The King of Spin

How Dennis Kucinich remade himself from race-baiting bomb-thrower to liberal sweetheart.

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political clap-trap Dennis Kucinich

It was December 1978, the darkest period in Cleveland history.

Just a year earlier, 31-year-old Dennis Kucinich had been elected mayor. Now the city was in bankruptcy. Six hundred jobs had been slashed, including 400 policemen and firefighters. The neighborhood development corporations, once the backbone of Cleveland's renewal, had been drained of their funding. And City Hall had been overrun with an army of novitiates, whose qualifications began and ended with their loyalty to the mayor.

The man charged with averting disaster was the city's 24-year-old finance director, whose only work experience was a nine-month stint at Merrill Lynch. The acting police chief was a 21-year-old college coed with wispy bangs. The inevitable implosion of Kucinich's scorched-earth rise to mayor had arrived.

As a city councilman, he had climbed the ranks of Cleveland politics through a strategy of nonstop combat, fighting everyone from colleagues to businessmen, bankers to bureaucrats. He accused them of being corrupt, lazy, and unsympathetic to the city's white working class — his largest sect of voters. If council was for tax abatements, Kucinich accused them of being in the pocket of business. If they wanted housing for the East Side's black poor, he castigated them for ignoring the West Side's ethnic whites. If you weren't with him, you were his enemy, and Kucinich spared no sound bites in illuminating your sins.

"It's not every day in Cleveland or any other city that you have the mayor calling the city council a bunch of lunatics and buffoons," says Brent Larkin, The Plain Dealer's editorial director, who covered Kucinich's reign for the now-defunct Cleveland Press. "You don't call everybody a bunch of fucking crooks, and that's what he did."

Kucinich may have been right about corruption and lethargy, but he was now proving to be a much worse alternative. After all, a mayor's job is a yeoman's task, about paving streets and ensuring safety. But Kucinich had allowed style to manhandle substance; he was against everything, rather than providing solutions of his own.

"If you are mayor, you have to do things," says Mike Roberts, The Plain Dealer's former city editor. "There was nothing that he did of any success, unless it was self-serving."

City dwellers who could afford to flee did so in droves. Everyone else was holding on for dear life. "The town had a nervous breakdown during [Kucinich's] mayoralty," Larkin says. "He wore everybody out."

Yet almost 30 years later, Kucinich has managed to recast this period as his greatest triumph. In the revised telling, this isn't a story of a mayor who hurled the city into chaos with startling swiftness. It's a rewritten David and Goliath tale, with Kucinich playing the role as the only man with the cojones to stand up to corruption and nefarious corporations. His presidential campaign paints a man of sturdy principles, unsinkable optimism, and untainted liberal bona fides — a mythology now being regurgitated by everyone from supporters to the national media.

The "people's mayor," he is called. The "worker's president," he dubs himself.

"It's Kucinich time, now," wrote Cleveland native Scott Raab in his gushing Esquire profile.

"Kucinich has made a life and career of overcoming obstacles, challenging expectations and making unpopular decisions simply by trusting his gut," lavished the Chicago Tribune.

But if history tells us anything, it's that Kucinich will play any role to his advantage — be it race-baiter or liberal purist — only to spin himself a new image the next day. It's a formula that hasn't changed in 40 years.

"He has done a spectacular job of rewriting history," Larkin says. ". . . You can neither understand nor appreciate Dennis unless you were here then. You had to have lived through it — and, God, it was incredible."

His ambition was evident from the start: Before Kucinich was even in high school, he'd already penned a 30-page autobiography. It detailed the life of a working-class kid — son of an Irish mother and a Croatian truck-driving father. He was the eldest of seven children, who sometimes found themselves living out of the family car whenever Dad couldn't find work.

After graduating from St. John Cantius High School, 17-year-old Kucinich moved out of his family's home on East 71st Street and into a $50-a-month apartment on the outskirts of Tremont.

At the time, the neighborhood was a fiercely Catholic area, where Polish and Hungarian were spoken as often as English. These were the days when Cleveland wasn't merely divided by race, but by myriad ethnic rivalries. White people weren't simply "white," but Italian, Romanian, or Greek. And the people of Tremont believed they were getting the shortest end of the stick, ignored at the behest of Irish and black.

In 1967, just five days before he was old enough to vote, Kucinich filed petitions to run for City Council. He lost by 500 votes to the neighborhood's nine-term incumbent, John Bilinski.

Kucinich kept himself busy with classes at Cleveland State, morning shifts as a surgical technician at St. Alexis Hospital, and evening stints as a copy boy at The Plain Dealer. At the end of a workweek, he easily logged 80 hours.

Roberts, then The PD's city editor, remembers Kucinich zigzagging between desks, his pint-size fists snapping up pages of typewritten copy amid clouds of chain smoke. It was here that Kucinich learned his love of ink — a tutorial in big-city media that would serve him for decades to come, for better or worse.

"I remember him talking about his life, whether he was going to be a politician or a reporter," Roberts says. "He was so smart and observant. He knew how reporters thought and how they developed stories. He realized he was smarter than reporters. He quickly saw the media for what it was — not some monolith, but a system of flawed human beings."

Yet the diminutive copy boy wasn't cut out for the wild ways of '60s newspaper life. Reporters often ribbed him about his intolerance for booze. So in the spring of 1968, Kucinich challenged them to a martini-chugging contest at the Rockwell Inn. He bet he could drink 10 in 30 minutes.

"This could kill him," the bartender said.

"Probably," a reporter responded.

Kucinich made good on his bet, downing the drinks in 27 minutes before heading out to the curb to puke. As a result, he underwent major stomach surgery that fall, ending his drinking — and his newspaper days.

It was for the best. Kucinich had already learned all he needed to know.

In 1969, Kucinich decided to run again for council. This time, the 23-year-old pitched himself as the shepherd of the "forgotten people," his new catchphrase for the Eastern Europeans of the near West Side.

He'd taken a lesson from former Mayor and Ohio Governor Frank Lausche, the first Eastern European Clevelander to hit the political big time. Lausche's success was largely due to his ability to win the "ethnic vote" — the vast yet isolated bloc of Eastern European immigrants, who felt ignored by Irish, black, and Italian politicians. Lausche's speeches were as much about Slovenian heritage as they were about public policy.

So Kucinich hawked his own Croatian ethnicity, constantly narrating his trials as the son of a practically homeless truck driver, careful to avoid any mention of his Irish mother. If Tremont didn't like the city's black incumbents, neither did Kucinich. If they hated tax abatements for business, so did he.

He would arrive at the Greek Orthodox church with a Hellenistic quote, then drive to the Alliance of Poles hall, where he'd shout, "Ja cie kocham!" — "I love you" in Polish.

This time, Kucinich beat Bilinski by a mere 16 votes.

He had discovered the key to Cleveland's electoral politics — or at least the one that suited him best. His rhetoric was rarely about getting things done, but rather railing against those who could. And his favorite target was Carl Stokes.

In 1967, Stokes became the first black mayor of a major American city, rising up from the poverty of an East Side housing project. Kucinich's constituents weren't fans of black people in general, and feared their emerging power would focus the city's resources on black wards, just as white ethnic politicians had always done with their own wards.

Kucinich fed their distrust, constantly denouncing Stokes for reverse racism. "[Kucinich] learned to play dirty pool," John Metcalf, a longtime Plain Dealer copy editor, was quoted as saying in a 1977 Cleveland magazine article. "Hell, there are a lot of ethnics out there who want to keep the niggers on their side of the river. There are a lot of bigots in that district, and someone has to represent them, let's face it."

One of Kucinich's first major targets was Community Development Director Richard Greene. The local news aired footage of a red-faced Kucinich standing on the Council floor, railing against the Stokes ally. He accused Greene of being overpaid and incompetent, citing the $29,400-a-year director's plans for a 447-unit East Side housing development. Why did West Siders have to pay for black housing, when they were barely able to make their own rent?

A few days later, according to a Cleveland magazine article, Kucinich approached Sheriff Gerald McFaul, then a councilman. "Hey, McFaul, how do you go about getting these abandoned homes torn down?" he asked about his blighted ward.

"You know the guy you said was incompetent and overpaid?" McFaul responded. "This guy you have to talk to."

"Oh, well, I guess he won't do nothing for me," Kucinich replied.

"Neither would I, Denny."

But this educational moment seemed to be lost on the young councilman. Over the next four decades, he would be continually confronted with the opportunity either to get things done or play the fighting politician on TV. And he would continually choose the latter. His achievements were best summed up by Shirley Smith, then director of the West Side Development Corporation, who once said, "For this hillbilly, he didn't do a darn thing."

Still, most West Side ethnics were content to watch Kucinich throw tantrums about the men they loathed, primarily Council President George Forbes, the epitome of mounting black power. "Dennis started playing what Forbes calls 'polka-dot politics' way back," Larkin says. "It was George's cute way of accusing Dennis of playing racial politics. [Kucinich] denies today that he played racial politics, but there is no doubt that he did."

At the time, the tactic guaranteed Kucinich plenty of ink and airtime, ensuring that supporters could proudly watch their savior's mission to save their city. "He convinced a lot of people that, goddammit, if there is something to fight for you, I will make that fight," Larkin says.

He quickly earned nicknames like "Denny the Kid" and "KBI" — for the Kucinich Bureau of Investigation. He became famous for keeping a hidden tape recorder in his pocket and passing out stories of corruption the way Planned Parenthood hands out condoms. "I would stagger into work [at the Cleveland Press] at 6:30 a.m.," Larkin says. "And at least one morning a week, guess who would be there waiting for me? He always had story ideas. He was always a master at using the media to serve his own purposes."

He built up his David persona every chance he could, alienating as many votes as he earned. Though his opponents saw him as little more than a lap dog, everyone was reading about him.

"He's an expert with the media," says Ralph Winters, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who worked with Kucinich. "He's done a very good job of responding quickly to situations in such a way as to get in the news. And in many cases, he has produced a news story, where the actual activity, the substance, was rather thin."

But Kucinich's biggest headlines were yet to come.

As Kucinich developed into a household name, Cleveland was getting ready to pick Stokes' successor.

James Carney had won the Democratic primary. But the millionaire developer stood for everything Kucinich loathed. He was rich, connected, and had no interest in serving Kucinich's "forgotten people," or so Kucinich believed. Then there was black candidate Arnold Pinkney, who would surely alienate West Side ethnics.

So Kucinich jumped ship, getting behind Ralph Perk, a Republican who wore his Czech/Slovak heritage as firmly as his thick-framed glasses. Though they came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, Kucinich was keenly aware that Slavs vote for ethnicity first, politics second.

Kucinich formed Democrats for Perk, solemnly promising every Polish Women's Hall in the city that the government would once again be returned to the "forgotten people." Together, they screamed that a cabal of black politicians and their millionaire backers was going to raise taxes only to line its own pockets — feeding into the very fears that plagued West Side voters.

Perk won. But in the end, Kucinich's support would prove to be little more than self-serving.

At the time, Kucinich was running for Congress. Perk's campaign proved a perfect aqueduct for spreading Kucinich's own word — which increasingly played on race. At one point, Kucinich even ridiculed his congressional opponent, Robert Minshall, for supporting the creation of a Martin Luther King holiday. To West Side ethnics, the message was clear.

Though Kucinich lost his House bid, working on Perk's campaign helped him cement a reputation as councilman of "the forgotten people." But Kucinich would turn on his mentor almost as soon as Perk was sworn in.

By 1977, Perk's promises of fighting for the "little guy" seemed lost. He lavishly redecorated the mayor's office and sponsored a $35 million tax abatement for National City Bank. He also cozied up to Forbes, who was loathed by the very ethnics who'd put Perk in office.

At the heart of his sinking popularity sat the infamous fight for Municipal Light.

For years, publicly owned Muny Light had been hemorrhaging millions, thanks to Cleveland's Soviet-style ineptitude. It was founded in 1907 by Mayor Tom Johnson and was at one point the city's only source of electricity, until the arrival of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. But the city — burdened by decades of patronage and corruption — had driven it into the dust.

"Muny Light was mismanaged, plain and simple," says Steve Lorton, who worked as the public relations director for CEI until the late 1990s. "They had this big plant down on the lakefront that didn't work, because they didn't know how to operate it. It broke down, so they started to buy power from us."

As the city leaned on CEI for its electricity, it racked up $18 million in debt, until CEI filed suit for the money it was owed. "We were reluctant to be of any more assistance than absolutely necessary and required by law," Lorton says. After all, CEI was bailing out its competitor.

Still, roughly 42 percent of Clevelanders believed that the plant should remain open to challenge CEI's ever-rising prices. It didn't matter that Muny Light was epically mismanaged or that voters refused to raise taxes for its upkeep. It was a fight unburdened by the weight of practicality. A war fit for Kucinich.

He blasted CEI, asserting the company wanted to steal Muny Light from the people. He even claimed Muny Light was profitable. "The management of CEI are firmly capitalists," says Lorton. "And Dennis Kucinich, it's fair to say he's a borderline socialist. From day one, there was some animosity, and it wasn't helped at all by Dennis' provocative language."

At first, Perk was in step with Kucinich. He resisted CEI's attempts to collect, even filing a $327 million antitrust suit against the company, claiming it was conspiring to kill Muny Light.

But the truth was that the city had put itself in this position, and a deadbeat blaming its rescuer doesn't play well in court. CEI won a judgment against Cleveland. If the city didn't pay up, Muny Light would be forced into bankruptcy. Perk finally proposed selling the plant to CEI for $158 million, payable over 30 years.

Kucinich attacked Perk, charging him with being part of the conspiracy. He announced that he would run for mayor.

Perk lost the Republican primary to Ed Feighan, a low-key state representative. Kucinich, meanwhile, made Muny Light the center of his campaign. He gathered 30,000 signatures to stop the sale. He worked the media harder than ever, attending every civic function to ensure his regular sound bites.

Kucinich loaded his campaign with promises — long lists of development plans for the business crowd, dogcatchers for the neighborhoods. It didn't matter that the city couldn't even pay its electric bill. He simply promised that the money would come from the feds.

But mostly, Kucinich talked up his city roots, referring to himself as a "child of Tremont" or a "child of Glenville," depending upon where he was.

It worked. On November 8, 1977, the 31-year-old Kucinich was voted mayor, the youngest ever of a major U.S. city. He'd won by less than 2 percent.

"He became mayor at a very young age," says Larkin. "But he got there because he was smarter and worked harder than anyone else on City Council."

Yet his torched-bridge strategy for gaining power would prove to have a very short shelf life.

When Kucinich took office in January 1978, City Hall was gearing for a major shake-up. He had promised layoffs to avoid raising taxes. But no one anticipated how far the mayor would go.

A day after his inauguration, Margaret White, a deputy director in the Community Development Department, was sitting in her office when a slender 24-year-old walked through the door. It was Betty Grdina, a Kucinich campaign worker who'd been named the department's new second-in-command.

"When are you going to get out?" asked Grdina, who'd been promised White's office, according to a Cleveland magazine article.

"As soon as that guy moves," White responded, pointing to someone sitting in her new, less desirable desk.

"I'm the boss now!" Grdina shouted. "I have to have a place to sit! How does it look for the boss to be without a desk?"

The scene became commonplace in the Kucinich administration. He ushered in a cavalry of 40 appointees, half of whom were barely old enough to drink. Many had been campaigning for Kucinich since they were in high school. Few had even remote experience running something as sprawling and complex as a city. But they did have one key attribute: All were fierce Kucinich loyalists. The notion of amateur hour would soon take on a whole new meaning.

Grdina's sister, Tonia, a 21-year-old undergrad at Cleveland State, was appointed the no. 2 administrator in the safety department, responsible for assisting the safety director. During contract talks, police-union negotiator Bill McNea complained the city was "forcing him to deal with a kid still wearing training bras," he told Cleveland magazine.

And if Muny Light was in trouble, it was about to get worse. Kucinich named 24-year-old Richard Barton, a grad student at Cleveland State, as the plant's new commissioner, though he had no experience in energy, much less the fiscal acumen to lead Muny Light to solvency. When the power went out in City Hall, thanks to a Muny Light blackout, Barton didn't even know where the emergency generator was located. He had to get a janitor to help him.

Joseph Tegreene, also 24, was named Cleveland's financial director. After graduating from Kenyon College, Tegreene's only real job had been a nine-month stint as a Merrill Lynch stockbroker. When he devised the city's 1978 budget, he neglected to account for such basic things as inflation or the city's new contracts. Independent analysts predicted that Cleveland would run out of money by October.

Kucinich had spent a decade cozying up to the media. But if apathy and corruption had long marched Cleveland to a slow death, the new mayor was moving at double time.

Reporters quickly dubbed his administration "the Red Guard" and "Hitler's youth corps." They accused his lackeys of being as much spies as administrators, hired to root out corruption, laziness, and anyone who stood in Kucinich's way. And like their boss, they were keenly adept at making enemies.

The mayor defended his hires. "What they lack in expertise, they make up for in willingness to learn," he told Cleveland magazine. "It's the quality of the experience more than the quantity."

But for many residents, the new — albeit prettier — guard was even worse than the old.

The blizzard of 1978 seemed to illustrate an administration in free fall. The summer before, Perk's service director, Robert Beasley, started planning for the winter's snow removal. After Perk was defeated in the primary, Beasley asked to meet with the mayoral candidates to exhibit his plans. Kucinich refused, contending his staff needed no training or advice.

In January, one of the worst snowfalls in Cleveland history arrived, forcing the feds to declare the city a disaster zone. In the end, 51 people died. Others were trapped in their homes or took refuge in shelters.

The chaos was in no small part due to the sheer ineptitude of Kucinich's administration, which had no concept of how to properly clear the streets. "They had no leadership," Beasley later told Cleveland magazine. "When the snow came, they panicked. The trick to plowing streets is not less snow or more equipment, but knowing how to put the equipment that you have at the place you need it at the time you need it. Without experience, that can't be done."

The mayor would later admit that his "snow removal program was an atrocity."

One of Kucinich's few advisers with any experience was Bob Weissman, a longtime political strategist and Kucinich's campaign manager, best known for his uncontrollable temper. His experience didn't serve the mayor well.

A Rasputin figure, Weissman often advised Kucinich on whom to fire and hire. Like a loyal son, Kucinich listened. When criticized for his decision-making, the mayor would often point to Weissman, claiming he told him to do it.

Once, before Kucinich paid a visit to American Greetings, Tegreene asked whether the mayor wouldn't mind saying hello to his mother, who worked in the plant.

But Weissman advised against the gesture, warning Kucinich that it would be unfair to single out a mother of an administrator. Kucinich agreed.

When he returned to City Hall later that day, Tegreene asked whether Kucinich had seen his mother, according to a Cleveland magazine article.

"No," Kucinich answered. "Bob didn't think it was a good idea."

Tegreene was shocked. The man he'd so dutifully served couldn't even say hello to his mother. "You're kidding, right?" Tegreene asked.

"No, really," Kucinich answered. "Bob thought it would embarrass her."

Even when Kucinich hired a likable aide, he managed to turn it sour. Police Chief Richard Hongisto, the former sheriff of San Francisco County, quickly became the most popular member of Kucinich's administration. Hongisto was polite, eschewing the mayor's politics of confrontation and endearing himself to the press.

But he also worried about aligning himself with the mayor's falling star. So Hongisto went public, claiming Kucinich pressured him to fire the mayor's opponents in the police department and replace them with supporters "with questionable ethics."

When Kucinich got wind of the story, he was furious. Hongisto "was every bit the publicity hound," Larkin says. "Being mayor is a big stage, but not big enough for those two egos, so Kucinich had to get rid of one of them."

On Holy Thursday, Kucinich dragged Hongisto in front of television cameras, where he suspended the chief and demanded proof of the accusations.

Then, on Good Friday, Kucinich fired Hongisto, naming Tonia Grdina, the college sophomore who was second-in-command of the safety department, the acting chief.

The press had a field day. No longer could Kucinich control the media — or his city.

It was Easter weekend. Councilman Bill Sullivan's phone wouldn't stop ringing. The callers were livid.

Helen Smith, a West Side housewife, wanted to know how they could get this madman out of office. Tom Campbell, a Cleveland State professor, wanted to chat about how embarrassing the Hongisto affair was for the city. Vince Francioli, who'd headed up a senior-citizens program before being fired by Kucinich, also had an ax to grind.

That Monday, the 20th District Caucus, a small citizens' group, formed to launch a recall of Kucinich. The mayor had been in office less than five months.

Kucinich dismissed the drive as little more than a media conspiracy. He was becoming increasingly paranoid, thanks to numerous death threats being phoned into City Hall. He started wearing a bulletproof vest and posted two patrol cars in front of his home around the clock.

As the trees began to bud, his city was spiraling out of control. Reports showed the city $19.4 million in debt — and that didn't include the Muny Light bill.

Without the media on his side, the mayor was forced to hit the streets to campaign against the recall, making 20 stops a day at parades, carnivals, and meetings, begging his "forgotten people" for their support.

On August 13, Cleveland held its first recall referendum in history. Kucinich survived, but by the slim margin of 236 votes. Once again, ethnic whites had come to his rescue — with the help of a few more promises, whether the mayor could deliver them or not.

"He's just like a brother to us," said Joe Raphael, a retired printer. "Why, during the height of the recall, he came out here to talk to us. He promised us a new $2 million recreation center. He always has time for us."

Yet the worst was yet to come. By the next winter, CEI was headed to federal court, hoping to place Muny Light in receivership. It found an ally in Cleveland Trust, Ohio's largest bank, which not only shared seven directors with CEI, but also held $15 million in loans taken out by the city. Cleveland Trust told Kucinich to sell Muny Light or face default.

Kucinich refused to budge. But instead of explaining Cleveland's painful finances to voters, he fell back on his old rhetoric, accusing the banks and CEI of conspiring against him.

To pay off the debt, he slashed 600 city jobs and proposed a $50 million bond issue.

By this time, he'd torched every ally available — from Irish to black, businessman to bureaucrat. Now that he needed a life raft, there was no one left to call. No one would help a man who so venomously denounced others. All Kucinich could do was play the victim and rage.

"My feeling is that if Dennis had been a decent person and tried to be a progressive influence in the city of Cleveland, the banks might have bent over backwards to help him," Lorton says. "But he was trying to screw everyone, especially the banks, and they weren't going to take it."

At midnight on December 15, 1978, Cleveland became the first city since the Great Depression to default on its loans.

The following year, Kucinich ran for re-election against Republican George Voinovich, hoping that his confrontational politics still held sway with ethnic whites. But no amount of populist preaching could cover the disaster that "the people's mayor" had devised. He was defeated by 11,000 votes.

The 1980s were not kind to Kucinich. After failing to find work in Cleveland, he moved to Los Angeles, earning meager money as a talk-radio host while crashing on Shirley MacLaine's couch and apparently spotting UFOs. In 1982, his tax return claimed just $38 in income. It would be another 15 years before people began rewriting his story.

By then, Muny Light had been re-formed as Cleveland Public Power. CEI was absorbed by FirstEnergy.

The Plain Dealer, which had blasted the mayor's decision not to sell Muny Light, now praised Kucinich for refusing to buckle beneath CEI's pressure, claiming that he'd saved Clevelanders more than $300 million in electrical costs. "On issues pertaining to default, Dennis wasn't all wrong," Larkin says. "Dennis' problem wasn't the substance as much as it was style."

Even Cleveland magazine, which was largely critical of Kucinich, wrote a 1996 editorial praising him for saving the plant. "There is little debate over the value of Muny Light today," it said.

Conveniently forgotten was the fact that Kucinich could have avoided default by simply working with creditors instead of denouncing them. Yet it would mark the beginning of his David and Goliath myth, a story Kucinich has done his best to script ever since.

Soon he was running for Congress, having cast aside his reputation as boy bombaster for the more palatable image of good West Side Catholic. The new Kucinich wasn't a career politician, but a working man himself — pro-labor, pro-family — and naturally against anything his constituents loathed, be it abortion or flag-burning, the morning-after pill or gay marriage.

The myth of the Muny Light fight became his new mantra, with campaign workers passing out bright yellow bumper stickers that read, "Because he was right."

It worked. Kucinich beat incumbent Republican Martin Hoke by 6,000 votes. "His career was in ruins, and everyone with an IQ over 80 said that this guy will never be elected into office again," says Larkin. ". . . It is the most remarkable political comeback I've ever seen, and you have to have some admiration for that."

Kucinich's skills seemed much better suited to Congress. Unlike the mayor's office, the nuts and bolts of governing could be left to 534 other members. Kucinich was free to follow his first love — holding rallies and press conferences.

After a decade in Congress, he remains an outsider, viewed largely as an oddity even within his own party. His legislation is largely written to produce headlines rather than public policy. His most prominent proposal, the Department of Peace, harks back to the promises of his mayor days: filled with rhetorical niceties, but with limited practical application and no mention of cost. In fact, he has yet to have a single bill passed into law.

Yet he retains a keen eye for using the issues of the day to get himself on TV. Style, it seems, still heartily trumps substance. "He makes a lot of noise," Larkin says. "He made a lot of noise about LTV Steel, and now it no longer exists. He made a lot of noise about the hospital, and that no longer exists. He just makes a lot of noise, though he's not as confrontational as he once was."

In 2003, when gas prices were hovering around $1.60 a gallon, he proposed a bill to tax the profits of big energy, contending, "Oil companies are clearly taking advantage of the American people." He's attacked the Cleveland Indians for moving their games to cable, attempted to abolish the death penalty, and most recently sought the impeachment of Dick Cheney.

In each case, his proposals went nowhere. Kucinich hadn't done the groundwork or built the allegiance to make them happen. But he did get his headlines, the kind that remind the "forgotten people" that he's still on their side.

And now he's remade himself again.

With his run for president, Kucinich is no longer catering to the blue-collar West Side, but the American left. He's no longer anti-gay, anti-abortion Cleveland Catholic, but a pro-choice, anti-war vegan bent on being the most liberal of the Democratic field. Ask supporters for his greatest accomplishments, and they'll inevitably raise the myth of Muny Light. But Kucinich carefully avoids the rest of his past.

He's not seen in Cleveland often these days and rarely speaks to the city's media. But when Scene interviewed him in 2003, he grew defensive about his racial politics, claiming it never happened: "I find it offensive that you just said I have a history of race-baiting."

Instead, he continues to polish the modern version of Dennis Kucinich — still the working man, the fighter, the enemy of his constituents' enemies — only this time painted in softer hues.

As he stood onstage during the recent Democratic debate in Nevada, he took "offense" to Wolf Blitzer's use of the term "illegal aliens."

"They are immigrants," Kucinich announced. "And we are a country of immigrants."

He was quick to remind the audience that he voted against NAFTA, against the war, against the Patriot Act. And he blasted John Edwards for voting for opening trade with China.

"I didn't," Kucinich said. "That's why I'm the worker's president."

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