Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Three days after he sued the President to force a Congressional vote on whether to attack Iraq, and one day after hundreds of thousands of antiwar demonstrators in New York cheered his call to turn the tide toward peace, Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich was addressing a more down-to-earth issue at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. “It’s K-u-c-i-n-i-c-h,” he told seventy Linn County Democrats gathered to hear the first speech of the Ohio Congressman’s bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
Kucinich may lack the name recognition enjoyed by more centrist contenders, but in the crowded Iowa primary Kucinich found there still might be room for a candidate who says without blushing, “Yes, I am a candidate for peace. I am a candidate for economic justice. I am a candidate for social justice. I am a candidate who says we can change the outcome. We can change this country. We can change this world.”
“He’s the one Democrat who is–as Paul Wellstone said–from the democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” said Gary Sanders, an American Federation of Teachers local president in Iowa City, who noted that Kucinich is the only candidate who voted in Congress against authorizing Bush to wage war on Iraq. “He’s been the most courageous on the war. He’s got the best labor record. He sounds like one of us, not a warmed-over Republican” [see Studs Terkel, “Kucinich Is the One,” May 6, 2002].
As he set the tone for his late-starting, underfinanced candidacy, Kucinich campaigned as much against the message malaise of his own party as against the Republicans. “You want to shake up the Democratic Party?” he asked an Iowa City activist who backed Ralph Nader in 2000. “Send me inside the Democratic primaries as your candidate, and we will shake this party so much that we get it right.”
“I find myself being excited by what you are saying, which is strange for me because I have never supported a major party candidate in my adult life,” said former Iowa City Council member Karen Kubby, director of Iowa City’s Emma Goldman Clinic. But she was not signing a volunteer card. She grilled Kucinich on his opposition to reproductive rights. “I have a hard time reconciling all the things you are saying about economic and social justice with the positions you have taken on abortion rights.”
“I’ve had a tough time with abortion. It has not been an easy journey for me,” Kucinich replied, before explaining that he now supports a woman’s right to choose, that he would veto any attempt to limit that right, that he would not nominate judges who would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade and that he favors Medicaid funding for abortions as part of a program to provide pregnant women a full range of choices. That answer left some dissatisfied.
For Kucinich, the trek to Iowa provided a dose of political reality. In a state where the caucus system heightens the influence of antiwar and labor activists who are most likely to rally to his candidacy, he found a warm response but something short of a full embrace. “Democrats here want to hear the antiwar message. They want to hear the FDR-Democrat message, and Kucinich can probably deliver it better than anyone else,” says David Loebsack, a Cornell College political science professor and one of Iowa’s savviest progressive Democrats. “But it’s going to take some convincing, even in Iowa, for Kucinich to get beyond the choice issue and to get Democrats thinking this guy–who a lot of them are still getting to know–could be their candidate.”
Well aware that, in a sped-up competition designed to reward candidates with more money and establishment support, he will need a strong showing in the first caucus state to sustain a serious candidacy, Kucinich says he’s ready to do that convincing. “Everything I know about politics tells me Iowa Democrats, like Democrats everywhere, are desperate for a real alternative to Bush,” he says. “I’m determined to give it to them.”