Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his best. Here’s the one told by supporters of Dennis Kucinich—and what they leave out.
The story: Kucinich “was elected mayor on a promise that he would not sell off or privatize the beloved and trusted city-owned power system, though Cleveland was deeply in debt. Cleveland Magazine offered this summary: ‘Kucinich refused to yield to bankers who gave him a choice: Sell the Municipal Light System to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. or the city will go into default. …’ When Kucinich refused to sell Muny Light, the banks took the unprecedented step of refusing to roll over the city’s debt, as is customary. Instead, they pushed the city into default. It turned out the banks were thoroughly interlocked with the private utility, CEI, which would have acquired monopoly status by taking over Muny Light. … By holding to his campaign promise and putting principle above politics, he lost his re-election bid and his political career was derailed. But today Kucinich stands vindicated for having confronted the Enron of his day, and for saving the municipal power company. ‘There is little debate,’ wrote Cleveland Magazine in May 1996, ‘over the value of Muny Light today. Now Cleveland Public Power, it is a proven asset to the city that between 1985 and 1995 saved its customers $195,148,520 over what they would have paid CEI.’” (Kucinich campaign Web site)
Reality check: Banks expect borrowers to show responsibility. Muny Light was one of Cleveland’s few remaining assets and had been losing money for a decade. The banks wanted the city to sell it to cover previous loans. As one bank director put it to Kucinich (in the Cleveland Magazine article Kucinich selectively quotes), “You have the opportunity to straighten up some of your house by selling your losing Muny Light plant. If you’re going to ask us to roll over these notes, you’ve got to show some financial responsibility.” In exchange, the banks offered to throw in an extra $50 million loan.
Kucinich rejected the offer. He asked the banks to wait a few months to let him hold a special election on an income tax increase to pay off the loans. The banks said no. Kucinich then tried to force the tax increase in a last-minute city council session and was rebuffed. Cleveland Magazine concluded, “It was [Kucinich’s] love of confrontation that eventually forced him into this ultimate confrontation.” The default made Cleveland a national laughingstock and led to Kucinich’s overwhelming re-election defeat. In 1995, a panel of 25 historians ranked him the seventh-worst mayor in American history.