Ballot Box

The Worst of Dennis Kucinich

A troubling tale from his past. Is it true?

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, and claims to fame. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his worst. Here’s the one told by critics of Dennis Kucinich—and what they leave out.

Charge: “Friends and former enemies … say [Kucinich] took political stands and circulated campaign literature during the 1970s that played on white voters’ intolerance.” Former Cleveland City Council President George Forbes “cited a piece of Kucinich literature from an unsuccessful 1974 bid for Congress. In it, Kucinich criticized rival candidate Ron Mottl for voting to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. with a legal holiday when Mottl served in the Statehouse. … During Kucinich’s 1977 campaign for mayor, Forbes cited literature that Kucinich circulated several years earlier in white wards against then-council candidate Mary Rose Oakar, who later was elected to Congress. It showed a lascivious-looking picture of Forbes gazing at a picture of Oakar, who is white. According to accounts in the Plain Dealer, it said Oakar was a pawn of Forbes and elements ‘east of the river,’ a reference to blacks and the racial dividing line of the Cuyahoga River. The headline on the literature: ‘What’s Going on Here?’ ” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 12, 2003).

Defense: According to the Plain Dealer, Mottl, the target of the King holiday attack, “says he does not remember … race playing a role in the campaign,” and Forbes now says of Kucinich, “Is he a racist? No, he is not. Is he an opportunist? Absolutely.”

There’s general agreement that if Kucinich’s act was dirty, he cleaned it up long ago. As a councilman, he voted to establish a King holiday. The Plain Dealer says he “was building bridges [to blacks] by the time he ran for mayor.” As mayor, he gave half his major appointments to blacks and ensured that a court-ordered school busing program was peacefully administered. In Congress, he has voted with the NAACP 89 percent of the time.

The other question is whether Kucinich is candid about his past. In 2003, he told the Plain Dealer he didn’t remember the campaign literature cited by Forbes. In a March 2003 interview with Salon, Kucinich said of blacks, “In the ‘60s was it possible that there were some differences of opinion? Yes. But it was never based on race. Never. Not a chance.”