'I Remember Where I Came From'

Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) first emerged on a national stage in 1977 when, at age 31, he was elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. It was to be a short stint. After Kucinich refused to sell the city's municipally owned electric system at the urging of the city's banks, the banks defaulted, and in 1979, Kucinich lost his reelection bid. In 1984, he was elected to the Ohio Senate; in 1996 he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has proposed such ideas as a Department of Peace, universal health care and the repeal of NAFTA. As his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has slowly begun to emerge, I caught up with Kucinich on the campaign trail.

JW: Why are you seeking the Democratic presidential nomination?

DK: My candidacy is about fundamental change in our country. It is about jobs for all, healthcare for all, education for all, and opportunities for all. I remember what is was like growing up in the City of Cleveland, being the eldest of seven children of parents who never owned a home, who moved from place to place trying to find a house or an apartment to rent. We lived in 21 places by the time I was 17, including a couple of cars. So, I know what it is like when families try to struggle to make it and hope to participate in the American dream and how for so many families that dream is deferred. I see it as my calling to stand up and speak out on behalf of those who have built this country by the sweat of their brow, through the work of their hands, and with the power of their hearts.

The Democratic Party seems to be struggling with an identity crisis whenever they address an important issue. In some ways, they appear to be pandering for a particular public image. What is this image, and does the current state of the Democratic Party concern you?

The dollar bill has an identity all its own. The Democratic Party lost its way in the last few decades by casting the party's lot in with corporations who have very little in common with the aspirations of the mass of people for job security, for decent wages and benefits, for healthcare, and for retirement security. And so, when the Democratic Party stopped defending the interests of working men and women it began to lose seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

My candidacy will help restore the Democratic Party by creating an excitement in the base of the party. A base which consists of workers, the unemployed, seniors and citizens who want party politics to be relevant, and so my candidacy represents the kind of fundamental change which people are waiting to come through the party, so people really see there is a difference.

If you can succeed in uniting the poor and middle class on economic issues how will this impact the dynamics of the Democratic presidential nomination?

Well, you know the old saying about "The people united will never be defeated" -- in Spanish I think it is, "Peublo unida nunca sera derrotada." We have heard this because people are marching the streets for jobs, for healthcare, for retirement security. We need to unite people along economic issues because of that unity, which will enable people to arrive at their full strength. The only difference between the poor and the middle class these days is a paycheck; maybe one missed paycheck. You miss a paycheck you can lose your house, lose your car, and lose your chance for a college education.

A lot of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Bankruptcies are going up, foreclosures are up, homelessness is up and government assistance in the states has been shredded. The welfare is being redistributed to the top, and here we are with 9.4 million Americans out of work -- and this administration cuts taxes, which only distributes wealth for the top, even our trade laws help redistribute wealth in our society to the top. Our healthcare system, our private healthcare system, helps to redistribute wealth to this nation upwards. As president, I want to work on a progressive tax system, which will require that those who make the most money pay their fair share. I intend to repeal those tax cuts that are aimed at relieving the burden of taxation, relieving the responsibility of paying taxes for those who make the most.

How do we rebuild these networks of security for the American family that are being shredded right now?

It is going to take awhile. One way you do it to begin with universal healthcare. They shouldn't have to worry whether they can afford a doctor or not. This is pretty fundamental stuff. They shouldn't have to worry about cracking into their savings, liquidating their retirement plan, mortgaging their house a second time in order to pay to get someone they love well. That is why we need universal health care, to take the private sector out of it.

If we are going to repair American families, we must start with healthcare and continue with education to make sure that young people can have an education whether their families have money or not. Why should healthcare depend on whether they have money or not? Why should education depend on whether they have money or not? We have public education systems, people ought to be able to, with taxes served, go to free college. There is no reason why we can't, except we don't have the priorities.

Given the current unemployment statistics how would you respond to the uninsured and how will your plan for a single-payer, universal health plan filter down to homeless families and unemployed Americans?

Well, it covers everyone whether you are working or not. It doesn't matter if you have a job or whom you are working for. Whether or not they want to participate -- everyone is covered. Universal, literally, means everyone is covered. It is the same care. The government runs programs, not all of these different companies who want to send bills in and this hodge-podge system that is really the basis for people making a profit. So, how would I deal with it? I would go to a single-payer system and make sure everyone is covered, including all medically necessary procedures. Healthcare that preferably offers alternatives to vision care, dental healthcare, mental healthcare, and prescription drug benefits. All these things can be accomplished for the same amount of money the government is paying right now -- $1.4 trillion dollars -- we're paying $1.4 trillion for universal health care and we're not getting it.

You've said that companies have moved out of America in search of low wages, in search of climates, which do not support unions, in search of areas where they don't have to pay people basic benefits. But many of the working poor in our own communities are experiencing the same climate. How will repealing NAFTA and the WTO affect these workers?

The repeal of NAFTA is necessary. I've been around America and have seen grass growing in parking lots where there used to be real busy industries. When that happens, small businesses start closing because people don't have the money to shop there, and before you know it families break up and a whole way of life starts to disappear. We've lost 6.4 million manufacturing jobs in this country over the last couple of years, and you know what, America has to keep moving things. In the face of our success, our economy, our prosperity, so many jobs have been lost because of trade agreements that do not include guarantees for worker's rights, human rights and the environment. NAFTA will, in fact, make great promises, but the truth in NAFTA has been to create a race to the bottom where corporations play nations off against nations in negotiating for the lowest wages, in negotiating for climates where workers don't have any rights. We need to change that, because it is undermining American workers and by the time we change it, we won't be able to stop the process.

So, I want to do two things: First of all, I want to declare it as a national policy to the makers for steel, automotive, aerospace, and shipbuilding. That it [the repeal of NAFTA] is vital to our national security, as well as our national economy. And I want to make sure that we have policies that support industries that we have now, as we work to restore some of the industries that have been lost. Also, I want to make sure that whenever the United States does business with other countries, and we need to do business with other countries, that these conditions are put on it. You've got to make sure workers have rights, you've got to make sure you don't have child labor or slave labor, and you also have to abide by quality environmental principles. Otherwise, what you have is that workers in other countries end up subsidizing the profits of multi-national corporations through working in climates that are intolerable and damaging to health. It is a basic human rights issue.

These corporations are certainly making their dollar over in Iraq, and while it remains to be seen if the Iraqi people are better off. Today many Americans feel the need for more security and more American involvement in foreign conflicts. How will you sustain the anti-war supporter and the fight the PATRIOT Act while addressing the domestic security needs expressed by many Americans?

The only way for Americans to have security is for the government to cooperate with all the nations of the world in the cause of international law enforcement by tracking down those criminals who hurt people. That is just the way we have to do it, we have to cooperate, we can't go in alone. The Kucinich administration would mean no unilateralism, no preemption, no first strike, and we give up policies that isolate us from the world. The Kucinich administration through world cooperation will help reduce the fear that is in this country.

I want to work to cancel the PATRIOT Act, and to re-work the Department of Homeland Security. The emphasis in our country ought to be on Hometown Security -- on police, fire, and EMS. Not on some huge federal bureaucracy which inevitably justifies its own existence by instilling fear in the country. The Department of Homeland Security is 170,000 employees put together so they can work alone, and are going to become very difficult to work with as a huge department. I want to see the displaced funds that should be going to police, fire, and EMS. I want to see what can be done to lessen the fear in this country through international cooperation, and as president, I want to get the United States out of Iraq and get the United Nations in. We've got to have the UN in and the United States out. Because the fact of the matter is, we have no legitimate purpose there. We are there based on a lie. It is time to tell the truth.

Today, over five million Americans are paying more than half their incomes on housing or living in substandard housing. In the 107th Congress, you were a co-sponsor of H.R. 2349, the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act. What stands in the way of this critical legislation and how can we mobilize a force against those opposed to the Trust Fund?

We have a multi-layered crisis with respect to housing in America. One is: How can people who own homes, hold onto their homes -- that is a big problem right now that relates to jobs. Two is: How can senior citizens hold onto their homes in the face of the rising costs of property tax -- that relates directly to how we fund our schools. Third: What can we do to make home purchase options available for younger families -- that relates directly to money available for down payments, subsidized interest rates, and generally lowering the interest rates.

The next thing we've got to look at is what can we do to make available housing for those people who don't own homes and for people who rent -- that relates directly, in some cases, to rent controls -- or in the absence of rent controls -- rent subsidies. These subsidies can take various forms, including direct subsidies or vouchers.

How can we help people who, despite the housing market, are homeless? That requires tremendous organizational effort on the part of nonprofits, faith-based organizations, community-spirited groups who recognize that the problem of homelessness is increasing, that it is through many, many reasons which require job placement, mental health counseling, help for battered women, and a whole range of social services.

Homelessness is on the increase in America. It is on its way to becoming a national tragedy. The homeless are subjected to abuse and violence, and nationally, I've asked the Attorney General to investigate violence against the homeless. We need to reawaken the compassion of our nation over the challenge of homelessness, and we also have to review -- in the broadest way -- all the reasons why people don't have the housing they need. Certainly in America, with this wealth that exists in this country, no one in America, who desires to have a roof over his or her head should be lacking.

So you are in support of a Universal Living Wage?

Yes, it makes sense, but you have to do it in tandem with things. A living wage without universal healthcare just gives more money to insurance and pharmaceutical companies. A living wage needs to be buttressed by universal education -- pre-kindergarten through and including college fully paid. A living wage needs to occur in a climate where there is some job security that would relate directly to changing our trade policies.

How do we pay for all of this?

First of all, universal health care is already paid for in the system. It is just going out to increase costs for profits and management expenses in the private sector. If you shrink those costs out of the system you have enough money to insure 41 million Americans, and give everyone universal health care. Where local, state, and government spending would be constant -- the money the private sector would pay would actually be less.

Now, with respect to universal education, we can pay for that with a 15 percent cut in the Pentagon budget without in any way jeopardizing our national security. A 15 percent cut would mean cutting out these high-tech weapons that are predicated on preparing for World War III. I want to get rid of nuclear weapons. I want to get rid of weapons in space, and to get rid of those high-tech weapons, that are essentially irrelevant to our basic defense mission. We are no longer fighting a Cold War. America's challenge to security is more sharply focused on terrorism. We've found out the hard way that having sophisticated defense systems doesn't always do the trick.

Under the United State Constitution, every American citizen -- without regard to personal property -- has the right to vote. However, many people who are homeless feel incredibly disenfranchised by the policy and legal barriers placed before them. What can be done to empower homeless citizens with their constitutional right to vote?

You really shouldn't have to depend on a place to have the right to vote. Anyone who doesn't have an address should be able to vote by using an address at a local city hall that would indicate that they are residents of a particular community. There should be a box for the purpose of elections in every city hall, in every area, so that people realize they have some connection with their government. Homeless people should not be deprived of their basic rights, and chief among them is the right to be able to determine who governs. Because there may be a person who comes forward who says they want to do something about homelessness, and the homeless in turn can do something about it by voting.

Nicholas von Hoffman once observed that when people get active, they get the feeling they count. How can poor and homeless individuals get active in your campaign?

We are going to be reaching out proactively to the community, to get the message out to the shelters. So, if people are homeless, we are going to reach out to them, so that people know there is a campaign looking out for them. If people are not homeless and they are poor, but lucky enough to have a roof over their heads we are going to be out in neighborhoods everywhere. If they have access to a library they can key into a website where they will be able get an address of where the campaign is located. We hope to organize at such a level that if they see our campaign in their neighborhood they'll be able to get involved.

You've clearly demonstrated that it is possible for a public official to stand up for the right thing. You've joined community activists in protests to keep public hospitals open and walked picket lines with workers seeking economic justice. Why is this somehow the exception in American politics?

I don't know if it is really the exception, it's just that I remember where I came from. Not a lot of people I grew up with had the chance to go to college, let alone go on to finish. I was fortunate. I remember where I came from. That is where my heart is, that is where it always is. If you remember where you come from, you never have to worry about going home.

Jay Swoboda is the founder of What's Up Magazine, a monthly publication produced by and for the homeless in St. Louis, Missouri.

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