Kid Blast

By Ed Staskus

   I knew some bits and pieces about Dennis Kucinich, even though I had never met him. I knew what I knew because I was living in Cleveland, Ohio, and he was the mayor. He was the youngest mayor in the history of the city. He was the youngest mayor of any major American city. He was 31 years old but still looked milk-fed.

    I hadn’t voted for him. I never voted for anybody. I thought of myself as an anarchist. I wasn’t the bomb throwing kind though. I liked the idea of anarchism more than the risk-taking of anarchism. I wasn’t ready and willing to end up behind bars.

   The new mayor was born and bred in Cleveland, the oldest of seven children in a Catholic family. He was 23 years old when he won a seat on Cleveland’s city council. After he got a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University, he ran for mayor in 1977. He surprised himself and everybody else when he won. When he did his troubles started and went on and on.

   Cleveland was a mess in 1977. A year earlier The Cleveland Plain Dealer splashed “Bombing Business Booming Here” across its front page. The old-school Italian families and the new-school Celtic Club were fighting it out for control of the rackets. Car bombs were the preferred ways and means of debate. All the evidence was usually blown to bits, which suited everybody involved, since they were all in. It didn’t suit the police, who were left out in the cold.

   The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms set up a new headquarters in town. When asked why they said since Cleveland was “Bomb City USA” they were obliged to do something about it. Within a year they doubled their staff.

   It wasn’t just bombs, either. Trash collection and street repairs were slipping fast. The parks were more litter and dopeheads than fun and games. Corporations and manufacturers were pulling up stakes. Racial polarization was staying put. Whites hated the busing that was coming and made sure everybody knew it. “We Say, No Way, No Bus for Us” is what their banners said. As the 1970s kicked off murders in the city set a record with 333 of them. Ten years earlier there had been 59. Environmentalists declared the Cuyahoga River dead and Lake Erie not far behind. The city lost a quarter of its population during the Me Decade. 

   The city didn’t lose me. I moved back to Cleveland after growing up in North Collinwood and Euclid. My parents didn’t like it. They believed in the American Dream and thought I was back tracking. They told me so from their suburban home. They thought the metropolis was a nightmare.

   I lived a block from Lakeshore Blvd. and two blocks from Lake Erie. Bratenahl was three blocks west. I rode the 39B bus through the posh village Monday through Friday on my way downtown to Cleveland State University. I always sat in the last row so that nobody could sit behind me. I didn’t have to worry about the swells, since they never rode the bus, but the same wasn’t true of some of my east side neighbors.

   Dennis Kucinich got started with a bang when he was elected in November. He championed the public good and made sure everybody understood he wasn’t going to auction off the city’s assets. He was sick and tired of corporate collusion and tax abatements. Everybody was sick and tired of the old mayor Ralph Perk. Dennis Kucinich was a breath of fresh air.

   It was snowing when he was inaugurated in January. It kept snowing and the new leader of the pack was forced to declare the metropolitan area a “disaster zone.” Before the month ended the city was hit with the worst blizzard in its history. Things went from bad to worse when he fired his police chief two months later.

   Dennis Kucinich had appointed Richard Hongisto, a former San Francisco sheriff, to be chief of police as soon as he became the mayor elect. It seemed like a smart choice, especially after the head honcho in blue saved a man from a snowbank during the Great Blizzard of 1978. He was acclaimed by the press and public as a man’s man.

   The mayor didn’t see it that way. When the police chief wouldn’t go along with his plans, which included rewarding his supporters with jobs, he charged him with insubordination. The chief responded by saying he wasn’t going to commit any “unethical acts.” On Easter weekend in front of live TV cameras the mayor fired his top cop. One thing led to another, and even though he was in a hole, he couldn’t stop digging. When business and civic leaders lost confidence in him, momentum grew for a recall election. When they started calling him Dennis the Menace the momentum became the real deal.

   I didn’t meet Terese Schaser until the late 1980s. It happened soon after I met her daughter, who was going to become my wife-to-be, although none of us knew it at the time. In 1978 Terese was living in Park Centre. She had left her husband and was making her way as a restaurateur. The twin 23-story downtown towers were less than ten years old, built with raw cement features in a Brutalist style, where the best people lived. Richard Hongisto lived in the same building as my mother-in-law in the making.

   She was in her mid-30s and getting on a roll. When she heard about the recall effort, she got behind it and helped roll the ball forward. She wasn’t much older than the boy mayor but believed he was an upstart, his inexperience getting in the way of his governing ability. Her friend the ex-police chief agreed with her. Neither of them gave a hoot about his populist philosophy.

   Cleveland was on the verge of default. Dennis Kucinich did the best he could to fend off his naysayers, but he was a Democrat, not a member of any intelligible political party. He shouldn’t have been allowed to deal with the devil in the first place. He was taking his lumps from all sides. Even his own city council was at his throat.

   He called them “a group of lunatics” and “a bunch of buffoons.” He said, “it’s hard to believe that so many people can be so stupid.” He added insult to injury by saying, “if they’re not stupid then they are crooked.” That summer he ordered more police patrols in the projects to counter rising crime. The police department refused to obey the order. Thirteen police were disciplined and suspended which led to a police strike. Among other things it was another first for the city.

   The Kucinich administration was making history right and left.

   When the weather warmed up Terese was in summer dresses and flat shoes helping with the recall petition. She had great legs from her dancing days. Towards the end of May the effort was short of the required signatures. She threw herself into the work explaining cajoling and demanding. She never got tired and wore people out. She had a big personality. Ten years later she wore me out. Her children ate cold cereal in the morning and cold leftovers at night. By the deadline of June 1st more than enough signatures had been gotten. 

   The mayor refused to resign, saying “Bring on the recall.” He handed out bumper stickers saying, “Support Kucinich, the Peoples’ Mayor.” The people would have their say soon enough. Terese’s kids breathed a sigh of relief, but the hot meals didn’t last long. The recall election was scheduled for mid-August. The canvasser redoubled her efforts.

   She had pizzazz to spare and didn’t spare any of it during the recall campaign. She didn’t just rub two sticks together. She made sure one of them was a match. The lady lit a fire under everybody she talked to. Working on a political campaign means about half the electorate is going to hate you day in day out. She didn’t let it get her down. She had an agenda and a bogeyman. At night she made her plans for the next day while singing along to lurid Italian operas. 

   “My mother was an enthusiastic but terrible singer,” her daughter said.

   When Dennis Kucinich stalled on demands to sell Municipal Power, the city’s publicly owned electric utility, not only did lawyers get involved the Cleveland Mob got involved, too. They brought in a hit man from Maryland to shoot him during a parade. Nothing came of it when the mayor was hospitalized for a few days and missed the event. He never really liked parades, anyway. 

   As the recall campaign got into full swing, Council President George Forbes and Dennis Kucinich argued about the merits of building a new ore dock for Republic Steel, except their arguments had nothing to do with the ore dock.

   “Stick to the issue,” George Forbes said.

   “Mr. Chairman, I determine the issue,” Dennis Kucinich said.

   “Not in this chamber,” George Forbes retorted.

   “You will permit me to continue my remarks,” Dennis Kucinich said.

   “Just one moment,” George Forbes complained. 

   “You have no ability to censor my remarks,” Dennis Kucinich explained.

   George Forbes didn’t like that. His dark face got darker. He ordered the mayor’s microphone shut off. Dennis Kucinich and his aides stormed out. When all the hot air was said and done, Republic Steel walked away from Cleveland and built a new ore dock in Lorain.

   “The best and longest running show in town isn’t at Playhouse Square,” Roldo Bartimole, who wrote the newsletter Point of View, said. “It’s at Cleveland City Hall. The admission is free.”

   When recall day arrived more than 120,000 Clevelanders voted. Dennis Kucinich took a nap. He knew staying up wasn’t going to change the result if he lost. He also knew if he won, he had another tough day in front of him, and needed the rest. He prevailed by a margin of 236 votes. Terese’s kids ate well the next day when it was all over.

   Towards the end of the year Cleveland s banks refused to roll over the city’s debts. They assured the mayor it would be business as usual if they could do what they wanted with Municipal Power. He refused, and the city went into default, the first city since the Great Depression to find itself unable to meet its financial obligations.

   He lost his reelection bid in 1979. It was one and done. He wasn’t going to be the jackass in a hailstorm anymore. Everybody was sick and tired of confrontational politics. George Voinovich took his place. He got Cleveland going on the road to ‘The Comeback City.’ When the century came to an end historian Melvin Hollis put Dennis Kucinich on his list of ten worst big-city mayors of all time in his book “The American Mayor: The Best & Worst of the Big-City Leaders.”

   Terese remarried and moved to a corner apartment on an upper floor of Park Centre. The family barbecued on the balcony and watched the air show over Lake Erie every September. The Blue Angels cut the corner across their roof pirouetting back to Burke Lakefront Airport. She gave up governmental enthusiasms, concentrating on foodstuffs. She opened a restaurant and then another one. She worked as a pastry chef on both sides of town. She catered weddings and served food at funerals.

   At the end of the day, kicking back, she liked to paraphrase Mark Twain. “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a politician, but I repeat myself.” It always got a big laugh over dessert, especially when she added, “Put them in charge of the Sahara Desert and in a couple of years there will be a shortage of sand.”

   I moved to Lakewood, Cleveland’s second-oldest suburb on its western border. The town’s mayor kept his nose to the grindstone, focusing on safety, schools, and city services.  They weren’t running out of sand anytime soon.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street and Cleveland Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”