Returning to his Longworth office following votes on a recent afternoon, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) just happens to run into presidential rival Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as he works his way down Independence Avenue.
The exchange is anything but acrimonious. The two Members shake hands; Kucinich asks Kerry how he’s doing. And without missing a beat, the Massachusetts Senator replies: “I’ve been waiting for your endorsement.”
The two Members laugh out loud, but Kucinich is taking his White House bid very seriously and isn’t looking to step aside anytime soon. As he walks away he has a quip of his own for Kerry: “I gave him a shot at being my running mate. I guess I’ll move on to someone else.”
Kucinich, 56, one of the darkest horses in the crowded Democratic primary field, is convinced he can become his party’s nominee. He says he won’t get out of the race, no matter how far back he sits among nine other hopefuls.
“I’m in this,” he said, stopping in his tracks. “I’m not getting out.”
“I’m used to looking at situations that other people say are lost causes and change the outcome,” added Kucinich, who at age 31 overcame long odds to become Cleveland’s youngest mayor in 1977.
Kucinich, only two months in the race, has a long way to go. He has little money, a small organization and very low name recognition. In the first quarter, he raised just $173,080, far below the millions raised by the bigger-name candidates.
Unlike his rivals, he’s actually a presence on the Hill, making House votes and participating on the floor. Kucinich acknowledged he may have to miss some votes as his campaign moves ahead, but said it won’t be very often.
“My Congressional duties take priority,” he said.
The four-term Member knows he’s doing it differently, and some question whether Kucinich’s style can translate into a White House victory.
John Edgell, a former Kucinich chief of staff who is backing Kerry, said his former boss is being encouraged to run by people who don’t understand the harsh realities of running an effective, nationwide campaign for president.
“Having been part of five presidential campaigns, at all levels, primary and general, I’ve seen what it takes,” said Edgell, who has not been asked by Kucinich for advice. “When you respect and care for someone, you want them to succeed. And my counsel to Dennis would have been not to run unless you’re fully prepared financially, organizationally and physically. You cannot just run on a lark. Given the circumstances and obstacles, I think that, invariably, reality is going to set in.”
Kucinich is in many ways the maverick presidential candidate, but that’s nothing new. He often ruffled feathers in the House, especially in the past few months as he attempted to turn debate to his trademark issue: opposition to the war in Iraq.
That’s bothersome to some Members who believe he’s used the Congressional pulpit to bolster his candidacy. It also wasn’t helpful to House Democrats, some Members said privately, since the party was deeply divided on whether the country should engage in military conflict in the Middle East.
“He’s the type of person that I don’t think anyone could shut up,” said an aide to one moderate Democratic House Member. “I don’t think even Nancy Pelosi could shut him up.
“I think there are a lot of Members that feel ‘enough already,’” the staffer added. “We know you are opposed to the war. You made that very clear.”
‘Crazy for Him’
But Kucinich, always vocal on the topics he is passionate about, believes people are listening. As co-chairman of the Democrats’ liberal Progressive Caucus, he has a loyal following, and many Members have appreciated him adding their anti-war positions to the national arena.
“The very basis of Congress is diversity of opinion,” Kucinich said. “People may not agree with me on some of the issues, but we respect each other.”
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), who has yet to commit to any presidential candidate but is a Kucinich ally, said Members have to admire her Ohio colleague for having the courage to speak out, even if they don’t share his views.
“I believe he’s entitled as a Member of Congress in a country where we cherish the principles of free speech and Democracy to maintain his stand,” she said.
“He’s bringing some good issues to the debate,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a fellow Progressive Caucus member. “People in my district are crazy for him. They love him.”
Right now, Kucinich said he’s working his campaign from the grassroots up. He’s also promoting his agenda, which he stressed goes beyond his anti-war stand that got him into the race.
“This isn’t just about being anti-war,” he said sternly. “That’s a distorted Cliff Note of my campaign.”
He said he wants universal health care and education, wants to cut waste out of the military, and opposes any privatization of Social Security. Many of his positions — showing that he certainly is among the leftist of the left — put Kucinich in a field of his own when it comes to his candidacy.
Kucinich said he’s felt no rub from his colleagues throughout his young campaign, specifically his unfaltering challenge of President Bush and his foreign policies. “Never,” he insisted. “Not at all. People know I’m coming from a place of real concern for the country.
“I think the American people want a president who will tell them like it is,” he said.
No House Endorsements
Kucinich said he’s attracting crowds of people as he tours the country, noting that there have been hundreds of potential voters attending his events from Louisville to Los Angeles. And, he is grateful the Congressional stage has helped launch his candidacy and given him national appeal.
“I didn’t know that was going to happen,” he said.
While Kucinich said he’s gaining steam nationally, he doesn’t yet appear to be a major magnet for support in the House. He has yet to capture any endorsements or collect contributions from fellow Members, including his own liberal wing of the Democratic Caucus.
“It’s way too soon,” said Woolsey, who recently joined Kucinich in announcing a bill to form a Department of Peace.
“It’s much too early for anybody to coalesce around any candidate,” added Rep. Peter
DeFazio (D-Ore.), also a progressive.
If his ideological friends aren’t rallying around his candidacy yet, some Democrats privately question if any Members ever will come on board the campaign. But Kucinich is unfazed and undaunted, saying he hasn’t asked Members for a nod and doesn’t expect them to volunteer it.
“Once my support surfaces and they understand I have a campaign that has the potential to win, when Members see that, the easier it will be to get Members involved,” he said.
But Kucinich doesn’t measure his campaign’s legitimacy by how many lawmakers rally around him. There will be House backers when he’s ready, he said.
“Just as I’ve marched to the beat of a different drummer in Washington,” he said, “so too does my campaign.”
Brody Mullins contributed to this report.