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The Charge of the Muny Light Brigade
Posted on Dec 14, 2006
TRUTHDIG: When the chips fell, they fell pretty hard. You were forced out of public life for nearly 20 years. In hindsight, do you stand by your decision to do this?
KUCINICH: Every public official or aspiring public official who would read this interview should remember that when you take a public trust, the most important thing is to defend the public interest. There’s always some kind of a deal out there where someone is out there to convince you that if you just go along with this particular matter, it’ll be good for your career; it’ll show people that you know how to come to reason. Deals like Muny Light are out there every day for politicians who want to get in with certain interest groups, who want to advance their career. This isn’t condemnation of people who do it, but that’s just so much of what politics is about: People decide, “Well, I’m going to do something I really don’t like, but I’ll stay in office and I’ll be able to help people some other time.” There are millions of little bargains that take place like that every day. It’s just that I saw something else: I saw that this had immediate economic relevance for the people of Cleveland, and also for everyone who was ever in public life who felt like they needed to take a stand and were looking for the courage to do it.
Because any one of us can inform all of us that it’s OK, that life is going to go on, that you can stand up for what you believe in, that you don’t have to sell out, that you don’t have to sell your soul, that you don’t have to let someone else determine the circumstances under which you are in public service.
So this was a wonderful opportunity for me, having been the youngest mayor of the city of Cleveland, who had this chance to stand up for the public interest—at a critical moment, when everything was on the line, and all the odds were stacked against me ... I stood up for the people.
And years later they knew I was right. Years later they put me back in the state Senate, and they followed up by putting me in Congress, and I win elections in Cleveland now by huge majorities. And I’m grateful for that. But I knew in 1978 when I refused to sell that electric system, I knew the bank was going to follow up on its threat to put the city of Cleveland in default. I also knew I’d lose the next election—which I did. But there are, believe it or not, some things more important than holding public office. And what’s important is that when it comes your turn to make the decision, you stand up, you don’t relent, and you—in the words of “Prometheus Unbound” by Shelley—you defy power which seems omnipotent. And that is what it means to be joyous and free. If you are going to want to be a torchbearer for the freedom of the people, you have to be free yourself.
TRUTHDIG: There’s a lot of debate over the regulation and deregulation of energy companies. But this was not really a deregulation-regulation debate, right? You were trying to prevent a monopoly.
KUCINICH: Right. This was an issue of: Do the people have the right to own their own utility? The question is: Is there such a thing as the public domain? Is it appropriate for governments to operate water systems, sewer systems, parks, libraries, public services? The man who founded Muny Light 100 years ago, Mayor Tom Johnson, said something to this effect: I believe in the public ownership of all municipal service utilities, because if you do not own them, they will in time own you. They will rule your politics, corrupt your institutions, and finally destroy your liberties.
The issue of public ownership has huge implications today for the people of the United States:
It relates to whether or not we can have a public retirement system like Social Security, which has been under attack in a privatization scheme.
It relates to whether or not we can have a public health system through a universal single-payer system instead of this system we have today, in which 100 million people are either uninsured or under-insured, because the system is held by private interests.
It relates to the question of whether public education is going to be adequately funded.
It relates to the theft of natural resources—of oil companies using their power to get leases and mining companies using their power to grab public lands, or everyone looking at public resources as something to be looted.
This same destructive impulse is evident in the policies of the International Monetary Fund—the so-called structural adjustment policies, which force communities to give up publicly owned assets in order to gain access to capital, and then the people end up paying exorbitant amounts of money for services which used to be provided directly to the people.
This question of public control was at the center of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech, where he said to beware of the military/industrial complex. Today we see the privatization of war reflected in mercenaries and contractors in Iraq, who will make of the war in Iraq a perpetuating industry.
It relates to this destructive ethic of privatization, which is being visited on the people of Iraq right now, with the attempt by interest groups to push changes in national law which pave the way for the privatization of the oil industry.
These are the kinds of questions that are central to issues of democratic governance. These are questions that are central to the very idea of a polity which exists for the public interest, as opposed to the private interest. So go all the way back to Dec. 15, 1978, and my decision had implications far into the future. And I can see the same kinds of schemes that are out there today that try to steal or defraud the public of what is really a heritage of the people. And for my part, what I learned in Cleveland in 1978 is that it is possible to stand up; and you may pay a price, but what is the most important thing in life is the triumph of principle; and nothing, no high office, no monuments, no false praise from media working against the public interest, is a substitute for being at peace and one with integrity.
TRUTHDIG: Thanks for shedding light on this; because when you read encapsulations of your public career, you usually only read that you ended your mayorship in controversy.
KUCINICH: When people look at the issue of default and they connect it with my name, they should also connect with my name a “Not for Sale” sign. They should connect with my name the essence of public power.
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