Joe Cimperman hopes to tear down his former hero, Dennis Kucinich

Eight years ago, downtown Councilman Joe Cimperman was determined to get Dennis Kucinich's portrait hung in City Hall.

Kucinich's two-year reign during the 1970s had left the city broke and in ruins. So no one bothered to commission a portrait to place within the gallery of former mayors. But Cimperman had come to admire the West Side congressman as a fighter for working people. "It wasn't like he was led away in handcuffs," says the councilman.

Cimperman and Councilman Martin Sweeney held a kielbasa fund-raiser and trolled for donations, eventually snaring $30,000 for the cause. Colleagues found his determination amusing. "He just admired Dennis so much," says Councilman Matt Zone. "Joe, being the young, ambitious guy he is, took it upon himself to lead the effort."

An Akron artist was chosen. But the congressman blew off two portrait sittings in Cleveland. Finally, Cimperman bought the artist a ticket to Washington — but Kucinich's camp canceled the sitting just as he was about to board the plane. The effort was finally scrapped in 2005.

Today, there's only empty space between the portraits of Ralph Perk and George Voinovich. "It's a big disappointment," says Cimperman. "I was just like, 'Look, all we want to do is just sit with you for a couple of hours.'"

That was the last time the two politicians passed a cordial word. Since then, Cimperman's come to believe that the man he so admired is gone. "That was the Dennis of the past," he says, "the one that was really focused on the issues here."

The new Kucinich, he argues, is rarely involved in matters at home anymore. He's twice run for president, but barely registered in the national consciousness. Meanwhile, while the congressman was "spending all his time in Hawaii and Syria," Cleveland was being rushed to an economic emergency ward.

So Cimperman decided to take Kucinich's job — the 10th Congressional District seat, representing an area that stretches from Cleveland to North Olmsted. It's not like he's betraying his mentor, says Cimperman. "I didn't leave Dennis. Dennis left me."

"I have to do a speech in front of 200 people in a hour, and I have no idea what I'm going to say."

Cimperman announces this almost gleefully. The stocky councilman — pale and boyish in an overgrown crew cut and baggy suit — is leaning forward in the back seat of his campaign manager's Chrysler Sebring. He's being shuttled from a ribbon-cutting downtown to a party in Ohio City.

It's less than a month before the Democratic primary, and the campaign is in full stride. Cimperman no longer has time to prepare speeches. He usually doesn't even know where he'll be appearing until an assistant informs him just a few minutes before.

Cimperman finds little time to sleep, none to exercise. The once-lean marathon-runner now bears the physique of a softball ump.

But if he's exhausted, it's hard to tell. His voice explodes with nervous excitement as he rushes from topic to topic. "You gotta come with me to the Li Wah Chinese New Year Party!" he gushes before jaggedly segueing into how he won $25,000 in a St. Joseph Academy raffle. "But I told them to put it in the scholarship fund!"

His two handlers in the front seat smile like bemused parents. Eric Wobser and Amanda Dempsey are used to Cimperman's nonstop chatter, his native exuberance. The councilman barely seems to breathe as he narrates the ride from the Rock Hall to Ohio City:

Look at that crazy view . . .

LeBron rents there . . .

I helped build that park . . .

Have you tried that place's sausages?

We arrive at a large Victorian, home to a corporate lawyer who's throwing a fund-raiser. Cimperman bounds through the door, shaking hands as he canvasses the home, front to back. Then he unloads an emphatic vignette that ranges from the importance of family to his ability to compromise with business. During the gentle applause, he knocks a picture off the mantle with his elbow, shakes a dozen more hands, and is suddenly in the back seat of the Chrysler once again. The entire appearance feels like one fluid motion.

By the time Cimperman arrives at a Democratic meeting in Lakewood, he's a half-hour late. The other candidates are already on their way out, and the man on stage is extolling the virtues of Obama. Cimperman is given two minutes to speak.

He hasn't written anything down, but he doesn't need notes. Like any politician in the throes of a race, he has platitudes in reserve. Besides, his platform is simple. The nutshell version: In every aspect that Kucinich is failing, he will succeed.

These are the rapid-fire sound bites that any congressional campaign is composed of — one part bravado, one part knife to the throat of one's nefarious opponent.

"As a full-time congressman, I would have never voted against the child health-care bill," he says, a jab at Kucinich's nay to the Children's Health Insurance Program.

"I know how to get things done with business interests and will bring millions back to the district," he says, a shot at Kucinich's penchant for political fighting rather than luring business to the West Side.

"We have a foreclosure crisis, and we need a congressman who will be fighting for us, not stumping in Hawaii," he says, a reference to Kucinich's history of campaigning in vacation spots rather than electoral battlegrounds.

But if Cimperman is presenting himself as a new breed of West Side pol, his method of jousting is strictly old-school.

North Olmsted Mayor Tom O'Grady poses little threat in the Democratic primary. Cimperman nonetheless gobbled up prospective internet domain names for O'Grady, to keep him from launching an effective website. "I liked Joe," says the mayor in the tone of a scolding principal. "That was very disappointing and unprofessional."

A few weeks later, Cimperman delivered a gift basket — stuffed with sausages and a map of Cuyahoga County — to Kucinich's house. The message: In case you forgot about Cleveland . . .

The next week, a staffer filmed him as he went to Kucinich's office to drop off a "missing" flier featuring the congressman's face.

It's hard to say how the theatrics played with voters, but they clearly got under the skin of Kucinich, who responded with the harrumphing of a man who'd been gone from Cleveland far too long.

The congressman called the gift-basket stunt the most intrusive of his career. "I am ready to encounter any kind of dirty tricks or aggression toward my personal space," he declared to supporters the next day. And after Cimperman appeared at this office with the "missing" flier, Kucinich ratted him to Homeland Security, claiming the video camera violated his constituents' privacy rights.

But campaign stunts didn't force the congressman back to Cleveland. Cimperman's ability to raise money did.

During his last presidential campaign, Kucinich stayed in the race so long after John Kerry locked up the nomination that he violated rules governing the $3 million in federal campaign funds he'd received. (Kucinich was forced to reimburse taxpayers $137,000.)

But this time he didn't have the luxury to continue his doomed presidential bid. Cimperman had raised $205,000 by the end of 2007, and he wasn't modest about spending it.

He immediately launched TV ads attacking Kucinich's most vulnerable flanks, accusing him of ignoring his job and failing to deliver anything meaningful to the district.

Kucinich was forced to cut short his presidential bid and scurry back to Cleveland. He seemed to understand that he faced a legitimate threat, an opponent regarded as such a tireless campaigner and aggressive self-promoter that he's often accused of grandstanding.

In other words, Kucinich had come home to battle a younger version of himself.

St. Clair-Superior looks like much of the East Side between downtown and University Circle, with boarded-up homes, overgrown lots, and sloppy graffiti scrawled across brick and plywood. But Cimperman sees it differently. "This is my hood," he says as he navigates his wife's Subaru wagon down a barren street. "This is where I grew up. There's a different energy here."

He drives past a large snow-covered lot, scattered with a few overturned traffic cones. "This is the practice field we built," he says proudly, pointing to a hand-painted sign that reads "EMS Rams," for the neighborhood's youth football team. "The neighbors originally saw this as a development parcel, but now they love seeing — hold on. Motherfucker."

Cimperman swerves to a stop and jumps out, leaving the door open behind him. What's raised his ire is a plastic sign for a carpet-cleaning service, stapled to a light pole. He rips it off and stalks back to the car. "Sorry," he says. He's wide-eyed, breathing heavily, nearly too upset to speak. "I hate those signs."

Lying torn in the back seat, the offending sign looks harmless enough. But it's not to Joe Cimperman. "That just bugs the crap out of me. To think that you can just put your crap up like that. Why? This isn't a crap neighborhood. Think those things go up in Geauga County? They need their carpets cleaned there too."

As we pull onto another street, Cimperman suddenly forgets about carpet signs. He's onto his next story, a requisite for every Rust Belt politician: The How I Channeled Childhood Grief Into Political Ambition Tale.

Like Kucinich, Cimperman often refers to himself as a "son of Cleveland." His family was Slovenian, his father a union machinist. But by the time Cimperman was 11, his mother was in and out of hospitals with severe bipolar disorder, leaving her shy, bookish son and his older sister to care for themselves.

When she was home, mental illness turned Mom, who was a tour guide before immigrating from Slovenia and was fluent in seven languages, into an unstable wreck. Cimperman recalls the time his father received a $1,000 phone bill — his mother was spending her nights phoning the Vatican, trying to reach higher-ups to complain about church policy.

To his father, the sickness was foreign. "He didn't understand it," he says. "In an older ethnic world, you understand cancer, you understand getting your arm cut off in a machine, and being born with polio. You don't get mental-health illness. It's seen as something to be ashamed of."

With degrees from Saint Ignatius and John Carroll that stressed public service, Cimperman eventually left home for Portland, Maine, to work as a Jesuit volunteer for the mentally retarded. That led him to an AIDS hospice in Baltimore, where he only found more grief.

"This was '95. There were no cocktails of drugs you could take . . . Every new person I met died."

He recalls one patient named Kevin, a Baptist preacher who told his congregation that he was dying of cancer. "I went to Kevin's funeral, and everybody was talking about how evil cancer was," says Cimperman. "It was like, Jesus, God, he was gay. He had AIDS. Even in his death, can't you let him have the truth?

"I started thinking: If a straight white guy with my background — and 5,000 people like me — had AIDS, would the National Institute of Health maybe have found a cure by now? I realized politics is the application of power to will."

He also realized something else. "I had to get the hell out of Baltimore. It was changing me, making me dark." So he made tracks for the hometown he'd fled two years before.

By age 27, it was already clear he had the ambition gene of a career politician. Cimperman threw his hat into the race for the downtown council seat. There were nine candidates, including incumbent John Skrha.

"We just worked harder than any of the other eight people," says Will Johnston, Cimperman's unofficial manager for that campaign. "We used everyone's overconfidence to our advantage."

Cimperman's long-shot victory impressed many at City Hall — including himself. He was cocky, eager to outwork his complacent colleagues and make a name for himself. But there was another young councilman whose enterprise mirrored his own.

Zack Reed was a flashy young turk from Mount Pleasant. Both clearly believed their ceilings were beyond City Council. And, in a body known for lassitude, both were dead set on being the lone beacon of accomplishment.

They fought over everything, be it downtown parking meters or the placement of homeless shelters. "It was just two young guys with big egos, jostling for attention," says Cimperman.

"It wasn't a rivalry," adds Reed. "It was an all-out rift."

But it also meant that despite their lofty goals, neither was getting much done.

Cimperman uses the tale to illustrate his evolution. "It took about five years for me to realize that you have to work with other people."

It's a theme he commonly employs on the campaign trail. If there's a knock against Kucinich, it's that he picks a lot of fights but seldom wins. This is Cimperman's way of saying that he too will fight the good fight. It's just that at the end of the day, he wants something to show for it.

He routinely refers to his battle with Wal-Mart as exemplary of how he's learned to make things happen — even when he loses.

In 2005, Cimperman introduced an ordinance that would effectively bar the superstore within city limits. It was a popular move — at least among those who sway Democratic elections. Union leaders worried that Wal-Mart's cut-rate prices would kill off the city's organized groceries.

But developers of Steelyard Commons wanted the store to anchor their $100 million project. Cimperman soon learned that when you take on big money, your allies disappear quickly. Mayor Jane Campbell reversed her position, and the biggest fight of the councilman's career was instantly lost.

In his eyes, however, defeat would transform into his greatest coup.

"I could have sulked and said, 'To hell with them all,'" he says. Instead, he helped develop a tax plan that will raise millions to extend the Towpath Trail downtown.

These days, he brings up Wal-Mart in every speech, tweaking the angle depending on his audience. At a community meeting in Tremont, the story's about taking on corporate giants. At the corporate lawyer's house, it's about his ability to compromise with business. In every instance, he emphasizes the good relationships he maintains with foes after the battle, because it shows him as levelheaded, forgiving — the anti-Kucinich.

But Cimperman's found it difficult to straddle that line in other fights. His well-publicized crusades against nightclubs may have made him a sweetheart to neighbors. But in the view of those he's targeted, he's little more than a grandstander and a race-baiter.

The case of West Sixth Street's Spy Bar is perhaps his most polarizing fray. After a Fourth of July shooting in a nearby parking lot, people on the street were quick to finger Spy as a chronic source of violence. Cimperman railed against the club before news cameras and made it his quest to get the place shut down, though the shooter was never actually tied to the club.

But underneath the fight was the thinly veiled issue of race. Spy brought a black clientele to the street. Other club owners saw it as a root of increasing hostility that would drive suburban customers away. Cimperman may have been taking up a popular cause, but that cause seemed in part to play on race.

"My clients are willing to take the councilman at his word, that he's simply responding to complaints from his constituents," says Spy's lawyer, Subodh Chandra. But he adds that Cimperman "regrettably permitted himself to be used by people who are uncomfortable with people who look different than themselves."

Spy co-owner Raj Singh doesn't see a councilman wedded to levelheaded forgiveness. He sees a politician who was willing to ruin a business for his own gain. "He's never stepped foot in the bar," says Singh. "He does not know the nature of our clientele. They don't like black people in the neighborhood, and he just wants to get publicity."

Cimperman shouldn't even have a shot in this race. To attend a Kucinich appearance in the district is to understand why the congressman never worried about the safety of his seat. A speech at a Lutheran church takes on the air of a prayer meeting, with Kucinich playing the role of miracle worker who's stared down powerful evils. He speaks slowly and simply, taking the time to gaze at each person in the audience with watery eyes.

"I'm the only one in Washington that's fighting for you," he tells the congregation. "I always take you with me, and I never forget: The 10th District seat isn't mine. It's yours."

His supporters, yellow "Dennis!" stickers plastered over their hearts, watch him with eyes wide, heads nodding. During the question-and-answer session afterward, there are no questions — only testimonials of gratitude.

"I want to thank you for writing your beautiful book," says one woman, referring to Kucinich's recent memoir. She spent a weekend driving to every address he listed as a childhood residence.

The unions, so important on the West Side, are also firmly in Kucinich's clutches. "We certainly consider Joe Cimperman a very good friend," says Harriet Applegate, executive director of the North Shore AFL-CIO. "But it isn't about Joe for us; it's about Dennis. Our support for him is steadfast, reliable, and unchanging. You could be Jesus Christ, and we wouldn't endorse you over Dennis."

Yet outside the unswayable core, Kucinich has done his best to alienate lay Democrats. His two presidential bids seemed like the antics of a kid brother who's constantly trying to play with the older boys. Despite three years of nonstop campaigning, he rarely scored more than 1 percent in the primaries.

He became a go-to punch line on the talk-show circuit. The nation's jester-in-chief, Daily Show host Jon Stewart, seemed to sum up America's reaction when he called Kucinich a "creepy elf."

The laughs were unwelcome to West Siders, who'd endured decades of Cleveland jokes. Kucinich's job approval rating plummeted. His image as the absentee congressman reached full bloom.

He also showed telltale signs of becoming the purely political species he'd always denounced: the man who says one thing and does another.

At home he was anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, praising the merits of bowling and sausage. In California he was a vegan liberal. At home he refused to debate his opponents; in New Hampshire and Nevada he sued to be included.

And during his last congressional race, he vowed to forgo another presidential bid — only to renege as soon as the race was over.

It's the kind of behavior that breeds enemies from allies. Count Ron Harold among the transformed.

When reached by Scene, Harold was in the lobby of a Louisiana Marriott. He'd just been booted from his room, unable to pay the bill and with nowhere else to go. "I used to revere that little bastard as a fighter for the people," drawls Harold, "and now he's taking a shit on the little guy."

That little guy he speaks of is Ron Harold. He used to produce ads for Kucinich's presidential campaign — until the congressman stiffed him on a $28,000 bill, he claims. Now he can't get Kucinich to return his calls.

"If somebody would pay for my plane ticket, I'd march right to Dennis' door, and the cameras better be rolling," says Harold. "I'd leave a stain. I'm so mad, I can't speak the English language right now."

Then he pauses, envisioning a moment of revenge. "Actually, when you see Dennis, tell him Ron Harold's in the room next door. Watch his face drop."

Unfortunately, Scene couldn't get Kucinich on the phone either. His cell phone picks up after one ring. This is Dennis. Thanks for calling. I'm looking forward to speaking with you . . .

But he never calls back.

In a small studio tucked in the bowels of the Time Warner Cable complex on Lakeside Avenue, four candidates for the 10th Congressional seat pose rigidly in a half-circle, making awkward small talk before the cameras start rolling for the cable debate.

Cimperman, O'Grady, Barbara Ferris, and Rosemary Palmer are all here, along with host Bob Conklin. Kucinich initially declined to appear, but changed his mind at the last minute. Cimperman is quick to claim credit. "I had told Conklin, whenever I was asked a question, I was going to point at Dennis' empty seat and say, 'Where's the congressman?' I think that's what got him to fly in."

True or not, Kucinich now seems to understand that he can't neglect his hometown. When he arrives late, he appears relaxed, shaking his opponents' hands warmly — except for Cimperman's. An unrestrained grimace says the congressman still hasn't forgiven those campaign stunts.

Because the candidates are all Democrats and the topics are so broad — from gay marriage to handgun control — agreement carries the day. But they still find reason to bicker. Kucinich, unsurprisingly, is the common target, but it's not Cimperman firing the arrows. It's Parma native Ferris, at turns jolly and abrasive, who guns for the absentee congressman thesis.

As the contestants make their own rules, talking over each other and trampling time limits, Cimperman is uncharacteristically reserved. His responses are swift and clipped, ending with thin smiles.

"I felt so young," he says later. Indeed, he's almost 20 years the junior of the next-youngest candidate and spends the debate stewing, like a child dining at the adults' table who's afraid to speak out.

His performance is a far cry from a few evenings before, when he spoke at a Cleveland Executive Fellows' meeting. Then, Cimperman was at his best — confident and funny as he spoke about experiences with loony constituents, his ravaged sleeping habits, and his troubled childhood. The topic that night was himself.

Perhaps it was fatigue that held Cimperman back during the debate; he was taking a break from a 10-hour day of council duties. Or maybe he's just not comfortable debating issues — even with Conklin's docile prompts.

Walking outside City Hall on a gray February morning, Cimperman runs into an old foe. Zack Reed is energetically bounding up the steps two at a time when Cimperman slows him. "Hey — good article, Zack," he tells him, referring to a Scene story chronicling Reed's drunken fall from grace.

Reed thanks him and continues on his way. The hatchet, it seems, is buried. "We've gotten much better," he says later.

The two politicians' trajectories, once so closely linked, have never been farther apart — one jousting for a congressional seat, while the other simply hopes to keep his job.

But Cimperman is still a long shot for Congress. The prevailing forecast has him splitting the vote with the other challengers, leaving Kucinich to walk away with victory. But if he does take down Kucinich, it's unlikely he'll be satisfied, just like his former mentor.

Asked whether Congress will finally place a ceiling on his aspirations, Cimperman smiles. "For the time being," he says.

Dennis couldn't have said it better.