Aug. 22 2007 06:00 AM

Don't let the new-age spirituality fool you--Dennis Kucinich is a man with a plan

Viviendas Estates is not a place for skeptics. The sprawling 14-room Spanish colonial home on the eastern outskirts of Encinitas was until recently the Chopra Center for Living, a facility affiliated with Deepak Chopra, the Indian doctor, author, peacenik and advocate of transcendental meditation, and it retains that vibe. Soothing earth tones are everywhere. It's elegant, dignified and, most of all, earnest.

On the walls hang paintings of people, animals and landscapes that are dramatically lit, ethereal and downright giggle-inducing until you learn that they were painted by Akiane Kramarik, the 13-year-old child prodigy from Idaho whose work is inspired by a visit from God when she was 3. Her representation of God, displayed in one of the rooms, looks a lot like '80s pop star Kenny Loggins.

Viviendas now is a venue for weddings, retreats and whatnot, where, according to its website, 'you can create your own movie, documentary or autobiography. We will film and produce your event. We will interview and film you and your family members while reliving your life experiences in our private estate.'

On Saturday, Aug. 12, the joint was more Chopra than reality retreat, more political than commercial. The entertainment was a mix of spiritual music and protest song, the latter sounding, one would assume unintentionally, like a sort of Bob Roberts in reverse. The occasion was a fund-raiser for Ohio Congressman and second-time Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.

About 300 people attended the $250-per-person event, but some of them paid less than the minimum, said organizer Jeeni Criscenzo, who declined to reveal how much cash the fund-raiser netted. Kucinich will need lots of money if he's going to emerge from the pack of also-ran candidates. Unlike someone such as Sen. Chris Dodd, Kucinich has a genuine identity in the race--the non-equivocating, unabashed liberal populist--but that's not translating to the polls. The former mayor of Cleveland is currently polling at 1 to 2 percent, placing him closer to comedy-relief candidate Mike Gravel than to Sen. Joe Biden, who polls at around 4 percent.

Kucinich might do well to give Elizabeth, his third wife, a starring role in the campaign, especially with male voters. Standing 6 feet tall, with long red hair and huge blue-green eyes, she's supermodel gorgeous. British and 30 years old, in person she comes across as a modern-day Glenda the Good Witch. She doesn't walk so much as she flows, particularly in the floral-print, ankle-length sundress she wore that day. Mrs. Kucinich holds a bachelor's degree in religious studies and theology and a master's in international conflict analysis. In public, she's sweet and friendly. In the heat and brightness of the estate's backyard, she said she wished she could dive into the inviting swimming pool.

The couple met in 2005 while Elizabeth was working at the American Monetary Institute. She accompanied her boss to a meeting with the diminutive congressman, and, according to a story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, she was immediately taken with two items on a shelf in his office: 'an illustration depicting 'light consciousness' and a bust of Gandhi.'

On the campaign trail, Kucinich commands more attention with Elizabeth on his arm than without her. During Sunday's debate in Iowa, camera operators focused their lenses on her several times, including once when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was speaking.

At 10:30 a.m., photographer Angela Carone and I were escorted up a flight of stairs, and before we reached the top, the attendees below, mostly women, erupted in applause. We turned back and were surprised to find that the Kuciniches had appeared out of nowhere and had followed us up the stairs. The interview, it seemed, would begin 10 minutes early. That turned out to be good news--a session scheduled for 15 minutes grew to nearly a half-hour.

On the downside, it robbed me of any last-minute preparation time, and that, in addition to the distressing fact that my Toyota pickup had broken down right around the corner from my destination, in addition to the abnormally hot weather, was causing me to perspire though my blue button-down. I shed my overheating sport coat, set down my camera bag, fished out my recorder and tried to clear my mind of thoughts of engine failure and life without reliable transportation.

'Take your time,' Kucinich said calmly, settling onto a small couch.

I took a seat across from him and asked if he was ready.

'Ten seconds,' he said. It may have been 10 seconds of meditation. Once asked by an interviewer if he meditates, Kucinich, a Roman Catholic who often talks like a Zen Buddhist, said that for him, every waking moment is a meditation.

I gave him about 30 seconds and asked again.

My approach was to take Kucinich through a series of policy areas and have him tell me what America would be like with him as president. I also wanted to know how he would overcome political obstacles in order turn his proposals into law. The first area was wage disparity and taxation.

Before he could begin, a publicist came into the room and said something about helping Elizabeth with 'wardrobe.' Kucinich gave her some instructions and then said to someone, I'm not sure who, 'Your sister's at the other door.'

It was a false start to a conversation with a frazzled reporter, and he took some more time to concentrate--13 seconds, to be exact--before responding. He then spoke for nine minutes straight before I interrupted him.

'It seems like you're taking advantage of the opportunity you don't get in these [TV candidate] forums,' I said.

'What do you mean?' he asked.

'I haven't asked a second question.'

'Well, you essentially asked me what I would be doing--'

'I'm mostly just joking,' I cut in.

'And so I'm just laying it out in a way that I think people would expect a president to be able to do,' he said

'And I appreciate that,' I replied. 'Sorry to interrupt.'

'That's OK,' he said, before continuing his monologue.

In a 2003 story in Mother Jones, writer Charles Bowden said that after two days following Kucinich around during his last presidential bid, 'I've never seen him engage in anything remotely like a conversation.'

While it lacks in two-way give-and-take, an interview with Kucinich doesn't want for bold policies. A Kucinich presidency would be a small-government advocate's nightmare but a dream come true for those who still believe the federal government, in the right hands, can be a force for good in the lives of Americans.

His 24-minute speech at the fundraiser focused on his doctrine of 'strength through peace,' which stresses international diplomacy and cooperation over unilateralism and preemption. He drew applause when he vowed to join the United Nations' Kyoto Protocol climate-change treaty and sign on to a series of anti-weapons-proliferation pacts. The loudest roar of approval came in response to his promise to strike down the USA Patriot Act. Kucinich was against the war in Iraq long before it was fashionable.

But our interview drilled down into his domestic agenda: universal healthcare, massive job-creating infrastructure programs, energy conservation, universal pre-school, taxation favoring the middle class, parity for small-scale farmers and an end to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In fact, canceling NAFTA and pulling out of the World Trade Organization would be the first move he'd make. In their place would be 'a system of trade that's conditioned on workers' rights, human rights and environmental-quality principles.'

No other candidate, he said, would kill NAFTA. 'They'll dance around it. They're dancing around it because they have no intention of doing that, and the truth is unless you cancel NAFTA, you're locked in to a system of trade which will continue the evacuation of jobs out of this country.'

A study called the Economic Mobility Project, released in May, found that between 1974 and 2000, productivity rose 56 percent while wages rose 29 percent, adjusted for inflation. In comparison, between 1947 and 1974, both productivity and income doubled, roughly speaking. Between 2000 and 2005, productivity increased 16 percent and income decreased 2 percent.

'Americans are not benefiting from the productivity increases in the economy,' Kucinich said.

If elected, Kucinich would launch 'a Roosevelt-type Works Progress Administration,' a large-scale project to rebuild roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, libraries and schools. It would put 'millions' of people in jobs that pay union-level wages, he said.

'There's so much work to be done,' he said, 'and one way that you can help stimulate the economy very quickly is to have government actually spend money into circulation through the vehicle of a major public-works program.'

As a companion, Kucinich would also initiate what he calls a 'Works Green Administration,' which he says would put 'millions' more people to work expanding solar- and wind-technology industries and retrofitting homes across the country with sustainable-energy systems. The result, he says, would be lower demand for nonrenewable energy and another economic boost.

Still more jobs would be created through legislation he's already authored--a bill, he said, that would establish 'a universal pre-kindergarten system that would be funded by a 15-percent reduction in the bloated Pentagon budget. Seventy-five billion dollars a year would go into education, significantly for new preschool programs so that children who are 3, 4 and 5 have year-round access to daycare.'

Kucinich's views on policies that affect lower-income families are perhaps informed by his own history. He's the oldest of seven children; his family struggled at times to find affordable housing and sometimes were forced to live in their car.

Not only would his preschool program employ new early-childhood teachers, nurses and administrators, it would also allow those parents who can't hold down jobs because they lack access to reliable, affordable childcare to enter the workforce and contribute to the economy.

'It has a tremendous benefit for the society because it gives our children a chance to get an early start,' Kucinich said. 'And, again, it's doable because the money's there--you just have to start changing priorities.'

Above all else on the domestic front, Kucinich is anxious to tear down America's for-profit healthcare system in favor of a single-payer system.

'A not-for-profit healthcare system is doable,' he said. 'America spends about 16 to 17 percent of our gross domestic product on health spending--$2.2 trillion a year on health spending. Thirty-one cents on the dollar goes for the activities of the for-profit system. We'll take that money that's in the for-profit system, totaling over $600 billion a year and put it in the not-for-profit system, so that all money spent for healthcare is for healthcare delivery.

'This,' he said, 'will then make it possible for those 46 million Americans who have no health insurance and the 50 million Americans additionally who are underinsured to be able to have quality healthcare on par with the best care available. We're already paying for this system; we're just not getting it.'

Gone will be the 'cruel' choices many families have to make, he said, between paying increasing premiums, co-pays and deductibles and paying for other basic needs.

Healthcare, he said, 'is a defining issue. It is the litmus test as to which presidential candidate truly stands with the people.' Other candidates' health plans, which rely on continuation of private insurance 'are doomed to failure because with rising costs and the demand for rising profits in the health-insurance industry, we can never keep pace. People will not get the coverage they need, and you'll end up where we are today and worse.'

Healthcare, preschool, public works and international trade were pieces of Kucinich's monologue. When he brought up NAFTA and its effect on Mexico's economy, I asked him about U.S. agricultural subsidies, which harm Latin American farmers and result in increased emigration. He was more interested in small American farms.

'Look what's happened with the manipulation of corn markets,' he said. 'The small farmers in this country are desperate to try to get their product to market. Family farmers do not have parity. They can't get what they put into their crop, so they're in an endless downward cycle: They borrow money, try to cover their debts, they don't cover their debts, they lose their farm--I mean, this has been going on for decades.'

Big agribusiness, he said, 'drives down the prices and then gets subsidies at the same time. So these markets are always being manipulated. As president, I'll work to break up the monopolies in agriculture and to make sure that the family farm has a chance for a comeback. Any time I've talked to farmers, that's what they're always saying: 'We don't want any handouts. We just want to be able to get a fair price.''

After precisely 14 minutes and 15 seconds, the candidate from Cleveland got around to the 'taxation' part of my initial question.

'We need to move quickly to end the Bush giveaway to people in the top 1 percent,' he said. 'And we need to make sure that our tax system provides for fairness.' In short, Kucinich would focus tax benefits on the middle class and end corporate tax shelters.

He summed up his populist message this way: 'There are people who, no matter how hard they try, cannot get access to what they need in order to survive. For people who can't make it, the government has to be there as a backup--there's just no question about it. So, the economic policies of the Kucinich administration are going to be focused very sharply upon the practical aspirations of the nation--for jobs, for healthcare, for education, for housing.'

It's an awfully idealistic vision of the future, one that would meet resistance on many fronts. Lobbyists for big business and the oil, insurance, big-agriculture and finance industries would be lining up to take their shots at Kucinich, as would anyone who's anti-union or anti-big-government and anyone easily spooked by talk of socialized anything.

Won't there be insurmountable political obstacles, I asked.

'No less than Franklin Roosevelt faced in 1932, when he brought forth the New Deal,' Kucinich responded. 'But he went to the American people and said, 'Give me a Congress that will give you a New Deal. Give me a Congress that will protect your retirement security, that will create jobs, that will help us conserve the environment.' The challenges are a little bit different [now], in terms of the United States' role at home and in the world, but in some ways they're similar with respect to the underlying economic needs of the people.

'When a nominee of the Democratic Party goes to the people and rallies them in the cause of healthcare, education, job creation, people will respond, and this will become a defining purpose of the election. There was one of the biggest Democratic sweeps in 1932. A large percentage of the Congress was turned over as a result of Roosevelt's New Deal. And so I intend to take that driving force into the general election to rally the American people.'

Of course, Kucinich doesn't stand a chance of becoming the nominee. The media anoints front-runners, and that, in large part, drives fund-raising and public opinion, creating a self-fulfilling cycle. The media has chosen Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as the front-runners and has allowed John Edwards to join the top-tier party. Kucinich is relegated to the liberal fringe.

'When people take that so-called political taste test on the Internet, and they check off all the things they want a president to do and they hit the button to see who their candidate is,' Kucinich said, 'people are discovering that I'm their candidate!'

Kucinich is having none of the negativity. As for the media, he said, 'I could say that they've done me a favor because, by minimizing my candidacy from the beginning, they set the stage for a stirring election victory. The truth is, all I have to do is have a pulse in the first primaries and caucuses and they have already set the stage [for]: 'My god, this guy's alive. What's going to happen next?''


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