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A seasoned advocate talks about the importance of public power

Dennis Kucinich in Olympia

On February 4, Paul Pickett met with Dennis Kucinich for an interview. The following are excerpts from that longer conversation.

Paul: Dennis, why are you in Olympia?

Dennis: I’m here to support the initiative to create public power in Thurston County, to give the people a chance not just to own the system, but to have local control: control over rates, control over service reliability and control over the policies of their electric system that impact the environment.

We’re at a moment in the history of our country where people are coming to understand that having control over utilities is critical. This is a time for people to strengthen communities too, by having public power, to empower communities, to control their destiny economically and to have true local control.

Dennis Kucinich speaking In Olympia at the Community Center.
Dennis Kucinich speaking In Olympia at the Community Center Paul Pickett

Paul: Talk about your experience with public power when you were Mayor of Cleveland.

Dennis: My acquaintance with the issue of public power goes back 50 years, when I was a city councilman. I saw that efforts were being made to undermine Cleveland’s publicly owned utility, then known as Muny Light. I witnessed the private utility attempting to persuade city council members to give away the city’s electric system. I saw what was being done to subvert the city’s ownership. In 1976, the City of Cleveland actually transacted a sale of the electric system to the private utility, giving it a complete monopoly in Cleveland.

I intervened with a petition drive that blocked the sale. In 1977, that petition drive was so effective that people began asking me to run for mayor. I ran for mayor on a promise to save the citizens’ electric system. I was elected on that promise in November of 1977. And on my first day in office, I effectively cancelled the sale.

A year later,, the biggest bank in Ohio told me that if I didn’t sell the city’s electric system to the private utility, the bank would not renew the city’s credit on loans. I said no. The banks put the city into default, even though we had millions of dollars in property we could have used to pay off the debt. It was totally corrupt. Every agency in town, including the media, was in on it. When I said no they put the city into default —and I lost the next election. But the municipal electric system stayed.

Fifteen years later, the system expanded. The people of Cleveland then became aware that my decision saved the city hundreds of millions of dollars in electric bills for the people. People realized I had sacrificed the mayor’s office to make sure that people had a power system they could call their own, which at that point provided electricity at 20 percent cheaper.

That opened a door for me to return. And in 1994, I was elected to the Ohio Senate on this campaign slogan: “Because he was right.” Two years after that I was elected to Congress on a slogan that said “Light up Congress”. So people really understood in Cleveland that I laid it all on the line.

A former mayor of Cleveland, Tom Johnson, who was responsible for the creation of public power over 100 years ago, said this: “I believe in municipal ownership of all public service facilities, of parks, of waterworks, of electric systems. Because if you do not own them, they will in time own you. They will rule your politics, corrupt your institutions, and finally destroy your liberties.”

It sent a message around the country that there’s something worth fighting for – your own public power system. That it really does mean power, not only in the sense of electricity when you flip a switch. But it’s true political power to be able to make decisions affecting your own destiny and not be at the mercy of corporations.

What’s happening in Thurston County is really a sign of hope where people still believe that they can do something to control their own destiny when it comes to utilities. There is an awareness out here and people are ready to do battle. I’m here to support public power.

Paul: I remember your strong progressive stance when you ran for president. Talk about your roots – when did you start realizing where your values lay?

Dennis: My dad was a truck driver, a member of Teamster Local 407. Mom was a housewife, with maybe a year of college. When the war started, she went to work as a lot of young women did at that time – in defense related industries.

The first big break in my life was that my mother taught me to read by the time I was three years old. That changed my life. Being able to read at such an early age changed everything.

Then when my parents repeatedly fell on hard times, I learned that life isn’t easy for a lot of people. I learned that for some people, paying the bills rivets your attention, every day, every week. That making ends meet in a big family – very difficult. Being able to put food on the table when you want to – very difficult. Being able to pay the bills – tough. If you have an illness in the family, it can change everything. If you can’t afford the rent, it can change everything.

I still live in a city. Right now in Cleveland, Ohio I live in the house I bought in 1971 for $22,500. It’s in a working-class neighborhood. My neighbors want to make sure that if government isn’t working for them directly, at least they don’t want government to be against them. But as we’ve seen in recent years, government has actually gone against the interests of the people. Everything from what happens on Wall Street, to sending kids off to war, to die for wars that are based on lies.

I’m always about speaking out and trying to do something to change things. And that’s how I started and that’s where I am now, 53 years later. I will tell you, I’m a little bit wiser, but the same passions, the same spirit, the same integrity informs my actions.

Paul: You’ve heard the story about how we were outspent 60-40 in 2012 when we tried to get public power. Tell us what you learn from losing an election?

Dennis: Now, I’m speaking as someone who started a career in 1967, my first race for office. I lost. Two years later, I won by 16 votes. Counting primaries and general elections, a recall election and a ballot issue, I’ve had 41 election campaigns. I’ve won 32 of them and lost nine. The message, very simple: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. This world is not kind to people who quit. But for people who are relentless, for people who don’t quit: courage opens all doors. So don’t quit. And do understand that you have the right to have an electric system you can call your own – that’s the first thing.

In Thurston County, people will have an opportunity in November, hopefully, to reclaim that right. So you lost in 2012. So what? You come back and try again, and you learn. You see, it’s important to learn from a defeat. Never learn that you shouldn’t try.

Paul: One last question. What are you going to run for next?

Dennis: That’s interesting. I chose not to be involved in 2020 as a candidate. A year and a half ago, I said, I’m just going to take a break from all this. Because you have to be careful, when you’re in politics, not to get so absorbed by it. That it becomes the end-all be-all. You have to be able to step away from it. Otherwise it controls you and you don’t control it. I never let pursuit of an office cause me to lose perspective about what’s important in life. So there’ll be opportunities that come up. I’m here and I’ll be back.

Paul: That’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger said in that movie.

Dennis: He did, and he did come back.

Paul Pickett is a former Commissioner for Thurston PUD and a steering committee member in the Power to the Public Campaign.

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