Progressive, Or ... More Progressive? Ohio Democrats Choose Candidate For Governor

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 7:58 am

Rich Cordray steps into the Laborers Local 574 hall in central Ohio. The hall is small – a dot of blue voters in the sea of red that is rural Ohio. Cordray was expected to be the unbeatable candidate in Tuesday's Ohio Democratic gubernatorial primary.

The former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has name recognition and Democratic street cred for once being dissed by President Trump.

But then came Dennis Kucinich, the late entry into the race. This former mayor, congressman and presidential candidate is a liberal firebrand — and now there is friction among Ohio Democrats.

In the hall, about 50 people nod and clap as Cordray talks about government working for people, tuition-free community college, and the charter school and payday lending scandals swirling around state Republicans.

But the first question he's asked has nothing to do with any of that. Through much of his career, Rich Cordray had an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association. Dan Giles, a voter from the audience, asks Cordray, what is he going to do about gun violence?

"We have a problem of gun violence in our society. I think any thinking person recognizes that, with the school shootings and the community shootings around the country," says Cordray. "We need to find practical steps that will reduce the violence and save lives."

Cordray supports the Second Amendment, but also universal background checks and bans on bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.

Giles leaves the meeting undecided. "I wanted to get something from the heart and I didn't hear that," he says.

Dennis Kucinich has been dogging Cordray on this issue for months, aided by a YouTube video of Cordray speaking to gun rights advocates in 2010, when he called guns not just a constitutional but a natural right.

Kucinich, in contrast, has an F rating from the NRA. "And I'm proud of it," he says. "It represents the fact that I'm politically independent."

He wants to ban assault-style weapons in a state that has loosened gun laws more than a dozen times. He's now 71, but still looks like the boy-mayor of Cleveland he was 40 years ago. A Baldwin Wallace University poll out less than a week before Election Day shows that 41 percent of Democratic voters still have not made up their mind.

Guns are not his only difference with Cordray. "On fracking, I think it has to be brought to an end," Kucinich says. "He does not. On legalizing marijuana, I think it's long past the time that be done. He does not. On the death penalty, I think it ought to be banned. He does not."

All of that aligns Kucinich with Sen. Bernie Sanders' wing of the Democratic party, but a number of Ohio Democratic insiders fear Kucinich would alienate independent voters who are crucial for a Democratic win in November. Liberal vanguard Sen. Elizabeth Warren is one of Cordray's biggest backers.

Both candidates are progressive, says Sarah Poggione, a political scientist at Ohio University, meaning the biggest difference between them for voters may actually be their personalities. Where Cordray is cerebral and detailed, Kucinich is "more fiery, a little bit less polished in some ways."

And Kucinich has come under attack for his stint as a Fox News analyst, his call for President Obama's impeachment and his visits with Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad — which he says were part of his effort to achieve world peace.

It's unclear how much any of that means to voters in a state struggling with an opioid crisis and uncertain economy. What is clear is that many voters are still looking for clues before Tuesday's election.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Richard Cordray was expected to be unbeatable in tomorrow's Ohio Democratic gubernatorial primary. The former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has high-profile name recognition and support from powerful people in his party. But the late entry into the race of Dennis Kucinich - former mayor, congressman, presidential candidate - has revealed friction among Ohio Democrats. From member station WKSU, M.L. Schultze reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Richard Cordray.

(APPLAUSE)

M.L. SCHULTZE, BYLINE: Rich Cordray steps into the Laborers Local 574 hall in central Ohio. The hall is small - a dot of blue and a sea of red that is rural Ohio. But the meeting is good. About 50 people nod and clap as Cordray talks about government working for people, tuition-free community college, the charter school and payday lending scandals swirling around state Republicans. But the first question he's asked has nothing to do with any of that. Through much of his career, Rich Cordray had an A-plus rating from the NRA. What - Dan Giles wants to know - is he going to do about gun violence?

RICHARD CORDRAY: We have a problem of gun violence in our society. I think any thinking person recognizes that with the school shootings and the community shootings around the country. And we need to find practical steps that will reduce the gun violence and save lives.

SCHULTZE: Cordray supports the Second Amendment but also universal background checks and bans on bump stocks and high capacity magazines. Giles leaves the meeting undecided.

DAN GILES: I wanted to get something from the heart, and I didn't hear that.

SCHULTZE: Dennis Kucinich has been dogging Cordray on this issue for months, aided by a YouTube video of Cordray speaking to gun rights advocates in 2010 - a speech that called guns not just a constitutional right but a natural right. In contrast, Kucinich wants to ban assault-style weapons in a state that has loosened gun laws more than a dozen times.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The multi-grain. Yeah. The seven grain.

DENNIS KUCINICH: Multi-grain. OK...

SCHULTZE: Kucinich stops by the West Side Market in Cleveland to pick up a loaf of vegan bread. A poll completed less than a week before election day shows that 41 percent of Democratic voters still have not made up their mind. Kucinich pulls a lapel pin with a red F from his pocket - his rating from the NRA.

KUCINICH: And I'm proud of it, and it represents the fact that I'm politically independent.

SCHULTZE: Guns are not his only difference with Cordray.

KUCINICH: On fracking, I think it has to be brought to an end. He does not. On legalizing marijuana, I think that it's long past the time that it be done. He does not. On the death penalty, I think it ought to be banned. He does not.

SCHULTZE: All of that aligns him with the Bernie Sanders-wing of the Democratic Party, but a number of Ohio Democratic insiders fear Kucinich would alienate the independent voters who are crucial for a Democratic win in November. Both candidates are progressive, says Sarah Poggione - a political scientist at Ohio University - meaning the biggest difference may be personality. Where Cordray is cerebral and detailed, Kucinich is...

SARAH POGGIONE: More fiery, a little bit less polished in some ways. So I don't know if I see this so much as a split on policy so much as a split on almost the personality of a campaign.

SCHULTZE: There are differences from 2016. Liberal vanguard Senator Elizabeth Warren is one of Cordray's biggest backers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: Wall Street banks hate everything that Rich stands for.

SCHULTZE: Meanwhile, Kucinich has come under attack for his stint as a Fox News analyst, his call for President Obama's impeachment and his visits with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which he says were part of his effort to achieve world peace. Political scientist Poggione says it's unclear how much any of that means to voters in a state struggling with an opioid crisis in a still uncertain economy. What's clear is that many voters are still looking for clues before Tuesday's election. For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRINGBEAN AND THE STALKERS' "STALKIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.