Fresh off months of campaigning unsuccessfully for the 2004 presidency, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) believes he has new national influence and wields more power in Congress than ever before.
The liberal maverick lawmaker, first elected in 1996, formally abandoned his White House bid last week and endorsed the presumptive party nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.). Kucinich was the final Democratic challenger to drop out of the race and the last to endorse Kerry, ultimately doing so despite insisting earlier that he would stay on through the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
In an interview last week, Kucinich said even though his presidential hopes are over, he has two new and perhaps even more important roles to pursue. One is to unify the party nationally and work to incorporate a progressive agenda into the Democratic platform, while the other is to push his agenda ever more fervently in Congress.
“I’m working on a big-tent approach” to the party, he said. “I’ve incorporated it in my participation here, and I’m working with voters to help the Democratic Party evolve.”
“This is an ongoing effort — it’s not about one primary or one caucus or one presidential election,” he added. “It’s about my continuing effort to reshape the party.”
As part of that, Kucinich will stump for Kerry to build support among progressive Democrats, and try to discourage those voters from supporting Ralph Nader, the independent candidate who many believe will strip liberal voters away from Kerry.
“If there’s room for me in the Democratic Party, then there’s a place for people who might be considering supporting Nader,” said Kucinich, who did not rule out the option of reaching out to Nader personally to discuss getting out of the race.
“I’m going to encourage people to work within the Democratic Party just as I am. That’s the way we’re going to win and create change. We cannot do that if the current administration stays in place,” he said.
Kucinich said that in the coming weeks he will hit the trail for Democratic House candidates, many of whom already have asked him to come to their districts to campaign. He says he sees himself filling a specific role for the party — one that mirrors that of his friend and ally, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (Minn.), the progressive icon who at times took on his own party to push liberal ideals.
“I’d say we’ve reached out to Wellstone Democrats,” he said. “Paul Wellstone is being kept alive.”
But even beyond his national appeal, Kucinich says he has a new appreciation for the House, the leadership and the role he can play there.
“Since the primary-caucus season ended, I have come back to the House with renewed fervor,” Kucinich said. “I’ve been an active Member of the House, but what’s interesting now is I’m returning from the campaign trail to the House having a much broader constituency — a national constituency.”
That, he said, gives more punch to Kucinich’s agenda of peace, civil liberties, universal health care and fair-trade policies. The former Cleveland mayor says that after visiting many of his colleagues’ districts and broadening his support nationally, he’s expanded his national base and gained more respect in Congress.
Kucinich said that since coming off the stump, he’s even had success on his legislative proposals, pointing to two recent amendments he passed that would give labor and the steel industry a seat on the U.S. Manufacturing Council, and another calling for an investigation by the CIA inspector general into allegations of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Ohio lawmaker also noted that he now has 50 co-sponsors for his bill to create a Department of Peace. Eight states have added the idea to their state party platforms, he added.
“What’s happening is I’m becoming more active on the floor than ever,” he said. “I’m getting more requests from my colleagues to join with them in their efforts. What it’s done is it’s enhanced my role in the U.S. Congress [and] made me a more effective Member of the House.”
While Kucinich doesn’t necessarily share the same views of the entire Caucus, even leadership sources acknowledge that his time traveling the country could help build his support on Capitol Hill.
“He definitely has increased his name recognition nationally and has a strong following among certain constituencies,” said one senior Democratic House aide. “Among Members, his profile hasn’t increased overwhelmingly, but if he returns in an active capacity, that could happen.”
Kucinich knew early on he was a long shot for the presidency, but he still believed he had a legitimate chance at winning. Kucinich said he’s used to tough odds, recalling that in the ninth grade — at 4 feet 9 inches and weighing just over 90 pounds — he went out for his school’s football team.
“They told me I was too small to play. They told me if you go out there, you’ll get killed,” he said.
But Kucinich said he pressed on anyway and actually ended up playing for the injured quarterbacks and ultimately lettered that year.
“I went out for that team with the intention of winning,” he said. “And I came from my seat in the House with the intention of winning” the Democratic nomination.
“I understand what it is to sit on a bench and wait my turn,” he added. “You just never know and you always have to be ready. You can say the same thing for politics, you just never know.”