When plans for Dennis Kucinich’s visit to Missoula were finally confirmed late last week, you could almost hear the chorus of questions blooming in certain quarters of the city: Is he still running? Why on earth Montana? and Who is Dennis Kucinich?
Kucinich, for the latter, is a congressman from Ohio, former crusading boy mayor of Cleveland, and candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. And yes he’s still in the race, despite Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s apparent lock on the nomination.
And why Montana? On Monday night at the Wilma, Kucinich told a press gathering and later a rally of supporters that voters in Montana’s June 8 primary, the nation’s last, could send Kucinich to Boston’s July 26–29 convention with momentum and a message of peace, among other things, and so exercise a bit of leverage on the Democratic Party’s still unfocused identity.
There’s another good reason for a fringe candidate to stump in Montana, though Kucinich didn’t mention it. Montana’s primary being last in the nation, combined with the state’s paltry 21 voting delegates (out of 4,322 for grabs in the campaign) make it one of the least important—and so least campaigned—states in the union. Bush sent Vice President Cheney to Billings in August of last year to trade expensive dinners for bags of cash and Kerry hasn’t campaigned in the state at all. Kucinich, in a three-day tour, spoke in Great Falls, Helena, Missoula, Billings, Bozeman and Butte. In a small pond of political orphans, his easy-to-agree-with populist message—a sea change in American governance for the benefit of American citizens—can pack real punch.
The crowd that greeted Kucinich in Missoula filled all but the balcony of the theater, and when he walked down an aisle to mount the stage it might as well have been boxing night for all the cheering and glad-handing that greeted him from the seats. Singer Amy Martin left the stage as he entered, and state campaign coordinator Paul Edwards quickly introduced Kucinich as the “heart and soul of the Democratic Party.”
The heart and soul of the Democratic Party wore brown shoes, blue pants, a salmon-colored buttoned-down shirt and a dark blue blazer. He is a short, trim man with a boyish haircut, but he is not nearly so elfin in person as photographs sometimes make him seem. He is coming off recent surges—he picked up at least eight delegates in Oregon last week and another 17 in Colorado and Alaska—and he seems easier now in front of a crowd than the dry and wonkish persona he conveyed earlier in the campaign. The punctuation points of his pitch, when his voice rose and his sentences started rolling toward their conclusion, drew standing cheers.
But the substance of Kucinich’s speech was largely responsible for the candidate’s enthusiastic reception. Kucinich believes—and has introduced legislation to accomplish—the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, and he told press conference attendees that if he is successful in his bid to carry influence into the Democratic convention, his first priority in leveraging that influence is ending the war. Kucinich has proposed a cabinet-level Department of Peace to actively encourage global non-violence, which is just goofy enough to be winning. He thinks the USA PATRIOT Act should be repealed, and he has offered legislation to that end as well. He suggests—and, again, has proposed legislation to accomplish—universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care. He wants the U.S. out of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization (because they hurt American workers and discourage human rights), and back on board with Anti-Ballistic Missile treaties and the Kyoto Protocols on global warming (because we should get out of the weapons business altogether and prioritize international cooperation on environmental issues). He wants to offer a state college education free to any citizen, and he wants to do it with money cut from the Pentagon budget.
He mocks the reception such proposals receive in Washington: “How are you going to pay for it?” Why does nobody ever ask that question, he wonders rhetorically, when the expense is war, or massive tax cuts? “You’re already paying for it,” he tells the audience. “Do I have your attention? You’re already paying for it. You’re just not getting what you paid for.”
Kucinich’s is a candidacy of big ideas. He talks about a seismic shifting of priorities, a thorough reallocation of resources, an elevation of aspirations.
The U.S. is primed, Kucinich says, to evolve into a country of peacemakers. His candidacy, he says, is about “challenging assumptions that speak to the inevitability of war.” He bemoans the current administration’s color-coded terror-alerts, saying that, “Fear has dropped like a dark cloth over this country,” causing the nation to lose its moral bearing.
It’s time, Kucinich insists, “to ask ourselves who we are, and where we’re going,” and to set about the process of “creating a new world.”
And in response to a question from the audience, Kucinich proved himself willing to take a politically unpopular stance. Do you fish? the questioner wanted to know.
“No,” the vegan candidate admitted.
Montana voters, Kucinich said, have an opportunity to end the primary season with an exclamation point. While Kerry’s nomination was set in motion by caucuses in Iowa and New Hampshire, he said, primary voters in Montana can help set the direction of the Democratic Party.
“It’s not enough to vote against George Bush.” Kucinich insisted. “It is insufficient for Democrats to be offering in November a Democratic version of the war in Iraq. We need to be leading the way. The world is waiting for that kind of courage. The world is waiting to see if this country is going to open its heart to peace.”
Other Democrats qualified for Montana’s June 8 Democratic primary include frontrunner John Kerry, Wesley Clark and John Edwards, both of the latter having officially withdrawn from the race. Nominal Democrat Lyndon LaRouche is also qualified for the Montana ballot, though state party rules preclude him from receiving delegates. Any candidate receiving over 15 percent of the primary vote will garner delegates to the state convention June 11–13, where delegates will be selected to go to Boston.