On Contact: American coup d’état (Part 1)
On the show this week, the first of a two-part interview, Chris Hedges discusses the American coup d’état with former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
Dennis Kucinich served as a US representative from Ohio from 1997 to 2013, losing his seat after the state Democratic Party machine redrew Ohio’s 10th Congressional district, a redistricting designed expressly to oust him, although he is a Democrat, from his seat, which is what happened. He was also the 53rd mayor of Cleveland. As mayor he took on the entrenched power of the big banks and business interests, along with the mob, which controlled City Hall. His anti-corruption campaign included battling back against the efforts to privatize the city’s municipal electric utility, a scheme that would have jacked up utility rates for the city’s residents and netted millions in profits for the banks and the privately owned Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. His fearless confrontation with these entrenched centers of power, largely hidden in the shadows, swiftly saw these monied interests mount a vicious assault against him, which included a relentless smear campaign, amplified by a press that obsequiously catered to the interests of its big advertisers, and led to a recall vote, forcing the city into default and even assassination attempts. He was defeated in the next election. In December 2020, Kucinich filed paperwork to run in the 2021 Cleveland mayoral election, where he is currently leading in the polls.
Kucinich's new book, The Division of Light and Power, looks back on his tenure as mayor and his confrontation with corporate power that today holds most cities and the country hostage.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss America’s corporate coup d’etat with Dennis Kucinich.
Dennis Kucinich: The war hadn’t ended. They--what they did, they took this ideology of the enemy and put it into--the public ownership became the enemy. And it was--it was an ideological battle. And I--there’s no question that there were meetings where they designed each strategies and set forth. And, you know, we were up against some very intelligent people, very gifted people who were in the--in the employee of this utility. And they kept--they executed what, you know, was an otherwise brilliant strategy to take over municipal electric system. And the fact is, Chris, they did take over many other electric systems, but there was one they didn’t.
CH: Dennis Kucinich served as a US representative from Ohio, from 1997 to 2013, losing his seat after the state Democratic Party machine redrew Ohio’s 10th congressional district, a redistricting designed expressly to oust him, although he is a democrat from his seat, which was what happened. He was also the 53rd Mayor of Cleveland. As mayor, he took on the entrenched power of the big banks and business interests, along with a mob which controlled city hall. His anti-corruption campaign, including battling back against the efforts to privatize the city’s municipal electric utility, a scheme that would have jacked up utility rates for the city’s residents, and netted millions in profits for the banks and the privately owned Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. His fearless confrontation with these entrenched centers of power, largely hidden in the shadows, swiftly saw these moneyed interests mount a vicious assault against him, which included a relentless smear campaign, amplified by a press that obsequiously catered to the interests of its big advertisers, a recall vote forcing the city into default and even assassination attempts. He was defeated in the next election. In December 2020, Kucinich filed paperwork to run in the 2021 Cleveland mayoral election, where he is currently leading in the polls. Kucinich, in his new book, “The Division of Light and Power,” looks back on his tenure as mayor and his confrontation with corporate power that today holds most cities and the country hostage. His book, like Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” is a detailed study of the inner workings of power, one that in the wake of the pandemic, is a central reading with the intensified corporate assault done in the name of physical necessity to seize total control of all public assets. Joining me in the first of two discussions about his book and the lessons we must heed to save ourselves from corporate totalitarianism, is Dennis Kucinich. So Dennis, at the beginning of the book, you write people who say, “You can’t fight city hall, don’t know where it is. You have to find it before you can fight it.” Explain.
DK: Well, you know, as I went on to point out, I was the mayor and I fought city hall. City hall existed in the boardrooms of the banks, of the utility monopolies of the local mob. And there are centers of power that are often not understood, which can affect the workings of government. And when I got inside as the mayor, I’d found out that there were interest groups that felt that they had the, almost a peremptory right to make public decisions in their own interest. And except for one thing, except, you know, the people had elected me mayor, and I actually believed that I was the mayor and acted like it.
CH: Well, there’s a great quote in the book. At the end of the book, somebody says, “The problem, Dennis, is that you thought you were Mayor?”
DK: Yeah, well, you know, the idea of the exercise of power on behalf of the people, when it’s done, it will, you know, necessarily threaten various interest groups. And, you know, the people put me in that office. I wasn’t there to represent one interest group or another interest group. I wasn’t some kind of a pawn or a puppet. People were looking for someone who would represent them. That’s what I did. And of course, in doing so, you know, we came into a collision with these powerful economic forces, which had never been told “no” before, at least, not on any matter of great significance.
CH: You open the book, you’re a young city council member. How old were you, like, 20 or something? Insanely young?
DK: Well, when I--when I was first elected to city council, I took office when I was 23 years old.
CH: Okay, 23. And you immediately walk into this room full of--with this appalling cynicism on the part of those people who had been elected on the council, who even they didn’t believe they--that you believed anything you said. Just talk about, first--that first confrontation with that kind of cynicism.
DK: Well, I walked into a city council where most of the people were old enough to be my grandparents. And they were very nice. They were skeptical about how I got there. They could not believe that it was possible for someone to get elected, just knocking on doors and talking to people, which is how I got elected, because their position in the council was often a result of getting campaign funds from various interest groups in Cleveland. So, you know, when I came in, people were saying, “Wow. You know, you’re so young. You could be a big man in this town someday.” And then it was made very clear to me, you want to get along, go along, and vote right. And what does that mean? Well, you know, you’re supposed to vote with the group on these various things, which means giving away this franchise to this group, giving away this concession to another, handing out tax dollars to one group or another. And, you know, and it was made very clear to me that you got to play ball. And so, you know, it would--I didn’t get--I didn’t run for city council to be some kind of a toady. And I certainly, when I got in there, and the--and the--and the system was explained to me, I said, “That’s not why I’m here,” period. That’s just not why, you know, I was elected.
CH: The--you talk about a quid pro quo where the lobbyists are constantly there, offering fancy outings, tickets to games, job opportunities for relatives, that there is a kind of insidious, legalized bribery, it’s not so much, you know, well, folders full of cash. Although, at one point somebody came with a--on an election campaign, you were working on with a suitcase full of cash, which you immediately of course turned down, but talk about that quid pro quo.
DK: Well, yeah, the atmosphere that’s created, the normalization of people giving things to public officials at that point, you know, season tickets to football games, you know, incredible, baseball tickets, tickets to events in the downtown area, get invited to fancy dinners. I mean, everybody wants to be your new best friend. And every interaction is, “Hail, good fellow. Well-met.” You know, the idea is that you’re our guy. And suddenly, you know, you think about this, you come from--every member of council come from a neighborhood and it’s, like, all of a sudden, you’re an important person, people are paying attention to you, people are saying how great you are, and people are giving you things. And it’s like “Wow. You know, what a great system this is.” Not everybody’s thinking about how that’s kind of eating away a little bit at your--at your ability to function on behalf of the people. But I saw that right away and I said well, “Hey, thanks but no thanks.” And, you know, that changes your life. The minute you walk, it’s like Robert Frost’s, you know, poem about the road less traveled. I decided immediately, I wasn’t really equipped for taking the road that said emoluments, and gifts, and campaign money, and all that await you. And it was largesse that you’ve never thought of, as long as your vote right. No. Not for me. I couldn’t do that. It just--that’s not why I was there.
CH: “What these businesses get for a really minimal investment,” you write, “…are especially franchises, which can last 99 years, monopolies.” Explain how that works. The other thing that I thought was interesting is that you talk about how in every council meeting, these lobbyists were there, essentially babysitting you, you know, standing in the back of the room. But what these corporations get is staggering for, you know, pretty much, you know, and certainly out of their multi-million dollar budgets, a very minimal…
DK: Well, the right…
CH: …amount of money.
DK: Chris, the right of utility franchise is vested in the state, and if--and where cities have a municipal charter cities have a home rule right. And in that home rule right, they can grant franchises. Now, what does that mean? They can--they can give someone a license to operate a taxicab system. They can give someone the right to operate an electric utility, a gas utility, telephones, today broadband. You know, to--the city has the power to grant these franchises, and they can be granted for about any period of time you want. In this case, most of the franchises that were granted were for 99 years. Now, a franchise is like a bank charter, it’s a--it’s a way to print money. And when you get a franchise coming with that, in most cases, is monopoly. So, you don’t have--you know, it’s not like franchise are given a competing interest. They’re given though--generally in one group, they have a monopoly. And they become very powerful with that monopoly they can generally name their price for a service and get it. And in Cleveland, what was different in Cleveland is Cleveland had its own municipal electric system that was--that was created at the turn of the 20th Century by Mayor Tom Johnson. And it competed door-to-door at about a third of the city with the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, the private utility. And that’s where the dynamic tension was set up 60 some years before I became mayor. And the competition was there right at the start because see, “Yeah, I didn’t want any competition at all,” Mayor Johnson said. And his philosophy helped guide me. He said, “I believe in public ownership of all public service monopolies, of waterworks, of parks, of an electric system, because if you do not own them, they will, in time, own you. They’ll corrupt your politics, rule your institutions, and finally destroy your leverage.” He had it right, and I understood that and acted in a way that was consistent with what he laid out many years before I became mayor.
CH: So in the book of CEI, this private electric company sets out to destroy the institution of the public utility, Mooney, and you. That’s really it, because you won’t back down and it really escalates to--and which we’ll get into, I mean, all sorts of smear campaigns. And I mean, it’s just awful, throwing the city into default. But let’s talk a little bit about how this private utility worked in order to destroy the public utility. We’ll do that after the break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the corporate assault on public assets with Dennis Kucinich. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the corporate assault on public assets and our democracy with Dennis Kucinich. So, before the break, I was asking what were the tactics? I mean, they block the interconnection from you. And I mean, it was just--it was endless, you know? All sorts of nefarious ways to break this public utility that adversely affected. I mean, you talk in the book about at one point somebody couldn’t pay their electric--their--I guess their electric bill and froze to death in their house, an elderly gentleman. But I mean--so it had human consequences, not that they cared, but talk about the mechanisms they used to destroy this public utility.
DK: Well, you know, you mentioned a human element. I just want to touch on that briefly and then I’ll get into the mechanisms. You know, I read about this in a book where I remember my parents having trouble making ends meet and, you know, counting pennies to pay an electric bill. That experience was burned into my memory. So that when I’ve started to confront this utility monopoly, I realized that all they were about was trying to get people to pay as--you know, as much as they’ll bear and jack up the rates to the sky so that they can just make more money. And, yeah, I’m thinking about my parents and people like them. So, the mechanisms that you discussed--well, let’s start out, first of all, their presence in city council. They’re constantly there surveilling the council to make sure that no legislation interferes with their business. But more than that, they did something else. They work to lobby the council to block repairs to Muny Light’s generators. So, the Muny Light couldn’t make its own power, at which, you know, it’s just inexplicable. And beyond that, when the generators started to fail and the city needed to purchase power, and wanted to get power from outside the city, they blocked the city from doing that. The city then could only buy power from the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. They tripled the cost, so the city’s operating cost would go through the roof. The city--every community needs a backup in case of a power outage. And they stopped Cleveland from being able to connect to the National--to the National Grid. And the next thing they did, is that when the city connected to them for a backup, to the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that any time that--there was many times when the city needed a transfer of power and that CEI offered--operated the power transfer in such a way as to create an outage on the municipal system. So, you’d have 60,000 people without lights suddenly and they wouldn’t understand why, including in a--on holidays, by the way. And the book opens, of course, with the story of a blackout at Christmas time. And it turns out later on that CEI was responsible for creating the blackout. So, blackouts are, kind of, an elite motif of exactly the kind of skullduggery that was going on with this company. And that’s just the opener. They conspire with other utilities to block Muny Light from getting access, to be able to coordinate their operations. I mean, it was--and all of these, by the way, were found to be antitrust violations, which they were--they were called up on by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. And the city, at one point, had filed an antitrust lawsuit and CEI did everything it could to try to scuttle that suit.
CH: It wasn’t just the privatized electric company you had to take on. The city was riddled with corruption, you know, both at the personal level, you found, you know, people fixing parking tickets. But I want to--and what was interesting about the book, and I think it’s a very important book, is that you had to play the role of a good investigative journalist, even though you were on the council or a mayor, to find out what was going on. And at one point, you write about concentrated code enforcement. Explain because that’s endemic to all cities. And explain what you found. I mean was it really amazing and how that works?
DK: Well, if the--if the city was in line to get federal dollars for a program that would create neighborhood improvement. But in order to do that, they need concentrated code enforcement. So, housing inspectors go into a neighborhood and they start to find things that are wrong with somebody’s house and I don’t care where you’re at. You know, if I’m a housing inspector, I’ll find something that needs to be fixed. And so, you know, people would get nailed with citations that would cost them thousands and thousands of dollars to fix up their homes. And they’d go to banks which either wouldn’t give them a loan or there’d be a high interest, and they’d be saddled with this. And these concentrated code enforcements were a--were a way--you know, if it’s--it’s one thing if you want to--if you want to create a fund to give people money to help fix up their homes, that wasn’t happening. You order people to fix up their homes. And if they can’t, they’re going to have to move. So, you know, the--and this was part of a government program, a neighborhood development program. And what I write about in a book is, you know, one of--one part of that program is they wanted to build on a--on a site that was a limestone pit. And no one even looked at it, they were just--they were just intent on saying, “Okay. We’re going to go with this program,” without thinking about the impact on the neighborhood. Now, I want to make sure the housing code’s enforced, but you got to be careful when you start hammering people, you could make it impossible for them to live where they’re living. So, you got to create a balance. One is to make sure that people are keeping up their property. Stick with the absentee landlord who may just, you know, look for a quick investment, be involved in flipping a house, and then getting out of town. But, you know, you--you’ve got to be careful about these concentrated code enforcements and this is part of a larger federal government program. I want to also point out, Chris, that in the book, I talk about the failure of the Urban Renewal Program in Cleveland, which removed thousands of acres of land that--where people lived and actually ended up not having a relocation program that created conditions of congested tenement districts.
CH: This also happened in Chicago, didn’t it?
DK: I believe it did, yeah.
CH: Yeah. I want to talk--throughout the book, you write about the press and the first--you talk about a reporter, Clark, at the TV station. This is just a recurrent. Any time the press attempted to report on this kind of stuff, what happened?
DK: Well, reporters risk their careers. I mean, Steve Clark, who was the top radio drive time host in Cleveland, lost his job after he just simply reported on how the utility rates were escalating. Jim Cox, a top TV reporter, wanted to cover the findings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which exposed the antitrust actions of CEI, when he was suddenly told he couldn’t cover it, he objected. This guy was one of the top reporters at city hall. He was held in disfavor soon and lost his job. Bob Franken, who later on went to CNN, was someone who reported with maybe over a dozen sources that the head of one of the biggest banks was upset with my position on tax abatement because I was opposed to tax abatement, that this individual, Claude Blair, was telling people openly at a meeting that he was not going to renew the city’s credit. He put the Cleveland City into the fault in order to get rid of me. And when Franken reported that with all the sources, he had--the station basically retracted the story and Franken ends up leaving, you know, because it was just ridiculous that they did this retraction. Bob Holden, who was covering utilities, was taken off the beat during a campaign coverage of--where people were voting whether to keep Muny Light or not, because he was told he would not be fair. He hadn’t even written anything during the campaign. And it was a--there he was at The Plain Dealer and--you know, very close to a strike over this where reporters--his fellow reporters became enraged about it. There was--they took their bylines off his stories. They--finally, the management, under pressure from the national media, relented and they’d started to cover what actually was going on with CEI and their history of corruption and their dirty tricks against Muny Light. That was a turning point in our efforts to save the system. So, you know, the media--as I pointed out early in the book, the media was instrumental in helping CEI protect their position. Why? Because they were getting massive advertisement dollars. And CEI had a strategy which--you know, someone put it in my hands to influence the media, influence coverage, to deliver editorials, and have them printed verbatim to guide the news coverage in the metropolitan area. They did that. They controlled the media.
CH: That’s a very important point because, I mean, coming out of The New York Times, I certainly know the power of advertisers. And you don’t want to lose those advertisers. You call Cleveland media the CEI’s paid mouthpiece, and you have innumerable examples. Just in the last minute before we go, we’re going to do a second part of this show, John Lansdale. You had an amazing quote, “World War II had not ended.” He had been a OSS, CIA, quite famous, actually. And he ends up working for the legal firm, Squire, Sanders, & Dempsey, Cleveland’s largest law firm, which works for the private--which works for CEI. “World War II had not ended for the gifted men who guided the investor-owned utility. The new battleground was in every city in town which had a municipally-owned power system. The power of the people, symbolized by Muny Light, was the new enemy which must be defeated at all cost.” I thought that was very important. That mentality of war and who the enemy was was I thought an important insight, just in the last few seconds, explain.
DK: Well, the war hadn’t ended. They--what they did, they took this ideology of the enemy, and put it into the public ownership, became the enemy. And it was--it was an ideological battle and I--there’s no question that there were meetings where they designed each strategies and set forth. And, you know, we were up against some very intelligent people, very gifted people who were in the--in the employee of this utility. And they--you know, they executed what--you know, was an otherwise brilliant strategy to take over municipal electric system. And the fact is, Chris, they did take over many other electric systems. But there was one they didn’t.
CH: Right. Let’s never forget, Dennis, that most of them are killers, or were. That was Dennis Kucinich on his new book, “The Division of Light and Power.” Join me next week when we continue the discussion of this remarkable insight into corporate power.