When the “boy mayor” of Cleveland took a stand against privatization of public power, the region’s elites deployed every weapon they had, including attempted assassination.
“The Division of Light and Power,” by Dennis Kucinich, like Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” is a gripping, moving and lucidly written account of the hidden mechanisms of corporate power in the United States and what happens when these corporate interests are challenged. It is essential reading, especially as we face an intensified corporate assault, done in the name of fiscal necessity following the financial wounds imposed by the pandemic, to seize total control of all public assets.
Kucinich warns that this assault is more than the seizure of public assets for private gain. These corporate forces, which function as a shadow government in Washington and cities across the country, threaten to achieve a monolithic lock on all forms of power and extinguish our anemic democracy. As Kucinich discovered throughout his career, these corporate forces will deploy every weapon in their arsenal against those brave or foolish enough to defy them. “The Division of Light and Power” is destined to become a classic text for those who seek to understand the corporate coup d’etat that took place in the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The new book by Dennis Kucinich recounts his battle with corporate elites to protect a public utility.
“People who say, ‘You can’t fight City Hall,’ don’t know where it is,” writes Kucinich, who battled Cleveland’s big banks and corporations as a member of the city council and as mayor. “You have to find it before you can fight it. City Hall was not only the Doric gray stone temple on East Sixth and Lakeside Avenue in downtown Cleveland. City Hall was the boardroom of Cleveland’s banks, its investor-owned utilities, its real estate combines — and the mob. In Cleveland, City Hall was in the shadows, a giant specter invisible to the people of the city. I brought the invisible City Hall to light, with great consequences for my city, my family, my friends and myself. I was the Mayor and I fought City Hall.”
Kucinich, a diminutive 23-year-old, who was often mistaken for the paperboy when he campaigned door-to door, had just been elected at the opening of the book to be the new councilman from Ward Seven.
Kucinich grew up in Ward Seven in extreme poverty. His family struggled to pay rent and utility bills. They endured evictions and at one point were forced to sleep in their car. Ward Seven was, he recalls, where “I went to high school, where church spires and pipe-organ smokestacks reached to a smudged sky. A neighborhood populated by a steely league of nations who spoke Polish, Greek, Slovak, Ukrainian, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and occasionally English. A neighborhood of narrow streets lined with old men wearing white shirts and suspenders, and old ladies wearing babushkas and carrying shopping bags that dangled just above their socks, paraded up and down the small commercial district on Professor Avenue.”
Because he would not abandon his neighborhood, his people, he was on a collision course with the monied elites who ran the city.
The seasoned politicians in city hall assumed that Kucinich, like themselves, would sell out the voters for his own political and economic advancement. No one thought he was serious about defending those who elected him. They welcomed him to the cynical club of our bought-and-paid-for political class and explained the inner workings of our system of legalized bribery. He was young. He was talented. He would go far, the political hacks assured him, if he did the bidding of the real centers of power.
“These pros knew that every one of the thirty-three Cleveland City Council seats were won with campaign contributions from banks who held city deposits, money from phone, gas, and electric interests, or downtown real estate developers who never lost an election because they always bet on both sides,” Kucinich writes.
“One middle-aged Councilman, an attorney from a neighboring ward, let’s call him Richard, befriended me, confiding, ‘Dennis, there are a lot of legitimate ways you can make money in politics. Nothing dishonest, mind you. Opportunities come to people who hold office,’ he said.
‘You know, you do favors for people. They do favors for you.’
‘Favors?’ I didn’t understand.
‘Attorneys elected to Council get law business thrown their way. Insurance salesmen get policies. Travel agents book trips for people they help. Real estate guys get commissions from property deals called to their attention,’ he shared. ‘It’s all legit.’
A “rotund, cigar-chomping and irascible” councilman named James H. Bell told Kucinich that all he wanted was a little ice cream. “He opened his mouth, lolled his tongue, and with child-like abandon licked an imaginary cone, his diamond pinky ring sparkling in the bar lights,” Kucinich writes. “‘Just a little ice cream. I’m not a pig,’ he repeated. ‘I want what’s mine. Some ice cream.’”
The Rules Were Clear
The rules were clear from the start. Serve the interests of big business and the city’s rich — by granting tax abatements, 99-year franchises, monopolies, and bond financing for big, often unnecessary multi-million dollar projects — and thrive. Defy those interests and face political oblivion.
“City Hall reeked of mendacity, of checking one’s spiritual beliefs at the door like a beat-up coat and entering into circumstances where unseen forces were dictating decisions, demanding consensus, and meting out punishment to those who denied the deal-making, was, after all, politics, the dominion of amorality, where personal advancement relied on pragmatism operating in shuttered light, without the imposition of conscience,” Kucinich writes.
Once it was clear the elites could not buy him off, they set out to destroy his political career, slander and intimidate him, and, after he was elected mayor in 1977, wreck the city’s finances and finally attempt to assassinate him. The ruling elites play for keeps. And this is why a politician like Kucinich, with integrity and undaunted courage, is an anathema in the deeply corrupted world of American electoral politics where nearly all who flourish, in city, state and national politics, do so because they have a price.
The battle royale, which would see the business elites force the city into default to remove Kucinich from the mayor’s office, centered around the schemes by CEI (Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co.) to crush the public utility, Municipal Light, or Muny Light, founded in 1907 by then-Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson. CEI sought a monopoly so it could jack up rates for the city’s residents. CEI orchestrated blackouts by blocking Muny’s access to back-up power and exhausting the patience of Muny customers to force them into the hands of CEI. The fight to save Muny was, Kucinich knew, more than a fight to protect a public utility.
Johnson said when the founded the public utility, “I believe in public ownership of all public service monopolies for the same reason that I believe in the municipal ownership of waterworks, of parks, of schools. I believe in the municipal ownership of these monopolies because if you do not own them, they will in time own you. They will corrupt your politics, rule your institutions and finally destroy your liberties.”
Kucinich, like Johnson, realized the danger the privatization of public assets present and, unlike most politicians, was willing to sacrifice his political career to protect those, like his family, who struggled under the onslaught of predatory corporations and the rich.
But it was not only Kucinich the business elites targeted. They destroyed the careers of the handful of reporters who attempted to investigate and make public the dirty machinations of CEI and the ruling elites.
Kucinich watched as one honest reporter after another was silenced by his or her employer, beholden to the money and power of advertisers. Kucinich discovered that the press was not only docile, but complicit. He realized he would have few allies in the public arena. When the war against him began in earnest, the press dutifully amplified the lies spun out by the public relations departments of the corporations against Kucinich. The city was saturated with constant news and editorials touting the benefits of privatizing the private utility, although customers with Muny Light had one of the lowest electric rates in the country.
When Steve Clark, the top radio news commentator in Cleveland on WERE radio, for example, decried CEI’s spending over $7 million for promotions and advertising, or about $11 per customer, and announced that CEI had realized a net profit of $40 million, or more than 16 cents for each dollar of operating revenue, at the same time it was demanding a 20 percent rate increase from the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, which would generate an additional $54 million annually for the company, his career was finished. The radio station received at least $70,000 a year from CEI in advertising. The owners did not intend to lose it. Clark was fired.
“News reporters covering the Council meeting were a sketch of supine immobility, a confession of the futility of expression without independence,” Kucinich writes. “If CEI worked to influence editors, the editors in turn would place limitations on their reporters. I could not expect any help from the ‘free press.’”
“I dispensed a long time ago with the idea that my political advancement depended upon currying the favor of newspapers, or by agreeing with their editorial or news policy, which wasn’t really theirs, but that of interest groups they were fronting,” he adds.
The Muny Light Wars
The Muny Light wars exposed the lengths corporate power and the mob bosses, who Kucinich also fought, will go to destroy anyone who threatens their unchecked pillaging. Cleveland was known at the time as “America’s Bombing Capital” because of a war by crime syndicates for control of Cleveland rackets. The city endured 30 mob-related bombings and periodic assassinations. There were also several attempts to kill Kucinich that were narrowly thwarted by luck or timely police work. Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed at San Francisco City Hall while Kucinich was in office. Chapter 28 in his book is titled “City Hell.”
The business elites orchestrated a recall election, which he narrowly survived, threw the city into default, orchestrated electrical blackouts, especially during the Christmas holiday, and used a compliant press to blame Kucinich for the chaos they spawned. When Kucinich threw out the first pitch at the Cleveland Indian’s game, forced at that point to wear a bulletproof vest and travel with police snipers, the crowd booed and yelled “kill the bum.” Kucinich was defeated for reelection in 1979, the celebrated political phenom now treated as a national punchline.
(Nearly two decades later, after wandering the political wilderness — and the country — yet still supported strongly by the working class of Cleveland, Kucinich made an unexpected political comeback when he was elected to Congress in 1996. However, in 2010 the Democratic Party machine in Ohio drew up a redistricting plan which moved his Cleveland home address into the Toledo-based district of another incumbent, all but assuring his defeat in 2012.)
Through his besieged two years as mayor, Kucinich was acutely aware that if he capitulated to the sale of the public utility his political future would be instantly assured. He writes:
“My political future would be guaranteed, with the swipe of a pen. The endless calls to sell would end. The media trumpeting the so-called deficiencies of Muny Light would stop their barrage. The equation of the sale of Muny Light with the avoidance of default would end. If I sold the electric system under these intricately-contrived circumstances, the people of Cleveland would never know I did not have to sell. They would be offered a fictional tale of a happy outcome, agreed upon by the media, the business community, CEI, the banks, and the political establishment. It would be the fairy tale of a young Mayor who finally came to his senses and did the ‘right thing.’
But I knew the truth.
The people would end up paying millions of dollars in higher taxes to the city for street lighting and other services. Without competition, CEI would continually raise rates. People in the city would pay millions more in higher electric bills. Yes, the city would have credit. It could borrow money and go deeper in debt. If I agreed to sell, no one in Cleveland would ever know what happened in this boardroom. Today the world’s attention was briefly on the impending default in a major American city. If I sold, tomorrow the big story would be ‘The Escape from Default,’ the bookends of a complete political soap opera. Only I would know that Muny Light was stolen. I would have to conceal that knowledge, as I rocketed to political stardom with my newfound friends. I’d wave from a high platform at ‘the people.’ Unaware, they would think they were the ones who sent me to higher office.”
His enemies did not forgive him once they removed him from office. He and those who worked in his mayoral administration were blacklisted by the city’s elite, often unable to find work. Kucinich was meant to be an example to all who thought of defying the system.
“Most of those who worked for me could not find jobs, blackballed by the Cleveland establishment,” he writes. “Several members of my team had to travel many miles out of town to find work. Most found themselves at a significant financial disadvantage. One, a brilliant city planner who had courageously challenged developers’ schemes to extract millions from the taxpayers, committed suicide. It was my decision, and I paid a price, but regrettably, others also paid.”
“After I left office, I had time to absorb what had happened to me in Cleveland, my ten-year climb to become Mayor, my collision with corrupt interests amidst the highest of hopes for the city,” He writes. “However hard I tried, I could not find a moral to the story. I was shattered, not so much from losing an election, as from the pillorying of the ethical signposts of my life: Right was wrong and wrong was right. The inversion of reality was particularly shocking. The banks, the business and political establishment had now constructed, and the Cleveland media carried forth, a new fictitious narrative. The city on its way to recovery … from me.”
Nevertheless, Kucinich, sacrificing his position as mayor, had indeed, with the support of a grassroots army, saved the city’s public utility.
Near the end of his first term in Congress he was invited to attend a meeting of the Cleveland City Council on Dec. 14, 1998, the eve of the 20th anniversary of the city’s default. The council presented him with a resolution of recognition. It read:
“…Today the City of Cleveland has one of the fastest-growing municipal electric systems in America. Currently, Cleveland Public Power is expanding to provide low-cost electricity to more and more people, providing power for city facilities and streetlights, thereby helping to keep taxes low and encouraging economic development. None of this would have been possible had Mayor Kucinich not refused to sell the City’s electric system on December 15, 1978 . . . now, therefore . . . BE IT RESOLVED, that Cleveland City Council hereby extends its deep appreciation to Dennis J. Kucinich, for having the courage and foresight to refuse to sell the City’s municipal electric system, which has saved the people of Cleveland over $300 million since that time.”
— Cleveland City Council
Members of the city council stood and applauded.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.”
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.