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The Charge of the Muny Light Brigade
Posted on Dec 14, 2006
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*.
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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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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