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Dennis Kucinich, once Cleveland's youngest mayor, is running to be its oldest

Known for his longshot liberal campaigns for president, Kucinich joins a crowded field to succeed retiring Mayor Frank Jackson.
Dennis Kucinich
Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich speaks during an Ohio Democratic debate in the primary race for governor in 2018.John Minchillo / AP file

CLEVELAND — Dennis Kucinich ran two longshot campaigns for president and built a reputation as a liberal firebrand in Congress with his attempts to create a Cabinet-level Department of Peace and impeach former President George W. Bush.

Long before that, Kucinich was the so-called “Boy Mayor” of Cleveland — at 31, the youngest ever elected to the job in 1977. He left office after one term in which he barely survived a recall and led the city into default.

And now, at age 74, he aims to complete the circle with a bid to become Cleveland’s oldest mayor. Kucinich announced Monday that he will be a candidate in September’s nonpartisan primary.

"I love Cleveland," Kucinich said at his launch event, flanked by his wife, Elizabeth, and supporters holding his trademark yellow "Dennis!" signs.

"Our city needs a steady, experienced, healing hand in these divisive times. As mayor I will seek to unify our city by meeting the challenges to safety and and security, which exist in every neighborhood."

Kucinich offered an immediate proposal to address institutional failures in a city trying to move past police misconduct and use-of-force scandals.

"We will increase police pay and attract quality applicants to law enforcement through providing college tuition to those who will commit to five years of service in the Cleveland Police Department," he said.

This year’s mayoral race is wide open, as it is Cleveland's first without an incumbent since 2001. Mayor Frank Jackson, who has held the title longer than anyone else, is stepping aside after 16 years. If he wins, Kucinich would qualify as Cleveland’s oldest mayor soon after taking office, surpassing Jackson, who is older by several days.

Other candidates in the crowded primary include City Council President Kevin Kelley, state Sen. Sandra Williams, Councilman Basheer Jones, nonprofit executive Justin Bibb and Zack Reed, a former council member who was the runner-up to Jackson in the 2017 election.

The top two primary finishers will advance to a November runoff.

Kucinich served a two-year term as mayor (terms now run four years), escaping the 1978 recall brought on by his clashes with the civic, business and political establishment he was loath to placate, but losing a 1979 re-election bid. His refusal to sell the city-owned electric company was seen as a precursor to Cleveland's late 1978 default. But years later, with the utility still under Cleveland’s ownership, many locals came to view it as a righteous stand. Kucinich recently documented the fight in a memoir, “The Division of Light and Power.”

Eventually, Kucinich returned to City Hall as a councilman, then worked his way up to the Ohio Senate and then to Congress, which he used as a springboard for his unsuccessful White House bids as a liberal Democrat. He has been out of elected office since losing a House re-election campaign in 2012. Redistricting the previous year had combined parts of his western Cleveland base with areas represented by Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo. Kaptur won a primary between the two, sending the populist Kucinich into a political exile that included a stint as a Fox News commentator.

Since then, Kucinich’s name has been floated for other offices — speculation he occasionally encouraged. Backed by Our Revolution, the political organization aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Kucinich ran in the Democratic primary for Ohio governor in 2018. He lost badly to Richard Cordray, but carried the city of Cleveland.

CORRECTION (June 14, 2021, 9:34 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the last year Cleveland's mayoral race did not feature an incumbent. It was 2001, not 2005.