Morning Digest: Onetime ‘Boy Mayor’ Dennis Kucinich campaigns to reclaim office he lost in 1979

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Kucinich had a terrible relationship with the head of the City Council and the local business community, but his clash with Richard Hongisto, the city’s popular police chief, proved to be especially costly. Hongisto accused the mayor’s staff of pressuring the force to commit “unethical acts,” which led Kucinich, who said the chief had failed to submit a report detailing his allegations, to fire him on live TV.

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Things got so bad that Kucinich, in response to death threats, wore a bulletproof vest to the Cleveland Indians’ 1978 opening game. He left the event safely, though he would recount, “When they called my name, I got a standing boo from about 75,000 people.” Kucinich’s opponents also saw their chance to end his term early by waging a recall campaign against him that year. Almost every influential group in the city backed his ouster, but the incumbent held on by 236 votes.

Kucinich’s troubles were hardly over, though. In late 1978, after an ulcer prevented him from making a planned appearance at a parade, he learned that the local mob planned to murder him at the event. He also more recently divulged that he knows of two other attempts on his life during his tenure.

Near the end of that year, Kucinich refused recommendations to sell the publicly-owned Municipal Light (also known as Muny Light) power company to Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) in order to help the city pay its debts. Cleveland soon became the first major American city to default since the Great Depression, but the mayor defended his decision by arguing that the sale would have given CEI a monopoly that would drive up electricity rates.

Kucinich persuaded voters in the following year’s referendums to raise income taxes and to keep Muny city owned, but he wasn’t so effective at advocating for himself. Cleveland mayors at the time were up for re-election every two years, and the incumbent lost his bid for a second term by a 56-44 margin to Lt. Gov. George Voinovich, a Republican who would go on to be elected governor and U.S. senator.

That wide defeat was far from the end of Kucinich’s time in politics, though. After losing a close primary for secretary of state to future-Sen. Sherrod Brown in 1982, he rebounded by regaining a seat on the City Council the next year. He went on to get elected to the state Senate before winning a seat in the U.S. House in 1996 on the fifth such attempt of his career.

Kucinich used his perch in Congress to wage two presidential runs in 2004 and 2008; while neither came close to succeeding, the campaigns, as well as his vote against the Iraq War, helped Kucinich gain a small but vocal following with progressives nationally. He had problems at home in 2012, though, when redistricting placed him in the same seat as fellow Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur. After flirting with running for the House in other states, including Washington, Kucinich stuck it out in Ohio and lost the primary 56-40.

While Kucinich portrayed himself as a progressive hero during his time in D.C., he went on to use his subsequent job as a Fox commentator to defend none other than Donald Trump. He spent early 2017 praising Trump’s inauguration speech (you know, the “American carnage” one), arguing that U.S. intelligence agencies forced Michael Flynn to resign as Trump’s national security advisor, and agreeing with Sean Hannity that the “deep state” was out to get Trump. Kucinich also repeatedly met with and defended Syria’s murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Kucinich tried to make another return to office in 2018 when he competed in the Democratic primary for governor against establishment favorite Richard Cordray. During that campaign, Kucinich announced he was returning $20,000 in speaking fees from the pro-Assad Syria Solidarity Movement that he had previously failed to disclose on financial forms.

While Kucinich had praised that organization the prior week as a “civil rights advocacy group,” he now insisted that he hadn’t known what it really stood for; he also very belatedly denounced the Assad regime’s “repressive practices.” Cordray ended up winning the primary 62-23, but Kucinich narrowly carried Cleveland.

That brings us to 2021, where the 74-year-old onetime “Boy Mayor” is hoping to become his city’s oldest leader. Kucinich used his campaign kickoff to focus on concerns like crime, police accountability, and poverty, but the fate of Cleveland’s public utility will also likely be a big issue in his comeback campaign.

In the months before his launch, Kucinich released a memoir focused on his successful battle to prevent Muny Light, which is now known as Cleveland Public Power, from being privatized in the late 1970s. The future of the utility, which is still owned by the city, is likely to come up on the campaign trail: Last year, Kucinich argued that the city is doing a poor job overseeing Cleveland Public Power, declaring, “When money is being lost, or the rates keep going up, that means something is wrong.”

Cleveland.com also notes that his longtime antagonist CEI, which remains Cleveland Public Power’s main competitor, could also be a factor in this race. CEI’s parent company, FirstEnergy, is currently at the center of a high-profile scandal over an alleged $60 million bribery scheme involving then-state House Speaker Larry Householder.

Kucinich will face several other high-profile contenders in the September nonpartisan primary. The only other major white candidate in this majority-Black city is City Council President Kevin Kelley, who also hails from the West Side: Last month, Cleveland.com’s Seth Richardson suggested that the two would end up “going after each other’s base of supporters,” which could prevent either of them from advancing to the general election.

The field also includes four serious Black contenders: Councilman Basheer Jones; former Councilman Zack Reed, who lost to Jackson in 2017; state Sen. Sandra Williams; and nonprofit executive Justin Bibb. The filing deadline is Wednesday, so it would be a surprise if another notable contender runs at this point.

Senate

PA-Sen, PA-04: Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean announced on Tuesday that she would not run for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat next year and will instead seek re-election. Dean’s name came up as a possible contender earlier this year after she served as one of the House managers for Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, but she never spoke about her interest publicly.

Governors

IA-Gov, IA-Sen: State Rep. Ras Smith kicked off a bid for Iowa’s governorship on Tuesday, giving Democrats their first notable candidate in next year’s race against Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. Smith, who at 33 is the youngest of the state’s six Black lawmakers, has been a vocal advocate for racial justice and spearheaded a bill to bring greater accountability to the police that passed the legislature unanimously last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Smith had also weighed a run for the Senate but always sounded more likely to seek state office, saying in April that “it’s hard to see myself living anywhere where I can’t throw my dog in the back of the truck, my shotgun and a box of shells and drive 20 minutes in any direction and do some pheasant hunting or some turkey hunting.”

A number of other prominent Democrats are also still considering the governor’s race, though, including Rep. Cindy Axne, 2018 secretary of state nominee Deidre DeJear, and state Auditor Rob Sand. Reynolds, meanwhile, hasn’t officially kicked off her re-election campaign, but earlier this month she said she would “make a formal announcement later.”

NM-Gov: Retired Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti has launched a bid against Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, making him the second notable Republican in the race. Zanetti unsuccessfully sought his party’s nod for lieutenant governor all the way back in 1994, then ran an abortive campaign for governor in 2009, dropping out after just a few months. He’s also served as Bernalillo County GOP chair twice and, in his day job as an investment advisor, has regularly appeared on local radio to offer financial advice.

Already in the race for Republicans is Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Brock, though several other notable candidates are still considering, including state GOP chair (and former Rep.) Steve Pearce.

House

FL-13: Air Force veteran Anna Paulina Luna, who was the GOP’s nominee for Florida’s 13th Congressional District in 2020 and is running again this cycle, has received a temporary restraining order against a fellow candidate, Will Braddock, claiming that Braddock and two other potential rivals, Matt Tito and Amanda Makki, were conspiring to murder her to prevent her from winning next year’s election. Braddock responded by saying, “This woman is off her rocker,” Makki (who lost to Luna in last year’s primary) called the claims “nonsense,” and Tito said he was talking to a lawyer about pursuing a possible defamation suit. A hearing on whether to continue the restraining order is scheduled for June 22.

IA-01: Democratic state Sen. Liz Mathis says she’s “seriously considering” a bid against freshman Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District and will make an announcement in “late July.” Mathis first won office in a key special election in 2011, after Democrat Swati Dandekar accepted an appointment from Terry Branstad, the Republican governor at the time, that threatened Democrats’ narrow 26-24 majority in the Senate. She’s since won re-election twice, by double digits both times.

KWWL’s Ron Steele also notes that, were Mathis to run, it could set up a race between two former TV news personalities. Mathis began her career as a news anchor alongside Steele at KWWL in 1980, then later worked at KCRG, both of which are in Cedar Rapids, before retiring from broadcasting in 2007. Hinson also worked at KCRG for a decade as a reporter prior to her election to the state House in 2017.

SC-07: Despite forming what he called an exploratory committee in January, state Rep. William Bailey announced this week that he would not challenge Rep. Tom Rice in next year’s Republican primary and would instead seek re-election. Bailey explained his decision by saying that “we clearly have a number of strong conservatives that most likely will jump into the race and challenge Rice,” who enraged Republicans when he voted to impeach Donald Trump in January.

Two notable candidates are in fact running, Horry County School Board chair Ken Richardson and former Myrtle Beach Mayor Mark McBride, while several others are still considering. South Carolina requires a runoff if no candidate takes a majority in the primary.

TX-06: Ted Cruz has endorsed conservative activist Susan Wright in the all-Republican special election runoff for Texas’ 6th Congressional District that’ll take place on July 27. Prior to the first round of voting on May 1, Cruz had attacked Wright’s opponent, state Rep. Jake Ellzey, for his “financial support from never-Trumpers, openness to amnesty, and opposition to school choice.”

Mayors

New York City, NY Mayor: Data for Progress has released a survey of next week’s instant runoff Democratic primary that finds Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams leading attorney Maya Wiley 26-20, with 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang and former city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia at 16% and 14%, respectively. That’s a huge shift from two months ago, when DFP had Yang leading Adams 26-13.

DFP made it clear as it was releasing this latest poll that it hopes Wiley, who has picked up a number of endorsements from high-profile progressives in recent days, will stop the more moderate Adams. Data for Progress Political Director Marcela Mulholland released a statement saying, “In close second, Wiley has a window of opportunity to bring together a winning coalition ahead of next Tuesday — and block Eric Adams, a veritable Republican who’s looking out for the NYPD and corporate interests instead of working New Yorkers, from becoming Mayor.”  

The only other poll we’ve seen that was conducted in June was a Marist College survey that had Adams leading with a similar 24%, though it showed Garcia in second with 17%. Marist found Wiley a close third with 15% while Yang, who was the frontrunner in early polls, was in fourth with just 13%.

Yang is hoping to regain his footing, though, with a new spot that labels Adams “a conservative Republican.” This commercial, just like a recent negative ad from Yang’s allies at Future Forward PAC, does not mention any of the other mayoral candidates.

Prosecutors

Manhattan, NY District Attorney: Data for Progress has released a survey of next week’s rarely-polled Democratic primary that shows two former prosecutors, Alvin Bragg and Tali Farhadian Weinstein, deadlocked at 26% apiece; a third ex-prosecutor, Lucy Lang, is a distant third with 8%.

DFP is using this data to explicitly argue that progressives “have an obligation to consolidate” behind Bragg, calling him “the only progressive positioned to beat Farhadian Weinstein.” The winner of the primary—where only a plurality is necessary—should have no trouble prevailing in the general election to succeed retiring incumbent Cyrus Vance as head of what’s arguably the most prominent local prosecutor’s office in America.

All of the contenders except for Liz Crotty, a self-described centrist who takes just 5% in this poll, have pitched themselves as progressives who will bring much-needed changes to the post, though the three contenders who have never been prosecutors—attorney Tahanie Aboushi, public defender Eliza Orlins, and Assemblyman Dan Quart—have portrayed themselves as the most aggressive reformers. Bragg, Farhadian Weinstein, Lang, and yet another former prosecutor, Diana Florence, have all, in the words of the New York Times‘ Jonah Bromwich, “pitched themselves as occupying a middle ground, focused on less sweeping changes.”

There are some notable differences, though, between Bragg and Farhadian Weinstein, who have been the top fundraisers in this contest. Ideologically, Bragg has generally staked out territory to the left of Farhadian Weinstein (who only registered as a Democrat in 2017), including on issues like the decriminalization of sex work and the imposition of long sentences.

And while Bragg, who previously worked as the chief deputy state attorney general, has bragged about suing Donald Trump “more than a hundred times,” the Times reported earlier this month that Farhadian Weinstein met with Trump administration officials in 2017 about a potential judicial appointment. The paper, citing an unnamed source, writes that the discussion “became heated during a disagreement over constitutional law” and did not advance further.

Farhadian Weinstein’s detractors have also taken issue with her connection to the financial industry. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than half of the candidate’s fundraising from earlier this year “came from four dozen donors, many of whom work in the financial sector.” Farhadian Weinstein, who is married to wealthy hedge fund manager Boaz Weinstein, also recently self-funded $8.2 million for her campaign, an amount that utterly dwarfs what everyone else has raised or spent combined.

Though Bragg doesn’t have the resources of Farhadian Weinstein, he does have some important backers, including three of the city’s most politically influential unions, as well as the endorsement of the Times, which often carries uncommon weight in local races.

As Bromwich has noted, every contender save Quart would achieve a historic first should they prevail. Six of the candidates would be the first woman to win this office, while Aboushi would additionally be the first Muslim or Arab American to hold the post. Bragg, meanwhile, would be Manhattan’s first Black district attorney.

Other Races

New York City, NY Comptroller: Data for Progress has also released a poll of next week’s Democratic primary for city comptroller, a post that has plenty of influence over the nation’s largest city, that finds City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and City Councilman Brad Lander in a 23-23 tie; Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC anchor who badly lost a challenge from the right to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in last year’s primary, is in third with 10%.

DFP, which did not mention a rooting interest for any of the candidates, did not try to simulate the instant runoff process, though it did find that more voters preferred Johnson to Lander as their second or third choice. The winner will be the heavy favorite to hold an office that Democrats have controlled since 1946.

Johnson, who would be the first gay person elected citywide, was universally expected to run for mayor until he announced last September that he’d skip the contest in order to focus on his mental health. He ended up launching his campaign for comptroller in March, though, saying, “Where I was in September is not where I am today,” and he’s since earned endorsements from all of the city’s major unions, as well as Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Richie Torres. Johnson, who entered the race with money he’d stockpiled for his planned mayoral bid, has also enjoyed a small fundraising advantage over Lander.

Lander, meanwhile, has the backing of several high-profile progressives, including AOC, fellow Rep. Jamaal Bowman, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, as well as the Working Families Party. Lander enjoys the backing of longtime Reps. Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velazquez, and the New York Times is also in his corner.

In addition to Johnson, Lander, and Caruso-Cabrera, the field includes state Sen. Brian Benjamin; Marine veteran Zach Iscol; state Sen. Kevin Parker; financial advisor Reshma Patel; and Assemblyman David Weprin, who unsuccessfully ran to succeed the disgraced Anthony Weiner in the 2011 special election for what was numbered the 9th Congressional District at the time. All of these contenders have qualified for at least $1 million in public financing, though they’ve each fallen well short of Johnson and Lander.

The comptroller’s job is an influential post, though its duties are often not well understood. Among other things, the office is responsible for reviewing contracts, auditing and overseeing city agencies, and “[e]nsuring transparency and accountability in setting prevailing wage and vigorously enforcing prevailing wage and living wage laws.” The comptroller is also one of only a trio of citywide elected offices: The other is public advocate, where Democratic incumbent Jumaane Williams doesn’t face any serious opposition for re-election this year.

What the comptroller’s post hasn’t been, though, is a good springboard to the mayor’s office. The last person to successfully make the jump was Democrat Abe Beame, who was elected mayor in 1973 on his second try and lost renomination four years later. Since then four other comptrollers have unsuccessfully campaigned for the city’s top job, and it looks like that streak will continue this year: Comptroller Scott Stringer once looked like a formidable candidate for mayor, but he lost several major endorsements after two women accused him of sexual harassment.

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