Dennis Kucinich on the Battle for Muny Light

Dennis Kucinich has written a remarkable book – The Division of Power and Light.

The Division of Power and Light was the legal name for Cleveland Municipal Power – in short, Muny Light.

In the early 1970s, there were thousands of electricity companies owned and operated by cities around the country. 

Having the public own its own power source had many benefits, not the least of which was that the electricity bills for citizens were cheaper – up to 25 percent cheaper. 

Instead of paying $100 a month for an electricity bill, you would pay $75 a month.

Public power did not sit well with Cleveland’s corporate power structure, which included the banks, the corporate media outlets, most of the politicians and Muny Light’s private rival – Cleveland Electric Illuminating (CEI) – currently The Illuminating Company, a unit of FirstEnergy.

CEI pressured the city of Cleveland to sell Muny Light.

Kucinich stood up to the corporate power structure and said – no sale.

The slogan for the no sale campaign was – Power to the People: Muny Light.

Kucinich rode the campaign to become the city’s youngest mayor – in fact to become the youngest mayor of a big city in America.

How did the Muny Light controversy lead to your becoming mayor?

“The mayor previous to me was Ralph Perk,” Kucinich told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “I helped him get elected. He was a Republican. He had committed to resisting any attempts to turn over Muny Light to private companies. The Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI), a private company, had designs on Muny Light.” 

“It was well known throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. I helped him become mayor on the basis of a commitment he made to me personally and publicly that he would protect the municipal electric system from any takeover. A few terms later he decided, under great pressure from the corporate community, that he was going to sell.” 

“Efforts were made to undermine the municipal electric system from the inside. The books were cooked in a way to make it impossible for Muny Light to appear to be making a profit. Perk came up with this idea that he had no choice but to sell. He had the support from the City Council. At that point I was clerk of the Cleveland Municipal Court. I rallied the community, put a petition drive together that gained 30,000 signatures. And we blocked the sale.” 

“In the meantime, as I was campaigning on this very powerful economic issue, people were telling me – why don’t you run for mayor? You seem to be the one who understands what our economic needs are. And we trust you.”

“That effort to save Muny Light became an essential part of my mayoral campaign. It wasn’t only the privatization of the electric system. The city had almost a wholesale fire sale of municipal assets. While I mightily opposed the effort to sell Muny Light, there were other efforts to privatize. And it wasn’t only in Cleveland. Suddenly, privatization became a way for corporations to expand their holdings, their profits.” 

CEI was your corporate antagonist. They wanted Muny Light to be sold to eliminate a competitor and boost their bottom line. The corporate community in Cleveland and around the country saw this fight over Muny Light as something that could have ripple effects across the country.

“They saw the resistance to sell it that could have ripple effects. There were a couple hundred privatizations of municipal electric systems happening at the same time. Cleveland was one of the only places where people fought back. That is something that the private power companies couldn’t tolerate.” 

“Ft. Wayne, Indiana went through a privatization and electric rates skyrocketed. That was part of the story that we told. If you give up this electric system, you are going to pay more for electricity.”

“It makes a difference if people are able to save twenty five percent on their bill, which they were able to in Cleveland at that time. That extra money mattered to people.”

“CEI was one of the most formidable corporate citizens. They helped organize the corporate community. At that point, Cleveland was the number three corporate capital in America. We had some of the biggest corporations here. CEI was the point of the spear of the corporate community. To resist them was not only to resist CEI, but the board members, the banks, the media who they advertised mightily with, and the political system which they controlled through their contributions.”

“I had been in politics almost ten years, but I was still a relative newcomer. I learned the system when I challenged it. And when they saw what I represented and who I represented, the effort to privatize accelerated and the coordination of corporate power became ever more crushing to the city of Cleveland. That’s when CEI was able to get their partners in the banking community to threaten the city’s credit if I continued to refuse to sell.”

What year were you elected to be mayor?

“I was elected in 1977. When I won the primary I was 30. When I won the general election I was 31 years old. I took office as the youngest big city mayor in the United States at that time. Cleveland had a population of about 700,000. It was a big city. The city had a strong mayor system. The mayor was the major decision maker. If you want something to happen, you can’t get around the mayor. They had the previous mayor lined up to support the sale, even though he had committed otherwise earlier.”

“The pressure was incredible. It wasn’t just the banking community and the utilities. It was also their connection to organized crime. You have to realize that at that point, Cleveland was known as the bombing capital of America. There was an internecine war going on between organized crime factions. The top mobsters were blowing each other up with elan.” 

“There was an unwritten rule that if you were approached by anyone connected to the mob, you better pay close attention because they could be helpful to you. And on the other hand, if you cross them, you may have to pay maybe with something more than your political life.”

The pressure on you was tremendous. And yet you did not break and did not sell Muny Light. The public turned against you. You wore a bulletproof vest to go to throw the first pitch at a Cleveland Indians game. And when you took the mound, 60,000 people started booing you. 

You ended up in the hospital a couple of times. It cost you your marriage. There were pressures on your broader family. There was incredible pressure. And yet you did not break. There were assassination attempts, including rifle shots at your home and a plot by the mob to kill you.

“I was scheduled to be the grand marshall in a parade in the black community sponsored by the newspaper the Call and Post. I was very excited about that. Carl Stokes, the former mayor of Cleveland, came to Cleveland and we were going to have breakfast before the parade.”

“I needed some advice from Carl in dealing with council president Forbes. Forbes was Stokes’ lieutenant when Stokes was mayor. I was looking forward to having breakfast with Carl Stokes at my house, the house that I’m speaking to you from right now.”

“I’m upstairs in my little library. I blacked out. When I came to, the whole room was covered with blood. I didn’t know what happened. I heard my wife downstairs calling to Carl to come up right away. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had an ulcer that had erupted over an artery. I was bleeding to death. Carl picked me up from the chair and got blood all over his suit. He put me in the bed while the emergency crews came and rushed me to the hospital.”

“I missed the parade. As I’m recovering in the hospital, I noticed that there were so many police around the hospital. I didn’t need all of those police officers. So I called the chief of police to the hospital to ask what this was all about. I was very uncomfortable about it. That is when he told me – there was a plot on my life. And as it turned out, had I been in that parade, I was going to be hit.”

The ulcer almost took your life, but it also saved your life.

“That’s exactly right. The plot was going forward. State police in Maryland were involved in the investigation. There were undercover agents involved who were meeting with mob figures. Later on reports surfaced that one price for the hit on me was $80,000, which was a lot of money back then.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Dennis Kucinich, see 36 Corporate Crime Reporter 24(10), June 13, 2022, print edition only.]

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