The Division of Light and Power, by Dennis J. Kucinich (Primedia eLaunch, 2021), 683 pages.
Younger readers can be forgiven for being unfamiliar with Dennis Kucinich. When he ran as a presidential candidate in the 2004 election, he put up a platform that was regarded as utterly ridiculous: not only legalizing same-sex marriage but also pulling out of Iraq, instituting universal single-payer health care, withdrawing from NAFTA and the WTO, and implementing tuition-free college. Today, almost all of those once-fringe positions are mainstream within the Democratic Party. Yet Kucinich, rather than being treated as a far-sighted party elder, remains relegated to the margins.
The reason why is simple. Kucinich is intimately familiar with the sort of corrupt politicking and counterfeit capitalism that dominates contemporary American politics. Not only that, but he is one of the few successful living crusaders against it, making him a threat to not just the Democratic Party establishment but also the American elite class in general.
How this came to be is told in Division of Light and Power, a sprawling yet readable account of his ten-year battle against the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, which sought to squash the city’s public power company, Municipal Light or “Muny Light” for short, between 1969 and 1979 in an effort to acquire a monopoly over the region’s electrical grid.
As a 23-year-old, still-in-college, recently elected city councilman, Kucinich found himself caught in a power blackout in the middle of downtown Cleveland. Seeking to understand why, Kucinich learned that the regional for-profit power company was engaged in a campaign to systematically sabotage and eventually forcefully acquire the city’s public energy utility. The latter had obvious benefits to the public: As a publicly-owned company, it didn’t pay dividends or large salaries to executive officers, and it offered electricity rates 20 percent cheaper than CEI’s.
CEI’s strategy was rather ingenious. The company persuaded the city council not to make necessary repairs to Muny’s generators. When blackouts happened, Muny had to buy emergency power from CEI at above-retail rates, causing Muny to lose money. With its finances weakened and its systems going unrepaired, Muny came to be seen as a liability rather than an asset, enabling CEI to make a strong pitch that it would be better for the public for Muny to be sold. With a firm power monopoly established, CEI would then be able to jack up prices and escape accountability.
Kucinich dives into the details as to how this was attempted, including how CEI convinced the city council to vote in its favor. This included everything from free electrical appliances and season baseball tickets to pro bono legal representation. Such favors were typical, Kucinich explains. “Attorneys elected to Council get law business thrown their way,” a fellow councilman tells him. “Insurance salesmen get policies. Travel agents book trips for people they help. Real estate guys get commissions from property deals called to their attention. It’s all legit.”
Though the book primarily focuses on the war between CEI and Muny Light, it contains many examples of private business attempting to make money by colluding with public officials, from councilmen intervening with the building department to shortcut safety inspections for carnivals to the passing of massive tax abatements for large corporations in 1976. Kucinich is particularly critical of the latter. “Buildings constructed on prime downtown real estate would be tax-free for fifteen years. The burden of taxation in the Cleveland area was increasingly shifted to residential homeowners.” One cannot read Kucinich’s description of tax abatements without thinking of the tax incentives given to Amazon by both New York City and Virginia two years ago or the grab bag for large companies in the recently passed infrastructure bill.
How are Americans, and conservatives in particular, supposed to fight back against this sort of power and influence? Kucinich quickly realized that the existing political party establishments could not be relied upon. Elected officials were beholden to businesses, even when their business practices hurt the local community. After he was elected mayor, Kucinich and his team found out that some of Cleveland’s largest banks collectively had around $2 billion in municipal bonds originating from outside the Cleveland area and had profits over $120 million in 1977 (even after accounting for cash set aside for a rainy day) but nonetheless refused to refinance a mere $14.5 million in one-year bonds, primarily because these same banks were heavily invested in CEI, shared directorships, and were backing CEI’s campaign to acquire Muny Light for financial reasons.
When Kucinich publicly challenged the banks for moving capital outside of the city and red-lining city neighborhoods, “The Chairman of the local Democratic Party accused me of attacking the free enterprise system, of pitting rich against poor, the haves against the have-nots and barred me from participating in major party events.” Similarly, Kucinich realized that the media would be of no help in fighting entrenched corporate interests such as CEI, which could use their mammoth influence via advertising dollars to silence critics. The book names multiple journalists who were fired or “resigned” after reporting on CEI.
(Such behavior exists well into the present. A November 4 article in the New York Times, “How Tyson Foods Got 60,500 Workers to Get the Coronavirus Vaccine Quickly,” was a preemptive measure. Labor rights writer Alice Driver had signed a contract with the Times in January 2021 to write an article on the working conditions of meatpacking employees during the coronavirus pandemic. Once Tyson Foods found out the piece was being written, according to Driver, they began harassing her via phone and email. Eventually the piece was killed.)
If party establishments and the press cannot be relied upon in confronting entrenched corporate interests, what then?
Kucinich overcame the dependence on corporate interests by engaging in traditional door-to-door campaigning combined with endless appearances at community events. He would “appear at public transportation hubs in the early morning, schedule group meetings through the noon hour, and then begin knocking on doors after lunch, seeking out individual voters’ support, until darkness fell. Whenever I found an enthusiastic supporter, I’d ask them to join me as I campaigned.”
This is how politics used to work in the United States. In his latest book, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, scholar Michael Lind explains that key to amplifying the political power of the working class were traditional institutions such as trade unions, churches, religious organizations, and local-level political parties. “County people would talk to the state people, state people would send the message that things are going on out here. Now that the parties are just shells bought by billionaires, you don’t get that.”
Checking the unconstrained influence of contemporary corporate America will require the restoration of mass membership political parties as they existed for most of this country’s history. This should be goal number one for conservatives, whether it be in the form of a new party or a well-organized reform movement within the existing GOP. A new political cadre of trained and organized party members, focused primarily on defending the interests of constituents at every level, will be essential.
Near the end of his mayoral term, after much political fighting and wrangling, Kucinich moved to put the issue of Muny Light before Cleveland voters via a special election and delivered a crushing victory by a two-to-one margin. By 1998, it was estimated that Muny Light (now Cleveland Public Power) had saved the people of Cleveland around $300 million over the preceding two decades, and likely more since then.
This victory was not free, though. The members of Kucinich’s administration faced “terrible personal and financial dilemmas,” as Cleveland’s corporate establishment took vengeance upon those who dared to stand in their way. Kucinich himself faced serious financial difficulty, reportedly only earning $38 in income in 1982. Foreshadowing the sort of “cancel culture” some Americans face today, Kucinich found himself “blackballed” in his own city in the early 1980s:
No one wanted to be known as the person who gave me a job. Whenever and wherever I sought employment after leaving office, offers were extended, then withdrawn. A radio station wanted to hire me. A key advertiser told station management it had better not. A newspaper column was offered, then retracted. A television station official called, expressed interest in guest editorials, then nothing. A local company wanted to pay me $10,000 to do a commercial. The offer disappeared when one of their major customers, Republic Steel, objected. A Cleveland State University official who gave me a temporary, entry-level, part-time position as a course instructor was chastised by his superiors for not getting clearance from his Dean to hire me.
Anyone who wishes to take a stand against the status quo of contemporary American politics will likely face similar punishment. Power will not be reclaimed from corporate and special interests without a fight. The question is whether the painful endeavor is worth it. For those who believe in public service, democratic values, and love of one’s neighbor and community, the answer will always be a hearty yes.
Carlos Roa is senior editor of the National Interest.