Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 06/21/21

A tale of two cities. That it is just plain wrong to allow people to get away with physically assaulting and hurting innocent people is a truth that transcends politics is evidenced by my conversation with Dennis Kucinich below and my recent chat with Curtis Sliwa. Both men are putting dealing with soaring crime rates front and center in the respective mayoral campaigns in Cleveland and New York City. Kucinich, one of the most straightforward liberal politicians there is and Sliwa, an outspoken conservative Republican, both understand that the highest moral calling for any political leader is to keep the people safe and whole regardless of politics and party affiliation. Kucinich, who at 31 became the youngest person ever elected Cleveland’s mayor in 1977, is now at 74 vying to become its oldest. Sliwa founded New York City’s anti-crime organization the Guardian Angels in 1979 when he was just 25. Now, at 67, he’s seeking his city’s top job and, in advance of tomorrow’s NYC mayoral primary, has been endorsed by Rudy Giuliani who was elected mayor of New York during a similar crime surge in 1993. Interestingly, both men were born and raised Catholic (for whatever that’s worth in understanding them).

I’ve talked to both of them and it’s struck me that, for two guys generally associated with opposite sides of the political spectrum, they appear to hold remarkably similar core values. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, besides running for mayor, Dennis Kucinich has a new book out about his first go-round as Cleveland mayor. The Division of Light and Power is an epic insider’s account of his battle against what he says was shadow city government which engaged in corporate espionage, sabotage, price-fixing, cut-throat competition, anti-trust activities, organized crime, and wholesale fraud. It’s pretty dramatic stuff which, IMHO, could form the basis of an intense and timely movie. He talks about all that with me following the clip below of a local news report about his 2021 campaign announcement. The Cleveland mayoral primary, BTW, is September 14.

JWK: So, it’s kind of interesting. Your book is about your first term as Cleveland’s mayor back in the seventies and here you are in 2021 running for the job again.

Dennis Kucinich: The book is called The Division of Light and Power. It opens up when I’m a 23-year-old councilman who suddenly experiences all the lights in Downtown Cleveland going out at Christmas time. That’s how the book opens. That puts me on a search to find out how come the lights are going out? When I did that and got into city government, I found the deep-dark secrets of city government involving corporate espionage, sabotage of Cleveland’s municipal electric system (and) a concerted effort being made to actually steal this quarter-billion dollar electric system for a fraction of its value just through political muscle and corporate intrigue…So, there’s never been a book quite like this. It take people into the real seamy side of government that people fear actually happens but I’ve exposed it. (The book also) gives citizens ideas on how they can fight back. The only way you can fight back is to first be informed.  .

JWK: So, this takes place during the seventies and does focus on your mayoral term. How have things changed for better or worse since then?

DK: I mean you tell me. You look at America right now and you look at the influence of various interest groups on government and only if people are aware of what’s going on do they have a chance to defend themselves against rising utility rates, rising food prices (and) increased costs for transportation. This is a book which will equip people to not only become more active citizens but also to find out how these things actually work (and) what goes on behind the scenes.

And I do it in a way that, if you can imagine this, (tells the story of) a 23-year-old councilman – somebody still very new to politics and still very young in life. I take the reader with me on that experience that I had and expose the deep-dark secrets that were involved in the corruption inside a community – not just in the government.

JWK: I could definitely seeing a movie coming from this book. Is there any talk about that?

DK: There’s a lot of talk about a movie because people see the theme (as) similar to the movie Chinatown. One person has said that’s it’s a cross between The Godfather and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s something that people – as they read the book – they’re very excited to get caught up in the story but, at the same time, they realize that this is a book that is not just about the past. It’s about the future as well. When that American Rescue Plan money runs out, the corporations are going to be licking their chops looking at various assets owned by cities – whether it’s electric systems, water systems, waste collection (or) any kind of municipal service. They’ll look to take them over and people will end up paying more taxes. This is an important book to equip people to get ready.

JWK:  Since your first term as mayor in the seventies, you’ve had a long political career that included eight terms as U.S. congressman from Ohio. You’re much more experienced now than you were then. What have you learned and how would you confront these issues if elected again in 2021?

DK: First of all, when I took office last time I was America’s youngest big city mayor. I was 31 years old. I suppose that the utility monopolies and the banks thought that because I was young they could just roll over our administration and get whatever they wanted but, of course, that wasn’t gonna happen. Today, the challenges are little bit different but they still involve standing up for the people and representing their interests against private interests that may not be aligned with the public interest – that may be looking for handouts and giveaways with the people not getting anything in return. That’s true not just in Cleveland. It’s true of every big city.

So, what I’m doing is writing a book that’s going to be valuable…as kind of a civic handbook to equip people to be able to know their government better and to understand there are paths of action if government’s doing something that you don’t like.

JWK:  So, you’re running for mayor. What do you see as the fundamental issue facing everyday citizens?

DK: As a citizen, look, I’m aligned with the interests of people – of making sure that people’s practical aspirations are fulfilled by government. What does that mean? Having safe neighborhoods. Having as inexpensive utility rates as possible. Having clean streets. Having the city kept in repair. Having waste collections services that are regular and that provide for a recycling program that works. I mean there are things that a city must do, including economic development, by the way, but it has to do it without sacrificing the lifeblood of the community.

Of course, in Cleveland right now the big issue is crime. It’s a problem in every American city but Cleveland has one of the highest per capita rates for murders, shootings, felonious assaults (and) carjackings. So, we have those problems to deal with. Resources have to be used to be able to protect the community.

Now, at the same time, while the needs of the people need to be met, there are those who are competing for those dollars who have political power based on their influence gained through campaign contributions. The question is do people in government represent the citizens who elected them or do they represent the interest groups which are giving them campaign contributions? I mean that is probably one of the most vexing problems facing American government today. How do you keep a democracy if it’s just to the highest bidder?

JWK: Most people think of you a Democrat. Haven’t the Democrats sort of ceded the crime issue to the Republicans? A lot people see the Democrats as soft on crime and hard on cops.

DK: Well, let me just tell you, when I was elected mayor the first time I defeated the Democratic machine and the Republican Party. I was elected mayor as an independent. And (this year’s) mayor’s race is nonpartisan, although political parties, I’m sure, will weigh in. And, of course, I’ll be absolutely willing to talk to them but the decisions have to be made in the interest of the people not the party.

When I made my announcement the other day, I made it very clear that we’re gonna hire 400 new police (and) we’re gonna hire another 100 safety assistants who will respond to 911 calls that do not require armed response – mental health crises and other kinds of disturbances that can be remedied with someone in a background in social work or a psychologist or someone’s who’s trained to work with people and deescalate conflict. We’re going to take that approach.

We’re also going to create…a civic peace department that will work to structure conflict-avoidance strategies and actually get involved in communities where problems are percolating and try to head them off. Also, another feature of our platform is to come up with a peace education curriculum for the public schools (for) which the mayor has responsibility. So, it’s not like nothing can be done.

No political party should have the power to be able to (politicize) public policy in any city. This has to be done as a matter of a practical response to what’s actually going on. There’s nothing theoretical if you’ve got some who’s just pistol-whipped someone and has taken their car. There’s nothing theoretical about how to respond to that. Police, if they see them, have to go get them! This is not even a close question. I’m a very practical person when it comes to government.

JWK: George Washington warned about the danger political parties could pose to democracy. Do you see parties as part of the problem?

DK: I think that governance requires an open mind and a partisan mind is sometimes incapable of really resolving things. There’s no true Democratic or Republican way to run a police department. You run it in the interest of law enforcement and safe and peaceful communities. You don’t look to political party for guidance on that. The parties have their limitations. I don’t think you can get anywhere with solving the problems of individual cities with groupthink that comes from outside that city.

JWK: How do you feel about federal involvement and rules regarding local policing and those kinds of things?

DK: Look, we have a new level of understanding in America about the limitations of the exercise of the use of deadly force – and that’s been a long time coming. At the same time, while the federal government can provide some guidance, ultimately, decisions have to be made at a local level. In Cleveland, our city charter provides that the mayor shall be the “chief conservator of the peace.”

I want to go back to the book and that is to say that the federal government doesn’t have the solution to everything. When I was mayor, the federal government wanted to give Cleveland (millions of) dollars to put a people mover – an elevated transit thing – in Downtown Cleveland which we didn’t need and which I rejected. Yet, the things that we needed money for – including a loan to try to keep us out of a fiscal crunch – they couldn’t and wouldn’t do it.

You have to remember, I served 16 years in Congress. I was chairman of an investigative subcommittee. I know how the federal government wastes not millions, not billions but trillions of dollars. So, because of my experience, I’m able to look at things critically (and) scientifically like a detective. That’s how I wrote this book. This book is written in a way that is heavily documented and it picks apart all of the decisions that were made in the interest of a utility monopoly (and) against the interests of the people of Cleveland. So, The Division of Light and Power has relevancy for today as well as an important history lesson for the status of government vis-à-vis (its relationship with) corporations.

JWK: Final question. If a movie is made out of this book, who would you like to see play you?

DK: That’s a decision someone else will have to make. I’m not really focused on that. I can tell you though that years ago when I left office as mayor there were people interested in the story and one of them was Marty Bregman who made a movie called Serpico and his star in that was Al Pacino. I met with Bregman and Pacino in New York City for several hours to discuss – at that point – putting this story on the screen. I had to write it though and I couldn’t do it at that point. I was too close to it. Now, years later, with the ability and the time to go over hundreds and hundreds of boxes of records and documents I have finally put (the story) together. I’m excited about it. It’s getting great reviews and I appreciate being (with you) to talk about it. Thank you very much for this opportunity.

JWK: The pleasure is mine. Thank you.

A tale of two superstars. In this clip, we get a behind-the-scenes look into Jennifer Hudson’s transformation into Aretha Franklin for the new biopic RESPECT due in theaters on August 13th. The film follows Ms. Franklin’s faith-driven journey from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to her international superstardom and finding her voice in more ways than one. This one looks big.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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