“Excuse me, sir, have you heard of Dennis Kucinich?”
The young man in the Abercrombie & Fitch sweat shirt glanced down at the flier being offered to him on Muni. He smiled vaguely at Hillsman Heath, the young woman doing the offering, took the handout, and ignored her.
Ever since last August, when she logged on to Democratic presidential candidate Kucinich's Web site and was moved to tears by his plan for a federal Department of Peace, Heath has become a one-woman campaigning machine for, as she fondly calls him, “Koochie.” Heath, 33, loves Kucinich's vocal support of gay marriages. She digs how he is the only candidate who voted against the PATRIOT Act and the war in Iraq. The one time she met him, he stared deeply into her eyes and touched her arm, she says, “like he was sincere — not in a creepy way.” Heath makes her own Kucinich fliers and hands them out after work, on weekends, in laundromats.
“Every second counts,” she says.
Heath's cause is essentially a lost one. Kucinich, an Ohio congressman, doesn't stand a chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Not counting Maine, where he won an unusually large 16 percent of the vote, he has averaged just 2.5 percent in the 16 other Democratic primaries and caucuses. And yet his supporters — including many in the Bay Area — remain fervent.
Reigning San Francisco progressive Matt Gonzalez donated his mayoral campaign office to Kucinich and endorsed him. Ten percent of Kucinich's total campaign funds have come from California and a disproportionate amount of that comes from Bay Area lefties, according to his campaign.
“Kucinich uses the Bay Area like his personal ATM machine,” says San Francisco campaign staffer Cindy Schwartz.
Kucinich has visited California more than any other state, and the Bay Area in particular — a total of nine times since he announced his candidacy a year ago.
“I think the Bay Area is where a new political movement in America begins,” Kucinich told SF Weekly. “My candidacy, for the first time, presents an opportunity to bring about the same kind of change that Matt [Gonzalez] wanted to bring about in San Francisco, to the whole United States!”
Kucinich grew up poor and became Cleveland's “boy mayor” in 1977 at the age of 31. But his tenure ended in infamy when he refused to sell the city-owned electric utility to a private competitor, and Cleveland's banks (which had an interest in the company) refused to extend the city credit. Cleveland defaulted on its bonds and Kucinich lost his bid for re-election. He spent the next 15 years trying to make a political comeback, mounting losing campaigns for Ohio governor, secretary of state, and Congress. Eventually, many people agreed he'd saved taxpayers money by not selling the municipal power system, and in 1996, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Kucinich has not fared as well as a presidential candidate. The $6.2 million he has raised has been dwarfed by the campaign war chests of John Edwards ($14.4 million) and John Kerry ($28.2 million). Kucinich complains that he's been virtually ignored by the media, although the New York Times recently ran a front-page profile of him. He is not telegenic — at a doll-like 5-foot-7, he had to stand on a chair at a recent San Francisco rally to give a speech — nor is he particularly media savvy. (In a debate on National Public Radio, he brought along a pie chart to illustrate a point.) What he is, however, is tenacious — Kucinich has vowed to stay in the race until the end.
At a time when “electability” and “anyone but Bush” have become Democratic mantras, Kucinich backers maintain they're not throwing their votes away. Rather, they're hoping their candidate will garner enough votes to send delegates to the Democratic convention in July. In that way, they argue, Kucinich's progressive politics could have an impact on the party's platform. Among their key reasons for supporting Kucinich: He says he would immediately withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq if elected president. Unlike Kerry and Edwards, he believes in repealing NAFTA, not just amending it. He also advocates withdrawal from the World Trade Organization. (Indeed, he was the only candidate to take part in the raucous 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.)
“I'd like someone to vote for, rather than just holding my nose and voting for someone else,” says Kucinich volunteer Lindasusan Ulrich, a San Francisco technical writer. “This guy's my dream candidate.”
Bay Area supporters are also attracted to Kucinich's touchy-feely spiritual side. After losing his re-election bid for mayor of Cleveland in 1979, Kucinich traveled to New Mexico and adopted some Age of Aquarius visions of the universe; today, he peppers his speeches with expressions like “inner knowingness” and “heart connection.”
In 2002, Kucinich wrote and delivered a speech titled “Spirit and Stardust” at a peace conference in Croatia, which read in part:
The interchangeability of matter and spirit means the starlit magic of the outermost life of our universe becomes the soul-light magic of the innermost life of our self.
Kucinich says he penned it two hours before the conference by “tuning in to that music” that's “there all the time.” He insists that journalists can write their articles that way if they, too, learn to “tune in.”
“I just can't believe a national politician is talking like that,” enthused one volunteer after hearing Kucinich speak at a San Francisco rally. Neither can some of the folks back home in Ohio.
“[Clevelanders] may get in touch with God once a week, and pray that they have a job on Monday,” says Tom Coyne, the Democratic chairman of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, who is running for Kucinich's congressional seat. “But getting in touch with the stars, tuning up the right way … he doesn't talk like that when he's giving a speech at the [autoworkers' union hall].”
Until his run for president, the diminutive congressman steered clear of stardust in Cleveland's 10th Congressional District, where he was considered a “meat and potatoes” Democrat with a populist bent, says Coyne. In the Bay Area, however, Kucinich at times seems as much a spiritual leader as a political one, inspiring highly personal responses from supporters.
Prior to a recent Kucinich speech at Gonzalez's former campaign office in the Mission, while people milled around with drinks in hand, a man meditated in front of the stage on a carefully laid-out, Asian-patterned carpet. Two Kucinich fans from Marin passed around buttons with a picture of the candidate inside a hand-drawn heart. He looked a bit like the Dalai Lama, with a crinkly-eyed grin and his hands in prayer position. The button's slogan read: “Let there be peace on Earth… and let it begin with US.”
Outside the building, John and Moriah-Melin Whoolilurie, of Joshua Tree, Calif., sang and danced in matching red, white, and blue velveteen-and-sequin jumpsuits, with the letters “VA” across the chest. They called themselves the “Vibration Army” and had been following Kucinich on the campaign trail, sending him positive vibrations, since the Iowa caucus. Recently, Kucinich's campaign began paying their expenses.
Such outpourings of affection are nice, but unlikely to help Kucinich politically. In order to get even a single delegate from San Francisco, for instance, he needs 15 percent of the vote in the March 2 primary in either of the city's two congressional districts — roughly 24,000 votes. So far, Kucinich has managed to gain only two delegates nationwide.
The evening Hillsman Heath was handing out Kucinich fliers on Muni, the difficulty of her task was clear.
“The thing I hate most is when people won't even acknowledge you,” she said, wincing as a blond woman refused her handout.
Heath turned to a reporter and asked, in all seriousness, “So who do you think is going to win the Democratic nomination?” After being told that most people would probably put their money on John Kerry, she paused, seeming to consider the information.
“I still think Kucinich could win it,” she said. “It just kind of seems like Kerry is having his moment.”
Rain came down and Heath opened her umbrella to protect her precious fliers. With what could only be described as inner knowingness, she grinned and said, “Kucinich is, like, 'The normal laws of physics don't apply to me.' I just kind of love that.”