For a good part of the last five years, Dennis Kucinich has held two jobs: Ohio congressman and quixotic presidential candidate. In fact, if his White House bid lasts well into next year (which it probably will), he will have spent two of his last three congressional terms running for president — a sizable amount of time for someone who garnered just 1 percent of the vote in the 2004 Iowa caucuses, and who remains buried beneath other 2008 Democratic presidential contenders in current polls.
His time on the presidential campaign trail hasn't gone unnoticed by his critics. In his 2004 congressional re-election bid, his two opponents — Republican Edward Herman and Independent Barbara Ferris — brought up the votes he missed while running for president, arguing that he was distracted from meeting the needs of his constituents in Cleveland, Ohio. According to the Washington Post and the Library of Congress, he missed 13 percent of all his votes during his 2003-2004 presidential campaign, up from a near-voting record the term before.
"Missing votes means you're absent from the opportunity to work relentlessly to bring tax dollars back to the district," Ferris told Cleveland Plain Dealer back then.
Despite that criticism, Kucinich held on to his seat in 2004, winning 60 percent of the vote. He fared even better in last year's election, garnering 66 percent. Now Kucinich is at it again, vying for the Democratic nomination for president. And once again, critics — even from within his own party — are charging that he's shirking his duties as Cleveland's congressman.
Rosemary Palmer, a former Kucinich supporter whose son died in the war in Iraq in 2005, has announced that she will challenge Kucinich in the Democratic primary for his congressional seat next year. "We have the poorest big city in the United States, and we have a part-time congressman," Palmer said in a recent interview with NBC News. While she and her husband campaigned for Kucinich last year, she has since decided that her district needs someone to do the work on Capitol Hill to bring industrial investment back to Cleveland.
Republicans are also challenging Kucinich's job performance. Ken Spain, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, questioned Kucinich's commitment to his constituents, saying, "The people of his district hired him to do a job, and he should live up to that job, by serving the values and interest of that district."
Yet Kucinich maintains that his presidential campaign activities aren't hindering his legislative duties. "I take these responsibilities very seriously," he said in an interview last month, noting that his career voting-attendance record is 97 percent — which would earn him an "A" on any test.
"I do most of my campaigning on the weekends, on my own time," he added, pointing out that the only reason he missed 10 votes in the House earlier this year is because he was on a two-day diplomatic trip to Paris and London, not campaigning. He has only missed only three votes since, bringing his voting record to about 98 percent.
Trying to prove his point, Kucinich described a vote he wanted to cast that was to be held on the same day as April's Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina. "I was so worried about missing the vote, I actually woke up a couple times the night before," he said of the bill, which would expand legislative protection of free-roaming horses.
"Normally people bet on horses," he joked, "but the horses were betting on me this time."
As a result of his legislative duties, he missed his commercial flight to South Carolina for the debate, and he had to charter a private flight at what he said was a "considerable expense."
Indeed, it's worth noting that of the ten presidential contenders — Democrat and Republican — who currently serve in Congress, Kucinich has the highest voting record so far this year, followed closely by only Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. And although frequent-voting members like Clinton have private planes that can shuttle them to campaign events between votes, Kucinich's record is much better than other non-frontrunners like Reps. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who have missed 16 percent and 31 percent of House votes, respectively.
Still, Palmer maintains that Kucinich's presidential bid distracts him from his day-to-day duties as a congressman. "He makes the votes, that is not the question," she said, adding, "we need someone who is willing to do the behind-the scenes work for the district."