Liberal Congressman Faces Serious Threat in Primary
The numbers might be against Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) this year.
Not only does the former “Boy Mayor” of Cleveland have four primary opponents on March 4, but a credible Republican probably awaits the winner in the general election in the Democratic district.
And, of no surprise to Cleveland Democrats, Kucinich’s second quixotic presidential bid, which he abandoned last week, is largely to blame for his precarious standing.
Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman, North Olmstead Mayor Thomas O’Grady, anti-war activist Rosemary Palmer and 2006 candidate Barbara Ann Ferris all are running against Kucinich in the Democratic primary. Meanwhile, former state Rep. Jim Trakas is running in the Republican primary against 2006
candidate Jason Werner.
Ironically, those numbers also may work to Kucinich’s advantage. While a crowded field shows the extent of the opposition he faces, it also splits the vote against him.
But can he keep his coalitions and will he be adequately funded for the primary? One of Kucinich’s closest political allies, the Cleveland labor unions, don’t appear to be holding back their discontent this cycle.
Harriet Applegate, the executive secretary of the Cleveland North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, which has about 40,000 members in the 10th Congressional district, said her group always has endorsed Kucinich since his first Congressional win in 1996 — which it did again recently.
But according to sources familiar with the situation, North Shore Federation leaders told the Congressman in a meeting earlier this month that they couldn’t promise their organization’s full support unless he got out of his presidential bid immediately.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” said Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan (D). “They said, ‘Get out now or we’ll stay neutral or endorse Joe Cimperman.’”
Applegate acknowledged that union leaders sat down with Kucinich in early January to discuss his re-election bid.
“We were anxious for Dennis to be visible in the district,” she said. “We didn’t go so far as to ask him to drop out. … We have our opinion, of course. We said, ‘What we really need from you, Dennis, is we need your face in the place. … We want your visibility.’”
But Applegate denies that the union ever asked Kucinich to drop his presidential bid.
“We did not ask him to drop out,” she said. “That was his business as far as he’s concerned.”
Although the local AFL-CIO did endorse Kucinich for Congress this cycle, Applegate noted that the chapter has endorsed both Cimperman and O’Grady for their races in the past.
“The endorsements can only endorse at one level,” said Hagan, who does not support Kucinich. “If you can deliver the rank and file, they’re going to have a hard time doing that, given that Joe Cimperman is not anti-labor.”
Former Cleveland-area Rep. Dennis Eckart (D), who has not endorsed anyone in the race, said that almost every labor leader was behind Kucinich in the past — in most cases quite literally, at his re-election announcements. But while union leaders may be getting behind Kucinich, the rank-and-file members were said to be wavering.
Eckart said he has seen multiple independent polls that “show some erosion from the kind of numbers I’ve seen Dennis get in the past” and that “seem to suggest that he’s lost some union support from the households, but not the leaders.”
Regardless of his reasons, Kucinich dropped out of the presidential race on Jan. 24, disclosing his plans first to The Plain Dealer in Cleveland during a meeting to discuss the paper’s Congressional primary endorsement. The hometown paper, with which Kucinich has traditionally had a tenuous relationship, endorsed Cimperman three days later.
Furthermore, his presidential bid might have interrupted further his Congressional re-election campaign. After repeatedly getting shut out of presidential forums, Kucinich has agreed to debate his Democratic opponents on Feb. 19 for the first time in many local pols’ recent memories.
If the quantity of opponents didn’t get to Kucinich, perhaps it was another number: fundraising totals. Cimperman announced at the end of December that he’d raised $226,000 in the last 15 days of the year.
Kucinich recently put out an SOS to supporters, saying he needed campaign contributions quickly to stave off the challenge from Cimperman, who he characterized as beholden to real estate developers and big business.
“He waited until a credible challenger came into the race and raised a lot of money to get out of the presidential race,” Cimperman said.
He said that if Kucinich had kept up his relations with labor groups and constituents, he wouldn’t “have to make these last ditch attempts for cash,” such as his recent e-mail appeals asking for donations.
Kucinich campaign spokesman Andy Juniewicz said the campaign traditionally does not release fundraising numbers until they are required to be released on Jan. 31. But according to his last available online fundraising report, Kucinich raised $40 for his Congressional account from July 1 to Sept. 30, leaving him with $3,850 in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter.
And it’s unclear how much money Kucinich has left in his presidential fundraising account and how much he’d be able to transfer to his Congressional fund.
“Since he announced that he’s withdrawn from the presidential race, the numbers are changing dramatically,” Juniewicz said.
And then there are more numbers: Internal polling floating around the district shows Kucinich is vulnerable because of low approval ratings.
Cimperman confirmed that his campaign had done polling including head-to-head totals with Kucinich, but he refused to discuss the survey’s specifics. Juniewicz said that if the Kucinich campaign has completed internal polling, he was not willing to release it.
O’Grady, who has been planning a bid against Kucinich since August, said he’s been looking at some of the poll results from various campaigns and organizations. But he said the entrance of Cimperman and the others into the race put a monkey wrench into his campaign strategy.
“The last-minute entrance from the city councilman from Cleveland certainly put a spin on it that we weren’t anticipating,” O’Grady said. “I’d say it put a spin on it much to the detriment of the discussion that should be taking place.”
O’Grady, who said he’s raised $50,000 so far, said it is a “great challenge” for four challengers to take on a well-known incumbent.
What’s more, even if one or more candidates drop out, it’s too late to take their names off the ballot, according to Ohio election rules. If someone did drop out, signs would have to be hung in polling places and votes for that candidate would not be counted.
“I think it’s stacked up in [Kucinich’s] favor,” said Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti, who is supporting Cimperman. “The fact that there are four people running against him is really going to split the anti-Kucinich dissident vote.”