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The Charge of the Muny Light Brigade

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Posted on Dec 14, 2006
Dennis Kucinich
From Kucinich.us

Then-Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich in 1978, when he was under siege by Cleveland’s business community, its media and many local private interest groups—all of which were pushing him to sell the city’s publicly owned municipal power plant.  His principled refusal to do so kept him out of public office for the next 20 years. He now serves as a U.S. congressman from Ohio.

By Joshua Scheer

Editor’s note: Twenty-eight years ago today, 31-year-old Dennis Kucinich, then the youngest-ever mayor of a major American city, famously pushed Cleveland into economic default rather than capitulate to the demands of a group of bankers eager to gobble up the city’s power plant.

Today, as Kucinich kicks off his White House bid, he speaks to Truthdig about a stand of integrity that nearly cost him his political career, but which has striking relevance in the current political landscape—where such integrity seems in short supply.

This interview was conducted by Truthdig research editor Joshua Scheer*.



TRUTHDIG: Twenty-eight years ago, you were the “Boy Mayor” of Cleveland—the youngest-ever mayor of any major U.S. city. And you were also the first mayor to put a city into default since the Great Depression. What happened there?

KUCINICH: When people find out the nature of the default, they’re pretty shocked. Because what happened is that Cleveland went into default because I refused a bank’s demand to sell Cleveland’s municipal electric system as the price of renewal of the city’s credit.

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TRUTHDIG: What happened to your political aspirations because of that episode?

KUCINICH: Corporations aren’t used to public officials who say no.  So I couldn’t get a job in Cleveland. I was not able to make a living in this city. It was very tough to win any elected office. But an interesting thing happened:  I saved the municipal electric system because I refused to accept this Faustian bargain that was offered me by the city’s lead bank, which was: You sell the city’s electric system, and the bank will give you—the city—$50 million worth of new credit. But if you don’t sell, we’re going to put the city of Cleveland into default. And so this was a moment when I had to determine who I was, what I was made of. Was I ready to take a stand on behalf of the people, or was I just about to become like anyone else who caves in and goes along to get along?

TRUTHDIG: Do you consider yourself a rebel? What made you do this?

KUCINICH: Integrity, clarity, a willingness to see exactly what was going on in the moment. The banks, together with this privately owned utility, which was trying to get a monopoly, with the support of the Cleveland media, had basically decided that the price of the city’s credit was going to be the privatization—or sale—of the city’s municipal electric system to a business partner, with whom the bank had numerous business relationships—including four interlocking directorates.

 

I was elected mayor of the city of Cleveland on a platform of saving the people’s electric system. My first act in office was to cancel a sale that had already been consummated by the City Council and the preceding mayor. I had blocked the sale with a citizens’ petition drive and ran for mayor while the sale was in limbo. This was a movement which brought me into the mayor’s office; people insisted that they not give up an electric system that provided savings on electric rates of anywhere from 20 to 30 percent, and provided electric utility service to at least a third of the city.

How much people pay for electricity is no small matter. For some people, it is a real hardship to be able to meet the monthly electric bill, gas bill, telephone bill. I remember when I was growing up in Cleveland, standing in a hallway, listening to my parents count the pennies to pay the electric bill. I can still hear the pennies dropping—click, click, click—on our old chipped, white and metal table.

So I was sitting in a board room with the head of Cleveland’s largest bank, Cleveland Trust, and he was telling me that unless I agreed to sell Cleveland’s municipal electric system to the Cleveland Electric Illumination Co., which had many relationships with the city’s banks, he was not going to renew the city’s credit.

And all the time I’m thinking about my parents, back when I was a child. I’m hearing them counting the pennies. I’m hearing “click, click, click,” and this banker is telling me, “You had better sell, or we’re putting this city into default.” And I’m thinking of my folks and everybody like them, to whom it matters what they pay for electricity, to whom it matters that there’s somebody standing by, defending their interests—even if they don’t know about it. For me this was a moment that brought together everything I ever believed in.

TRUTHDIG: Did the press vindicate you? Does the municipal power system right now have a lower rate than the privately owned one?

KUCINICH: It’s still competitive. The answer to the first part of your question is that 15 years after I refused the bank’s deal to take Muny Light off the hands of the city of Cleveland, Cleveland Municipal Electric System undertook the largest expansion of any municipal electric system in America. It had saved the people of Cleveland hundreds of millions of dollars in lower electric rates and also in tax dollars, by providing electricity for street lighting and for city facilities. And this year, 2006, Muny Light, now called Cleveland Public Power, observed its 100th anniversary.

I take great pride in [having been] mayor at a time when this enormous effort was made to push the city of Cleveland to sell the electric system. It was on my watch. I had to make a decision. I had to decide if I was going to knuckle under to the wave of media coverage that, one editorial after another, one news story after another, basically reconstructed the social and political reality of the city to make it seem like I had no other alternative but to sell the electric system.

But there are times in one’s life when you have to realize the illusions which surround you; you have to be able to pierce that unreality and to understand exactly what’s going on in the moment. And I understood what was going on in the moment. And when I saw things that were not true, I called them like that. And so I had to let the people know, “Look, there’s no reason the city of Cleveland should have to go into default.”

We went into default over $15 million. In a city like New York, I suppose that would be the cost of some department’s stationery budget. And yet it was about an effort to take away something that belonged to the public. And so here I am: America’s youngest mayor, with one of the most powerful banks in America, and one of the most powerful utilities in America, backed by the entire business establishment, backed by the media, backed by a number of community organizations, and they’re all saying, “Sell, sell, sell.”

The message was coming from all directions. I was told that I had no other choice but to sell. And it was all based on a hoax. It was a fraud. It was a moment when I was called upon to have foresight and clarity and take a stand, and let the chips fall where they may.

And I’ll tell you something: I knew at that moment, I knew absolutely, that my career was on the line. I knew that if I refused to sell, the banks would put the city of Cleveland into default and I would likely lose the next election because people wouldn’t understand what happened. But any of us have to decide at some point in our lives what we stand for—whether we have integrity, whether we really believe that there is such a thing as a government by the people, of the people and for the people.


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By Chris Rahe, December 16, 2006 at 10:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I supported Dennis Kucinich in his 2004 presidential campaign and I will certainly support him for 2008. This kind of integrity is exactly why.

Does anyone think Hillary Clinton won’t sell us out any chance she gets? Does anyone think John McCain is really some kind of maverick, or just another Republican poodle?

I want to like Barak Obama, but so far his record shows a disturbing timidity when it comes to standing strong on principle.

Dennis Kucinich is exactly what this country needs right now!

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By FatFred, December 16, 2006 at 9:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Now, if we could only get the MSM to give Dennis some truthful coverage in their papers and other media formats. People might then understand that here is someone with courage and integrity who would make a wonderful president.

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By Jean H. Fisher, December 16, 2006 at 9:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What a wonderful world we would have if more people were like Dennis Kucinich!  We should all listen to him before it is too late.  If we don’t stop these everlasting wars for greed and profit it might well soon be the end of mankind.

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By Kehla, December 16, 2006 at 9:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am living in Europe and when I speak with people about Dennis Kucinich, they wonder and ask me why I am so enthusiastic and fond of him, who this man is, and I like to quote (among others facts) this event in his life, to show what great model of absolute integrity he is.
I also deeply appreciate what his wife Elisabeth is now doing to support the work of Dennis Kucinich, that is a “Gift of Heaven” to all of humanity on Earth.
Thank you both, from my Heart.

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By Sidney Kirkpatrick, December 16, 2006 at 8:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We can always count on Dennis to speak the truth, however difficult that truth is sometimes hard to accept.  Leadership among are elected officials is a rare thing - Dennis has what it takes.

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By Jean Thomas, December 16, 2006 at 8:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dennis Kucinich exemplifies the saying “Speak Truth to Power.” No wonder so many politicians, both D and R, want to discredit him! Dennis has earned the support of the grassroots. We need more leaders with his integrity and courage.

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By steve banyai, December 16, 2006 at 8:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

THAT is why i was democratic rep. for galveston, texas, to the state convention. KUCINICH FOR PRESIDENT

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By peter powell, December 16, 2006 at 8:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The multi-national corporations that run our government and decide who gets elected through manipulating the media, which they own, have kept Americans so uninformed that Bush was elected twice. We disinfranchised Americans need a candidate that will stop corporate control and makes it his platform to end this horrible misuse of power (which includes the military-industrial complex).  We need a candidate that opens our eyes to an America that some call fascist and some call a plutocracy, and promise to make America a strong democracy again.  We need a candidate that keeps religion out of politics and stops letting religious right issues overshadow the real issues of poverty, health care, education and the environment. I think Dennis would do this.

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By george lyne, December 16, 2006 at 8:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i remember thinking when this happened that dennis may have been the only elected official in the country with any balls.  i still think that way!

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By Eda Rassner, December 16, 2006 at 7:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It will be a happy day when this country is ready to embrace the values of Dennis Kucinich. Dennis Kucinich takes me to higher ground again and again. He exudes the courage it takes to live for the good of the whole, which ultimately is the recipe for the survival of humanity and this earth.

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By peter powell, December 16, 2006 at 7:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Aha! By deleting the Autofilled Zip code and putting in your SUBMIT WORD my last message was sent.  Not an immediate connection for this computer illiterate who lost a long well thought out comment for Dennis before realizing how to do it. I’ll try to repeat that comment in my next submission.

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By peter powell, December 16, 2006 at 7:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

First of all, you assume that we are all computer literate and that we know what to do with SUBMIT THE WORD BELOW.  I typed, which I hate to do,  a long comment which was immediately lost because I didn’t do what you ask, whatever that may be. So I’m going to try to send this to you and hope I can figure out how not to lose it and then my real comment will follow.  Am I supposed to type “stock 42” here?????? or in the space below “stock42”  which my auto-fill function (ever hear of MACS) filled in with my zip code???????

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By Dave, December 16, 2006 at 7:10 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The principled integrity of this man, Kucinich, arises out of a proper spiritual conviction. Can the electorate recognize what they have never before seen in public politics? Even when acting in our own interests and the broader interests of humanity and the planet, the message will only resound if not drowned down or ignored by the media. What can be done to promote Dennis and his message ? The media should be hungry to report on this “very different” politician. I believe his time may have finally come, after so much Republican abuse of the public trust and the Democrats dereliction of their duty to oppose it. Dennis Kucinich is the only true message of hope. If the more traditional media sources would only apprehend that.. It is what America wants and needs.. And I have faith that the people will embrace it if they are expopsed to it.. Marketing it and funding it (independent of self-serving lobbies) is the only challenge.

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By krivka, December 16, 2006 at 6:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This story has been known for years by those who are interested in truth rather than the canned news we have been fed over time. I was a resident of thhe city as well as a Kucinich fan (it’s hard not to if you ever get as chance to meet him,) but unfortuantely the majority of Clevelanders can still spout off the party line on how he supposedly drove business from Cleveland, and the City is in the shape it is currentlyy in because of him. it is utterly ridiculous, but I am glad that Mrs. Kucinich brought this out now for public review. as it is about tiime this story gets another shot at a national debate.

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By Cindy Ginart, December 16, 2006 at 5:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dennis Kucinich is the man we need as our president. We are facing a new day and new time and he represents, most definitely, the evolutionary leap necessary for this country to progress to a union of all people instead of the corporate union that we currently have. We need his honor, his integrity, and his humanity.  With this kind of leadership we can then work for a future in which people of his caliber are the norm rather than the exception.

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By Walter, December 16, 2006 at 5:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you. Dennis really is an inspiration.

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By Don Slepian, December 16, 2006 at 5:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am very glad to see this article - I have been a Kucinich supporter for the last three years.  Please link this interview and edit the Dennis Kucinich article in Wikipedia.org which has quite a lot of the “Dennis the Menace” point of view and very little positive information.  The forces arrayed against Dennis are just as powerful today.

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By Michael Carano, December 16, 2006 at 4:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Rep. Kucinich operates on a level the should be the benchmark for those seeking politcal office.  Let’s face it, moneyed interests not only now decide what legislation will get passed (and unfortunately now too often helps write the legislation) but too often through their power and influence decide who will get elected. 

Rep.  Kucinich obviously sees his charge as “representing the people” and thus pushes for goals that put the interests of those who elected him over those who want to work the system to benefit financially from friendly legislation.  Though we live in what too often is a cynical age, Kucinich stands for the ideal upon which our nation was founded—a representative government that makes government work for the will of the people. I applaud a congressman who actually believes in that, and who works to make that a reality. It is wonderful to see a politician who have the power to imagine a better future than seeing his political life as “business as usual.”

Ohio’s original constitution gave the state the right to decide how long a corporation could exist, what practices it could engage in, and how it should operate” it did so because the simple idea was that commerce should serve the interests of the people. Of course with the subsequent giving of corporations “personhood,” a grave upturning of how our democracy should operate, corporations now operate with limited liability, and the present system of regulation actually builds a moat around corportations so that their protections grow while the protections of those who originally where the heart of our democracy shrink.

Kucinich’s standing up for the people of the city instead of for those who want to profit by being aided and abetted by our political system is not some pie in the sky kind of thinking. It is at the core of what it means to be a democracy, and his standing up for the right of the people to have access to Social Security, Health Care, or any other type of program that benefits “the people” over the special interests is the kind of thinking that once propelled our Founding Fathers to take matters into their own hands against the king and his grip on the people. 

Kucinich speaks to the core of what it means to be self-governed, and it is time the people remember or get reintroduced to this once familiar idea and not allow it to be relegated to the dustbin of history.  We need more elected officials willing to take the courageous stance needed to put people first.  Kucinich is in the vanguard of that movement, and he should get the support a visionary needs to make his ideals and goals a reality.

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By Michael Duffy, December 16, 2006 at 4:41 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

All movements start at the grassroots level. Dennis Kucinich is a direct link to Thomas Paine who coined the phrase “The United States of America”. I feel connected to any American patriot.
As I see your patriotic passion is well rooted.
Thank you Joshua Scheer for spreading the truth.
Regards,
Michael Duffy

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By Robert R. Scattergood, December 16, 2006 at 3:52 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for presenting this article. While I endorse his stance concerning public domain and the rights of the people to their own resources in accordance with their own declared needs, this is all very well and good.

However, I believe the fact remains that if Mr. Kucinich truly has understood the underlying reasons for the delimited social development we are laboring under, then he will also surely realize that he needs to publicly expose the Democratic Party for what it actually is while at the same time disassociating himself from the deliberate fraud their “party” and platform represents.

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By janet evans, December 15, 2006 at 11:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hallelujah…a politician with principles…there is hope for us yet!!

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By rober t A. davies, December 15, 2006 at 8:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s gratifying to know that a man like Kucinich is considering a run for President. Unfortunately another fine man, Sen. Finegold, is not running. While I agree with everything Kucinich says, I wish he didn’t repeat himself so much.I suppose that’s a lot better than Hilary’s insincere glibness and Bush’s lies and wrenching of the language.

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By ripples of hope, December 15, 2006 at 5:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.

It is this new idealism which is also, I believe, the common heritage of a generation which has learned that while efficiency can lead to the camps at Auschwitz, or the streets of Budapest, only the ideals of humanity and love can climb the hills of the Acropolis.”

RFK.

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By CK, December 15, 2006 at 3:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Jesus H. Christ, would you people GET OVER Kuninich already? I mean, WTF? He is an absolute zero as a candidate.  Putting him on the front page just makes Truthdig look pathetically out of touch.

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By Rowdy!, December 15, 2006 at 2:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Kucinich=Integrity
Kucinich=Leadership
Kucinich=Wisdom
Kucinich=Foresight

Just imagine if you will, what Dennis’ reaction would have been that certain day back in September 2001… of course, had we listened to men like Kucinich, the world would not be in the mess it’s in today.

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By William Bloch, December 15, 2006 at 1:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a result of the default, did the city stop paying its bills, stop paying salaries?  What happened to the city credit rating that might have prevented it from funding future public works projects?

I would love to see an analysis that takes into account all sides of the issue and that evenhandedly analyzes the consequences.

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By Norm Ezzie, December 15, 2006 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a resident of the 10th Congressional District here in Cleveland Ohio- I can state here with no reservations whatsover,this business of “running for President” is just an “insurance card” to keep his name in the media! His real goal is to secure a seat in the United States Senate! Dennis does only one thing really well- campaign! His voting record is dismal at best,you cannot name one real piece of legislation that he purposed,that was voted on and passed into law,and benefited our district! For more from Cleveland,and the real news-please log on at: http://www.storminnorm.com  Our InTheNews pages has dated material,that proves our accuracy-by the month! Again,” Only In Cleveland” can a indivdual like Dennis shout out his clarion call-and never mention he represents the #1 City in America that suffers in poverty and we’re listed #7 as one of the most dangerous cities in America too!! Nice legacy,heh???

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By Quy Tran, December 15, 2006 at 12:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We really need the new young blood in The White House.

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By Roger Drowne EC, December 15, 2006 at 12:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We have thrown OUR support behind

Dennis 4 President of the USA

  What Fun Old Age Has Become… Except 4 War, Hate, B.S. etc.

Photo… of Dennis Kucinich & Roger Drowne EC

Love U All,

Dennis Kucinich   &  Roger Drowne EC - Talk Community, N.H. USA Earth, About, Oct, 2004

more info photo at…

http://www.RogerART.com

Also, Roger is NOW running 4

.  President of Planet Earth

see Our Platform at above web address

Thank U, another Earth Citizen

Go Dennis Go… We ALL Have Your Back
.

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By john in california, December 15, 2006 at 11:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Kucinich is a little guy with a lot of fight. I don’t think it is egoism that has him tooting his own horn, but he has a kind of outspoken objectiveness about himself. It’s like he’s saying “Look, I’m an object lesson. You can make yourself into who you really are if you’ll just drop your fears. You will pay a price, but it is not as high as losing your soul.” Because he had practiced living the truth, he was able to see and say the obvious about bush and Iraq from day one. During the 2004 campaign I dimissed Kucinich, not for his views, but for his ‘electability’. I won’t make that mistake again. Sign me up. I’m going to work for this guy.

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By RPRodriguez, December 15, 2006 at 10:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It boils down to the question: who do you trust more in the administration of public infrastructure, officials who are accountable to the electorate or to elected officials, or CEO’s who are accountable to shareholders and profit motive?

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By Via, December 15, 2006 at 7:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for this interview.  I will read more about Kucinich.

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By ti, December 15, 2006 at 6:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr Scheer & Truthdig -

Thank you for sharing this story.  Everywhere else this story is recast as “incompetent young mayor brings city to its knees”...  Good to hear the other side of the story. 

You’re performing a valuable and patriotic service.

Now, if we could only get some of the wretched invertebrates in congress to heed Mr Kucinich’s (and the people’s!) call to starve this shameful episode in Iraq…

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By Jaded Prole, December 15, 2006 at 5:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Kucinich may be the only member of Congress with unshakeable prinicples. He is the kind of leader we need.

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