One Man in Search of a District

How Rep. Kucinich was almost pushed off the map in Ohio.

Christopher Moraff

A burqa-clad Afghan woman and her son walk past U.S. soldiers in a village outside Bagram Air Base, 30 miles north of Kabul.

Update: Rep. Kucinich announced through an email to supporters on Wednesday, September 14 that he will run for reelection in a newly redrawn district in northern Ohio. The new district includes much of the Democratic-leaning areas of his former district. Kucinich is now slated for a primary run next year against incumbent progressive Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, the longest serving woman in the House.

At the start of each decade, the party lucky enough to be in the majority embarks on a partisan exercise that has as much impact on the outcome of future elections as the candidates and voters themselves: It redraws the legislative maps. 

Between now and the 2012 state primary filing deadlines, legislatures in every state in the nation will re-apportion congressional districts to reflect population shifts. The redistricting process isn’t sexy, which is why few people pay any attention to it. That’s a good thing for the party remaking the maps.

But it’s a bad thing for Democrats: Of the 10 states that will lose congressional seats this year, all of them skew Democrat, and six have legislatures in which both houses are controlled by the GOP, according to Gallup. Just ask Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, who for the past 14 years has represented the 10th District in western Cuyahoga County bordering Cleveland. With the GOP firmly in control of Ohio’s statehouse, the progressive Democrat and former mayor of Cleveland may soon be out of a district – and a job. 

Thanks to slow population growth, the Buckeye State will lose two U.S. House seats this year, dropping from 18 to 16 congressional districts. According to Jim Slagle of the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting, the state’s four smallest districts are most vulnerable to consolidation. They include Kucinich’s 10th, the neighboring 11th (represented by Democrat Marcia Fudge) and two Republican districts.

While the new maps have yet to be drawn (the deadline isn’t until February 2012), nobody, least of all Kucinich, thinks the 10th district is safe. Just days after census figures were released in December, he penned a letter to supporters seeking advice on a course of action. In light of the strong chance that my district may be eliminated, my continued presence in Congress, to work for everything we care about, will obviously call for a much different strategy,” the congressman wrote. 

Kucinich declined to be interviewed for this story about what that strategy might be, but in May he told The New York Times: My district appears to be on the block, so I am looking at options, and I am not limiting those options to Ohio.” Beyond retiring or running as a third-party candidate, the congressman has two choices: He can challenge an incumbent Democrat in one of the newly drawn districts, or move to a state that gained seats in 2010 and run there. Eight states will add congressional seats this year, but only three of them, Washington, Nevada and Florida, skew Democrat, according to Gallup. 

Should he choose to stay and fight, chances are he’d have to face off with Fudge – an African American in a district that is more than half black – or Betty Sutton, who holds Sen. Sherrod Brown’s old 13th district seat. Both Sutton and Fudge are considered rank-and-file Democrats who can expect solid party support. 

Kyle Kondik, who served as director of policy for former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray and is now an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, puts his money on a combined 10th and 13th district, and says that under the right circumstances Kucinich could prevail in a run-off. 

But David Cobb, a Green Party activist and former presidential candidate, thinks it would be a mistake for Kucinich to stay in Ohio, where he can expect little support from the Democratic Party. I’ve had conversations with progressive leaders in the Democratic Party as well as those outside the party, and the general consensus is that a deal was cut giving up Kucinich to protect the other Democratic districts,” he says. 

For his part, Kucinich appears to be leaning toward moving to Washington State. He visited the state several times this year, including on August 20, when he spoke at a hemp rally in Seattle. If he runs in Washington – he has until next May to formally declare – Kucinich would again find himself bucking a Democratic establishment that has indicated it doesn’t want him around. It is inappropriate for a sitting congressman from Cleveland to try to run for Congress in Washington,” Dwight Pelz, chairman of the Washington State Democrats, said in July.

Whatever Kucinich decides, it’s about to get harder to be elected to Congress as a Democrat in Ohio.

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Christopher Moraff writes about national politics, social justice and culture for a number of publications, including The American Prospect online, Design Bureau and The Philadelphia Tribune. His columns appear weekly on Philadelphia magazine’s blog The Philly Post. Moraff, who lives in Philadelphia, is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors.
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