Winning a losing campaign

Winning a losing campaign
More on Kucinich’s visit:

The gospel according to Kucinich
Candidate exhorts packed Lane Auditorium to realize potential

Also: Check out the Charlottesville Podcasting Network for audio and video.

Dennis Kucinich is a kook, yes, but he is a kook on a mission, rocketing out of the small conference room where he’s been waiting, head cocked to one side with a look of urgency on his face and a sense of nervous purpose in his stride, through the door and down the hall, where he hits the podium and turns to the crowd with a big grin. Some 500 people are here to listen to a presidential candidate who smart money says has no chance of being nominated. And as he grins, as his smile spreads beneath beady black eyes, he doesn’t seem to be even remotely concerned.

Ron Fisher, down from Northern Virginia, clutches a box filled with petitions to get Kucinich on the ballot in Virginia. "I never go anywhere without my ballots," he says.

Before his talk, as Kucinich waits in that room, the lobby slowly fills with volunteers, mostly older and homelier than those for Obama or Clinton, arranging buttons, balloons and free copies of the Constitution. Ron Fisher, tall, stooped and white haired, clutches a box filled with petitions to get Kucinich on the ballot in Virginia. "I never go anywhere without my ballots," he says, eyes wide behind big, square glasses. He’s here from Northern Virginia to support Kucinich, and he does so with remarkable vigor, moving from person to person making introductions. Fisher was in the Navy with John McCain and organized for him in Virginia in 2000. But when the war and the "Bush thing" happened, he moved to the Kucinich camp. "McCain’s a goner," he says. As he talks, he spits in my face a little, and though I ignore it, he notices. "I had a stroke a week ago," he apologizes, "and sometimes my mouth…" He takes my arm and introduces me to another volunteer.

There are no professional handlers or PR flacks in evidence tonight. Instead there are people like Amy Vossbrinck, a round, motherly woman with a kind face and a stack of papers who follows the Congressman patiently. She was moved to work for Kucinich because of a speech he gave in June of 2002 called "Spirit and Stardust." She works as his scheduler, what she calls "the most wonderful job I’ve ever had."

Part of the secret to Kucinich’s appeal is that he is remarkably accepting. He attracts and takes seriously a lot of people who, like Kucinich himself, hold "strange" ideas and hold them passionately. People who are intense, a little off-kilter, who lean in to talk to you and won’t stop talking about whatever it is that makes them angry. People who twitch and shift and kind of STARE when they ask questions about peak oil, 9/11 conspiracy theories or veganism. These people don’t scare Kucinich. He loves them.

But there are a lot of other people here tonight who are not so strange: teachers, local politicians, musicians, carpenters, and many of the faces you see at local peace protests. I ask a 25-year-old woman named Emma—cute, hair pulled back in a ponytail, standing with two friends—why she’s here. "I don’t know much about him, but I hear he’s pretty liberal," she says. Who does she think will win the election? "Edwards," she answers, "or maybe Obama."

And there’s the rub, the sad refrain that follows a candidate like Kucinich wherever he goes. A lot of people like what he pledges to do (impeach Bush and Cheney, set up a Department of Peace, end the war on drugs, repeal the PATRIOT Act); a lot of people like the fact that he seems to say what he means and mean what he says; a lot of people wish Kucinich, or someone like Kucinich, could be president. But very few people are willing to vote for him, because no one thinks he has a chance in hell of winning.

After he is done speaking, Kucinich wanders slowly up the aisle, unattended, shaking hands and smiling like a tourist lost in New York. People smile back and pat him on the shoulder. A woman shakes his hand, saying, "I honor your humanity and your divinity." Another woman hands him a letter she wrote him, grips his arm, and laughs. Vossbrinck waits patiently as Kucinich receives hugs, poses for photos, and sits in close conversation with people who need to talk to him. He gives his time to everyone, despite the fact that he is way late for a party that Mayor Brown invited him to, and there’s still a line of people who paid for a photo opportunity and he’s still got to drive the long, dark highway back to Washington, D.C. tonight, and then its on to the West Coast and then the political circus that is New Hampshire. Vossbrinck waits. As soon as it’s all over, whenever that is, she will sit in the car with him while he works. He’s always working, she says, "he’s a very diligent, diligent person." Her job involves a lot of long nights like this one, but "it’s a very special thing to have a job where you feel you can make the world a better place."

As things wind down, I ask the candidate if he has time for a quick question. He says yes, gently touching my arm. How, I ask, do you stay optimistic running a campaign so few people think can win? He pauses, head down and hand on chin before looking at me intently, his eyes small, dark and hard like a crow’s. He grins a big grin and says, "Because we don’t have a right to be cynical. …If I don’t believe that, what kind of a president would I be? And if I do believe that, think of what kind of a president I can be!"

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