The newest entrant into the 2004 Democratic presidential field started out as a distinct long-shot, and his first major salvo of the campaign isn’t likely to increase his odds of success. But Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio is sticking to his, um, guns.
“Why is the U.S. going it alone? I say it’s about oil,” Kucinich flatly declared in a telephone interview with the Forward. “An overwhelming amount of evidence points to an interest in oil, but scant evidence points to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.”
Views like that have made Kucinich a popular figure to the anti-war left. Since declaring his candidacy for president last week — the eighth Democrat to enter so far — he has made his opposition to war in Iraq a centerpiece. An appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday put his uncompromising dovishness in the spotlight.
For many Jewish voters, already skittish about the Middle East, Kucinich’s views can be alarming. “He’s a minor player who could be a major disaster for Democrats,” said New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf.
Kucinich describes his relations with the Jewish community as “friendly” and “an ongoing discussion.”
The relationship is a good deal more complex than that, however. It turns out that Kucinich is actually the second entrant in this year’s Democratic presidential field, following Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who observes kashrut. The reason: his eight-year “friendship” with Yelena Boxer, a Croatian-born Jewish employment lawyer whom he describes as his “best friend.”
Indeed, Kucinich’s views of the administration are vitriolic. “I think they’re putting the world in jeopardy,” he told the Forward. “If the execution of the military policy is like the execution of the diplomatic policy, we could really be in danger.”
Compounding the nervousness is his record on Israel, which leans toward even-handedness. Last year he abstained on a House resolution backing Israel’s fight against terrorism and criticizing Yasser Arafat. Some Ohioans note that his district has the largest concentration of Muslim and Arab Americans in the state.
Kucinich defends his abstention, saying the resolution on Israel wasn’t evenhanded. “It’s important to acknowledge the suffering of both the Israeli people and the Palestinians,” he said. “If our brothers and sisters are in this fight to the death, shouldn’t we declare solidarity for both?”
Boxer, who lived in Israel before immigrating to the United States at age 5, uses the same term to describe Kucinich. Ohioans interviewed for this article said she is known locally as his girlfriend.
“We have shared most of our holidays, including Passover,” Boxer told the Forward. “He probably knows most of the Haggadah by heart…. He can recite the blessings over the wine and bread.” And, she said, the two of them keep to a vegan diet, which she adopted because of kosher laws.
A former mayor of Cleveland — where he’s remembered for plunging the city into default in 1978 rather than sell off city assets to balance the budget — Kucinich entered the House in 1996 and has emerged as one of its most liberal members. Son of a truck driver and grandson of Croatian immigrants, he’s an antiglobalist on trade, a staunch environmentalist — he was one of the few Rust Belt lawmakers to back tighter EPA air-quality standards — and firmly pro-labor. He serves as co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, a 55-member group of arch-liberals founded by Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Paradoxically, he was also firmly pro-life until recently, changing his views, he said, “after a lot of thought” and not because he was running for president.
Kucinich is also one of the leading doves on Capitol Hill. He’s not just against the Iraq war; he voted against the Clinton administration’s plans to bomb the Serbian forces in Kosovo, siding with a handful of Democrats and 187 Republicans.
Some Clevelanders defend Kucinich’s abstention on Israel last year, arguing that given his district’s large Muslim population, abstaining was an act of courage.
“He could have voted ‘no,’ but he didn’t do that,” said Anita Gray of Shaker Heights, a former chair of the community relations committee of the Cleveland Jewish Federation. “If all politics is local, that could have been characterized as a bold move.”
The district also contains the largest mosque in Ohio, the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland. The imam there, Palestinian-born Fawaz Damra, was linked to terrorist suspect Sami Al-Arian in a federal indictment handed down last week. Damra also made waves last year, when The Cleveland Jewish News uncovered an 11-year-old tape of him calling Jews “sons of monkeys and pigs” and allegedly soliciting money for a terrorism-linked charity. Damra, who recanted those remarks on television, did not return a call seeking comment. Kucinich visited the mosque a year before the disclosure of the Damra tape, when the center was attacked by vandalism shortly after September 11, 2001, but he has not visited there since, according to Boxer, herself a prominent Democrat.
Kucinich declined comment on Damra’s troubles, saying it was “a criminal justice matter.”
He added, however, that his work in Cleveland “tries to create bridges” and foster “cultural exchange and religious dialogue” and that he employs both Jews and a Jerusalem-born Muslim on his staff.
Gray, the federation activist, said Kucinich “is not anti-Israel by any means. He feels an affinity for Israel.” She called him “a good guy” whose presence will make the Democratic primaries “even more colorful.”
Rabbi Alan Lettofsky of Beth Israel-The West Temple, a Reform synagogue that is the only Jewish institution on the West Side of Cleveland, said he has seen Kucinich several times in recent years at High Holy Day services. Lettofsky described Kucinich as “an astute and committed public servant” and said that attributing any pro-Arab sentiment to him because of last year’s abstention would be “simplistic.”
Boxer, Kucinich’s friend, called the lawmaker “ecumenical” and “open and accepting.” She said that she and Kucinich don’t attend the Reform synagogue in his district much because she was raised Conservative and prefers a more traditional service. They have attended a Passover Seder at the home of the local Aish Hatorah rabbi.
Kucinich also likes to light Chanukah candles and “knows all the kashrut laws.”
“I keep kosher,” she said. “He changed his diet to mine — it’s a vegan diet, with no dairy and no meat.”
Kucinich loves to nibble on matzo, particularly the handmade “ shmurah ” kind, Boxer said. “I told him, ‘Matzo is the bread of oppression. You shouldn’t like it so much.’ But this man likes matzo.”
Kucinich has authored legislation to establish a Cabinet-level “peace department” that would “endeavor to promote justice and democratic principles to expand human rights… and develop new structures in nonviolent dispute resolution,” according to information on Kucinich’s congressional Web site.
In today’s atmosphere of international uncertainty, views like that seem likely to keep Kucinich at the rear of the Democratic pack.
“I wouldn’t hock the house on his being the nominee,” said Sheinkopf, the New York consultant. Kucinich’s views “put him on the left of the party, a political position rejected by the electorate. He hurts Al Sharpton’s chance of getting white progressive voters. He probably takes a piece of [Rep. Richard] Gephardt.”
Still, Sheinkopf said, “If he’s vocal about it, he moves the party to the left, which is bad for the general election.”