I recently sat down with Dennis Kucinich via Zoom to discuss his latest book, The Division of Light and Power. Given the power of the currents emanating from our contemporary political environment, I found a review of his public policy career illuminating and one that carries enormous lessons for a system struggling with democratic relevancy.
Political writers and analysts often flippantly cast about for examples of profiles of courage and usually come up short. While Kucinich may come up short in physical stature his fortitude and tenacity cut a rather large figure indeed. The book and the lessons gleaned from it detail a devotion to public service that would surely test the hardiest souls and offer a testament to those seeking veracity from our public officials and commitment to the greater good.
Trying to adequately capture the length and breadth of Dennis Kucinich’s devotion to public service would require enough words to fill a book in and of itself, however, suffice it to say that in any dictionary a description of public servant need only carry a picture of the man himself. As we recently discussed it comes as no surprise that he rather dismissively allows “anyone can get elected, its easy.” If only that applied to those willing to place policy above politics I believe we would not find ourselves in the crosshairs of the current dysfunction that afflicts our state of affairs.
Here is a snapshot of his career: member of Cleveland City Council from 1970-1973 and 1983-1985, Mayor of Cleveland from 1977-1979, Ohio State Senate 1995-1997, US. House of Representatives 1997-2013. Not bad for a self-described “kid from the streets” whose family moved 21 times by the time he reached the age of 17. Of course I would also be remiss if I did not mention he has run for the Democratic nomination for President in 2004 and 2008, and was the youngest elected Mayor of major American City at the age of 31.
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His latest book exhaustively details his quest to literally take on City Hall and restore, power to the people of Cleveland. His journey and choice of careers would take its toll on marriages, his health, and various assassination attempts but standing up to power most likely will find its way on his eventual tombstone. His story is one that details how “one person can make a difference…you can go into public life and exercise your conscience…you need to challenge the established order.”
He encourages young people to exercise “informed common sense that will allow you to evolve as a public servant as you get involved in your community.” Addressing attempts against his life he simply offers “taking a stand requires that you encounter risks…is there any other way to live?…You cannot grow if you spend your life on your knees…the lesson is don’t be afraid.”
I sincerely doubt that Kucinich ever found an issue he was afraid to tackle and his belief in government as a constructive instrument to establish and implement workable solutions is unquestioned. “Government can work, it just matters who it is working for…the many or the few…is it working for the corporate interests at the expense of the people in the community?.. The purpose of government is to serve everyone not just the few at the expense of the many.”
The book is a journey through the detours, the dead ends, the wrong turns, inclement weather, and political intrigue that threatened to derail the ability of the residents of Cleveland to take advantage of the benefits of a public power utility. It reads like a case study in corruption that intends to deprive the citizens of their rights to control a monopoly that would subsequently end up costing them more.
The essential lesson of the story, according to Kucinich, is he “saved the Division of Light and Power from a takeover by a utility monopoly that was attempted to be forced upon us by a bank which made the price of renewing the city’s credit the sale of our electric system. The bank put the city into default, we passed a tax to get us out of default, the bank reneged on a promise to take us out of default if a tax was passed and kept us in default until I left office. This was a coup by financial powers to take over the government of a city.”
In light of the recent attack on the Capitol in Washington, DC, an insurrection that many have described as an attempted coup, resulted in death and injuries, and an ongoing investigation that will certainly net criminal convictions in hundreds of cases, the clarion call to arms that Kucinich and others offer is designed to protect our representative democracy from the ravages and corruption that accompanies an autocratic populism that is driven by and hides behind dark money interests and personal greed and power.
We are currently living in a political environment that affords little opportunity to readily identify profiles in courage, where division among competing interests more often than not serves the few at the expense of the many, where compromise, comity, and decorum are sacrificed to the highest bidder, and hence public confidence in our leaders and institutions has virtually disappeared and cynicism reigns. We traverse down such a dangerous path at our own peril and in contradiction to the basic foundational principles that support the pillars of democratic governance.
Regardless of your ideological or political inclinations Kucinich represents a practical progressivism that actually puts the interests of the people ahead of the machinations of the powerful. He relies upon old fashioned terms like courage to dictate the paths less chosen and his intense examination of a public policy issue that prompted physical threats, financial manipulation, and governmental corruption reveal lessons that have practical application to the current malaise that inflicts damage upon our current political system.
We can learn a great deal from a real life political drama that Mayor Kucinich not only witnessed but played a major role in and demand that current public policy leaders follow the admonition of Alexander Hamilton “if you do not stand for something you will fall for anything.”
True life examples, such as the story recounted in this book, offer us the hope that we can abide by the enlightenment offered by our founding fathers not only in theory but in actual practice. For younger generations the mantle has been passed on to you to stay true to the principles of civic engagement, pursuit of truth and justice, and trust in leadership and institutional frameworks which seek to protect and advance the whole of society, not the lucky few who manipulate it for their own aggrandizement.
Thank you Dennis Kucinich for your service to our country.
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