Just How Rigged is the "Rigged Game"?

"The Division of Light and Power," the new book by Dennis Kucinich, is an epic chronicle of American corruption

Dennis Kucinich has always been ahead of his time. It’s both his distinction and his curse. As a presidential candidate in the 2000s he was ridiculed for backing tuition-free college, single-payer health care, ending the Iraq war, withdrawal from NAFTA and the WTO, same-sex marriage, legalized weed, slashed defense budgets, and a long list of other policies later deemed uncontroversial. When that Kucinich said he would happily nominate a gay or transgender person to the Supreme Court, Jon Stewart guffawed: “Yes, yes, all rise for the honorable chick with dick!”

By 2020 most all of Kucinich’s positions were orthodoxy among Democratic voters, yet he remains an outcast to Democrats nationally. In fact, he’s been frozen out of blue-state media for the better part of a decade, and welcomed during the same time to a five-year stint as a Fox News contributor. What gives? If even the Washington Post concedes that their former object of ridicule turned out to be “the future of American politics” — the politics of their own readers — why does the national political establishment continue to keep him out of sight?

The answers can be found in The Division of Light and Power, Kucinich’s enormous new memoir about his time as the Mayor of Cleveland, and his battle against Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, or CEI. The book is a surprising tour de force on multiple levels. First, it should immediately take a place among the celebrated ruthless accounts of how American politics really work, recalling jarring insider confessionals like Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets or Robert Caro’s illusion-crushing portrait of municipal politics, The Power Broker. Second, it’s very skillfully written. Kucinich, always a voracious reader, turns out to be a born writer, with a gift for pace and detail.

Third, The Division of Light and Power is prophetic. Critics will harp on the oldness of the story: most of the action takes place between Kucinich’s election to the Cleveland City Council in 1969 (at age 23!) and the end of his term as Mayor in 1979.

But Kucinich’s battle with CEI was also a powerful precursor tale, exposing all the major fault lines of modern politics. In the seventies, while most conventional party politicians were busy constructing the post-Watergate partisan realignment that would define the blue-red battle for a generation, Kucinich in Cleveland was forced to ask whether the whole two party system was a “rigged game,” a question that decades later inspired uprisings in both the Democratic and Republican Parties. The battle lines around CEI were not about Democrats versus Republicans, but rather around more nebulous definitions like the people versus the system, dependents versus independents, free-thinkers versus apparatchiks, etc. “Partisan labels were confining to me,” Kucinich writes, again predicting an attitude likely soon to be uncontroversial fashion.

Most themes of the modern debate over populism can be found it in this story of Cleveland’s effort to keep control over its own popular power company, Muny Light. Muny provided cheap electricity and would not sell itself to CEI, a corporate behemoth that would eventually become part of FirstEnergy. Kucinich before entering government never thought much about utilities or power companies. “Like most people, when I needed light, I’d turn a switch from ‘off’ to ‘on,’” he writes. Why did it matter which company owned the light?

It turned out to matter a lot, when CEI was engaged in systematic price-fixing and was trying to get rid of Muny in order to remove competition and artificially jack up rates. This was a macro version of what young Kucinich learned was the core trade of American politics: political tribute for monopoly business. As a “baby face” 23-year-old — Kucinich from this time looked like someone who’d have to sneak in to ride a roller coaster — the new Councilman kept noticing businessmen in fancy suits handing out tickets to Indians and Browns games hanging around his place to work. Who were they? One of the City Council clerks explained:

Each one of their companies needs a special license to operate, called a franchise, which is awarded by the city… Their business gets a franchise, sometimes for ninety-nine years. It’s a monopoly. No competition. Everyone has to pay for their service and there’s no choice, you pay what they charge…

Kucinich described a Cleveland City Council that correctly viewed itself as servants, in office to execute the needs of the financial interests that installed them. When he arrived telling a tale of having spent two years knocking on every door in his district, the members didn’t believe it, and kept asking questions like “Where’d you get your money to get elected?” or “Who put you here?” One after the other, they welcomed him to the job, telling him there were “legitimate ways” to make money once there, that “you’re on the inside now, not on the outside,” and that the world generally could be his, if he followed one rule. “All you have to do,” one attorney-legislator told him, “is play ball.”

He learned the racket: “You gotta vote right.” Many of the things the Council voted on turned out to be cons and guaranteed profit schemes that directly transferred cash from voters to donors. For instance, an “urban renewal” bill that was pitched as a multi-million-dollar cleanup for one neighborhood but was actually a scam to force thousands of homeowners to take out high-interest-rate private bank loans to repair their properties.

Just like the modern U.S. congress, which annually buys tens of billions in overpriced and unneeded military equipment, or doles out billions in dubious overseas business loans, or quietly approves regulatory relief and tax holidays for monopolistic interests, the Cleveland Council “voted the right way” across party lines, and got its rewards.

Only a few were disappointed. Kucinich described one member weeping into his port wine at a Monday night council meeting at a local tavern. “I voted right. I didn’t ask for much,” he told Kucinich. “All I want is a little ice cream.” With a little imagination one can imagine a back-bencher in the current House looking at Nancy Pelosi or Richard Burr or Bob Corker or Diane Feinstein or any of a number of other members who managed somehow to massively increase their net worth in office, and wondering why he or she, too, couldn’t get a little of that “ice cream.”

The Division of Light and Power is a physically massive book — size-wise it reminds me of Bill Greider’s Secrets of the Temple, so big Rolling Stone editors used to gift each other free lunches if any of them could manage to shoplift it — but Kucinich drives his labyrinthine political conspiracy tale with the speed of detective fiction, using a clever structure. His presidential platform in 2004 was the size of a playing card; here he tells an epic in brief, dense, action-packed chapters of a few pages each. The singular focus on the battle with CEI eliminates the stream-of-consciousness drift that infects a lot of memoirs by politicians, people used to being listened to no matter what comes out of their mouths.

How rigged was the game in Cleveland? CEI manufactured Muny blackouts before holidays, blatantly defied federal laws requiring CEI to provide backup power in case of such blackouts, refused to allow Muny to build lines through its territory to obtain backup power from other utilities, used bought-off pols to help artificially lower the valuation of Muny, and even used its power as an advertiser to obtain editorial review authority over local radio copy involving the company.

Because the decision about whether or not to keep Muny was a no-brainer for any Cleveland resident without a larger financial interest in the deal — as Muny didn’t pay dividends or giant packages to executives, it was able to offer rates 20% below CEI, low enough that Cleveland crafted its pitch to outside businesses around its low energy rates — CEI needed to blast cash at institutions to win allies for its cause. When that didn’t work, it appeared to use its influence to get rid of critics, like WERE radio host Steve Clark, fired after reporting CEI had asked the state for a rate hike in the same year it was reporting a $40 million profit.

Kucinich protested the firing of Clark in a speech in the City Council, concluding, “Tomorrow, it could be you.” He noted the reaction of the remaining press corps:

News reporters covering the meeting were a sketch of supine immobility, a confession of the futility of expression without independence.

Kucinich expresses some sympathy for people who either gradually or suddenly sell their souls away in this fashion, understanding that people lose themselves in countless ways in and around politics, but can’t take the step himself. After getting elected Mayor in 1977, Kucinich resists smear campaigns, a recall attempt, every conceivable kind of financial squeeze, and even an assassination plot in refusing to sell Muny Light.

As financial judgment day approaches, he appears to flash back to the absolute poverty of his childhood, spent in a household where he could literally hear pennies being counted at night. “Bill collectors don’t faze me,” he writes, as he describes the moment when Cleveland’s notes start coming due. “Bill collectors visited our apartment with such frequency that I assumed that they were relatives.” He understands the catastrophe of default, but he can’t sell; he’s worried about the city, but also his soul. The book is packed full of references to his Catholic upbringing, including a poem his sixth-grade teacher Sister Leona scrawled on a blackboard called “The Minute,” about the momentary tests of conscience forced on every person:

But it’s up to me to use it,

Give account if I abuse it…

Just one tiny minute,

But eternity is in it.

Kucinich’s wry two-word summation of the consequences of choosing default over sale — “Citizen Kucinich” — effectively represent the end of the book. An abrupt fast forward twenty years later shows the long-forgotten Kucinich presented with a resolution by a Clinton-era Council, expressing its “deep appreciation” for having refused to sell an asset that later ballooned in value, saving the city $300 million. He’s given a second act and elected to congress.

A few years ago, the sports site The Ringer would do one of many retrospectives on that second act of Kucinich’s, which played out in a vaguely similar way to the first. He ascended, briefly attracted the notice of the political establishment thanks to his ability to generate buzz on his own, and was discarded just as quickly when party leaders realized he was guilty of the worst crime there is in American politics, i.e. he was serious. The Ringer tried to lay out in more generous terms the reasons conventional wisdom abandoned Kucinich again, noting that he’d moved on to Fox after his exile from blue politics, aligning himself with the same “kooky” politics that brought us Donald Trump:

Kucinich clashes with the network’s partisan affiliations, but he also happens to echo its fondness for “deep state” conspiracy-mongering and fact-contrarianism.

Kucinich was called a “kook” in the early 2000s for embracing gay marriage and universal health care. More recently he wins the moniker for talking about how money from banks and weapons-makers controls American politics, how the news media is a mouthpiece for corporate interests, and a dozen other things that are uncomfortable but true. In The Division of Light and Power Kucinich uses the term “rigged system” to describe what he’s up against. This is a taboo word in modern media, which associates the “rigged game” with Trump and Bernie Sanders. But the book is 700 pages of proof of the comical extent of how rigged American politics can be, and is.

The people who deny this are the kooks, not Kucinich, who’s simply making an observation a lot of Americans aren’t ready to accept yet. Once again, he’s too early. In the book he described Cleveland residents who tried to divine their way out of poverty by studying the numbers rackets crooks offered them as false hope. “On the streets,” he wrote, “people bought dream books to try to discern the winning numbers in their sleep.” The people who tune in to CNN and MSNBC (and Fox, too), still wanting to believe in the rectitude of establishment political heroes, are lost in the same way. In another fifteen years, after the partisan political debate — what Kucinich in our interview calls the “Punch and Judy show” — loses even more legitimacy, and the brokenness and corruption of institutional America becomes uncontroversial truism, pundits will be probably be writing apologies to this politician again.

In politics, phoniness often wins. In literature, not so much. Fifty years from now, no one will be reading Battle for the Soul or What Happened to understand our politics. The Division of Light and Power meanwhile is a journey into the typhoon of American corruption and stupidity. The presidency may never have been Kucinich’s legacy, but this book will survive him, and there’s nothing kooky about it.

For more on The Division of Light and Power and other topics, read my interview with Kucinich here.