Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Dennis Kucinich: From Sleeping in a Car as a Kid to 16 Years in Congress

The former Congress member talks to Robert Scheer about his life and the dramatic events surrounding his political rise, as told in his new book “The Division of Light and Power.”
U.S. House Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) waits to speak to a crowd at the 2008 DNC.
U.S. House Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) waits to speak to a crowd at the 2008 DNC. [Photo by Juli Hansen / Shutterstock]

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Dennis Kucinich’s story, which he relays in detail in his latest book, “The Division of Light and Power”– available June 8–is in many ways the story of the sort of American dream to which so many aspire, yet to which so few have access. It’s also the exact opposite–a tale of the often untold struggles of a principled person faced with everything that’s rotten in the state of America. The former Congress member and Cleveland mayor grew up in poverty in a large Catholic family in the city he later went on to run, painfully aware of the distress and oppression caused by precarious economic conditions that, coupled with systemic racism, deprived his mostly Black neighbors of a stable life. As a young Kucinich began to work in efforts he believed in and to which he was fully committed, he was immediately caught in a web of corrupt monied interests–both in their legalized and illegal forms. 

On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Kucinich joins his longtime friend Robert Scheer to talk about the untold dramatic events surrounding his rise in politics and why it took him so many decades to tell the full story. In the episode, Kucinich details his activism fighting the blatant attempts by the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) to block the expansion of its competitor, Muny Light, a municipal electric system now known as Cleveland Public Power. To sway people to switch over from the public utility, CEI had purposely been creating blackouts in the 1960s–not unlike Enron did in California, as Scheer points out. The blackouts, says Kucinich, were just one example in a long list of crimes committed by the private utility, including corporate espionage and sabotage.

“That’s where I arrived on the scene,” says Kucinich, “and I saw this going on and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, there’s something wrong here. Why isn’t anybody standing up and speaking out against this?’ So I basically volunteered to do that. I stepped forward and that changed my life. Little did I know that issue of public power, and my involvement in it, would cause me to get in the mayor’s race in 1977 and actually be elected mayor. 

The Division of Light and Power” by Dennis Kucinich. [Photo courtesy of Dennis Kucinich]

“The story, of course, doesn’t end there; that’s not even halfway through the story,” he goes on. “I got elected mayor and then the private utility, which was furious that I had actually blocked the sale [of the city’s electric system], came after me. I’m in my living room in Cleveland right now–I’ve been in this home for the better part of 50 years–and I’m looking at a wall that’s been plastered over where a high-powered rifle shot just missed my head by a fraction during the time that I had a petition drive going to try to block the sale legislatively.” Kucinich later learned from Cleveland police intelligence that he was the target of a Mafia hit. 

The two also talk about why the one-time Democratic presidential candidate, who is identified by many Americans as a staunch leftist, bristles at any term–including Democrat–that would narrowly define his perspective. Listen to the full conversation between Kucinich and Scheer as they further discuss his incredible political battles in Cleveland and in Congress.

Credits: 

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo 

RS: Today we’re going to encounter intelligence in the form of Dennis Kucinich, and really a very rich history of an encounter with American power. And just as a personal footnote, I’m doing this interview now because he’s written a really marvelous book called The Division of Light and Power. And it actually comes out in a couple of days; we’re recording it earlier, but when we go on the air on Friday, in three days on June 8th, it’s going to be available. It’s already, you can preorder it, the Kindle version on Amazon–and elsewhere, independent bookstores, I hasten to add. 

And I want to say that this is really–you know, Dennis did a very good interview with Matt Taibbi. I don’t like being scooped, but this time it was good. Because I thought I knew–I know I know Dennis very well; I know his whole history, and I’ve known him for 40 years, we’ll discuss that in a bit. But Matt Taibbi caught something  really essential about Dennis’s journey. He had covered him when Dennis was running for president; he followed his career. And he said, you know, the media elite, they kind of refer to him as sort of a left-wing nut, and who is this guy, and what’s he all about. 

And actually, in that interview Matt Taibbi ties you to a really rich history of American populism. And I think that’s a very interesting point on which to start. And he asks you a question: he says, really, isn’t the Dennis Kucinich story really a story about not selling out? And I know you haven’t even read this interview yet, I asked you. But it’s interesting that he focused on that. And not selling out was a critical part of a populist tradition in America that took on power, sometimes on the right and sometimes on the left. And in Cleveland, where you ran for the city council and won in 1969 and surprised everybody by beating a machine, Democratic Party machine candidate–and then you went on to be mayor of Cleveland from ’78 to ’79, when I first interviewed you for the L.A. Times and then later Playboy magazine–and you were in that populist tradition. And give us the name of the mayor, I’m blocking on it now, who was this great populist, I believe there’s a statue to him in Cleveland, and talk about your own political origin. Where does Dennis Kucinich come from?

DK: Well, first of all, the mayor that you speak of, Bob, was Mayor Tom Johnson. And he was a mayor of whom Lincoln Steffens wrote in his collection called Shame of the Cities, he called Tom Johnson the best mayor of the best-governed city in the United States. And Tom Johnson really looked to see how he could get the benefits of municipal operation to the people of the city. He stood for public transit, for municipal electricity. He said in his book, which was published in 1911, that “I believe in municipal ownership of all public service facilities, of parks, of waterworks, of electric systems. 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.” And that was Tom Johnson 110 years ago, and his legacy included the Cleveland municipal electric system; I took up that fight in 1969, and it culminated in a tremendous battle in 1978 and ’79. 

RS: And the battle is discussed in The Division of Light and Power, and it’s a classic story about the struggle for the public interest. And that’s where the Dennis Kucinich journey publicly begins. But first, you know, about yourself: you were only 23 years old at that time. Twenty-three, and you took on an entrenched Democratic Party machine politician. Everybody forgets, our big cities most often, and particularly in the north–well, no, in the south of course as well–were ruled by Democratic politicians. You know, Carmine De Sapio and Tammany Hall in New York, and the Chicago machine and so forth. And what prompted you, at the age of 23–and this is at the end of the sixties, but you were influenced a bit by the sixties; you were also influenced by the Catholic Church, which provided your education. And you were also influenced very much–and this book records it–by a life of poverty, really, working-class poverty. So take us to who was this 23-year-old kid, which your book describes; it’s a marvelous book. And give us insight into an America of economic losers, which of course your father with his seven children, following a Catholic model of family, was destined to be, almost. 

DK: Well, first of all, you know, I won on my second time around. So I entered the political fray as a 20-year-old candidate, and I ran for city council in the same ward in which I attended high school. And I came within 500 votes of beating this entrenched Democrat, and then I campaigned for two years and I was elected. You know, what brought me into politics was a feeling that the people I grew up with didn’t have a voice in government. That their concerns were always marginalized. That, you know, their economic concerns about the cost of utilities, about the cost of public transit, about public services for which, you know, they may pay a certain amount of taxes–that their concerns were always pushed to the margin. And that those who ruled the city weren’t even the public officials, they were institutions or individuals who were in the private sector, and they just made the decisions. 

So when I was growing up in the city of Cleveland–I will tell you that when you’re living in a socially disorganized background, the last thing on your mind is politics. Voting is, you know, kind of an abstraction. You’re really worried about trying to survive day-to-day; when, you know, we had seven children in the family as you mentioned, had trouble finding rent, never owned the house, we moved around a lot. And as we moved from place to place it was always like: Will we have a roof over our head? Where’s the next meal coming from? Can we pay the bills? How do we avoid getting evicted? Sometimes we were evicted; sometimes we lived in a car. You know, today there’s a lot more people in America who have that background, but I will tell you that for us, it was a–you know, I had searing memories of the difficulties that my parents went through. 

And I told myself as a young person if I ever got anywhere in life, I’d try to do something to help those people who, like my own family, were pushed to the margins, left out, ignored, derided. And so when I got to city council, I knew who my constituents were. And when I became mayor, I knew unambiguously who I was there to represent. 

RS: Well, but let’s be clear about that. You didn’t come from any kind of leftist ideological background. 

DK: No.

RS: You were not swept up in any countercultural–

DK: No.

RS: –movement of hippies or what have you.

DK: No. Bob, I’m still–I’m not ideological.

RS: No, but you weren’t even [overlapping voices]–you were square as could be–

DK: Yeah–

RS: –got a good Catholic education, you tried to be–you were this short, skinny guy, and you were the third-string quarterback on your high school team, and they locked you in the locker once in a while to taunt you. And you know, I know a lot about your background, because as I said, I interviewed you when you were mayor; we can get into that a little bit. In fact, this book we’re here to discuss, The Division of Light and Power–the life story, really, of Dennis Kucinich, and I agree with Matt Taibbi and Chris Hedges and other people, and Ralph Nader, who has read it and praised it. This is really a story of American hopefulness. That out of the American experience–you know, here in the case of a Catholic, urban kid from a poor working-class background, comes to shine a light. 

And you have a very interesting beginning in this book of, you know, go fight city hall but first you have to find out, where is city hall? Where is the power? This is really a book about power in America and unraveling it. And so take us there. You know, again, when you’re 20 years old, starting to run, what caused a kid from a, again, Catholic education–was it your teachings? What was it that caused you to care about politics and get involved?

DK: Yeah, it’s, I mean, a question about the relationship between ethics that I, you know, learned in catechism, and action. You know, it probably reflects on some of what later became well-known as the Catholic Worker Movement, and the idea that our lives don’t belong just to ourselves. They–

RS: Oh, you’re wrong, by the way. The Catholic Worker Movement preceded you.

DK: Well, you know what–

RS: Dorothy Day and all those people. I’m sorry to lecture you, Dennis, but–

DK: No, listen, I’m not–I agree, OK, it preceded me. But what I’m saying, though, is that the sentiments were part of what I grew up with. And you know, they preceded my being in elected office, certainly. But the sentiments are things that I grew up with. And the teachings that I received had to do with always, you know, try to do the right thing, even when no one’s looking; especially when no one’s looking. And to always try to be of service to people, you know, is really–

RS: Well, when no one’s looking–let me stop you, because I do teach ethics at USC, and I’ve consulted once in a while on this with you, actually; I know a little bit about it. But the not looking–someone’s looking; it’s an almighty, right? It’s–

DK: Well, the idea is, if you believe in something like the soul, yes. There is that sense of the omnipresence of a spiritual force that’s inside us and also outside us. And that’s part of the religious teaching that I received, and I took it to heart. Not in a didactic way, not in a way that is rigidly catechetical, but in a way that you try to be fair with people; you try to do what’s right because that’s the way you should live. And so, you know, as I was growing up with that I also saw the experience that my parents had, how they were being cheated in the marketplace, you know, buying televisions that didn’t work, buying cars that would break when they took them off the lot. You know, getting food at a market that maybe wasn’t fresh, and on and on and on, the kind of insults that people experience every day in the inner city, the kind of stuff that David Caplovitz wrote about a half-century ago, called The Poor Pay More.

And you know, when I saw what my parents went through, and I saw the difficulties they had, and I saw how that was shared by many of the people in the neighborhoods in which we lived–you know, you have to remember that there were times when we were living in communities where we were the only Caucasian family in a community of color. And so my neighbors were experiencing the same economic conditions; they just happened to be Black. And if anyone wants to know about my politics, remember where I grew up, because I have the same sensibilities that come from living in that inner-city environment that causes one to ask questions about: Why are people so poor? Why are people denied a decent education? Why are people not having good health care? You know, there are so many questions that you ask. But at the same time, finding the answers is another thing. Because you just kind of throw it off: well, that’s the system. And no one really knows what the system is until you get inside of it, and then you start to peel back the layers, you know, like peeling an onion, and you finally find the truth of it, which is that the system is run by institutions and elements that are usually beyond the control of the democratic process.

RS: I want to get to that, because that’s really what the book is about. The interesting point that Matt Taibbi makes–and I brought it up before–is about not selling out. You know, and a lot of people, myself included, grew up in a poor background; I grew up in the Bronx, my parents were garment workers and so forth. But also, you know, that’s the whole thing of this sort of meritocracy: do it a certain way and you can get ahead and get out of that, and so forth, and then basically end up forgetting about the people who didn’t, who got stuck–which is nowadays the majority of people get stuck. And people of color always got stuck. 

And so I want to deal with that, because you–OK, you’re running, and you’re an Independent, and it shocks the whole machine. And you’re 23 years old, and you’re there in the city council. You’ve won. And the book really describes what selling out is all about in America. And we’re talking, what, 40 years ago, right? And I came and interviewed you at that time, after, when you were mayor. But there you are in city council, and the book is–it’s worth the price of the book for anything, for a lot of it. But that description: here’s a 23-year-old kid, he fits into the Cleveland community, people identify with him, he’s now at city council. And basically these old-timers and the Democratic machine are kind of saying, OK, kid, what are you about? You know, and what do you need? We’ll buy you off. And all the forces that buy off politicians emerge, ranging from the banks to the mafia. So take us through that story. Where was 23-year-old Dennis Kucinich, and what were the pressures on you at that time?

DK: The minute I got into city council, it was very clear that–OK, you’re here now, you’re one of us, forget why you ran, forget whatever you said in the election, there’s great opportunities for anyone here who plays ball. And you know, the message was join the club, go along to get along, and it’s going to be good for you, personally, financially, and for your career. 

RS: So put us with the people, though. These are party hacks, really [overlapping voices]–saying, kid, what are you all about, you know.

DK: Yeah, right. And I suppose it was a surprise to them to see someone elected who could have been their grandson. And–

RS: And you beat an entrenched politician.

DK: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Well, actually, what I learned about politics was, from people who told me as I went door-to-door, what he did for them–what the machine did for them. Because that was my charge, then: to show that I could do that and be their voice at the same time. But yeah, I beat a machine that had been unassailable. So I–you know, my initiation was to a system that basically was operating for its own self-aggrandizement. And when I saw that, I thought wait a minute, that’s not why I’m here. That’s not what I’m about. My direction is totally different. And I think that probably caused a certain level of [unclear] for the people with whom I was working, my new colleagues. 

And sooner than later I found that I was at odds with other members of council on what turned out to be the pivotal issue in my life, and that is the municipal electric system; members of the council had committed to selling it to this utility monopoly. And they wouldn’t finance, they wouldn’t agree to finance the repairs that the city system needed to be competitive; they actually crippled the city system because of the influence of the utility lobbyists, you know, on behalf of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. So when I–

RS: Just to put the record straight, people don’t necessarily know that we’ve had a lot of public assets that the public owned, and that served the public–and served capitalism actually quite well. I’m looking at one here in Los Angeles, from where I’m sitting: the Department of Water and Power, which is publicly owned in Los Angeles. And when we’ve had our crises with the big utilities companies, they’ve actually performed in a much better way. So in Cleveland you had a case study: you had a municipal electric system that basically was being cut out of contact with the national grid, because there was this whole move towards privatization and everything, which is now out of control. Take us to what that was about, and what Muny represented. 

DK: Well, Cleveland was somewhat of an anomaly. Because while there’s over 2,000 municipal electric systems, there’s very few where a private utility and a public utility compete head-to-head, in Cleveland’s case, in a third of the city. And the existence of the municipal electric system in Cleveland was forestalled at the turn of the century; the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company tried to block the creation of an electric system; the city wanted to annex communities that had their own electric system, and the CEI blocked that, but finally the creation of Muny Light prevailed, you know, about 1913. And what happened is that any way that the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, CEI, had in those intervening decades to block the expansion of Muny Light, they did that. And when they finally got a council they could work with, and it was about the time that I arrived on the scene, they were just about to close the deal. 

And so what was happening–and this is really a very important part of the book; the book opens with a blackout that occurs at Christmas time. And, spoiler alert, as you read the book you find out that blackouts were being created by the private utility to try to convince the customers of Muny Light that they should switch over to this other utility. And whenever there was a blackout, the CEI would send its salespeople into the Muny Light neighborhoods that were affected, with their contracts saying here, look, we’ll give you a utility that works, that’s reliable. And sometimes they threw in free wiring in the deal. I mean, this was a–there was corporate espionage, sabotage–

RS: It’s the Enron story. You preceded the Enron story.

DK: Yeah, right, exactly.

RS: And what they did with the brownouts in California. 

DK: Exactly. And so that’s where I arrived on the scene, and I saw this going on and I thought, wait a minute, there’s something wrong here. Why isn’t anybody standing up and speaking out against this? And so I basically volunteered to do that. I stepped forward. And that changed my life. You know, little did I know that issue of public power, and my involvement in it, would cause me to get in the mayor’s race in 1977 and actually be elected mayor. 

And the story, of course, doesn’t end there; that’s not even halfway through the story. You know, I got elected mayor and then the private utility, which was furious that I had actually blocked the sale–it was a done deal, the petition drive I put forward blocked the sale. I got elected, and that’s when they really came after me. You know, I mean, this was–you know, I’m in my living room in Cleveland right now, where I’ve been in this home for the better part of 50 years. And I’m looking at a wall where, you know, it’s been plastered over, where a high-powered rifle shot just missed my head by a fraction, during the time that I had this petition drive going to try to, or was making an effort to try to block the sale legislatively. 

And so, you know, my–there was a lot of money on the line here. And when I got involved in this issue, as I write in the book at the beginning, questioning, why are we having so many blackouts? And as I go through this journey and I find out, you know, this is all part of a plan to try to force the city to sell this electric system, and it was part of a bigger plan. And I actually had a place at a bay window where I looked out at an incredible amount of corruption that was going on in my own city, that very few people were aware of. And you wouldn’t know it unless you started to ask the questions about, why are they trying to sell this electric system? And why is the system being rigged to try to make sure that a simple thing like running an electric system, that the city for some reason can’t do that? 

RS: So this is–I mean, this is the heart of the whole thing, you know. You are there discovering that the people who run city hall are not in city hall, basically.

DK: Right.

RS: And you can get all agitated about the city hall people, but unless you elect some people who want to unravel these relationships–and they’re very complex. I do want to say, for people saying [unclear]–the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which was the main newspaper, was very vicious towards you. Attacked you every which way. But as I recall, what was it, 10 or 20 years after the fact, they said Dennis was right? That the power plant was not sold, and it was a good thing that it was not sold to the private interest?

DK: Well, you know, it wasn’t just the Plain Dealer. There were many institutions–

RS: No, but I remember, because I happened to be in Cleveland because my son wanted to go see the baseball team. And there was that headline in the Plain Dealer: “Dennis Was Right.” 

DK: Right. Yeah, that was 1993. And I would say that–

RS: Well, wait a minute, let me do the math here. So that’s 23 years after the fact?

DK: Ah, 25.

RS: Twenty-five–

DK: Well, let’s do the math. You know, so ’78 was the battle–actually, the fights began in ’69.

RS: No, my math is wrong, yeah, you’re right.

DK: But you know, I started fighting in ’69, and when I began the serious effort that actually was instrumental in blocking it, that happened from ’74 to ’76. And I was drawing editorial fire left and right, because the media for the most part was getting tremendous–you know, getting significant amounts of advertising money from the utility, from the private utility. And in some cases, as we discovered and the book outlines, the utility was actually bragging about the editorial influence it had. It was so significant, they would take–they’d write the news stories, or write the editorials, and take them to the newspaper and get things printed verbatim. I mean, this was the condition in Cleveland at the time that I kind of walked into, unawares that this, previously unawares that this was how things were working at city hall.

RS: You had actually worked for the Plain Dealer as a sort of copy messenger–

DK: Right, it was great–oh, what a great job it was. Oh, my god. I–

RS: [Laughs] Well, wait a minute, wait a minute. So now you’re the mayor–and I’m making light of it, but you just mentioned before, a bullet comes through–I mean, you had organized crime against you, you had the big banks that put the city into foreclosure. You had all the powerful interests in that community out to destroy this 23-year-old who had the audacity to get on the council and then become mayor, a bit older then, what, three years older. And you know, your life was at stake.

DK: Well, in terms of–when the pressure was really on was when I blocked the sale. I was moving between city council and a judicial office called clerk of court. And in a two-year period, I challenged the sale, I blocked it, I announced I was running for mayor, and that was the time frame where things became very dangerous. And you know, when I was elected mayor I was 31, but the journey was a journey that started in 1969 and went over an eight-year period. The Division of Light and Power covers that. And like many journeys, you start on a path, and every step is a discovery. And you find out, almost like–you know, a parallel would have been Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, where Dr. Stockmann discovers that the town’s baths are polluted. And you think people want to know that–well, it turns out they didn’t, and that was Ibsen’s point: that the compact majority will accept certain conditions only because they are benefiting economically. And so I, as I went into this journey and I found out, not that the town’s baths were polluted but that a municipal electric system was being stolen with the complicity of every institution in town, including government–all of a sudden it’s like, how could that be? Wait a minute, this can’t be right, some people would say. Well, yeah, it was right. And Bob, you know, after 40 years, I finally was able to tell the story and have it documented. 

RS: Yeah, I should mention, you know, I have something, full disclosure, with your book. [Laughs] Because when I interviewed you when you were mayor and you were all in the middle of this incredible storm and everything, I interviewed you for the L.A. Times. I really didn’t know anything about you; I think I’d seen you on the Johnny Carson show or something, you were already on one of those national shows, the youngest mayor in America, and you were kicking up this storm. And I went, you know; the L.A. Times sent me there to interview you. And that was OK, and I thought wow, this is pretty, a really good story, and you were fighting the good fight. And as I say, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and most of the media at that time thought, you know, you were out of your mind, and why were you doing this, who needs a public utility. And I noticed more recently even the Washington Post had said, well, you know, Dennis was right, and actually he was a precursor to AOC and all of these progressives, you know, and in some ways Bernie Sanders and others. You know, the whole progressive wing of the Democratic Party. 

But at the time you were kind of a lone voice, because you weren’t really part of the cultural revolution. You were kind of a square, young, Catholic-schooled kid, trying to do the right thing by your neighbors, and the media never really got you. And they tried to peg you. And you weren’t partisan, really; you weren’t politically with the labels. And you were just there doing what, what Lincoln Steffens described, or “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” right? It’s an incredible American story. 

Again, the title is The Division of Light and Power. It’s actually going to be available for sale three days after we first broadcast this, on–it’ll be for sale, I think, I tried to get it today, I had a copy but I wanted to get a new copy, and June 8th is when it goes on sale. But it’s a movie. You know, who is this kid, and why is he doing this? And it’s really taking you–and even in your journey, we’re not going to go through your whole journey through Congress and everything, but you actually have been vindicated by the emergence of a progressive wing of the Democratic Party, a new, really invigorated one. And really, the pressure even on President Biden to do something about the abysmal condition of the working class in America now, with unions all destroyed and concentration of power in the hands of these huge oligopolies and monopolies. 

So, but back then, when I went to interview you, and I wrote this for the L.A. Times, even people back at our paper said well, no, he’s just a wild kid; he doesn’t know what he’s doing. But you had really figured out the math. You’d figured out the swindle. You know, you have in your book, you say the game is rigged, but you’ve got to figure out how it’s rigged and who’s doing the rigging.

DK: Right. [Laughs]

RS: And that’s what you managed to do, and everybody said you’re nuts. Not everybody, because there were union people who supported you. There were progressive people, there were civil rights people who supported you. And you were able to build a popular coalition. And by the way, you spent 16 years in Congress and your congressional career was destroyed not by Trumpian right-wing republicans, it was by your fellow Democrats who gerrymandered your district.

DK: That’s correct.

RS: And they basically did you in. The Democrats.

DK: They chopped up the 10th Congressional district, which didn’t belong to me, it belonged to people, you know, throughout the Cleveland area who had a representative in Congress. Now they may have one technically, but you know, the seat was moved to Toledo, Ohio. And that was done with the help of the state Democratic Party. You know, I seldom have a chance to talk about that, but when I was in Congress–you know I’m a Democrat, but I’m not someone who [unclear] to a party line. As a matter of fact, that kind of groupthink to me always did violence to cognition. That you really have to be able to call things as they are, and to see them in clear light, without the prism or the lens of a partisan position. 

And the more–you know, when I saw how partisanship produced a kind of polarization, and people would choose sides without even thinking about where they actually stand and why they stand where they stand, I just said, you know, no. I’m not into that. This is, you know, I come from the neighborhoods of the city, what you see is what you get, if something’s right it’s right no matter if a Republican or Democrat is for it, if something’s wrong it’s wrong without regard to a partisan label. And so that’s the way I conducted myself in Congress as well. 

And you know, my feeling is that the ability to be able to see clearly–you cannot have that if you are looking at everything through ideology or through partisanship. I just kind of like to look at things as they are, and call them as I see them. You know, in the words of Emerson in his essay on self-reliance, it’s about trusting oneself, and believing that what’s true for you could be true for others. And it’s not in any egocentric or braggadocios way; it is simply to say, well, yeah, this is actually what’s happening. If you see a robbery in progress, you don’t call it a charitable contribution. And what happened in Cleveland, it was a robbery in progress. The corporations were trying to steal the city’s municipal electric system, and I blew the whistle on them, and I stopped them.

RS: Well, you know, that’s an important consideration. You know, living here in Los Angeles where we have a huge homeless population, where we have a lot of people struggling in the Latino community and elsewhere, for good jobs; we have a lot of issues. And you know, we’ve had progressive, Democratic leadership, so-called. We’re in a deep blue state. And these problems have not been attended to in a serious way. And this partisan issue is really a cop-out, in a way. Because as long as you’ve got the–you know, it’s like the Cold War. You got the Communists, you got the Soviets–

DK: [Laughs] Right.

RS: –and everything else you do must be virtuous. You know, so there’s, like, Trumpwashing. But the reality is, you know, that these problems have festered. And in the case of Cleveland, you know, the destruction of the labor movement, the destruction of the rights of working-class people and so forth–that went on with the support of both Democrats and Republicans, in the main. The embrace of a world economy in which basically workers get screwed, they’re not part of the trade. 

So let’s talk a little bit about that. Because the book really is–it’s interesting, you preceded this current time. And the time now is, you know–maybe this is a good way to kind of–I want people to read the book. It’s worth getting the book just to see this populist struggle in Cleveland, where Dennis Kucinich comes from. But the messages are long-lasting, because basically at the heart of populism is concern for the ordinary person. You know, and making the system work for them. I don’t care whether you’re talking about Athenian democracy or the Roman empire, or any other–Scandinavian democracy. The final measure is, you know, how well-attended are the common people? The average person. And we lose that. And [overlapping voices] you were the rare person who challenged that. 

Now, for example, coming from the Bronx, I’m happy that AOC represents my old area in the Bronx. And I think she is a progressive. But I watched the Bronx go down the tubes–as a journalist I wrote about it–under Democratic leadership. Even at the New York Times you hardly had any reporting about a whole borough sinking into absolute economic misery, you know, where when I would go there I couldn’t even find a place to stay in a hotel. You know, the whole borough went through a nightmare. And you had Democratic leadership of a city, you had an enlightened media. And so what you did in saving that one public institution was not done in lots of other places. And the reason that California became subject to Enron’s mercies and so forth, with the brownouts that destroyed the states and so much of life there for a while, was because people looked the other way. And it was Democrats and Republicans that allowed Enron to be Enron. 

You know, and I want to get to a big theme in your book, in closing–that Matt Taibbi, I want to give him credit, really got to the heart of your book in his interview with you. And that is really about, what is the role of the public sector? And can you have democracy if you turn your whole economy over to privatization? And privatization is what the bipartisan politics have been about, and actually all over the world. I mean, even the countries that call themselves communist now embrace a kind of rapacious, exploitive notion of capitalism, like China, or Vietnam for that matter. Russia, with its cartel capitalism. So, you know, let’s talk about that. What is the public role–this is really your big contribution. You were willing to fight for a vigorous public role that the banks wanted to destroy, and you tried to hold it back. 

DK: I mentioned this before, and it bears mentioning again. As Mayor Johnson said 110 years ago, that these public service monopolies–like a light system, water systems, public parks schools–they’re part of the wealth of a community. And he said that if you don’t own them, they will in time own you. Now, what’s happening, and why this book becomes so important today, is that in the post-COVID era, when cities are going to be struggling to get back on their feet, absent an infusion of federal cash, you will see in city after city decisions being made about the selling off of public assets. 

As a matter of fact, Bob, I point out before I became mayor there were over 100, about 100 utilities across America that were privatized. And people, you think of all the fights that could have occurred but maybe didn’t in those communities. But it was different; you know, I challenged it. But today, if you look at the statistics on privatization–not just in the United States, but globally–thousands and thousands of public assets are being auctioned off, often to the lowest bidder. And you know, whether it’s telephone companies or sewers or water systems or waste collection and in some cases public safety, you know, this is what we’re facing. And when corporations start to take those things that have been part and parcel of an expression of democratic governance, of things that people have control over, you move from a model, the hope for a democratic model, to something that is not, that could in some ways be of moving towards totalitarianism. 

And so how do we avoid, you know, an American gulag? How do we avoid finding–how do we avoid finding a condition where we’ve lost all of our rights? Well, that’s what The Division of Light and Power is really about. It’s about taking a stand. It’s about calling things as they are. It’s about standing up in the moment, not being afraid of the risks that you might take on yourself politically, but really just standing for the truth. And that’s tough, you know; it’s very tough. But at the same time, is there any other way to live? You either live standing up, or you live on your knees. And to me, I stood up for the people of the city, and how did I know at that time, 44, 45 years ago, that today, here in 2021, the issues that I took a stand on would be as relevant as they are, not just in this country, but literally globally because of the rapaciousness of corporate privatizers who just look to government as being their next source of free money. 

RS: Well, you know, I’m going to end it–I often threaten to end it and go on maybe longer than I should [Laughter] in these shows. But you know, the interesting thing is how much has been privatized. I mean, we’ve just had–Business Insider had a very good story about how, you know, this whole thing of gift-giving by people, you know, the commitment by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg, that they’ll give away money and so forth–they actually have ended up giving a very small percentage, not very much higher than they are required by law to give through foundations and so forth. But just the very idea that we can’t fight medical problems in the world without private charity. And everybody forgets when you do this private giving, you’re avoiding taxes. That’s really what it’s all about. Instead of taxing the super-wealthy, they can have these cop-outs. And the same thing is done with the deregulation. After all, this started really not just with Ronald Reagan, but really was given tremendous force by Bill Clinton, and that’s how we got the whole housing meltdown and everything–which affected Cleveland very much, with these phony mortgages, as it did every city in America. 

And so I want to end this with really, you know–you don’t have a crystal ball. But we’re in a moment where a Democratic president–and I have to give him credit for that–Joe Biden has said he wants to reinvigorate the public sector. And he’s asking for an awful lot of money in his new budget to do that. But you’ve been in Congress–you were in Congress for 16 years, and you were also on the local level. And that fight is largely, from my memory, going to be fought by lobbyists, is it not? And you know, I know Ralph Nader read your book, and he was the great champion of public accountability from corporations, everything from seat belts to how, you know, the defense spending is done. What do you think is happening now? Is there a chance–and what should the public do to make sure this money is not just thrown back at the fat cats? And then people say, oh yeah, you can’t trust government, it doesn’t do anything good.

DK: Well, as I pointed out in The Division of Light and Power, the government works; the question is, who’s it working for? And I’m hopeful that some of the reforms that Joe Biden’s talking about will be enacted. I think we have to be aware that the elements of a more permanent government that rest in the hands of certain multinational corporate interests are going to be influential in any policies that are adopted. When I came to Congress and China trade was an issue, I stood against it, but you know, there were five lobbyists for every member of Congress on China trade, and they’d basically swarm members of Congress and spin them around and bring in people from their district. And it was a massive lobbying effort that set the stage for the accelerated destruction of America’s industrial economy. 

RS: Why are you blaming it on China? My goodness–

DK: Not blaming China–

RS: Yeah, the thing is–

DK: Let me be specific about that. Boeing came to my office, and they were promoting China trade. And I said, wait a minute, you’re giving China the prototypes of aircraft that should be made in this country. No, it’s like China was a platform that corporate America could go to in an effort to reduce the amount of money they were paying workers. I mean, this was really an attack on American workers. 

RS: I’m glad that we stumbled onto this, because I think this is the big issue that faces us going forward. The big attack on China is, oh, the government subsidizes business–well, our government has subsidized business; that’s what the whole defense industry was about, and our government has done a lot of things to subsidize profit. And just saying, OK, Chinese companies should be privately owned, is not going to solve the problem. The real problem is, what are the conditions that workers have? What are their free speech rights, their right to organize, their right to strike? So taking that and then tying in the–I’m glad we’ve got this, because I want to discuss this a little bit–the environmental impact. Because after all, we’ve polluted China with all of this massive production; you can hardly breathe in Beijing for five months of the year, and so forth. The real issue in these trade agreements–and it really oddly relates back to Cleveland. You know, are you going to have government operate to enhance the lives of ordinary people? And that includes ordinary Chinese people, as well as people in Cleveland.

DK: Well, so here’s the thing. In 1999, as a member of Congress, I organized 114 members of Congress in a letter to Bill Clinton that said, look, we ought to have workers’ rights, human rights, and environmental quality principles in all of our trade agreements. And we used that to block a trade agreement that was being negotiated during the period of the Seattle marches, where the Turtles and Teamsters marched together in the streets of Seattle. I can tell you that it’s the American politicians’ unwillingness to stand for those things that opened the door for corporations to go to China. Because if, you know, if there was never a debate here, China becomes much easier to move to. 

But it was–and really it’s about exploiting our democracy. In the same–you know, if I could draw a parallel between The Division of Light and Power and this discussion that you just opened up, it’s this. That the democratic rights that we have, we assume; but you don’t get to keep them unless you are aware of what’s going on, and unless you’re willing to take a stand. And that’s really what The Division of Light and Power is all about; it’s like, you know, I took a stand. We saved our municipal electric system. It cost me politically, yes. But by concerted effort and an unwillingness to [unclear] under these corporate interests, you know, long-term it was a victory. And the idea is that if we’re going to preserve any semblance of a democracy, we’ve got to stand for basic rights here, and we’ve got to make sure that if we’re having commerce, that those rights are respected abroad as well. And that’s, you know, that’s been the conundrum in American politics. 

But I can tell you again, Bob, this journey that I’ve taken, which actually when I left office I started writing the book–you know, transparency here. I began writing the book on Forest Avenue in Berkeley, you know, with you and Narda being there, it was your house. But I couldn’t–I tried to write it, but the emotional experience that of course I describe in the book was so raw, and it was so, you know, mind-blowing, that I just couldn’t, I couldn’t finish it, I just couldn’t do it. And it took years to be able to sort it out, to be able to look at things forensically, slow it all down, pick it apart–and 40 years later, boom! Here we have The Division of Light and Power. You know, I appreciate a chance to discuss this with you and your listeners, and I hope that you get a chance, people listening, you have a chance to read it, to pass the word of it. Because I think that this book will give people an opportunity to understand the dynamics that go on, not only in Cleveland–this is not just about Cleveland, this is about all American cities, and in some cases it might be about cities in other places.

RS: Not in some cases. I’m going to take charge here now, because this is a book that I’ve been waiting for, for 40 years, ever since [Laughter] I told you to write it back then. But you know, frankly, this is a book that there should be a Chinese version. There should be a book about a struggle in a Chinese city, ultimately against the national power, and against the Communist Party, which claims to be for workers. And it should be a struggle in Iran, and it should be a struggle, you know, in the Scandinavian countries, which are forgetting their own roots of obligation to ordinary people. The fact of the matter is, the game is rigged everywhere, OK? It’s rigged in different ways, and so forth. What populism means is holding the powerful accountable to serve ordinary people–the regular folks–and not con them. 

And that’s what you represented. I’m going to conclude on that. This is a powerful book that should be translated into all these different languages. Because what they need in China right now is a Dennis Kucinich rising up in some town and saying, no! We don’t want to privatize everything, and we want to hold it accountable, and we want these young women who live on the farm and are assembling Apple phones to be paid decent wages and have a right to strike, have a right to speak out and so forth, and have decent working conditions. 

So the message of The Division of Light and Power–and I want to stress this, you can order it now, but June 8th is when it officially comes out, which is a matter of, I don’t know, what, 60 hours from now–you can get this book, at least in its Kindle or electronic form. And it is a joy to read. And you know, this stuff is made deliberately boring and complex–regulation of power, and so forth–and the fact is that it’s the major thing that impacts people’s lives. And what you are able to do is put life into this, whether it’s the story of the mafia out to kill you in Cleveland, or the banks out to destroy you politically in Cleveland. It’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” you know, and it really is a great American saga. 

So I want to end on that note. The book is called The Division of Light and Power. Check it out. And most of all, read it, OK? And I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW, the great NPR station in Santa Monica, for getting these things posted. I want to thank Natasha Hakimi for writing the introductions, Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. Joshua Scheer, who actually worked in your Washington office at one point, is the executive producer of Scheer Intelligence. 

DK: Cool. [Laughs]

RS: And I want to give a particular shout-out to the JWK Foundation, which in the memory of Jean Stein, a woman I believe you encountered, a writer, a terrific writer, Jean Stein–

DK: I knew Jean. She was wonderful. 

RS: Yeah, and she has actually, the Foundation in memory of her has given us some support to do these shows. So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week with another edition. Thank you. 

11 comments

  1. “Everybody forgets, our big cities most often, and particularly in the north–well, no, in the south of course as well–were ruled by Democratic politicians. You know, Carmine De Sapio and Tammany Hall in New York, and the Chicago machine and so forth.”

    Yep on the south. The Bourbon Democrats and, later, the Dixiecrats. Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, you name it. The Republican Party as Chomsky correctly says is not an actual political party. However the Democrats aren’t one either. Today both are cults, which has given rise to the more official terms of Tribal Politics and Political Sectarianism. But the phenomenon has always been there. Now we just have stickers to put on it.

    America has always been a nonstarter.

    1. Seriously, how is this connected to the conversation with Kucinich?

    2. The United States does not have government at any level. It is a mafia state, run by gangsters for their own enrichment.

  2. Americans believe that government works like how they learned in high school social studies class. That’s the first lesson that needs to be unlearned.

  3. Bravo! You should do a crowd-sharing fundraiser to get it translated so it can be given to the Chinese workers and the others who need it, in their own languages. ALL Governments should be based on human rights and civil rights, and the intent to embody the common good in the laws. “Render to Caesar what is Caesar”, Jesus said, “and to God, give what is God’s.” We need to take the idea of governments owing the people an intention to embody and live up to the common good. And our foreign policy should also be built from this ethical position.

  4. Kucinich falls into that huge category of liberal politicians that never fought or argued hard enough or took any kind of real action to help the people. I don’t know him well, but that is my impression of the man. Ultimately I always come down to one of two choices, whether to think of them as cowardly, inept and incompetent or as someone who fills the role of controlled opposition.

    Either way they really aren’t worth my time….or yours.

      1. Moderator,

        In case you failed to notice, JustAMaverick and Big B have both incorrectly attempted to “label” Dennis Kucinich within your forum, while providing no supporting evidence to validate their opinions. I find this somewhat confusing since Robert Scheer has known Kucinich for almost five decades.

        Obviously, it is the prerogative of a forum to allow slanderous replies to be approved for inclusion within a conversational thread, but what meaningful purpose does that choice actually serve?

      2. Perhaps I do, I really don’t know the man that well. I have just witnessed such a long parade of sellouts and frauds that perhaps I lump him in unjustly. What I do know, is that this country is dying for someone who will stand up to those in power and who actually means what he says.

    1. Your impression of Dennis Kucinich, even if all you know of him comes from this conversation, is wrong. There are few political leaders who have taken more grass roots action to “help the people.” It is also a mistake to place him in a “huge category of liberal politicians.” Kucinich is about as close to sui generis as they come. I suggest you spend the time to look up what he has done … starting in Cleveland.

      1. Jim Mamer,

        Thank you for your input.

        It disturbs me beyond description, that modern Americans are incapable of doing ANY research before spitting out defamatory descriptions in regards to those with whom they may have some sort of policy disagreement.

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