Kucinich had lunch in the basement of a West Toledo Mexican restaurant Monday with some Latino leaders, seeking their support. Kucinich was accompanied by former Toledo Public Schools board member Robert Torres, now an economic development consultant in Cleveland, and Lorain native Richard Romero. The luncheon group included Lourdes Santiago, newly appointed director of Toledo’s Dept. of Neighborhoods; Gary Johnson, business owner and vice chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party; Hernan Vásquez, business owner and board member of the Northwest Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as well as about a half-dozen other prominent Toledo Latinos.
While the two veteran Democrats are well-known for their liberal stances on issues, the pair is starting to emphasize their political differences on recent votes—particularly on immigration. While Kucinich voted “yes” with many fellow Democrats in the U.S. House on the DREAM Act, Ms. Kaptur surprised many in her own party by casting a “no” vote on the legislation.
“I think Latinos are very important citizens to the future of America,” said Kucinich, as he switched back-and-forth between English and fluent Spanish to emphasize his point.
“Every group should be treated fairly,” countered Ms. Kaptur. “No one should be given special privilege and no one should be singled out and targeted.”
The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) would have provided conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the U.S. as minors, and lived state-side for five continuous years. Others having served in the military or attended an American college or university, each for two years, would qualify for temporary residency for a six-year period. Some studies cited such amnesty as generating new tax revenue and reduced federal deficits as a result of the legislation.
“My role, as a member of Congress, is to bring people together,” said Kucinich. “It has always been to reach to diverse groups, some of which would be at the margins of society, and some of which need more recognition. It’s time to say let’s work together, united.”
The Democratic congressman pointed out that as a Cleveland city councilman, he fought for the Miranda rights that police read to suspects to be printed in Spanish, so immigrants knew what they were facing. He stated he wanted police who were “sensitive to the fact that there is a language barrier.” Kucinich also stated he led an effort in the Ohio Senate in 1995 against a bill that would have declared the state as an English-only zone. His argument: the need to “protect the language, the culture, the literature, the dance—every aspect of the Latino culture.”
“My support of the DREAM Act is based on a heartfelt commitment to the Latino community, to the rights of immigrants, to human rights, to the possibility that children will be able to get an education, to stopping policies that separate families,” said Kucinich.
The congressman explained his stance as one that should keep US-America as a welcoming place for immigrants, just as generations before them were able to enter the country. He likened current immigration policy to a sign saying they are unwelcome. He stated the future of the U.S., economically and otherwise, depends on it.
“I fought for immigration policies for Amistad (friendship), to give people a chance to be able to live the dream of a full participation in our American society,” Kucinich said. “We all are families of immigrants.”
The congressman explained the DREAM Act goes hand-in-hand with the concerns of many of his constituents, especially education and economic development. He also pointed out he was “fully engaged,” actively working to convince other congressmen to vote for the legislation, because he “understands the deeper meaning of this” bill.
“But what happens if a child can’t get the education because they’re barred from being able to get the educational benefits because the law says no, you can’t have those benefits because your parents aren’t fully documented?” Kucinich wondered aloud.
“What is going on in this society when we make children pay a price and then society-at-large pays a price? So the DREAM Act becomes a vehicle by which people are able to move to full participation in society, to realize their potential, to become productive members of the society, help grow this economy, and to make their families proud. Our young people, owe that to them.”
Kucinich even pledged to actively challenge Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who has vowed to veto the DREAM Act, if he wins his bid for the White House.
“I’m the one who will take the challenge to Mr. Romney, as a member of Congress, and also to appeal to him not to follow up on this promise that he has made,” said Kucinich. “Because he has to understand there are tens of millions of Americans who are affected by this. These are solid Americans. These are Americans who have connections in this country going back generations. What are we doing? Why are we pitting people against each other?”
Ms. Kaptur, on the other hand, took a much more measured approach to the DREAM Act while explaining her stance on immigration overall. But she quickly pointed out she went to Ward 14 in Cleveland over the three-day weekend, which she stated is about half Latino.
“I think as time goes on, people will realize that what this country needs is comprehensive immigration reform,” said Ms. Kaptur. “No one group targeted, no one group subjected to more investigation than any other group. I think people will respect my vote.”
The congresswoman made reference to the recent immigration controversy involving the owner of Wei-Wei Noodles in the Reynolds Corners neighborhood of South Toledo.
“He’s not Hispanic. There are Asians, Arab-Americans, there are East Europeans, there are Africans, and there are Latinos who have issues with the immigration service,” she said. “My basic view is this is a community that doesn’t build walls. We should be building bridges.”
But Ms. Kaptur’s stance has clearly angered some local Latinos. Some of those attending the lunch with Kucinich were staunch Kaptur supporters in the past, including members of the Lucas County Latino Democratic Caucus. But the congresswoman was clear in her belief that it will take a bipartisan effort to solve the immigration problem and the dilemmas of undocumented Americans.
“We don’t need any more piecemeal efforts. We don’t need any more political efforts,” said Ms. Kaptur. “We need to treat the American people with more respect.”
The two congressional representatives also attended a Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing last week on the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in the western part of the district, long considered home turf for Ms. Kaptur. Kucinich– a long-time consumer advocate and opponent of plant operator FirstEnergy– proposes to close the troubled nuclear power station, while Ms. Kaptur wants to keep Davis-Besse open, but under close NRC supervision.
The two incumbents have tentatively agreed to debate each other next month in Sandusky, along with a third Democratic candidate for Congress, Cleveland video production company operator Graham Veysey. The debate, to be hosted by the Sandusky Register, is tentatively set for 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 23. A location has not yet been announced.
The two long-time legislators each even intend to open campaign offices in Lorain, as they court a large bloc of Democratic voters. That city is seen as a strategic location to reach potential supporters in the western suburbs of Cleveland. The two candidates have enjoyed tremendous union support, so leaders of organized labor groups may have a tough decision on whom to back.
Kucinich is expected to focus on his career as a liberal crusader during his eight terms in Congress, while Kaptur will talk about her seniority and close ties to the district. Both Democrats are 65 years old.
“I think there are many people in Toledo who are familiar with me,” said Kucinich, who pointed out he made some “unannounced” campaign visits in the Glass City during the past few weeks.
Kucinich, also a former Cleveland mayor, has achieved the national spotlight on occasion, outspoken in his efforts to cut funding on what he called “immoral wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan and his two unsuccessful runs for president. He has even proposed a Cabinet-level Department of Peace. The congressman pointed out he has proposed legislation for universal healthcare.
“(I am) someone who is not afraid to stand up and speak out and challenge a system that is working against people,” he said. “I understand the kind of challenges that people in Toledo have. They want jobs. They want healthcare. They want education for their children. They want retirement security and economic development.”
Ms. Kaptur, meantime, is known for her seat on the powerful House Appropriations committee, as well as her ability to “bring home the bacon,” which some critics decry as pork-barrel politics. Over her 11 terms in Congress, she has secured more than $1.1 billion in federal funds for projects in her district, including a new Lucas County Veterans center, and the Glass City Veterans Memorial Skyway bridge, the largest project in state transportation department history.
The pair is expected to wage a relatively clean, if not expensive, campaign. Kucinich and Ms. Kaptur each stated they intend to run on their individual records, while trying to maintain their friendship beyond the campaign trail. Ms. Kaptur even introduced her congressional colleague at the MLK Unity Day celebration when she took the podium to speak. Kucinich did not make any remarks at the event.
“It is incumbent upon me to tell people who I am, not to try to characterize another candidate,” he said. “I think what people are fed up about politics is the attempts to disparage another person without regard to the sensibilities of the electorate, which really wants to know what are you going to do? Both of us have a responsibility to proceed in a way that respects the voters and respects our friendship.”
“I think, so far, we’re both running on our positions,” said Ms. Kaptur. “I’m trying very hard across the coast to show effectiveness and caring representation, representation that has real results. He’ll campaign on whatever he believes is important. I think we have a great record to show and a lot of seniority at stake.”
Political experts have speculated the Kaptur-Kucinich race could be an expensive primary, with as much as $3 million raised and spent. Ms. Kaptur already is running radio ads in the Lorain area. But both candidates suggested they will cover the five-county area (Lucas, Ottawa, Erie, Lorain, and Cuyahoga) quite often over the next six weeks.
“There will be a well-worn path up and down (Interstate) 90,” joked Kucinich. “I know how to get to Toledo. I really don’t need a map to get here.”
“I think we need an RV. I think we need a bunk. I think we need restroom facilities to be able to move in all these communities,” Ms. Kaptur joked. “It’s a very odd map.”
The congresswoman pointed out that the district’s population is split roughly into thirds: 30 percent in Cuyahoga County, 34 percent in Lorain and Erie counties, and 36 percent in Ottawa and Lucas counties.
The Ninth District congressional map went through a couple of changes before a final version was crafted in a compromise that was approved by the Ohio General Assembly last month. That final map restored much of Toledo to Ms. Kaptur’s district, which political experts maintain gives her a distinct advantage in the primary race.
However, Ms. Kaptur still has expressed dissatisfaction with the final map, because it splits Toledo and Lucas County into two congressional districts, the western part of the Glass City and suburbs now belonging to Republican Fifth District Congressman Bob Latta.