BROOK PARK, Ohio — He might boast friends like Shirley MacLaine and Sean Penn, but at a luncheon last week for retired members of the United Auto Workers union, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) was the star.
“My brothers and sisters, I need your help,” Kucinich called out to a cheering crowd of 350 retired auto workers and their spouses. “Are you with me on March the Fourth? Are you with me?”
Kucinich may have lots of brothers and sisters in the labor movement, but he does not have so many friends these days. In next week’s Democratic primary, he’s facing the first serious challenge for his Cleveland-area Congressional seat since he was elected in 1996.
Coming off his second presidential race, Kucinich’s national campaigns have angered residents and business leaders, many of whom have put their money behind young, ambitious Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman (D).
And Cimperman is not the only one with his eyes on Kucinich. Three other Democrats are running because they also say Kucinich has neglected to take care of the district while he was on the presidential campaign trail.
So on a snowy weekday afternoon, across the street from a Ford engine plant here, Kucinich was working his base. As he paraded through the union hall he passed walls filled with black and yellow block-lettered signs that read “DENNIS!”
“You saw the response that I got,” Kucinich said in an interview after his speech. “Look, this wasn’t rehearsed. I walked in. Crowds don’t lie. They’ll tell you how things are going.”
But these crowds are getting smaller in northeast Ohio, in particular the union following that Kucinich has relied on over his six terms in Congress and in his single term in the 1970s as the “Boy Mayor” of Cleveland.
According to Charlie Beck, the UAW Local 1250 financial secretary who has known Kucinich since he was mayor, the local has lost 60 percent of its membership in the past 18 months.
Still, Kucinich said that he was compelled to seek another term because “labor asked me to,” and the Congressman named local union leaders, such as North Shore Federation of Labor head Harriet Applegate, who wanted him to come off the presidential campaign trail and come back to Cleveland. His wife, Elizabeth Kucinich, chimed in with a few more names of people who they say asked him to run again.
“They came to me and they said, ‘Look, Dennis, we need you in the Congress,’” he said. “And so the talk that I had with them came at a time when I kept getting shut out of [presidential] debates and I saw that I wasn’t really able get a message out and they prevailed upon me to come back and really defend this Congressional seat. And so I did it, for them.”
Taking It Seriously
The March 4 Congressional primaries in Ohio coincide with the White House primary. That means turnout in Kucinich’s 10th district will be high and unpredictable, especially because Ohio voters have an open primary in which anyone, regardless of party, can vote in the Democratic contest.
Cimperman, a 37-year-old city councilman with boundless energy, has the best chance of taking down Kucinich.
Cimperman announced around the first of the year that he had raised $228,000 for this campaign and was putting a television advertisement on the Cleveland airwaves.
At that time, Kucinich had $13,400 in his re-election campaign’s bank account.
“I don’t care who you are, running as a Congressman,” Kucinich said. “If somebody puts a couple million dollars into a race against you and starts attacking you, you better take that seriously. And I did.”
For the first time in his Congressional career, Kucinich last week debated his primary opponents in a large venue, sponsored by the City Club, a local civic organization. By vehemently protesting the networks for shutting him out of the White House debates, Kucinich had backed himself into a corner.
And so Kucinich sat in the middle of a table surrounded by his four primary opponents at the sold-out debate. In front of a more than 600-person lunch-hour crowd, Cimperman and 2006 Democratic primary candidate Barbara Ferris sat to his right, while North Olmstead Mayor Tom O’Grady and anti-war activist Rosemary Palmer were on his left.
Cimperman threw rhetorical punches at Kucinich at every opportunity.
“The 10th district now more than ever needs a workhorse, not a show horse,” he said.
Ferris touted her 2006 primary endorsement by The Plain Dealer newspaper, an honor that Cimperman has won this cycle. She said her time working on Capitol Hill plus her experience as a grant writer suits her for the job. “I know how to bring home federal dollars,” she said.
In the most humorous moment of the 90- minute debate, Ferris recalled Kucinich telling her after a local Democratic club meeting that she is the most qualified candidate in the race.
She deadpanned that Kucinich should therefore drop out of the race and endorse her candidacy. The crowd responded with laughter.
Kucinich was by far the loudest candidate on stage.
“I cannot be bought, nor can I be bossed,” he said repeatedly.
Either the presidential trade has honed his skills, or, as some of his detractors say, the combative Boy Mayor, who frequently fought with business and civic leaders, is back.
“I work with business, I’m not a posse for business,” Kucinich said, an allusion to Cimperman’s support from the business community.
The moderator asked Cimperman to respond, saying Kucinich implied criticism of the councilman in his remark.
“I didn’t call his name,” a visibly annoyed Kucinich interjected before Cimperman could get a word in.
It wasn’t the first time Kucinich refused to say Cimperman’s name.
“I didn’t come here to attack anyone,” Kucinich said after the debate. “I came here today to let people know that this seat doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to them. When we get into personalities, I think it throws that off.”
Kucinich wasn’t the only candidate at the debate attacking Cimperman. And there may be a bit of gamesmanship going on — or some political calculations about the future.
Just after the debate, when asked about her second-favorite performance of the day, Elizabeth Kucinich named O’Grady’s.
“I really liked Tom O’Grady,” she said. “I really appreciated his level of insight and his approach.”
O’Grady, who is mayor of one of the largest suburban towns in the district, insisted he is the most qualified for the job. An Army veteran who uses a cane for his injured leg, O’Grady criticized Cimperman more than he criticized Kucinich.
O’Grady often reminds voters that Cimperman lives outside the district in downtown Cleveland. Cimperman’s ward comprises part of the 10th district, but he lives across the street from the line.
“If he did know the district, he would know that he’s completely unelectable,” O’Grady said of Cimperman.
O’Grady and Cimperman announced their candidacies within two days of each other, raising plenty of eyebrows. O’Grady said in an interview that he wants Cimperman out of the race. Cimperman said he thinks O’Grady is running for “vice Congressman.”
Just after the debate, Ferris was talking to her supporters, a group she affectionately called “my vets.” Ferris is on her third bid for the seat, running as a Democrat in 2006 and an Independent in 2004.
Lakewood residents Doc Unger, a former prisoner of war, and his wife, Helen, were among the group of veterans at Ferris’ table.
“I guess if I were to evaluate them, I’d say I like the two ladies the best,” said Helen Unger. “I think they both spoke very well, in a nice manner. And then the mayor of North Olmstead, I think he does a nice job. As far as the youngest one goes, Cimperman, I don’t care for his presentation because he’s too openly critical.”
As registered Republicans, the couple had never voted for Kucinich.
“Personally, I think he gets a bad rap,” Helen Unger said. “He works hard. I think he’s sincere about what he does. He may not always do it in the most appropriate manner. … I don’t suppose that I would vote for him. But I think he does get treated in a way that he doesn’t really [deserve].”
As the room cleared out, Ferris chatted up a waiter who appeared to be interested in campaigning for her.
“Do you drive?” she asked him.
Campaign Stunts, Campaign Cash
Later that evening, Cimperman rushed around the suburbs to attend multiple events for both his campaign and city council duties. During a reception at a small suburban bar, Cimperman talked a mile a minute.
“If you heard the debate today, I think you’d agree that were wasn’t one more punch that we could have held back,” Cimperman told the score of young professionals at the bar.
It’s obvious that Cimperman is really excited to be running for Congress.
“My mom didn’t speak English. My dad was a union machinist. Who could have ever imagined that I could be running for Congress?” Cimperman said. “I mean, it’s crazy. It’s really crazy. For me, it’s just an example of the American dream.”
Despite the presence of three other candidates, Cimperman sees the race as a battle between him and Kucinich.
“Everyone is like, well, you’ve got so many people in the race and Mr. Kucinich’s got such strong name recognition,” Cimperman said in an interview. “This is the first time he’s ever had a fight for his seat. It’s the first time he’s ever debated at the City Club. He’s not debating there because, you know, he feels like it. I think he’s debating there because he understands that we’re a viable threat. He dropped out of the presidential race because we got in it.”
Cimperman kicked off his campaign with a couple of well-publicized stunts, including delivering a welcome basket to Kucinich. The basket included maps of Iowa, New Hampshire and Hollywood, plus some Cleveland sausages. Although they have attracted the ire of some of his opponents, he views such tactics as necessary.
“I was challenged by one of the news outlets live on camera [asking], ‘Why are you doing this? This isn’t what people want,’” he said. “I said, ‘We sent three press releases to you. One on my foreclosure policy, one on my health care policy, one on my policy for jobs and economic development, and you guys didn’t show. No disrespect, but media comes to stuff [like the welcome basket stunt].’”
But stunts aren’t the only things that kick-started Cimperman’s campaign. The backing of the Cleveland business community, a powerful political money force in the entire state, gave Cimperman an early financial edge.
Kucinich came back to raise $715,500 since January and reportedly spent much of it buying up time on the Cleveland airwaves. Cimperman has raised an additional $440,300 in the same period. All of the other candidates raised less than $55,000 in the first six weeks of the year, not including a loan Palmer made to her own campaign.
Another Disgruntled Voter
Rosemary Palmer was in constant motion, but it was still a slow morning.
The mother of a soldier who was killed in Iraq zig-zagged around a grocery store parking lot in North Olmstead, where O’Grady is mayor. After one hour in the fierce cold, Palmer handed out only about two dozen fliers and knocked on half as many doors.
Palmer rushed back into what her campaign calls the “Hope Mobile,” a 1985 blue school bus she bought for $1,300 on eBay that has a pungent smell of gasoline because of a broken carburetor.
“We’re going to get it fixed,” she said. “We’re just waiting until after the primary.”
Her husband, Paul, continues to drive the bus that he picked up in Kansas City a month ago and navigated all the way back to Cleveland with no heat. A photograph of Palmer’s late son hangs from the rearview mirror.
Palmer has said she never would even have considered running for Congress a few years ago. As a former Kucinich supporter herself, she became disillusioned with the Congressman. But she said she still won’t attack him personally, in part because they have many mutual friends and supporters.
Nonetheless, Palmer is one more disgruntled voter who said she lost hope in Kucinich when he announced his second White House bid, a quixotic journey she chalks up to “ambition.”
“He really does think that he could make a peaceful world,” Palmer said.