Richard Cordray, the former chief of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, defeated Dennis Kucinich on Tuesday night in Ohio’s gubernatorial primary, one of the few state races that may garner as much attention this busy election year as the congressional contests. At this point it seems like Cordray’s win will be a double-digit blowout—familiar territory for Kucinich, a veteran long shot.
But this was a different race than most contests that have featured Kucinich as an also-ran. This time, he was running against a progressive. Cordray supports free community college and universal pre-K, backs scaling up the minimum wage to $15, and has made protecting Ohio’s Medicaid expansion—and the program’s importance in fighting the opioid crisis—centerpieces of his campaign. His work at the CFPB to tighten rules on mortgage loan disclosures and payday lending, among other initiatives, earned him the praise of Elizabeth Warren. The Kucinich campaign tried to turn an A rating from the NRA, which Cordray received in his 2010 run for attorney general, into a dealbreaker for the post-Parkland electorate. It didn’t stick, in part because Cordray supports background checks and bans on automatic-aping modifications for semi-automatic guns, even as he remains cagy on whether he supports an assault weapons ban.
On policy matters, Kucinich—who ran on instituting single payer in Ohio, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, tackling mass incarceration, and investing in infrastructure, among other proposals—has always had sterling progressive credentials, even if his grasp of reality has been questionable. Kucinich was endorsed in Ohio’s gubernatorial primary by the Bernie Sanders affiliated group Our Revolution. But when the New York Times asked the man himself whether he supported Kucinich last month, he demurred. “Dennis is a very—what’s the word—unusual politician,” he offered.
An accurate statement. Kucinich was widely mocked during the 2008 race for defending his belief in UFOs. A series of appearances on Fox News over the past year has made it clear that he believes, too, in a deep-state conspiracy against Donald Trump. In a representative appearance on Hannity last May, Kucinch argued that the Trump presidency was being derailed by dangerous subversives. “You have a politicization of the agencies that is resulting in leaks from anonymous, unknown people and the intention is to take down a president,” he said. “This is very dangerous for America. It’s a threat to our republic.” By that point, he’d already been caping for Trump for several months. In a now deleted tweet, he praised Trump’s Inauguration Day speech, which carried warnings about immigrant gangs and drugs responsible for “American carnage.” “Donald Trump’s message of unity is critical at this moment,” he said in a follow-up message on Facebook.
Kucinich has been trying to secure a foothold somewhere in the discourse for some time now. In 2015, he made an appearance at CPAC, not long before showing up at Burning Man’s “Global Leadership Conference.” Of course, the waning days of the Obama presidency were wilderness years for progressive Democrats in general, unsure as they were if they would even have a candidate to challenge the Clinton juggernaut in 2016. They eventually got one in Sanders, although his understated entry into the race and not-ready-for-prime-time campaign operation initially suggested his impact on the race would be something like Kucinich’s marginal presence in 2008. As we know now, Sanders did remarkably well and is the most likely culprit for the rapid leftward shift currently underway among the party’s presidential contenders to be.
It should be said, though, that Sanders accomplished this by running several paces to the right of Dennis Kucinich’s 2008 platform, which remains the most ambitious progressive agenda yet advanced by a presidential candidate so far this century. It will be fascinating to see how much of Kucinich’s then-quixotic proposals will have been adopted by the party’s leaders come 2020. Single payer and marijuana legalization are already essentially sure bets. Free college proposals are now a part of the policy conversation. We can count, too, on Democrats pushing for solutions to racial inequities in policing, which Kucinich highlighted as a candidate years before the Trayvon Martin shooting ushered in a new era of activism on the issue, and for voting rights reforms, including the enfranchisement of felons, which Kucinich pushed long before new voter ID laws and post-2010 redistricting captured the attention of liberal pundits. It’s plausible that we’ll hear Kucinich-esque proposals on expanding federal support for public housing and guaranteeing free universal pre-K too.
Kucinich’s 2008 platform also included a massive infrastructure investment program designed in the spirit of a jobs guarantee. ”Where the private sector fails to provide jobs,” his website read, “the public sector has a moral responsibility to do so.” Weeks ago, Kirsten Gillibrand, formerly one of the party’s foremost centrists, tweeted something similar in support for a full guarantee that would’ve been well to Kucinich’s left 10 years ago.
The Kucinich 2008 platform was, as a whole, sweeping in breadth and ambition. There were provisions on everything from scaling back American military operations abroad and nuclear disarmament to ending sweatshops and public land forestry. It won’t be fully topped by a Democratic contender anytime soon, even given the moves left the party’s leaders seem to be making. It is, though, a rough outline of the road Democrats now find themselves on, having left Kucinich behind for a future illuminated, in part, by many of his ideas.