on the book at that point. But you know, I finally got the space. And Wordsworth, in his writing, said that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” And to write this kind of a book, you need a quiet space.
RG: Well, I’m glad that you finally did finish it, because it serves as sort of a portrait in miniature of what it was like to be in the trenches as neoliberalism was running amok. And we talk a lot about neoliberalism abstractly, but what it looks like, on the ground, is what you describe here. So can you walk people through how you found yourself in this fight over who would control the energy system in Cleveland?
DK: Sure. The book opens up, and I’m shopping downtown Cleveland with my wife, and it’s Christmas time, and all of a sudden, all the lights go off. And the blackouts are repeated motifs throughout the book. Because the public really didn’t know what was going on. They were kept in the dark.
And so as I got into City Council, I learned that this private utility was doing everything it could to sabotage the public utility, through lobbying against repairs to our generators, stopping the city from buying power from any other place other than themselves, tripling the cost of power to the city, causing the city to run up a power bill that then the previous mayor decided that he would pay the light bill by selling the light system.
And so one of the sub-themes is the corruption of the media. The private utility, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, was using its advertising dollars to subvert public opinion, actually writing editorials and news stories that would get printed verbatim or broadcast verbatim. They really controlled the heavily mediated environment which was feeding people information: Why does the city even have a public power system? That seems like a bad idea.
So, you know, I came into this environment. And then when the city consummated the sale of the municipal electric system, when I had just transited from the council to an intermediate step, the clerk of Cleveland Municipal Courts, I started this campaign to block the sale. And at that moment, a high-powered rifle shot misses my head by fraction.
It wasn’t until I became mayor, that police intelligence informed me that there was a plot — an assassination plot — and I was further informed by the head of police intelligence that it had to do with Muny Light, as he said, stopping some people from making a lot of money. I never talked about this when I was mayor. But years later, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Organized Crime in the Midwest came forward with the details of this assassination plot. And, keep in mind, not only was Cleveland the number three corporate capital, where corporations felt they had a peremptory to be able to dictate public policy, but it was also the bombing capital of America at that time, where mob factions were competing for control of the rackets. So you take that kind of toxic brew, and then all of a sudden a 31-year-old gets elected mayor of Cleveland, and he’s expected to just fall in line. Well, I didn’t.
RG: And you were expected to fall in line as a council member, too, when you first got in. And I was struck by some of the descriptions that your colleagues gave to you, like: OK, kid, it was nice of you to say that you knocked on doors and have some type of ideals here, but here are how things work. How different is Congress and how different has the rest of your career been from how it was described to you then in your first week? And you give a few examples of the things that your colleagues told you as you were first elected of what the real role of member of council was.
DK: You got to vote right, you got to go along to get along, there’s ways to improve your own financial standing, if you go along with things.
RG: Right. And they said: There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just you get a little heads up on a land deal here, or somebody helps you out for resolving a situation. Nothing wrong here.
DK: But the way that I responded at the time was to say, “Well, that’s not why I’m here.” And, you know, I was 23-years-old when I got into Council. I felt I had the best job in my life. I was making $12,500 a year, no other job that I could have had at that point would pay that much. And that was a lot of money, and I didn’t need anything else.
And besides that, I grew up in a certain way in Cleveland, that our family did not depend on materiality. I was into ideas. I actually believe there is such a thing as a soul, and I was trying to protect my soul from getting eaten up by these moneyed interests.
I mean, I remember that I had a Catholic education, and I remember “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Prioress’s Tale”, she wore a medallion that said “Radix malorum est cupiditas” — money is the root of all evil. Well, you know what? Chaucer wasn’t just communicating something for the Middle Ages; I picked up and breathed in this idea of detachment from the material world. That was part of my spiritual upbringing. So I was probably the wrong guy to be told: Hey, you can make a deal here and help yourself with this and that. I don’t have any interest in that and never have.
RG: And can you talk a little bit about what you learned about the media and the role of advertising influence, because you witnessed some heroic efforts, and you also witnessed people’s careers destroyed, for going down the wrong path when it came to this question.
DK: I described four cases where journalists who were just doing their job and reporting or commenting on conditions that affected the local economy and the individual financial standing of the citizens of Cleveland, and they were cashiered for it.
Number one: Steve Clark. Drive-time, top-rated talk show host, afternoons, and he raised questions about the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company pancaking rate increases. And the next thing you know, he was out of a job because he was told “Look, he was hurting his boss’s prediction in the business community.”
Beyond that, you had Jim Cox, who was a reporter for a TV station, and a very good reporter, well respected among all of his peers, he got the story about how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission came up with the idea that Cleveland Electric Luminating Company had violated antitrust law chapter and verse. And he was working on that story. Management quashed it. And when he talked back, he eventually was forced out of his career at the television station.
Bob Franken who went on to cover CNN for the White House, he had the head of one of the biggest banks in Cleveland, say that because of my position on tax abatement and that I wasn’t falling in line with the corporate agenda, that he wasn’t going to renew the city’s credit on loans I hadn’t even taken out. He ended up leaving because he had 12 different sources and said, “I can’t stay here.” Retracted the truth.
And then a central story, Robert Holden, a utilities reporter, was told by his editor after CEI contacted his editor, they requested he be taken off the utilities beat, because they said he wouldn’t be fair. This is the kind of thing that happened.
So much power was exerted and why? Because they wanted to control the environment.
RG: Yeah. The Holden story was incredible and also inspiring, in a way, in that this was the first time that this reporter’s colleagues stood up for him and you write about how they actually picketed and engaged in a byline strike, to protest the suppression of this investigation into what the company had been doing, resulting in them actually publishing it.
DK: And Bob Holden is absolutely one of the heroes of the book, because what he did was to put his career on the line to stand up for a cardinal principle in journalism, and that is a fearless recitation of the truth. He lost his job because of that.
When you consider the examples that are given in “The Division of Light and Power” of how reporters just doing their jobs were threatened, their careers were put on a line, just trying to report what was going on. And that is what happened in Cleveland during that time. And so the book describes this phenomenon of control that was extraordinary, where wrong was always made to seem the better reason.
And even after, and this was, for me, the crux of the book, is when the city goes into default over a measly $15 million. One bank held five; they wouldn’t renew the city’s credit unless I sold Muny Light, which turns out was the only thing of value. That’s all they wanted. They didn’t want money, they didn’t want property or anything, they wanted Muny Light. So the city was put in default because I wouldn’t sell.
After the default, after I asked for a Justice Department investigation, the people in Cleveland were told Muny Light was never an issue. It happened just like that! Bank says, “We never wanted Muny Light.” Private utility? “We don’t want Muny Light.” And I was really being told I made up the whole story, which is this alternative universe that people were offered.
And even to this day, there are people in the Cleveland media who do not connect the default with saving Muny Light, that the banks set the terms. And when you consider that even with a book published, they still don’t get it.
RG: Right. Right.
RG: So you, like you were saying earlier, you were elected to a city-wide position that was not mayor.
DK: Clerk of courts. It’s a judicial position, you keep track of the runs, hits, and errors in judicial.
RG: And while you’re in that position, Muny Light is sold. The sale is not consummated, but CEI, the private company, makes an offer, and the city accepts the offer. At that point, the hegemonic position seemed to be, from the media, that this needed to happen.
RG: Hurry up and sell this! Get it over with, as was happening all over the country, though this would have been one of the biggest acquisitions of a public power company. Were you fighting, at the time, a noble but, you thought, losing fight? Or did you think that you actually had a chance to stop this sale?
DK: Well, you need to understand what my mindset is in life. You know, I come from a background steeped in English romantic poetry. Go to Shelley and “Prometheus Unbound,” he writes of “defy[ing] power, which seems omnipotent” — this is freedom.
Well, you know what? That’s how I look at things. And so I believe I can win a rigged game. I have learned that no matter what the exigent circumstances seem to dictate, that there’s always space between the spaces to call forth a new reality. So I have found the physics that exists in changing the outcome. And I’ve seen it work over and over again. But you cannot do that, if you don’t first believe that it’s worth it A, and B, that you’re willing to make a total commitment — intellectual, spiritual, physical, throw everything you have into it. And you can change things. This whole idea that, well, you can’t change things — I reject that. We’re here to. It’s part of an evolutionary process, and sometimes a revolutionary process, but we’re here precisely to bring about change. And I’ve had enough experience, Ryan, if I may, to actually learn how to do it.
RG: So when the news hit that Muny Light had been sold, it was considered as: This is inevitable, this is done, this fight is over; they won, the people lost. You were able to turn it around. I mean, ultimately, you were able to stop it. But you were also able to turn around that inevitable narrative, without really access to the media — obviously you had access to the media, but you didn’t have anybody sympathetic in the media willing to make the case. And at the time, there’s no social media that can go around the media to reach people, and polls are showing that everybody’s pretty comfortable with the idea of selling this. Yet you were able to change the public’s mind about that. And so how did you break through?
DK: First of all, I took some quiet time to actually look at all of the elements, look at the history of Muny Light, the purpose of it, the founder of Muny Light, Mayor Tom Johnson, of whom Lincoln Steffens wrote was the best mayor of the best governed city in America. He wrote that in “Shame of the Cities.” His philosophy of public power was this, he said: I believe in public ownership of all municipal service facilities of waterworks, of parks, of schools, and of electric systems, because if you do not own them, they will, in time, own you. They will rule your politics, corrupt your institutions, and finally, destroy your liberties.
So first, I had to look at the philosophical background for a municipal electric system. I had to look at the economics of it. Muny Light was providing people with cheaper electricity, competed in about a third of the city with the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company and saved people 20 percent on their electric bills. I had to look at the terms of the sale: The system was being sold at a bargain-basement price. It was worth at least $250 million, it was being sold for $88.1 million. So what I did, I deconstructed every element of the sale. And then, because of my background in communications, where I not just studied but actually taught the idea of a structured series of messages to communicate to people, I put together a series of messages, and we leafletted communities, and got the people involved as to what was going on, because that was the only way we could get the message across because the media wasn’t carrying our message.
And, you know, there’s a certain relentlessness that must attend such an effort. All you need to do, though, is to create that first opening and start to tease that space apart and then start to get other people involved. And I had a couple other members of council that were very helpful. But first you have to take that first step, and you have to start, and you have to believe that it is possible.
RG: And another inspiring scene in the book is at the beginning of this campaign where, correct me on the details, you kind of rented out a hall and said “We’re going to petition to stop this sale” and you didn’t know if five people are going to show up, or what, and just hundreds of working class people from across the city stream in and take a pledge of allegiance to a movement that is dedicated to saving Muny Light. Do you still remember the pledge?
DK: Remember it? Listen, I can feel it, just you talking about it. You know, people raised their right hand and pledged that Muny Light belonged to the people and not to a utility monopoly, and they pledged to do everything they could in their power to protect it for the people.
That moment had such electricity of the human kind. You just invoking it, I can feel it! That’s how powerful it was. And that was catalytic, to be able to get people who would then fan out across the city with a petition drive that ended up tying up the sale, even though the political establishment did everything it could to scuttle 30,000 signatures of the people of Cleveland.
RG: And in the meantime, through documents that were leaked to you, and then also through documents that are coming out through the antitrust case, or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission review, you’re gradually learning that everything that the private energy company is saying is a lie; that Muny Light is profitable, despite the fact that it’s charging significantly lower prices, and that CEI, the private company, had this generations-long, military-style plan to purposely cause blackouts around the city, then to swoop in after the blackouts and flip customers from Muny Light over to the private company, to purposely delay collection of the bills so the bill would get high enough that they could then say: Alright, well, to settle the bill, just give us the light company, then we’ll settle this right here. And also used its dominance to prevent upgrades and prevent an interconnection that would have made sure that power kept flowing, all with the express purpose of taking over, at a discount, this public utility and that’s why I say it’s kind of a metaphor in miniature of neoliberalism nationally. How hard was it to get the public to understand the kind of brazen criminality at work?
DK: Right. Well, first of all, the media wouldn’t cover it. You know, I was out there, often as a lone voice, pointing to: What’s going on here? You gotta see this! They’re trying to steal our electric system. It was an issue in the 1977 mayoral race. People supported the leadership I offered, and everyone knows the difference between paying $80 a month for electricity or $100 a month. But, in the book, the climactic moment came when we were in default and we put two issues on the ballot, one was a tax increase to pay off the defaulted notes on loans that I hadn’t taken out and the other one was a referendum on Muny Light, whether people wanted to keep it or not.
The media was beating the drum so heavily for the sale of Muny Light. There were polls taken that said that 95 percent of the people wanted to get rid of Muny Light, and whether or not those polls were legit or not, they were trying to create a bandwagon effect that would just have people approve the sale of Muny Light.
But what happened, Ralph Nader came in, and also this event with Bob Holden, the Holden event, that had the impact at the newspaper, when The Plain Dealer finally was pushed to publish the secret history of this interference, which they have known about for years, by the way —
DK: When they finally published it, the issue turned with a vengeance. And suddenly, we were winning 2-to-1 to save Muny Light. At a point, it might have been like the political equivalent of a jump ball — could go either way. But once people really came to understand, because the media was forced to cover the dirty tricks of CEI, and the fact that they created blackouts and all the other chain of maligned events that they precipitated, then people said: Whoa! We’re not going to give this up.
The other thing that happened is that the banks committed to renew the city’s notes and take us out of default if the people passed the tax. The tax was passed; the banks reneged on their promise and kept the city in default until after I left office. And of course, that was their plan! Because people didn’t understand why are we still in default? We just voted a tax that we could pay off the default four or five times over, why are we still in default? And the media never really covered it, and covered it as if I had screwed up the finances of the city.
And, of course, they added it to the fact that I was in my early 30s, and they said: Oh, look, you got this kid, he doesn’t know what’s going on — when, actually, I couldn’t be bought.
RG: And the business community also organized a recall. Can you talk a little bit about it? So now you’re mayor, and instantly they try to recall you.
DK: The recall was ready immediately after I took office. They needed a catalyst. And unfortunately, I provided them with one. I fired the police chief live on the six o’clock news on Good Friday. And if I was to give any advice to public office-holders, don’t do that!
And that created an opening. But they could have cared less who the police chief was. This was an opening to exploit. And they had already had all the money and everything lined up. And so the recall was given an acceleration. I survived it with 236 votes. But, keep in mind, when I was elected mayor, I was elected by about 1 percent of the vote; it wasn’t like I steamrolled into office, so I had kind of a vulnerability which, by the way, they exploited, figuring that I would be so interested in staying mayor that I would capitulate and sell Muny Light! Wrong.
RG: Right. And so talk about this default. And talk about the role Muny Light played. You write about it as sort of a hostage situation. Like, OK, we put the city into default; if you want to get out of default, pay the ransom and the ransom is Muny Light. Did you ever once consider saying: There’s no other choice, they’re powerful, just pay them?
DK: Not a chance.
I looked for ways to work it out to come up with a deal that would be acceptable to avoid default. But they wouldn’t accept income tax, property tax, any kind of city assets; the only thing they would accept in payment of the notes that were due was Muny Light. The head of the biggest bank on December 15, 1978, splashed across the front pages, “Cleveland Trust: Pay Up. Bank Would Relent If Muny Was Sold, Forbes [Council President] Believes.”
I had a meeting in a boardroom and the bank president laid it out. He said, “Look, you sell the electric system, we’ll not only renew the city’s credit, we’ll give you $50 million worth of new credit. And while all that’s happening, I’m thinking to an apartment about a mile and a half away, one of the apartments we lived in growing up, where it’s a three-room apartment, five children and two adults lived in it; my parents are counting pennies to pay the utility bill. I was thinking about that at that moment. I was thinking about all the people in Cleveland who were counting pennies to pay utility bills. And this head of this big bank, one of the biggest banks in the state and the country, is all of a sudden dictating the terms under which the city can continue to operate.
So, look: It wasn’t mine to sell. I was in a fiduciary relationship with the people of Cleveland. The thing I will tell you, I mean, I knew if the city went into default, that my chance of having a political career was unlikely. But you know, you have to stand for some things. You never know when your moment is going to be in public life. That was my moment; I had to take a stand. If I had done it the other way, which I wasn’t inclined to, this is the biggest utility in Ohio, the biggest bank in Ohio, the whole political establishment and the media is just waiting to see if I’m going to go along with this. I had people who would have guaranteed my political success; I would have been on a fast-track to being governor of Ohio at the age of 33.
But you know what? Some things are more important than winning elections and holding office.
RG: Yeah. You write in the book: “I have a confession to make. I am ambitious.” So your political career, like you said, flashed before your eyes with this question of default. So how did it unfold from there? Tell listeners what happened after you said: Look, no deal, I’m not selling.
DK: Well, even throughout the day, we still tried to see if there’s some other way we could come up with an agreement and presented a plan to the city council. I said: Look, I’ll make a concession. I’ll set up a board, that if the utility can’t make money — we already knew it was making money, but — we’ll set up a board, and if the municipal utility doesn’t make money, we’ll let the board decide to sell it. They won’t go with that.
So I tried right up until the end to come up with a deal. But when you’re negotiating on behalf of the people, you have to know what your bottom line is. So my bottom line was: I’m not going to give up this utility just because they said that’s the price of civic peace. Not going to happen!
I heard a Johnny Cash song recently where it says, “I won’t back down, I won’t back down, you can stand me up against the gates of Hell, and I won’t back down.” That’s kind of the attitude I had.
RG: And so midnight hits, there’s no deal. What happens next?
DK: Well, everything was calm in Cleveland, surprisingly. We didn’t have a rush of creditors, which could have happened. And so people were holding back and services continued. It was as though nothing had happened, except this default smeared the city, ruined our ability to borrow. Think about this: I was the only mayor in America that ran a city on a cash basis, reduced spending by 18 percent without reducing services by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse. We didn’t have credit! But it was the media that created this catastrophe of a city going into default. And they delinked Muny Light from the default. And, I might point out, are still doing [it], here in 2021.
RG: And so then you run for reelection. You win the Democratic primary, but then lose the general election to Republican George Voinovich. You also write about, pointedly, about how so many people in your administration — you personally — suffered financially and personally from the stand that they had taken.
DK: Yeah. They did.
RG: And from the fight that they had lost. When did the city start to come around to the idea that what you had done had, in fact, saved the city?
DK: Fifteen years later. I wasn’t able to run for major office. I was basically dead politically.
RG: You were the guy who bankrupted the city and ruined everything.
DK: Well, that was the narrative.
DK: And so, because of that, I mean I couldn’t go to a basketball game without a chant in the stands: “Default! Default!” It was a tough time.
But 15 years later, in 1993, The Plain-Dealer wrote an article saying that Muny Light is expanding. And then all of a sudden, people are saying: Wait a minute! We wouldn’t have Muny Light if it wasn’t that Dennis took a stand and saved it.
That was the moment there was a different kind of chemistry. And people were saying: Dennis, where are you? You know, I was out on the West Coast working on this book. And they said: Come on back! Come on back!
So 1994, I won election to the State Senate, that was the first comeback. I couldn’t have imagined that would even happen, frankly. But that was the opening. It was the expansion of the system that caused people to reflect that I did the right thing for Cleveland.
RG: So then eventually you get elected to Congress, kind of on the back of this comeback. The state establishment then enacted another revenge when it was able to redraw districts. Do you think that they personally targeted you? And do you think part of it had to do with a long memory?
DK: Well, I will tell you, and this is something that I don’t think is ever really been discussed, it wasn’t Republicans that carved up the Cleveland 10th district. It was the Democrats. In a move that would cause heaven to grow hair, not because I worked and voted with Republicans, but I always tried to get along. And if I was going to do anything on the floor of the House, I’d let them know. And they were never surprised. And I always looked for ways we could work together if we could.
At the state level, the Democratic Party, when they saw that the Republicans provided a map that protected the TK 10th congressional district, the state Democrats told the Republicans: If you don’t change this map, we will sue to overturn the map and put your 12 incumbents, Republican incumbents, at risk.
Now, here’s how stupid the Democratic leaders were: They accepted a map, in order to get me, they accepted a map that gave the Democrats four seats and the Republicans 12. A fairly drawn map would have given the Democrats a chance at half the seats in the state. If you look at how Ohio has been, many times, a toss-up state, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have negotiated several more districts. They didn’t do it! They were so obsessed with knocking me out.
Now, why did that happen? Well, state politics is controlled by various interests, one of which is utilities. As we see, recently in Ohio, a big scandal where the utilities bought the legislature, got a billion-dollar bailout, blows up in their face, federal investigation. Hey, welcome to Ohio! And welcome to the Democratic Party of the state.
RG: I’ve actually seen, you’ve probably seen these too, court documents that revealed that Joyce Beatty, who I believe was House minority leader at the time, a Democrat, worked directly with Republicans in redrawing these particular lines. Is that your understanding?
DK: Well, you know, without getting into personalities here, let’s just say that the Democratic Party deprived the people of the Cleveland area of a congressional seat that it had held for probably 100 and more years. It was disgraceful.
Look, I survived, it’s not like I need an office to describe who I am. But I’m a public servant, this is what I’ve done with my life. But they chopped up that seat, so made it impossible for me to, on a short notice, put together a constituency that would be enough to win.
And I really don’t talk about it, because that’s what happens! You know, I’m a big boy, I can fend for myself. But most people in Ohio and the Democrats let this happen. They say: Well, look at what the Republicans did to Dennis.
RG: What’s been the response locally to the publication of your book?
DK: It’s still happening. So it might be premature. I think we have to wait and see. But I will say that some reporters in Cleveland seem to have an aversion to reading the book. It’s like their mind’s made up; they don’t want to be confused with the facts. And one of the reasons I spent so much time documenting the story is that I knew there were people who would still maintain, “Oh, this never happened.” Oh, yes, it did.
RG: Yeah, I would encourage anybody skeptical to read the book. And you can tell that while it’s a memoir, it’s heavily sourced to contemporaneous notes, minutes from meetings, documents from the time that can be checked. And you can actually tell just by reading the conversations that are taking place, say, in a council meeting, that it’s not recollection. Because when we recall conversations, we write them in a much more fluid way than we actually speak them. And you can see the cadences of the council members in that kind of abrupt back-and-forth way that is actually natural; it doesn’t seem natural, because it’s not what we’re used to reading. But am I right? It seems like you pulled a lot of direct quotes from transcripts.
DK: I did. And, of course, I will acknowledge memory is refractive. At the same time, I recognize my responsibility to be able to document the story. And I did.
I want to say one thing before we go, Ryan, because past is prologue: When that American Rescue Plan money runs out, cities are going to be under a new wave of attempted privatization, where there’ll be looking for ways to keep programs going that they maybe have continued or even expanded in the period of new American Rescue Plan, resources, and this book, hopefully, will be a handy guide for civic activists who will see how to fight back against what I think is going to be a new wave of privatization on the horizon as that money dries up.
RG: Yeah, I also hope people take from this not just that public ownership is something that we need to defend, but also that it’s something that we need to expand, particularly as we’re fighting climate change as a people. The free market is never going to come together to tackle climate change. The only way it’s going to be able to be done is through a publicly owned and driven effort.
DK: I would agree.
Well, I really appreciate this opportunity to meet with you and with The Intercept. And I’ve been very gratified to see the response to the book, especially [laughs] when I didn’t know if I’d ever complete it.
DK: And I will tell you that a few weeks ago, when the first copy came to my house and I unwrapped it real quick, showed it to my wife, ran upstairs and put the first one in my little library, now, I can go into bookstores again without guilt!
RG: Well, congratulations. It’s a real achievement.
DK: Thank you so much, Ryan. And thanks again for the interview. Thank you.
RG: You got it.
DK: Bye, now.
Reporter: Knowing what you know, now, and maturing the way you have, do you think you might take the same stand?
DK: Principles don’t change with time. It’s really a matter of what’s inside of you. I did what was right for the people at the time. And if people today say I was right, I’m glad they do feel that way; I would do the same thing all over again. I wouldn’t hesitate to stand up for the people.
RG: That was Dennis Kucinich, and that’s our show.
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