CLEVELAND — In his political lifespan, Rep. Dennis Kucinich traveled the globe to meet world leaders, crisscrossed the country to run for president and even flirted with running for re-election in Washington state.
But a much less glamorous locale will determine the Ohio Democrat’s fate next month: Toledo.
As the snow whips past his hybrid SUV on the two-hour drive from his home in Cleveland to Toledo on Saturday morning, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wants this job. But two Members — Kucinich and fellow Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur — want to represent the redrawn 9th district, which stretches 120 miles along Lake Erie’s shoreline.
The new district’s numbers aren’t in Kucinich’s favor, but that’s never stopped the two-time failed presidential candidate from running before. Yet even the west Cleveland Congressman admits he’s not sure who will win the March 6 primary.
“This is a contest, and I think one must be optimistic but at the same time cautious about the outcome,” Kucinich said in an interview. “I don’t know how this is going to turn out.”
Republicans redrew Ohio’s Congressional map last year after the Buckeye State lost two seats because of lagging population growth. The makeup of the new district favors Kaptur because she currently represents more of it — a fact that worries some of Kucinich’s famous friends.
“I’ve supported him ever since he was mayor of Cleveland,” Larry Flynt, a longtime Kucinich backer and former Ohio resident, told Roll Call. “I hope he does [win], but you have to call them as you see them, and it doesn’t look too good for him.”
So Kucinich drives to Toledo to try to save his political career on this blizzardy Saturday morning. He rises early to clean off several inches of snow from his car — the kind of weather that would paralyze Washington, D.C., but that Cleveland barely notices.
“Every single time we’ve gone to Toledo, it’s snowing,” Kucinich commented.
The diminutive 65-year-old lawmaker exudes calm during much of the ride while his longtime aide, Morris Pettus, drives. He likes to listen to Willie Nelson — another one of his famous supporters — on the road. But he says his wife, Elizabeth, expanded his music tastes to include pop acts such as Rihanna, Kanye West and Lady Gaga.
“There’s something about the rebellious spirit of rock ’n’ roll that helps to fuel my relentless challenge to the status quo,” Kucinich remarked before hopping out at a desolate service plaza off the Ohio Turnpike. “You know that Katy Perry song, ‘Firework’? It’s a great song, and it’s inspirational, too.”
Many miles later, the snow withers, and there are rows of farmland, red barns, riverbeds and railroad tracks that disappear into the horizon.
Kucinich is a long way from Cleveland. He pulls into Toledo almost an hour before he’s scheduled to open his first campaign office in the city. Kucinich doesn’t like to be early to his own events, so for the better part of an hour, the car drives around as he looks for someone, anyone, to meet.
He runs out of the car to thank a man shoveling snow who has a trademark yellow “Dennis!” yard sign before shuffling back to the car. Afterward, Kucinich and Pettus bicker over how to turn off the GPS.
How well does he know Toledo?
“I’m a quick study,” the quirky Congressman claimed.
Kucinich finds a bar stool at the Coney Island Hot Dog shop, which he visited last week after his editorial board meeting with the Toledo Blade across the street. That newspaper, as well as the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Lorain Morning Journal, backed Kaptur instead.
Kucinich doesn’t eat hot dogs — or any meat, for that matter. He’ll settle for dry toast and hot water at the counter, while his BlackBerry rests on a paper napkin. After greeting a couple of patrons, he pays his $4.27 tab and leaves.
This cycle presents a new challenge for Kucinich and Kaptur. How do you introduce yourself to a swath of new voters when your biggest selling point is your tenure in a body with a single-digit approval rating?
Ironically, Kucinich’s best political argument on the trail is that he’s a change agent despite spending the past 40 years in politics.
A month after his 21st birthday, Kucinich ran for city council and narrowly lost by a few hundred votes. Two years later, he won his first race for city council by 16 votes. In 1977, at age 31, Kucinich became known as the “boy mayor” of Cleveland, and then he lost his bid for a second term.
Kucinich has seen tough races. He ran for Congress four times before winning his first term in 1996. After his second bid for president, Kucinich won a tough 2008 primary over a city councilman, with just more than 50 percent of the vote.
But the rules of the game have changed for Kucinich in facing Kaptur, also 65 and the dean of the Ohio delegation. While many of his constituents accepted Kucinich’s unique political personality, he’s now forced to introduce himself to a whole new crowd.
“I’ve come to realize that Congressman Kucinich has largely been confined to a portion of Cuyahoga County,” Kaptur said later that Saturday during her hair style session at Lakewood’s Crazy Mullets salon. “But he hasn’t really represented the coasts. He has a different perspective.”
In Lakewood, just west of Cleveland, the tension between the two ends of the redrawn 9th is palpable. Voters seem to resent having to favor one perspective, or geographic base, over another.
“It’s just frustrating for us that we have to choose,” said Kristine Pagsuyoin, a 45-year-old Democrat who says she is undecided for whom she will vote. “No matter how Republicans want to say we’re like Toledo, we’re not.”
Kucinich’s Many Faces
Kucinich possesses multiple political personalities: There’s the outspoken peacenik and civil liberties spokesman on cable news. Then there’s the activist star who hangs out with the likes of Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn and Nelson.
As he goes around Toledo, stopping at local haunts such as the Summit Diner, folks recognize him from television, but not as their Congressman — at least not yet.
“I’m running out here in 24 days,” he says to diners before placing an order for oatmeal cooked in water — no butter for the vegan, please.
Back home in his district, Kucinich champions workers rights, social justice for minorities and local transportation projects.
On the campaign trail, he’s the empathizer-in-chief. Over the course of a long Saturday morning in Toledo, one person was moved to tears at each of his three campaign stops.
At the diner, Peggy Green spills her woeful tale of unemployment as tears well in her eyes and her face reddens. She was laid off by a law firm at the end of last year, and she’s about to lose her home because she can’t pay her $340 mortgage.
Kucinich holds her and tells her not to quit.
“He said to hang in there, just hang in there and don’t give up,” Green, 59, said.
Afterward, Kucinich explained in the gray slush-filled parking lot that he will personally call on Green’s behalf to find her an attorney.
But it’s a dicey situation, he said, because Congressional rules prevent him from doing casework for residents outside his district. This is only complicated by the fact that he’s running against Green’s Congresswoman, Kaptur.
But in a few short weeks, the tension between Kaptur and Kucinich, or Toledo and Cleveland, won’t be an issue. If this is indeed the end of the road for Kucinich, what will the lifetime politician do for his next act?
“Spend a lot of time with my wife, and I’d like that,” Kucinich said with a smile.