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March 31st, 2004 Lisa Loving | News Stories
 

On the Road with DENNIS KUCINICH

Forty-eight hours with the man who won't be our next president.

     
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End of a gravel road near Corvallis, Thursday, March 25, 11:17 am.

My husband's cell phone chirps while we're in a cabin in the woods. He hands it to me. Willamette Week's news editor just figured out that a presidential candidate is coming to town later in the week.

He wants someone to hang out with Dennis Kucinich for a few days and, he assures me, I'm the first person he called. I'm flattered. More important, I'm broke. Sure, I say, I can be witty and insightful while explaining why an herbivore from Ohio is still running in the Democratic primary while John Kerry is celebrating on the slopes of Sun Valley. No problem.

What was I thinking?

Portland International Airport, Friday, 6:41 pm

The photographer and I make visual contact with the K-man; I recognize him from a Saturday Night Live skit a few weeks ago. Television stations and newspapers have worked hard to ignore Kucinich's presidential bid. Yet almost every story written about him mentions his height. Or, more precisely, his lack of it. (He's 5-foot-7.)

The congressman hasn't cleared the baggage claim area, but he's already been embraced and handshaken by an exuberant hippie woman and two gray-haired gentleman-types, and held three telephone conversations. He marches up to the baggage round-and-round and actually grabs his own. Wow. You think Kerry, a guy who owns five homes, totes his own bags?

Me and photog man march right up and grab Kucinich's hand. Soon a VW bus pulls up outside, totally papered with red, white and blue Kucinich bumper stickers--like, we are talking about 1,000 frickin' stickers. We all look at each other. This is a bit much, even for the candidate.

Fortunately, a nondescript white minivan scoots up behind it. We pile into that and head for Lincoln High School, the starting line for his four-day, 14-stop marathon tour of the Willamette Valley. Kucinich sits in the middle, and I push in next to him clutching my pen and notebook. I can't help but feel a bit weird. I'm no impartial observer. I'm a left-wing radio producer, a registered Pacific Green who voted for Nader in 2000, and I generally despise Democrats as much as I hate Republicans and Libertoonians. I should recuse myself from this assignment, but I have two words to that: Antonin Scalia.

Lincoln High School, 7:28 pm.

The Kucinich team dresses in very sharp black, like in The Matrix, except not leather; already I think of them as the K-Mob. Once at Lincoln--which is jammed with about 1,000 people decked out in blue jeans and T-shirts--Kucinich looks like Calvin Klein at a campground, but it doesn't matter. He has this crowd's number dialed in.

The Kucinich agenda is nothing if not deep and dramatic: provide universal health care, fully fund kindergarten-through-college education, roll Iraq over to the United Nations and bring the troops home, end the backfiring "War on Terror," and cut corporate welfare. The K-man actually lays out specific steps to get to these places. But Peter Jennings and The New York Times don't talk about his political agenda, they just keep repeating two things: Kucinich is short, and he's gonna lose. End of story. Oh, yeah, there's a third thing: He's a vegan.

If he's frustrated, the ever-cheerful Kucinich doesn't show it. He knows he's not getting the nomination, but he has no plans of getting out of the race. He's got a plan, and the Willamette Valley holds the key.

"By the mere vote in the primary," he says, "by the sheer factor of Oregon's willingness to take a strong stand on the issues we're talking about--especially since it comes at the end of the primary season--Oregon could make an indelible impact on the Democratic platform and on the direction of the party."

When they hear this, the Lincoln High crowd almost does a group fast-break down the basketball court; they leap from their seats to applaud, one and all.

The scene is reminiscent of Nader in the mid-'90s, except the K-man is far more accessible. At the end he sticks around, as almost the entire gymful lines up to shake his hand. Later, the talking hairdos on KATU--the only TV station to cover it--seem quite positive about the K-man. They even mention the peace agenda.

Kalga Kafe, Portland, Saturday, 9:30 am

After a night in an undisclosed location, Kucinich is at a $50-a-plate fundraising breakfast. Everybody here knows he's a vegan (he's also short--and he's going to lose), and this is a veggie palace; scrambled tofu is the main dish. I chat with this nice lowbrow guy next to me. Turns out he's Jerry Wilson, the millionaire inventor of the Soloflex exercise machines, which are still made in Hillsboro. "There's nothing to be gained from moving the factory to China," he says.

Wilson was a chief petitioner for the initiative to shut down Trojan nuclear plant, endearing himself to the folks who later would push Ralph Nader's presidential bid as a Green Party candidate. "Ralph called me a few days ago," Jerry says. "He said, 'I want your honest opinion: Should I run?' And I said, 'No.'"

Wilson is firmly in the Kucinich camp. "You know who he reminds me of?" he asks. "Benito Juárez. He's the man who ran the French out of Mexico...an incredible human being. They even look alike."

Oregonian reporter Jeff Mapes, who's working on his second Kucinich story this week, waits nearby while the K-man bolts his tofu and rises to speak.

Kucinich is a great speaker, quoting Descartes and Gil Scott-Heron, completely off the cuff. "Where are we as a nation?" he asks. "Are we ready to trade a Republican's version of Iraq for a Democrat's version? ... That's why it's so critical that this state becomes engaged in this question."

Portland Saturday Market, 1:18 pm

This is the only place the K-man meets the unconverted. "Kucinovitch?" says Minister M.E. Rivers, who's selling incense to fund his substance-abuse counseling project. He's never heard of Kucinich, but he's got some surprising facts about Bush and Kerry: "They both belong to Bone and Skulls, they belong to the same brotherhood, it's the same thing."

The reverend is talking about Skull and Bones, the secret Yale University frat club that inspired weird scenes in Animal House. Rivers knows a few things; he took a class at PCC and learned how to use the Internet, which is where he read about it.

Kucinich adores the Portland Saturday Market. He's mobbed near the tie-dye hoodie booth; somewhere he procures vegan marshmallows, which he offers to fellow passengers on the K-Mob van for the rest of the trip. The scene goes over the top when he spies Mr. Statue; first K-man poses next to him, then stuffs the tip jar and gets Statue's blue-ribbon contact-juggling act. Then we get the hell out of Portland.

Lancaster Drive, Salem, 3:59 pm

The backstory to the Kucinich caravan is food. Allan, the driver/ navigator of the K-van, spots a Thai place up ahead. "Thai food--that's vegan," he says, as he swerves off Lancaster. "Whaddaya think, you guys?"

Allan looks all Secret Service, but the facade melts after a few minutes of conversation. I don't recall the Men in Black having a working knowledge of vegan cuisine.

Over in Iraq, embedded reporters were criticized for becoming too sympathetic to the troops they were traveling with, and as we head into the restaurant I'm beginning to understand why. Terre Lundy, the K-man's media coordinator, is stunningly intelligent and looks like a movie star. But my favorite traveling companion is the K-Mob second-in-command, BC, a seeming bruiser with a rasping Boston accent who is totally devoted to the candidate.

Inside the Thai restaurant, I get carried away and babble about my kidney transplant. "It's a remarkable gift you gave to your cousin," the K-man says. I stop myself from lifting up my shirt to show my scar, thank God. He chats with a boothful of diners on his way to the little candidates' room; they giggle and shake their heads. Probably have no idea who he is.

Most people don't know the whole Don Quixote storyline. Quixote is a regular guy who goes nuts one day over the problems he sees in his messed-up country, Spain. Pledging to fight injustice, he dresses up like a knight and hallucinates; he gets beat up a lot. Still, he manages to help many people despite his apparent insanity--reuniting lovers caught in restrictive social customs, freeing enslaved workers.

Kucinich didn't go crazy, but his life has been tough. He grew up in Cleveland in a family that lived through homelessness. With a populist agenda he won a Cleveland City Council seat in 1969 on his second try at age 23, and he went on in 1977 to become the youngest big-city mayor in the United States. He was beaten after struggling to prevent bank foreclosure of Cleveland's city-owned utilities, a problem he inherited from a Republican predecessor.

After spending years in reflection, the K-man juiced up his political career about 10 years ago, jumping from an Ohio state rep seat to Congress. In the House, Kucinich, now 57, has proposed a cabinet-level Department of Peace and opposed the USA Patriot Act, the invasion of Afghanistan and the war on Iraq. His career is marked by unpopularity among fellow Democrats, but also by a snowballing base of support among voters in Ohio--and now places like the Willamette Valley.

"Democrats cannot win the White House unless we demonstrate the ability to have the broadest appeal to the voters," he says to me in the K-mob van. "It's critical; it could actually make the difference between victory and defeat."

This, presumably, explains why a Roman Catholic born of Old World immigrant parents has basically come out in favor of gay marriage.

Still, as a presidential candidate, he's been snubbed by party leadership and skewered on late-night TV, and he's currently a recurring character on Saturday Night Live.

"You sure you don't want a vegan marshmallow?" he says to me for the third time. Jeez. I say yes and take it. "Good," I say. "These are really good."

Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 4:47 pm

Aside from being a short vegan loser, Kucinich is also known as one of the nicest guys on Capitol Hill. I test this out by baiting him with a question about Ralph Nader, who is advocating many of the same ideas while drawing voters away from Kucinich's party.

His response: "Thirty years ago, when I was mayor of Cleveland and trying to stop the privatization of our key municipal utilities, Ralph was the only national figure who came out to help me." Again, the K-man refuses to attack.

After Kucinich's speech, Peter Bergel, a Peaceworks activist, scores a stunning cash drop--by demanding support for Kucinich's "missionary work among the Democrats."

Outside the church, former Salem Mayor Mike Swaim--a bedrock progressive Democrat--talks of Kucinich's uphill effort to move his party to the left. "I've been a Democrat all my life," he says. "I've been trying to reform the party from the inside for years--I don't want to leave the party, but it's got to reform."

Southbound on I-5, 8:23 pm

Everyone in the van--including the driver--has a cell-phone frenzy, dialing in, dealing with incoming. It's like an airport in here.

Olde World Deli, Corvallis, 9:03 pm

This tiny place is so jammed, the K-man is practically passed over heads like a mosh pit to get inside. Unable to squeeze in, I retire to the local Super 8. Later, I hear that after his speech a woman in the audience, overcome with progressive political zeal (or claustrophobia), keeled over. Some medical technicians carted her away, but I'm assured that she's fine.

Burton's Restaurant, Sunday, 10 am

The sweet, white-haired owner of this Corvallis eatery presides over a big, hairy meat breakfast. Something about the K-man's vegan vibe is turning me all Atkins; I tell the owner to slice off a big piece of ham, and can I have bacon and sausage, too? The members of the Benton County Board of Commissioners, fresh from their decision to support gay marriages, are here to catch the caravan.

In the middle of Kucinich's speech, the cell phone rings. It's my brother, Blair Bobier, who, it turns out, was in the packed deli last night. Blair is founder of what eventually became the Pacific Green Party in Oregon and is backing Greenie David Cobb for president. I fill him in on the trip, noting that it was kind of like Men in Black meets Mission: Impossible.

Blair was one of the first people to bring Nader to Oregon in the '90s for his Green run at the presidency. I ask him how Kucinich compares.

"I'm struck more by the differences," he says. "I was struck by how Kucinich puts a real human element into things. He's much more approachable than Ralph, less theoretical, more pragmatic and more to the point."

The one thing that doesn't surprise Blair about Kucinich is the lack of media attention he received, even before Kerry had the nomination locked up.

"Other than the fact that he's totally right on about everything, I can't see why he's been blacked out in the media," he says. "If he were a Kennedy, he'd be in there. As it is, he's a short guy from Cleveland and he's easy to ignore."

Blair has long battled local media, including Willamette Week, in an effort to get reporters to cover candidates who they assume aren't going to win.

"These guys all made their judgments early on, and they're sticking with it," he says. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

So what can we learn from the Kucinich caravan? "Here's what it is," he says. "Whether it's Greens or people who are supporting Kucinich, the fact is the powers that be shut out any and all voices they don't want to hear about. This guy is totally credible, totally intelligent, and he's blacked out?"

I wonder whether that may change. After all, Mapes wrote two Oregonian stories on the K-man over the weekend. KATU's piece on Saturday was pretty good. And this story is supposed to be splashed across the cover of the state's second-largest newspaper. Moreover, Kucinich is stationing Lundy, his media expert, in Oregon for the next month. Maybe here, at least, Democrats will still get a chance to compare Kerry with someone besides George Bush.

It turns out BC has heard my conversation and chews me out. "My mission in life is to create a sacred space for men and women, and this is part of that," he says. "I'm not the man in black, and this is not Mission: Impossible. I don't want 'impossible' in there. It's possible."

KLCC radio studios, Lane Community College, Eugene, 12:11 pm

One of the very first callers on the Sunday at Noon talk-radio show weirdly berates K-man. "Dennis, what about Ralph? Are you in line with Ralph?" he says.

A lot of Naderites are hoping Kucinich will endorse their man. It's not likely, and for now, the K-man is still, technically, seeking the Democratic nomination. "Look, I'm running as a Democrat, he's running as an Independent," Kucinich says. "I'm working for change within the Democratic Party--this is where we can change the debate."

Building 19, Lane Community College, 12:35 pm

Kucinich was the only bachelor in the Democratic primary, a fact that generated a few whispers. But I didn't see women throwing themselves at him. What I saw was them throwing their meat-free, dairy-free food at him.

Barbara Lowry, Eugene-area media coordinator for Kucinich, has laid out more than a dozen earthenware plates with real flatware utensils in a classroom. Her buffet is Thai spring rolls with asparagus and tempeh, papaya salad with cilantro and snap peas, organic cannellini-bean bruschetta, and roasted beets and apples with balsamic beet greens. "I really wanted to include that because he's Croatian, and it's a real Eastern European specialty," she says.

A bit more than an hour later, Kucinich stands before more than 1,000 people, still tilting at windmills. "A year ago, when the administration launched its 'Shock and Awe' attack on Iraq, when it attacked a nation which did not attack us, we began to lose something of what it means to be an American," he says. "We lost a sense of justice that has always been a part of our connection to the world community."

After the event, I decided to bail out on the rest of the road trip. I'd planned to play "Boys on the Minivan" all the way to Roseburg and Medford and Ashland, but I've simply got to get to a computer if I'm going to make the paper's insane deadline. I shake K-man's hand, wave at Terre and Allan. On the way out I'm cornered again by BC, who seems to have gotten over his post-breakfast snit. "Don't I get a hug?" His voice is like one of the Sopranos'. "Now you have our phone numbers, you know where to call."

THE RALPH AND DENNIS SHOWS

Ralph Nader, who's spent three years insisting he didn't steal votes away from Al Gore, now has to ward off complaints that he's jeopardizing the quixotic campaign of Dennis Kucinich.

Nader, who's running for president as an Independent, says he's not after the progressive Democrats who are still backing Kucinich in his symbolic race against John Kerry.

This time, Nader told WW, he's after Republicans. "A lot of the liberal Republicans never liked Bush," Nader says. "And then you have the Independent voters--we're talking about a lot of the same things. We're going to take away more votes from Bush than Kerry."

You can see where parts of Nader's message would appeal to conservatives--especially ending corporate subsidies and tax breaks for the rich. On Monday, Nader announced plans to meet with Kerry to discuss strategies on how to defeat Bush.

Kucinich, for his part, seemed surprised by Nader's purported quest for disgruntled Republicans: "He said that?"

It turns out he and Nader are old friends who seem to admire each other's crusades, even though it would appear that their political vehicles are on a collision course. "We do have some of the same issues," says the Ohio congressman, "but I'm trying to do something different than Ralph. I want to reinvigorate the Democratic Party from the inside, and inspire people to engage."

Nader comes to Portland April 5, for a nominating convention to which he must draw 1,000 people to qualify for the presidential ballot in Oregon. (The event, which is free, starts at 6 pm at the Roseland Theater.) --LL


If you count pledged and unpledged delegates, John Kerry currently has more than the 2,162 needed to secure the Democratic nomination for president. Dennis Kucinich's campaign estimates he has 28.5 delegates.

Kucinich did best in Hawaii, where he received 31 percent of the caucus votes and picked up a third of the delegates. The next presidential primary is Colorado's on April 13.

The Democratic candidates on the ballot in Oregon's May 18 primary election are John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich and Lyndon LaRouche.

 
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