Dead Man Talking

Photo by James BunoanOn a warm winter morning in Long Beach, a day before the Oscars, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich basked in the sunshine of his supporters' love.

He was there to raise money for his campaign, at yet another $50-per-head meet-and-greet. This one was at the posh College Park-area home of 87-year-old manufacturer Ken Reiner and his wife, Dottie, near the university.

College Park looks like old-money Republicanism incarnate. Reiner is the opposite of that. A self-proclaimed “successful inventor” of proletariat widgets like the self-locking nut and a better curler, he helped found the Alliance for Democracy eight years ago “to challenge the power of large corporations.”

Kucinich's get-outta-NAFTA stance and his universal-health-care platform put him right in Reiner's wheelhouse.

“I think he's as great as Thomas Jefferson,” the host told me, patriotic in a red-white-and-blue striped oxford shirt under a red V-neck sweater. “His ideas . . .”

His ideas poisoned his chances most other places. Not here.

Wearing his own V-neck sweater under a suit with a faint pinstripe, Kucinich began with fervent thanks to the audience and his hosts. A Styrofoam cup of hot water for his vocal cords steamed away forlornly on a side table.

A hush fell when he opened his mouth, and people applauded more frequently the later it got.

The toughest question of the morning came from a small-business owner who wondered if NAFTA wasn't so bad after all. Kucinich quickly mollified the man by explaining how jobs we send to Mexico don't stay in Mexico. They go to places that are cheaper still, he said, like China.

Someone else gave him a total setup, wondering aloud how to explain Kucinich's public-health-care plans to her friends.

“As opposed to private health care? Oh, my gosh, I have to wait? I can't get the doctor of my choice?” he fired back—the one time he resorted to sarcasm. A fastball aimed at dentists followed: “This smile I have,” he said, “didn't come cheap.”

The crowd roared. They were young and hungry enough to get his sarcasm, but old and vested enough to prize his sincerity.

Teacher Sheila Emery epitomized this demographic divide. She said she taught English as a second language in Paramount but was trying to break into TV with a pitch she'd made to National Geographic. They hadn't bought it yet.

Impeccably coiffed in shiny square-toed boots with a high heel, no-nonsense slacks and a supple leather coat, she told me Kucinich was the man for the rest of us.”I'm so happy,” Emery said. “There's somebody who speaks to us, the normal people.” Earlier, she said, they'd shared a moment when she told him how much she believed.

“He took both my hands and got very close and looked in my eye and said that comments like mine were what kept him going,” Emery said, almost sighing with delight. “I was proud to know someone of his integrity. He's the real deal.”

His reality convinced them he mattered greatly—like Naders, Perots and Stevensons of yore—no matter his chances.

Huntington Beach computer engineer Robert Hardy and his wife, Delia, dressed casually—Robert in jeans, plaid camp shirt and black low-top Converse All-Stars that were just grubby enough—but paid $100 to be here because Kucinich's views touched them in a special place.

“I've never canvassed for someone before,” Robert Hardy, 33, vowed. After hearing Kucinich, he signed a petition to sideline Ralph Nader and went to work for Kucinich.

Never mind that, after California's Super Tuesday, their candidate is out of a job. They told me convincingly that it wouldn't end here.

Hardy said, “I think this is the start of something big.”

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