For two decades, former Rep. Dennis Kucinich was on the cutting edge of liberal politics, standing with then-Rep. Bernard Sanders to denounce a free-trade deal with Mexico and Canada on the floor of the House in the 1990s and signing on as one of the original sponsors of universal health care legislation.
Then he was engineered out of his Cleveland-based congressional seat, forced into a primary with a fellow Democrat in 2012. He lost, and seemingly went into permanent political exile and the world of television punditry.
Now the party rebel once known as “Dennis the Menace” is on the verge of a stunning comeback, mounting a populist bid for Ohio’s governorship and facing off against Obama administration darling Richard Cordray in the Democratic primary.
He’s still the underdog, but the timing could be right for the 71-year-old’s comeback, according to political analysts, who say Mr. Kucinich appears perfectly poised to harness the anti-Trump activists who are driving Democratic enthusiasm this election cycle, and who are rallying around many of the same issues Mr. Kucinich first popularized.
“I have been there for years and all of a sudden things seem to be moving in my direction,” Mr. Kucinich told The Washington Times. “If you live a life in politics where you are continually seen as being ahead of your time, what happens when your time arrives?”
Democratic primary voters will have the chance to answer that question when they head to the polls May 8 in a contest that also includes state Sen. Joe Schiavoni and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill.
The winner is expected to face off against Republican state Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator who leads Mr. Cordray by 8 points and against Mr. Kucinich by 13 points in hypothetical November match-ups, according to a SurveyUSA poll released this week.
The poll also found that Mr. Cordray, who was President Obama’s highly visible and highly polarizing choice to be the first head of the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Mr. Kucinich were locked in a neck-and-neck battle on the Democratic side, with each pulling in 21 percent of the vote and with 46 percent of likely Democratic primary vote are still up for grabs.
“At the moment I think it will go down to the wire,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. “Cordray sort of was the early favorite, but I think the race is really competitive right now.”
For Mr. Kucinich, the governor’s race is his third act in politics.
He served a highly contentious term as mayor of Cleveland at age 31, surviving a recall bid, lost his re-election race in 1979, and bounced around state politics for several years.
He staged a first comeback by winning a seat in the U.S. House in 1996, then mounted a longshot bid for president in 2004, where he staked out the most liberal positions of any Democratic candidate, opposing the Iraq war and the Patriot Act while stumping for government-funded universal health care. He also backed free college tuition and was an early backer of same-sex marriage rights.
Mr. Kucinich ran for the Democratic presidential nomination again in 2008 — but by then other Democrats, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, had coopted many of his issues on health care and the Iraq war.
Out of office since losing his House seat after the state’s 2012 redistricting, he’s mounting yet another comeback in the race for governor, marrying his progressive record with a populist streak.
Mr. Cordray, his chief opponent, is far closer to the party’s establishment, having served as the state’s treasurer and then attorney general before heading the CFPB, the brainchild of liberal Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren that was created by the Dodd-Frank banking reform law passed in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
Mr. Cordray’s tenure was marked by controversy, particularly after Republicans seized control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections and the Senate two years later. His recess appointment to the CFPB in the face of GOP opposition sparked a constitutional crisis, and his departure last year ignited another one as he tried to hand-pick his successor to thwart President Trump.
The Democratic establishment views him as the safer pick, and Mr. Cordray, 58, also enjoys the backing of the Ohio AFL-CIO. He has also raised the most money in the Democratic race, which could give him an edge on the television airwaves in the closings days of the campaign.
The Cordray camp declined to comment for this story.
Mr. Kucinich argues there are stark contrasts between him and his chief rival on issues such as natural gas fracking, legalization of marijuana and banning assault weapons. The guns issue in particular, he said, has helped boost his bid and create some separation with his top rival, particularly in the wake of nationwide protests sparked by the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Mr. Cordray played a role in knocking down a Cleveland ban on assault weapons and shotguns, and boasted about his “A” rating from the NRA during a failed re-election bid for attorney general in 2010 against Mr. DeWine.
Mr. Kucinich says that’s never been an issue for him.
“My rating with the NRA has been ‘F’ consistently, which I had no idea when I was taking those positions over the years that it would suddenly be seen as a badge of honor,” he said.
Some national progressive groups are now backing him, saying he’s been ahead of the curve in embracing their issues.
“Dennis Kucinich is definitely built for this moment,” said Diane May, spokesperson for Our Revolution. “He was an earlier adopter of Medicare-for-all, local infrastructure investment, universal early childhood education and definitely in seizing the energy for candidates who are not just appealing to Democrats, but also to independents and anyone who wants real change and is sick of politics as usual between the two parties.”
The SurveyUSA poll also showed he is the top choice of young voters in the primary race, in a year in which Democrats are counting heavily on the youth vote in November.
Yet his long record has left him open to attacks as well, with his skepticism of free-trade deals and support for American workers threatened by foreign competition sometimes veering uncomfortably close to President Trump’s own economic agenda.
He has taken some flak for praising Mr. Trump’s 2017 inaugural speech as “GREAT” on Twitter and for his work as a commentator on Fox News, where Democrats felt he provided Mr. Trump with cover by questioning the investigation into collusion between the president’s 2016 campaign and Russian officials.
“Fighting for racial and economic justice in 2018 requires standing up to the bigoted bully in the White House,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America. “A number of the comments that Congressman Kucinich has made on Fox News and elsewhere in recent years raise real questions about his willingness and ability to do just that.”
Mr. Kucinich rejects the criticism.
“Who am I to scold my constituents who voted for Donald Trump when they are upset with the Democratic Party for not delivering?” he said. “Do I disagree with the president on issues? Yes. I disagree we are still at war, I disagree with his immigration policies, but I am running for governor, and the responsibilities of the governor of Ohio are quite different than the responsibilities of the president of the United States.”
Mr. Kucinich said Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 demonstrated that Democrats had become too tied to Wall Street and corporate donations, distancing themselves from voters looking for the basics of solid wages, health care, a good education for their children and retirement security.
Mr. Kucinich said he believes the state party is doing everything it can to “clear a path” and “promote” the candidacy of Mr. Cordray.
David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democrats, took issue with the claim, saying the party has remained neutral throughout the race.
“We have been nothing but fair to Congressman Kucinich and everyone else,” Mr. Pepper said. “Some people choose as a strategy to run against the party. I get that. But the truth is we have been very vigilant about remaining neutral.”
To Republicans, meanwhile, Mr. Kucinich’s growing campaign is a sign of trouble for Democrats and the still-unresolved divisions between the parties centrist and liberal wings.
“The Ohio Democratic Party is lurching to meet Dennis on the far left, outside of Ohio’s mainstream,” said Blaine Kelly, spokesman for the Ohio GOP. “That, coupled with the utter lack of enthusiasm for D.C. bureaucrat Richard Cordray, could lead to an upset on May 8.”
But Mr. Kucinich insists the time is ripe for his political comeback.
“There is something happening with the politics of the country. It is a kind of awakening that we have not seen in 50 years,” Mr. Kucinich said. “At 71, it seems like my time has come.”
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