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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Congress on a Shoestring

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WASHINGTON — American politics these days has a distinctly New Russian-oligarchic feel. Legislators gut a movement to exile corporate money from politics and then keynote $10,000-a-plate dinners; the president demands more arsenic in our drinking water, an odd enthusiasm shared solely by a few checkbooks.

All of which makes a guy like Dennis Kucinich that much more intriguing. Kucinich, a 54-year-old Democrat from the mid-Western state of Ohio, has repeatedly been elected to the U.S. Congress — without advertising.

"My first election, in 1996, I had a good grass-roots organization," Kucinich recalled in an interview. "We did a limited amount of TV [advertising]. In '98 we did no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no pollsters — just signs and literature. And we did it again in 2000."

In 1996, Kucinich won 49 percent of his district's vote. In 1998 he won 67 percent. Last year — 75 percent.

Well, it's not quite that simple. The AFL-CIO, America's largest union, ran its own 1996 ads supporting Kucinich. But still, to get to Congress without going hat-in-hand to America's corporations is a remarkable feat.

A Croatian-American, Kucinich represents a working class chunk of the city of Cleveland that is home to Poles, Russians and Romanians. And he knows how to play to his Slavic brothers: Check out his web site, www.house.gov/kucinich/info/info_index.htm, and you'll see surprisingly prominent links to manufacturers and sellers of kielbasa, and a pledge to bring polka and bowling to Washington D.C. You'll also see a fat plug for Sherrill's Restaurant and Bakery — Capitol Hill's answer to Moscow's Starlite Diner — where Kucinich eats breakfast every morning.

Kucinich also wins because he's seen to be fighting for his constituency. He has secured government funding to route trains around, not through, the Cleveland suburbs, for example, and has fought the phone company's plan to divide an Ohio town into two area codes.

But one of his biggest trump cards is a decision he made in 1977 — back when, at 31, he was the in-your-face "boy mayor" of Cleveland. Mayor Kucinich dug in his heels to prevent a banks-demanded privatization of the city's power company, Muny Light. The banks had nothing to do with the company, and for years they'd been routinely extending $15 million in municipal debt. But the banks really wanted to see that privatization — and they punished Kucinich for his obstinacy by taking the city into default.

"Bankrupt" Cleveland was derided as "the mistake by the lake," and Kucinich was finished. Even one of his most ardent supporters, Cleveland Press columnist Don Robertson described him as a "brutal, vain, yappy little demagogue" and "an obnoxious little twerp."

But two decades later, while Californians fret over energy costs, Cleveland residents don't. Cleveland magazine calculated a few years ago that not privatizing Muny Light has saved its ratepayers $195 million over 10 years. Not surprisingly, they've suddenly rediscovered the boy mayor.

Kucinich's latest project: A bill to establish a U.S. Department of Peace, whose secretary would sit in Cabinet meetings side-by-side with the State and Defense secretaries.

Kucinich says the idea in part came to him when he and other members of Congress and of the Russian State Duma met in 1999 to talk about the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. He recalls an exchange with Vladimir Lukin, the Yabloko party co-founder, who had been quoted worrying the war might lead to "nuclear escalation." "I sat across from [Lukin] at a table and I said, 'You know, we don't have to go back to those days of threatening to blow each other up!'"

George Washington himself once suggested setting up a Peace Department, but the idea is probably dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled House.

Still, Kucinich is having fun with it. He proposes spending 1 percent of the Defense Department's budget on the Peace Department — which confronts us with the astounding sums routinely handed the Pentagon. About 50 percent of discretionary U.S. spending goes to defense, or $343 billion in 2002. (Discretionary spending is the amount Congress gets to play with; non-discretionary spending means fixed payments for things like Social Security pensions.)

Taking 1 percent from the Pentagon would mean $3.43 billion for peace — or nearly half of the $8.35-billion Russian budget for war.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [www.thenation.com].