Sunday, June 13, 2004

Blue collar defines life of Kucinich

The Daily Grind

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It's no surprise that former Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich has emerged in 2004 as a workingman's hero.

It's also no surprise that he is the keynote speaker at Saturday's AFL-CIO Labor Council's 35th annual Cope Dinner.

Past speakers have include former Democratic Senators Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn and former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer.

They all had seven-figure bank accounts. Not so for Kucinich.

Three decades is a long time to bear the torch for working people everywhere, said Dan Radford, AFL-CIO executive secretary-treasurer in Greater Cincinnati.

Congressman Kucinich, the latest Buckeye-born politician in a long line to run for president, is the only guy in the 2004 race who doesn't have a silk-stocking pedigree and the checking account of a millionaire.

And he's the only guy in the race who worked his way through high school and college - not because it was optional or character-building but because it was his only shot at a decent life.

Work and the needs of working people mean a lot to Kucinich, Radford said.

Kucinich was born into poverty, and on the campaign stump, he often talks about falling asleep at night to the sound of his parents counting pennies on the kitchen table: click, click, click.

"He is very popular among labor folks," Radford said.

"And we think it's important that his voice is out there. It's why we invited him to speak and I've heard that a lot of folks are excited about hearing him."

They should be, because Kucinich is an exciting orator and clearly a Congressman who breaks the mold: He lists district bowling alleys on his Web site and is as comfortable walking in the streets with World Trade Organization protestors as he is making a speech on the floor of Congress.

Kucinich is as blue collar as blue collar gets.

He wants to create a federal agency to keep track of energy companies. He wants to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act. He wants to end incentives that lead companies to shift jobs offshore, American jobs that are now going to workers in India, Latin America and a half-dozen other regions on the globe.

For more than two decades, Kucinich's message has been constant, ever since he was mayor of Cleveland and was blamed for letting his city slide into bankruptcy.

That isn't exactly what happened, however. Blame for the default belongs with Cleveland-area bankers, who refused to roll over city notes because Kucinich had, in turn, refused to sell a public electric distribution system to an investor-owned utility company.

That's the same company that years later would bring us the blackout of the summer of 2003 and a near meltdown the year before that at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant.

In the ensuing years, residents of Cleveland saved some $250 million because Kucinich held his ground against the power brokers who wanted to profit from a public system.

The odds against Kucinich winning the White House are beyond remote, but that has not slowed him down.

Kucinich gave an inkling of his grit 26 years ago when he delivered a speech at an Akron Press Club luncheon:

"The air is dirty, the water uncertain and the noise unabated. Microwave pollution is on the rise. It's time for an ecological bill of rights," the 31-year-old Kucinich said then.

And then he talked about the dignity of work and the rights of workers, a message he is likely to revisit for the union faithful on Saturday:

"We have a right to a job," Kucinich said. "We have a right to a means of sustenance."

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