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Dennis Kucinich’s fight against privatization and his run to become Cleveland’s mayor again

Over the July 4th weekend, I interviewed two-time presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich about his latest book, The Division of Light and Power.

Though he wrote this memoir as a narrative of events that happened many years earlier in his political career, it almost reads like a John Clancy political thriller centered on his battle to save the publicly-owned municipal light and distribution company in Cleveland. What fascinates me about Kucinich and Cleveland is how similar that city is to the San Pedro Harbor Area. This is a cautionary tale about money, power and the conflicts over public ownership for those running for office and those in politics.

The public utility, founded in 1907 by Cleveland’s then-mayor Tom L. Johnson, was known as Municipal Light (or “Muny Light” for short) until 1983. The utility did not, and still doesn’t, have sufficient capacity to compete across the entire greater Cleveland area. Instead, it was formed to create additional capacity to create a benchmark price to prevent rate-gouging by local private utilities.

During Kucinich’s time as mayor, the privately-owned Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. — better known as CEI — tried in some rather unscrupulous ways to put the Muny Light, its rival, out of business. A number of banks were heavily invested in CEI and refused to roll over the city’s debt as had previously been customary. The idea was to force the city into default, blame Kucinich, then force him to sell Muny Light. He refused.

Though Cleveland’s population is four times that of San Pedro, the forest city shares other similarities with our port town, including having similar ethnic demographics and both trying to revamp our respective waterfronts. 

In this deeply personal narrative, Kucinich, who is of Croatian ancestry, takes the reader with him on his journey starting with his election to Cleveland’s city council at the age of 23 to his election as America’s youngest mayor at age 33. 

Along the way, he takes the reader through corporate espionage, sabotage of Cleveland’s electric system, sabotage of the city’s finances via bank co-conspirators and even a mob directed assassination plot. This is a must read for any young people thinking they want to run for political office.

“You know, in writing the book, of course, I documented everything,” Kucinich said. “I saw the utilities that were taken over before the battle over Muny Light and since then privatization is happening all over the country and all over the world.”

Kucinich noted that even before the fight over the Muny Light, hundreds of billions of dollars in assets were being transferred from public ownership, which allowed energy rates and taxes to be kept reasonably low, to private ownership where people would pay an arm and a leg for service. At the start of the interview, the two-time presidential candidate issued a stark warning:

“When the American Rescue plan-money runs out — and it will — cities are going to be looking for ways of getting more revenue and privatizers will descend like vultures for services to privatize.”

The privatization model has been promoted on various levels, particularly starting with the Ronald Reagan administration to defund government. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen all over the country. But what I wanted to know was about his run to get back into Cleveland’s mayoral seat and what that means.

Kucinich ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States in 2004 and 2008. He earned his chops young in life as both city councilman in the city of Cleveland and then becoming the youngest mayor of any large city. Now, he is running to become one of the oldest mayors of any large city — a career trajectory reminiscent of California’s former governor Jerry Brown. 

“Cleveland is a much different city than it was when I was elected mayor 44 years ago,” Kucinich noted. 

It is about half the population it was then; And of that half, 20% of the people are making $10,000 or less a year. About a third of the city is at or below the poverty line and half of the children are living at or below the poverty line. And there’s a serious problem with crime. Cleveland, Kucinich noted, has one of the highest crime rates in the country and it was tied according to a recent detailed study with other cities for being the most violent city in the country. So there’s a mix of challenges, Kucinich said. 

The eight-term representative for Ohio’s 10th district said he feels that his years of experience at the local level and the legislative, judicial and executive levels, and having served at state and federal government positions, shows that he has the depth of knowledge and experience to address today’s problems in Cleveland. 

Kucinich added that he also has the willingness to take these challenges on and the energy, the enthusiasm and the ability to confront interest groups who just want to pick over whatever’s left of Cleveland and use it for their own narrow concerns. 

“I’m prepared,” Kucinich said. “The book will inform readers on how much I know about local government [and government’s] ins and outs. When I was mayor from 1977 to ‘79, I was able to run the city on a cash basis. We cut city spending by 18% without reducing city services through the elimination of waste, fraud, and abuse. So, I run a pretty tight ship. We didn’t borrow any money at all. There’s probably no mayor in America who could have said that then and perhaps not now. So, you know, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve the people of Cleveland again if they decide that’s what they want.”

This pragmatism that Kucinich expressed is a hallmark of progressive leaning politicians in this country. Conservatives always want to call us tax-and-spend liberals. But the progressive element, particularly of the Democratic Party in the 20th century, has been one of fiscal conservancy, continued ownership of public utilities and things like that. The City of Los Angeles, long ago, during the Progressive Era took back its water and power system. 

Kucinich noted that his book has been favorably compared to the film China Town, which was centered on the battle over water rights here in the City of Los Angeles.

The Division of Light and Power is a battle over the public’s right to own an electric system, Kucinich said. Look at the Northern California-San Francisco area where PG&E fought to control Hetch Hetchy much to the disadvantage of the people in San Francisco. And of course, we know PG&E is famous for being instrumental in burning down Paradise, Calif. 

Private utilities have their own agenda, which is to improve their stock profile. The financialization of our economy has encouraged them even more to do that and therefore, raise the rates. 

Kucinich noted the words of legendary muckraking investigative journalist, Lincoln Steffens, on the Cleveland mayor who created Muny Light, Mayor Tom Johnson. Steffens said of him, “he was the best mayor of the best governed city in America.” 

It was at the turn of the 20th century. Mayor Johnson said: 

I believe in public ownership of all municipal service monopolies of water works, of electric systems, of parks, of schools. Because if you do not own them, they will, in time, own you. They’ll rule your politics; corrupt your institutions; and finally, destroy your liberties. 

So, The Division of Light and Power was a fight for Democratic control and democratic tradition.

I think these are very wise, cautionary words.

(Managing Editor Terelle Jerricks of randomlengthnews.com contributed this article.  Visit randomlengthsnews.com to see the complete video of our interview with Dennis Kucinich.)