Former congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich learned early in his career the old adage that the “duty of youth is to challenge corruption.”
Remember Dennis Kucinich? The former US congressman and outspoken presidential candidate — our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast — got his start in government 40-plus years ago as a 23-year-old Cleveland city councilman. Six years later, as mayor of the city, he took on Cleveland’s political machine, business establishment, and the local mob, who were scheming to get richer by privatizing the municipal electric utility.
The experience stuck with Kucinich. He still recalls shots blasting through his living room window, fired by local forces who had first tried to buy him. He writes about his success in fighting that corrupt scheme in his new book, The Division of Light and Power, which comes out at a time when he may once again seek to become mayor of (a very different) Cleveland.
His powerful story of greed and avarice is reminiscent of similar kinds of high-level corruption depicted in the 1974 movie Chinatown.
Kucinich tells the story of how he learned to stand up to the local establishment, just as he would later do as a member of Congress when he was a lonely voice of opposition to the Iraq war.
Kucinich says that the most important lesson for proponents of good government is to know where “City Hall” is. By that he does not mean some stone building. Rather, it’s about knowing where the power lies — whether it be a business, a bank, or some more shadowy entity.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. It was the great House Speaker Tip O’Neill who said that all politics is local and that’s where it all begins. Most of our best political leaders emerge from the grassroots in state and local politics. My guest, former congressman and presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinich is one of those. He began his political career on the Cleveland City Council and became the very young mayor of Cleveland back in 1977.
During that time at the birth of his career, he got to witness bare-knuckle politics, local political corruption, the importance of fighting back on behalf of his constituents, and perhaps most importantly, not forgetting about that fight and what he learned from it. Today, 40-plus years later, he writes about that and relives that battle in his new book, The Division of Light and Power. It is my pleasure to welcome Dennis Kucinich to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Dennis, thanks so much for joining us.
Dennis Kucinich: Jeff, thank you. I have to tell you that introduction was poetic and humbling. I’m so grateful to be with you for this discussion.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s a delight to have you here. Why now? I know you’ve been working on this book for a while, but this is something that has stayed with you for 40 years. Why do you think that it is relevant today?
Dennis Kucinich: Well it’s relevant today because in the post COVID-era there’s going to be, as cities start to go under financial strain, there’ll be more and more efforts to try to privatize municipal assets, such as utilities. This book is a primer on what people can do to protect their community and the assets that belong to them. This privatization has become the bane of every community where they give up things like water systems or city services, and end up being packed mightily to pay a private company.
Now, another thing is happening right now, there is a national movement, which is percolating. Members of Congress are now talking about seeking more public power, more input into decision-making. The time, as it turns out, is absolutely perfect. I’m very excited to bring forth The Division of Light and Power into this moment to help catalyze a national movement and also as a warning to cities all across America: Don’t give up what you have worked years and years to achieve.
Jeff Schechtman: Take us back to the 1970s. What was happening in Cleveland, and more importantly, why at that moment?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, there was an effort to take over our municipal electric system by the private utility monopoly, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. That effort was underway when I was elected to City Council in 1969. What I didn’t know though was — I was only 23 years old by the way — what I didn’t know is what was going on behind the scenes.
I got into politics. I hadn’t been in politics, nobody in my family was, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. But I found out pretty quickly that the lights in Cleveland kept going out. This municipal system was not able to get the repairs they needed because the private utility was lobbying City Council to block the repairs to our generators, and then they stopped the city from being able to buy power from outside the community and forced the city, as the generators are failing, to buy power at triple the cost from the private company, their own company.
They set the city up. They set the city’s electric system up for a decline. I didn’t know this until I noticed the lights continue to go off. This company, this private company as it turns out, in federal investigation showed they were creating the blackouts on a municipal system and trying, which was called the division of lights and power by the way. They were creating the blackouts on a municipal system to set the state for a takeover of it.
I mean this story, there’s never been a story like this told relating to American politics, at least, that’s really happened. I’m standing here in my living room in Cleveland, where, when I started the campaign to save our electric system, a high-powered rifle shot was fired at me and just missed my head by a fraction. There was a lot at risk here in challenging utility monopoly and in standing up for the people. I did it, we still have that system today, but this story is important for everyone in America to know the behind-the-scenes corruption that go on and how important it is — how to fight back — and how important it is that each one of us empowers ourselves and others to make a difference in dealing with these monopolies.
Jeff Schechtman: How did you begin the fight? The lights started going out. You started gathering information. How did you begin taking on the establishment as it were?
Dennis Kucinich: Well first of all I had to keep my eyes open. And I saw these utility lobbyists. Then I got information that showed that this utility company, this private utility Cleveland Electric Illuminating was interfering, and it was blocking the city’s opportunities to keep our own light system going. Why were they doing this? They were doing it because … if they took over Cleveland’s power system they were going to make a lot more money. They already had a monopoly, they were competing door to door in Cleveland. They were forced to go door to door in Cleveland.
At the core of this was a tremendous amount of money at stake that they stood to gain if they were able to privatize Cleveland’s municipal electric system. Later on, we learned that the banks which owned stock in this electric company forced the city into default when I refused to sell the electric company.
This is the kind of story that’s involved here. And the other thing at the root of this [is] the private utility was in trouble because they were building nuclear power plants, which turned out to be neither of use nor useful, and they wanted more customers so they could pay off their rising debt for building these nuclear power plants. That was another element in this story that the nuclear power figured into it, because this is Cleveland Electric Illuminating company was in trouble. They needed to take over many lights, so they could add another 25 or 40,000 customers, which would have given them another 25 to 30 million [dollars] a year.
Jeff Schechtman: Besides the company, who else in the political establishment in Cleveland was benefiting from this and how were they benefiting?
Dennis Kucinich: The media was getting tremendous amounts of advertising money from the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. As matter of fact, in the book I state there was a document that came into my possession, an internal CEI document, that talked about — and I published all this in a book — how they were subverting the media. How they were actually taking editorials in and had them published verbatim, how they were able to stop certain things from being reported about nuclear power, for example. …
This utility was able to fire several reporters. One, who was a major talk show host on radio, because he was criticizing their rates. Another one who started to investigate the findings of the nuclear regulatory commission about the anti-trust activities of this Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, a TV reporter was told not to cover it and then he ended up losing his job over that.
A reporter by the name of Robert Holden, who CEI was able to take off the utilities beat when they said, ‘well, he wouldn’t be fair to them’ in an approaching election question. I mean, it’s the kind of power they had. They had the power to subvert the media, to shape public opinion through only having their point of view put across, and to undermine, get this, at the same time, they were able to have a cavalcade of news stories that were aimed at undermining the city’s electric system.
It was an open attack by the media against the city’s electric system because the private utility competitor was paying for it.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that kind of story could happen today in a world where so much is online, in a world of Twitter and Facebook, et cetera, that organizations could operate in the same way?
Dennis Kucinich: Yes, look at the subprime meltdown. Look at how the banks just fleeced the American people by getting bailouts when they went into the casino at Wall Street with other mortgage-backed securities. This is going on every day. And if the people don’t wake up to the kind of games that these monopolies are playing in every area what happens is that they lose their rights.
At the core of this, in 1911, the mayor who created Muny Light, he said, ‘I believe in municipal ownership of all public service facilities, and waterworks, electricity system, parks, schools, because if you do not own them, they will in time own you. They will corrupt your politics, rule your institutions, and finally, destroy your liberties.’ Now, I had the opportunity to be able to stop them from corrupting our politics, stop them from ruling our institutions and stop them from destroying our liberties.
The only way I did that was to stand up and other people can do the same thing, but they have to be aware and this book is a road map for people everywhere, on how to defend their economic rights against these monopolies and how the monopolies can affect the politics of their community, and how they need to learn where the centers of power are in their community so they can effectively participate in the decision-making process.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about how your constituents in Cleveland reacted at the time, how you were able to mobilize their support.
Dennis Kucinich: Well, two things happened. Number one, the people close ranks to save our municipal electric system by a 2-to-1 vote, even though there was this tremendous effort to try to force them to sell it. But the fact that the city wanted to default confused people, just to go over this territory. On December 15, 1978, the largest bank in the state of Ohio, one of the biggest banks in America, Cleveland Trust at the time, came to my office, or I met with them, and they told me, ‘Either you sell the city’s electric system, Muny Light, to this private company — the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company — or we, the bank, will not renew the city’s credit on loans that have been taken out.’
I had to make a decision. I said, ‘No.’ The book relates this thing in great detail what happened. What happened is, in order to, and it turned out, of course, that not only this bank, but other banks had investments in this utility, so they stood to profit from the takeover. The people of Cleveland backed me up. I asked them to pass a tax to pay off the defaulted notes. The bank said if they did that they’d take us out of default. The people passed the tax. The banks reneged on their promise to take us out of default and kept the city into default until I left office.
In addition to that, even though the people voted 2-to-1 in February of ‘79 to keep the electric system, right after the election, the same corporations and media — who were beating the drums to sell the municipal electric system to this private company — they continue to insist that I sell. It was a mind-boggling set of circumstances and they kept the city into default. People didn’t understand at the time and so I lost the election in 1979, two-year term.
Jeff Schechtman: What did you come away with if you want to pick one or two things that really impacted you that you came away with, that you carried with you to Washington in your political career what would it be?
Dennis Kucinich: To be able to see through the lies, to be able to recognize that even though everyone else is saying, ‘Well, this is what’s really happening, Dennis, this city’s electric system has reached its end you know, let’s face it, give it up.’ That consensus was built to be able to take a stand to break a false consensus. That was hard but we did it. And the same thing I did in Congress: to take a stand to break the false consensus about the war in Iraq, where I was able to organize 125 Democrats to vote against the Iraq War resolution.
I did the research and I pointed out chapter and verse on how Iraq didn’t have anything to do with 9/11, Al Qaeda’s role in 9/11, on and on. But that skill that I developed, I developed in Cleveland. I developed it as a result of taking a stand to save our city’s municipal electric system, to be able to see through the lies, and to be able to not be afraid to ask questions. Because all these so-called experts that come out, so many of them are on somebody else’s payroll and are not for the people. That’s the lesson I learned.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you see when you look at politicians today, local politicians, national politicians, and the extent to which they have lost this skepticism, both parties?
Dennis Kucinich: Yeah, I agree. I see a country that is stalled, that is listing, that is directionless. As a result, America is failing to live up to its potential. Now it’s mired in a hyper-partisanship and … people aren’t even communicating with each other. So, I look at today’s political class, I see some very courageous people who are trying to break through. But I also see others who think that public service means going to the biggest business in town and getting their approval to run for office, going to a large corporation, or going to any large group and saying, ‘If you make me a councilman, a mayor, a representative, tell me what you want — I’ll do it for you.’ Because people want that position.
That’s not new but it is happening more and more. It’s happening, sadly enough, with young people who do not have any idea of exactly how do you begin in an authentic way, be involved at a community level, understand what people really want, understand our economic concerns, but those who want to start at the top, but all they do is they just go to these interest groups, and they say, ‘Hey, I’m going to run and I want your support.’ All they want to do is to go in there and represent the status quo and that’s the fastest way for America to bottom out.
Jeff Schechtman: When you look at the 40-year impact on Cleveland, how does it affect Cleveland today, that experience?
Dennis Kucinich: Well, it’s funny; there’s a disconnect. Most Clevelanders today were not alive, or they were children when this happened. They’re going to learn about the secret history of the city.
Today, all the major corporations — almost all the major corporations — have abandoned the city. Those same ones that wanted control, they took their pound of flesh out of Cleveland, they left. Cleveland has money managers now who don’t really have any ability to bring resources into the city. It’s kind of sad, in the political classes, just the same process. People are just so happy to hold an office that they don’t want to disturb that privilege by taking on any interest group whatsoever. What’s descended over Cleveland is a silence and it’s the kind of silence that is suffocating. Cleveland’s gone into a deep freeze.
While that has happened, we have about half the population that we had when I was mayor, we have crime is rampant. People can’t even sit on their porch or walk the streets of their neighborhood without fear of getting shot. We had 37 people shot over the weekend in this city. We’ve got poverty levels of at least 20 percent of the city. Excuse me. Yeah, about 20 percent of the city is living on $10,000 or less a year, a third of the city is at or below the poverty level. Half of the children in the city are living at or below the poverty level. That’s Cleveland today. It doesn’t mean that we still don’t have the elements that can lift us up. Oh yes, we do but you can’t do that when the government is nothing more than a rubber stamp for interest groups.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you think led to this state, not just of Cleveland but of so many cities that are suffering similar fates today? I know you’re considering getting back into politics and running for mayor of Cleveland again. Talk about what needs to be addressed, not just for Cleveland but for all the cities that are facing these issues.
Dennis Kucinich: How do you get economic development? How can we restore some of our basic industries? Americans are buying products that are made all over the world. Why can’t we make those products here in America? Why don’t we have a decent wage level for people so we don’t worry about what the cost of a product is. If people are making more they can spend more. We have a 70 percent consumer economy. How do you protect city assets and stop cities from getting stripped bare?
These are all questions that are happening all over urban America. Cities are still an engine. Yet the engine often pulls in the direction of those powerful interest groups who were successful in electing top officials. What I point out is reflecting on the crisis that exists in America today, that it’s not just one of a lack of leadership, it’s one where the leaders are afraid to be able to challenge the status quo and so the status quo starts to become malignant.
Let me tell you another thing too. What I have found is that that people in business, they want to run their business. They don’t want to run the government, but if you have weak public officials, they feel they’ve got to get involved. That’s the other side of the paradox here.
I fought corporate leaders who believed they had a right to run the city and some of them, their corporations went belly up because they got distracted by politics. The businesses who are serious about their own companies, I’m not opposed to businesses, I’m just opposed to businesses who think they can run the government for their own ends. The businesses in Cleveland, the ones who are running it now, they need help. They’re in trouble. They’re not going to get investment when it’s a city that’s overrun by crime. This is the kind of situation we’re in.
The ballgame has changed in Cleveland, greatly. It’s not like it was. But other cities around the country, it’s important to know the power structure, it’s important to know where city hall is. Jeff, I say that city hall wasn’t just a stone building on Lakeside Avenue. City hall could be found in the boardroom of the banks of the utility monopolies, of real estate combines, of the mob. I was the mayor and I fought the city off.
Jeff Schechtman: Dennis Kucinich. His book is The Division of Light and Power. I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Dennis Kucinich: Oh, wow. Thank you. Wow. I appreciate your questions there. You’ve spent some time preparing and I’m grateful for that. Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. We appreciate your time.
Dennis Kucinich: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.