The man who saved Cleveland — and paid the ultimate political price for it — now wants to do the same for Ohio.
Dennis Kucinich, the boy mayor of Cleveland who went on to serve nearly two decades in Congress, is running for governor on a platform of radical change to how the energy industry operates in the state.
“Fresh water and clean water are not negotiable issues,” Kucinich told The Intercept, pointing to the water contamination associated with oil and gas drilling. “They’re not negotiable.”
In a press conference in late January, the Ohio Democratic gubernatorial candidate unveiled one of the most cutting-edge environmental platforms of any candidate in the country. Kucinich called for a total end to oil and gas extraction in the state of Ohio.
To accomplish this, he would deploy a battery of radical policies. He would, for instance, utilize eminent domain to seize control of oil and gas wells throughout the state and then shutter them. He would block all new drilling permits and order a total ban on injection wells.
Kucinich would also deploy the Ohio State Highway Patrol to stop and turn away vehicles that possess fracking waste. Under a Kucinich administration, Ohio would give subsidized health screens to residents living near fracking sites; that data would then be used to file a class-action lawsuit against fracking companies similar to how states took Big Tobacco to court in the ’90s.
The former Ohio member of Congress made his mark in the state’s politics when he was elected mayor of Cleveland at the age of 31, making him the youngest mayor of any major city in America. His tenure was marked by a bitter fight over the city’s electric utility, Cleveland Public Power. A number of banks invested in the utility’s private competitor refused to roll over the city’s debt. This resulted in the city defaulting on its debt, making it the first major city in America to default since the Great Depression. But Kucinich’s battle to save the electric utility paid off for the people of Cleveland — the utility rebounded and continued to offer cheaper power than its private competitor. (His battle with private interests was so fierce that at one point the city’s mafia put out a hit on him when he announced the decision to re-bid private contracts.)
Industry is less than happy about Kucinich’s plan, to say the least.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, which represents a number of oil and gas companies, derided the plan in an interview with The Intercept. “Misguided policies such as these threaten Ohio’s future and would destroy billions of dollars invested in our communities,” the spokesperson said. The organization has promoted an analysis that argues Ohio could lose 400,000 jobs by 2022 if the state enacts a ban on fracking.
Mike Chadsey, a spokesperson for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, was even harsher in an interview with the local media.
“For being the person who touts himself as the candidate for the average guy, he sure is anti-worker and anti-union,” Chadsey said. “These bold and unrealistic statements show how desperate his hopeless campaign is.”
When asked about the economic concerns from the chamber, the candidate was blunt about the tradeoffs. “No one has taken the time to monetize the value of fresh water, but ask the people in Flint about that,” he replied.
It is worth pointing out that Kucinich is not totally ambivalent about employment in the state of Ohio.
He is also campaigning on investments in public works projects — such as spending more money on basic infrastructure and constructing a statewide public broadband network.
In interviews with The Intercept, environmental activists in Ohio and across the country praised Kucinich’s approach.
“We’ve already leased more fossil fuels than we can burn if we hope to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Immediately ending all new production is the type of bold vision that we need,” Friends of the Earth Senior Political Strategist Ben Schreiber told The Intercept. “For too long, Big Oil has been used to benefit Big Oil, and it is past time that it was used to actually help the American people.”
Jamie Henn, strategic communications director for 350.org, told The Intercept that “banning fossil fuel projects and supporting a just transition to 100 percent renewable energy are the new tests for climate leadership in 2018.” He also suggested that the plan could be politically viable among the electorate. “Voters know that our future rests in a clean energy economy that works for all, not a fossil fuel industry that works for the 1 percent,” he said.
Others suggested Kucinich go further. Carl Sterner — a Cincinnati architect who has been active in the 2030 Districts project, which aims to build sustainable urban spaces — said the candidate should do more to directly promote renewable energy.
“I think Kucinich has the right objective,” he said. “Fracking’s dangers to public health and the environment are extensive and well-documented, and the state absolutely should intervene to protect Ohio’s communities. But he needs to think bigger. I would like to hear more about the positive actions he intends to take to promote efficiency and renewable energy and make Ohio a leader in clean energy manufacturing. Ohioans need a positive vision to rally around, and I don’t see this in Kucinich’s environmental platform.”
Sierra Club Ohio stressed to The Intercept that it has not endorsed any candidate and has to consult with its membership before backing any particular plan. However, it was encouraged by Kucinich’s focus.
“Sierra Club Ohio is absolutely concerned about the impact that fracking and frack gas infrastructure pose to Ohio’s communities and public health,” Vicky Mattson, political chair for the organization, told us. “We applaud Kucinich for recognizing those threats, and we hope that everyone running for office in Ohio will include protections for communities from fracking in their platform.”
The organization has created an interactive map charting the routes of major pipelines in Ohio. It notes that these pipelines are within close proximity of over 200 schools, over 150 medical facilities, and three dozen drinking water intake pipes.
Lea Harper, managing director of the Ohio-based FreshWater Accountability Project, conceded that some believe Kucinich’s plan isn’t politically viable, but countered that the expansion of fracking in Ohio is too destructive to ignore.
“People are saying [Kucinich’s plan is] unrealistic, but what’s unrealistic is that fracking is going to continue as it has and it’s going to be OK. It’s about time someone came out to expose the industry for what it’s doing to our environment and to people,” she said.
Kucinich is competing against four other Democrats, including former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray, for the nomination. In interviews conducted with the local press, none of the others joined his call to eliminate fracking and oil drilling. “It is rash. It is naive,” former State Rep. Connie Pillich said. “It will take years and will be marred with legal battles and taxpayers are going to have to pay those legal fees.”
Ted Auch, a Cleveland State University professor who works with the monitoring group FracTracker Alliance, met with Kucinich recently to discuss his proposal. While stressing that his group is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates, he was encouraged by Kucinich’s approach.
He said that most Democrats and Republicans have generally viewed fracking as a means to create jobs and tax revenue, but have ignored environmental and public health costs. “He plans to inject a far more granular discussion or perspective into the debate about fracking in the state of Ohio,” he said of Kucinich’s plan.
The primary is May 8.