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Dennis Kucinich, Cleveland's Barefoot Boy Mayor with Cheek, Risks a Public Tanning

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He came into Cleveland’s city hall last November on horseback—brash, breezy, and at 31 the youngest big-city mayor in the country. In his first months Dennis J. Kucinich confronted two blizzards, a flood, a blackout and a police strike, and for simply coping he was generously praised. He promised reform and delivered—slashing 300 jobs from the city payroll, turning down a $41 million federal grant for a monorail (“It’s dumb”) and populating the corridors of power with zealous subordinates even younger than himself.

The Kucinich style had its bizarre touches—like the ventriloquist’s dummy he kept next to his desk. “Some politicians talk out of both sides of their mouth,” he explained. “That dummy is useful as a warm-up.” Sneaking through city hall, he caught 15 employees loafing—including one who was playing a trumpet in the attic. “And his name wasn’t Gabriel,” the mayor said, adding that he had issued a stern warning to the musician’s supervisor.

Two weeks ago Kucinich got a job warning of his own—a petition for his recall signed by 47,547 voters. If a minimum of 37,552 signatures are verified, an election would be held within 60 days on the mayor’s removal from office. Behind the public disillusionment is his dismissal in March of Police Chief Richard Hongisto, whom Kucinich had earlier described as the “best law enforcement official in the country.” Increasingly, the two men found themselves at odds over how to run the police department—and in a petulant battle for headlines.

Hongisto finally accused the mayor of forcing him to commit “unethical acts.” Kucinich gave his police chief 30 hours to come up with evidence, then fired him. Two hours late, Hongisto announced that Kucinich had tried to block a cleanup of the vice squad, among other things.

Dennis (by now nicknamed “the Menace”) compounded his problems by declaring war on the city council a few weeks later. “It’s hard to believe that so many people in one place could be so stupid,” he snapped. He was angered by a council vote to investigate an after-hours search of the office of Joseph Furber, the commissioner of economic development, who was appointed by Kucinich’s Republican predecessor Ralph Perk. The city hall staff responsible for the search were looking for evidence of mismanagement but found none. Cleveland newspapers and TV called it a mini-Watergate, and Furber soon quit in disgust. Kucinich apologized to the council for his “intemperate remarks,” but the damage had already been done. “Giving Dennis power in city hall is like giving a baby a loaded shotgun,” fumed Cuyahoga County Sheriff Gerald McFaul. Sighed a neutral, U.S. Rep. Mary Rose Oakar: “Dennis has a lot of energy and talent. I only wish he’d use it in the proper direction.”

The eldest of seven children, Kucinich grew up on Cleveland’s West Side, a white, working-class enclave. “At the age of 3,” jokes his father, Frank, a truck driver, “he began trying to talk like a politician.” Dennis worked his way through college, then served on the city council from 1969 until 1975, when he was elected clerk of the courts, considered the second highest ranking job in Cleveland. “The morning after I became clerk,” he recalls, “I knew I had the support to run for mayor.”

Kucinich and his second wife, Sandy, 28, a former singer, own a home not far from his old neighborhood. He starts his day with a 7:30 breakfast at Tony’s Diner—two bowls of Rice Krispies smothered in bananas, scrambled eggs, toast, tea and a sirloin steak (cut into small bites by the waitress to save the mayor time). He moves on to a doughnut shop for his “daily dozen,” then to city hall, where he fields citizens’ complaints by phone for an hour. A voracious reader, Kucinich says his favorite publication is the highbrow New York Review of Books, but he keeps a stack of comic books at home for “light reading.” He and Sandy are also movie buffs and have seen Star Wars six times. “I like the battle between the forces of good and evil,” he explains. “If you’re in politics, it’s easy to identify with those conflicts.”

The Force had better be with him. Since the Hongisto episode, city hall has been described as a “bunker,” the mayor as reclusive and paranoid. Security around his house was beefed up after two unidentified men, one armed with a shotgun, were reportedly seen in the backyard. His nemesis Hongisto has taken to the airwaves as a radio commentator—some say in preparation for an attempt to unseat the mayor in 1979, if not sooner. Kucinich, vowing to fight the recall movement in the courts, indicates he feels minimally threatened. “I’ve been too busy with city government to pay much attention to politics,” he says, adding with a grin, “Anybody who believes that also believes in the tooth fairy.” But seriously: “Let’s just say that when you’re the mayor of a big city, you get a little older every day.”