When the Mob Tried to Whack Dennis Kucinich

In 1977, 31-year-old Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich took a stand against the sale of his city’s publicly owned electric utility. And he almost paid for it with his life.

Dennis Kucinich, dubbed the “boy mayor of Cleveland,” was the youngest executive of a major city in the country. (Getty Images)

Over the last half-century, the American media has made a sport out of ridiculing Cleveland, Ohio. Forbes has listed Cleveland as the country’s most miserable city to live in. The official account for the city of New York recently tweeted, “A gloomy day in New York City is still better than a sunny day in Cleveland,” much to the anger of many Clevelanders. It’s even received the nickname “the Mistake on the Lake.”

It’s not always easy to mount a defense of my hometown. Deindustrialization hit Cleveland hard, and no recovery is in sight. Rates of poverty and violent crime rank among the highest in the country. Indeed, many Clevelanders embrace the local slogan: “Cleveland: You’ve Got to Be Tough.”

Maybe there’s something in that resolute spirit that’s made “the city of light” home to pitched political struggles — perhaps none more important than the 1970s battle over the proposed sale of the city’s publicly owned electric utility, the Cleveland Municipal Light Plant (Muny Light), fought by a progressive young mayor determined to stop it at any cost.

In 1977, the privately owned Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) sought to purchase Muny Light and effectively create a local monopoly. CEI, aligned with powerful banks, stopped at nothing in their attempt to force the city’s hand — including plunging Cleveland into default and even (allegedly) initiating mafia-backed attempts on the newly elected mayor’s life. But for a town already in the grip of a mob war — so violent it was called “Bomb City, USA” — attempted assassinations didn’t seem so out of the ordinary.

Like the saying goes, you really do have to be tough in Cleveland. And in 1977, few were tougher than thirty-one-year-old mayor Dennis Kucinich, who was tough enough not only to survive but to win the fight that nearly got him killed.

Dennis Kucinich is often portrayed as an idealist, peddling utopian visions of peace and harmony disconnected from the realities of the world. In truth, he had a rough childhood living in inner Cleveland.

The Kucinich family moved nearly two dozen times in Dennis’s youth. His father, Frank, was a Teamster, driving a truck to support his family. Still, they struggled to make ends meet. Sometimes they were homeless, with Dennis, the oldest of seven, sleeping on the floor of the family car. The family only survived thanks to assistance from individuals like Teamsters leader Eddie Lee, a longtime local ally of Jimmy Hoffa’s and a man Kucinich told me was “one of the most important people in my life.”

When Cleveland journalist Roldo Bartimole first met the future mayor and congressman, Kucinich was fourteen and already working as a copyboy at the Plain Dealer. Bartimole later went on to cover Kucinich in his first run for Cleveland City Council in 1967, a race that he eventually lost. At the time, Kucinich was a sophomore at Cleveland State University. “He was only twenty!” recalls Bartimole. “He couldn’t even vote at the time. You had to be twenty-one.”

It was in 1969, in his second race for a city council seat, that Kucinich finally won. He was twenty-three.

When he arrived at city hall, he was appalled by Cleveland’s culture of corruption. In his recent memoir, The Division of Light and Power, Kucinich recounts how he was told by an older council member that CEI representatives gave “away Cleveland Indians baseball tickets and also electric appliances,” and that CEI’s man at city hall was Lee Howley, the former law director for the city.

“When I went to council, I thought I won the lottery,” recalls former councilman and county treasurer James Rokakis. “I used to get a pass for all the baseball games. Who controlled their lease? Cleveland City Council. I thought it came with the job.”

During the late 1970s, the main priority for CEI and the banks aligned with the corporation, particularly Cleveland Trust and National City Bank, was the sale of the public utility Muny Light to CEI.

At the time, Muny Light had served the city and many of its residents for the better part of a century since its creation in 1907 under Progressive Era mayor Tom Johnson. Like Johnson, Kucinich saw how public electricity saved money for Clevelanders. Inspired by Johnson’s example, Kucinich fought against Muny Light’s sale from his earliest years on the city council.

CEI’s lead attorney, himself a former city official, put it to Kucinich straight. “The sale is the solution to Cleveland’s problems. We’ll buy it and run it like a business.”

The young councilman wasn’t interested.

CEI tried similar tactics with others on the council. “Someone from my ward approached me on behalf of CEI,” former councilman Rokakis told me. “This guy told me they could get me $500 cash that day to ‘become friends.’ They said they would double or triple the amount if I would commit to a vote to sell Muny Light to them. I told him, ‘No, thanks!’ ”

And then, suddenly, the lights started going out across Cleveland.

Kucinich and his allies had begun to suspect that CEI was causing these periodic blackouts in an effort to build support for the sale. Indeed, in 1977, as CEI became involved in the development of a power plant in nearby Perry, a government regulatory commission confirmed that CEI had in fact ensured the blackouts by denying Muny Light access to the existing national grid.

Their goal was to drum up as much resentment as possible, hoping to force the council into supporting its sale. Instead, they ended up launching a citywide war.

In 1971, Councilman Kucinich, ever the iconoclast, supported Republican Ralph Perk in his mayoral bid against Arnold Pinkney after Perk gave Kucinich his word that he wouldn’t sell Muny Light. To the shock of many, Perk won in a solidly Democratic city.

While in office, though, Perk switched his position on the sale. In September 1976, the mayor, with the support of several council members, including city council president George Forbes, and the endorsement of the Plain Dealer, which had become increasingly reliant on CEI advertising dollars, finally agreed to sell the public power firm to CEI for $158 million.

“We could never get [Muny Light] extended to my ward. So I figured, what the hell? Let’s sell it to CEI,” Forbes recounted to me.

Perk was going back on his promise to Kucinich — who had crossed the aisle to endorse his bid for mayor. Kucinich was incensed.

“You would hope that decisions affecting the lives of 750,000 people would be the product of careful deliberation. Don’t kid yourself,” Kucinich tells me. “Decisions often go to the highest bidder, and CEI put a lot of money out — for campaigns, for lobbying, for influencing the media. They knew what they were doing.”

With the help of former Muny Light commissioner Warren Hinchee, Kucinich publicly detailed how Muny Light retained far more value than its proposed sale price reflected. In response, Kucinich and others formed the Save Muny Light Committee and generated petitions for local residents to sign.

Things were never the same for Dennis Kucinich.

In 1977, at the age of thirty-one, he ran as an independent mayoral candidate, pledging to save Muny Light, clean up corruption in city hall and the Cleveland police department, oppose tax abatements, and prioritize the interests of poor and working-class Clevelanders. Local business elites unsurprisingly opposed his bid, including M. Brock Weir, head of Cleveland Trust, and Claude Blair, head of National City Bank, who were both intent on assisting CEI with its purchase of Muny Light.

Yet despite a bipartisan coalition of Cleveland elites arrayed against him, Kucinich won a shock election — by fewer than three thousand votes.

From day one, Kucinich didn’t hesitate to buck establishment trends. He appointed an unorthodox cabinet, including a combative United Auto Workers union leader turned political adviser, Bob Weissman, as well as Betty and Tonia Grdina, two sisters who described themselves as “urban guerillas,” as community development director and assistant safety director.

The motley team faced crisis immediately. Just as Kucinich took office, a whopper of a bill landed on his desk. In the 1970s, Cleveland had accrued debt with several local banks, including Cleveland Trust and National City Bank, which held $15 million in short-term bank notes now due. Weir, as head of Cleveland Trust, opposed working with Kucinich to refinance the city’s debts unless Kucinich could work out a deal with Cleveland City Council to sell Muny Light.

The situation culminated in a showdown that attracted reporters from around the world to potentially witness the first major city in the United States to go into default since the Great Depression.

Weir’s staunch opposition to refinancing city debt, however, was never about the debt itself. The amount owed by the city remained marginal to Cleveland Trust’s operations. Rather, the bank — along with several others — was intimately tied to CEI through interlocking corporate directorates.

A congressional hearing in 1978 found that local banks involved in the impending default shared an astounding eight directors with CEI, in addition to “179 common directorships with 40 Cleveland corporations.” With CEI and Cleveland Trust, it didn’t stop there, though. Two former city employees under Kucinich, Dan Marschall and James Harkins Jr, also uncovered how Cleveland Trust held over $27 million of CEI securities and nearly 784,000 shares of CEI stock, while managing $70 million of CEI’s $130 million pension funds.

Although CEI and Cleveland Trust were two different organizations in name, they both stood to gain immensely if the Muny Light sale went through. To ensure that, they would have to go to war with Mayor Kucinich.

Soon Kucinich realized that he was risking far more than his political career. He was risking his life.

In the 1970s, Cleveland gained another moniker: “Bomb City, USA.” Dozens of deadly explosions went off across the city — mostly attached to vehicles.

The war involved Irish American racketeers led by mobster Danny Greene and the Cleveland branch of Cosa Nostra, the infamous Sicilian American mafia.

It began when mob boss John Scalish died suddenly in 1976, leaving behind a power vacuum filled by violent men willing to do whatever it took to take his place. With the Italian mafia now hampered by deadly infighting, Greene, the former president of the International Longshoremen’s Association in Cleveland, saw an opportunity to seize control.

Greene had served as a union leader until he was indicted for charges including embezzlement. Along the way, he had mingled with mafia members throughout the city. After his falling out with the union, he began to work as muscle for mob boss Shondor Birns.

Greene eventually asked Birns for a loan to establish an after-hours gambling house. Birns agreed but required one of his other men to work with Greene on the project. As it happened, Birns’s other man lost the money in a cocaine deal designed to bring in more funds to supplement the initial loan. Birns demanded Greene pay back the cash, but he refused. And with that, the war began.

Greene teamed up with former underboss John Nardi and seized control of mafia-linked activities across Cleveland. It was their partnership that was seemingly behind the murders of several high-ranking members and friends of the Italian mafia, including Birns himself in 1975 and underboss Leo Moceri in 1976.

In response, the mafia — now back on their feet and led by James Licavoli — sought to oust Greene in a bombing of their own.

First, Nardi was killed in a car bomb that went off outside a Teamsters local headquarters in the spring of 1977. According to Rick Porrello’s To Kill the Irishman, his final words were, “It didn’t hurt,” uttered as he was pulled away from the wreckage, both his legs blown off.

Nardi’s partner, Greene, had better luck. Greene managed to escape several hits, leading in part to the still-existing mythology surrounding the charmed Irishman. According to Councilman Michael Polensek, “If you didn’t do business with him, you would love him. You can’t say anything bad about Danny Greene to some people. He would give away turkeys and food. He gave out movie tickets to kids.”

But it wasn’t just luck that made Greene so fortunate — it was his friends in high places. Greene, it turns out, was an FBI informant. Cleveland attorney James R. Harris, who defended mob boss Licavoli and other mafia figures, described Greene to me as “a sort of Whitey Bulger,” who talked with the FBI and secured the ability to commit crimes of his own with the promise of impunity.

Indeed, Greene often spoke with local reporters on live television, publicly goading mafia members to come down to his neighborhood if they really wanted to kill him. The mob finally succeeded, but only after hiring an assassin from out of town who managed to take down the Irishman while on a trip to the dentist by placing a bomb in the car next to Greene’s.

It was this war, and all the snipers, bomb planters, and hit men it employed, that would soon turn its attention to Cleveland’s young, left-wing mayor.

When it came to the mafia, Kucinich’s predecessor, Perk, wasn’t exactly a law-and-order type. If anything, he seemed friendly with them. Perk tapped mafioso Tony Liberatore to sit on the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District board, which awarded contracts to businesses, many of which were alleged to be organized crime fronts. He also employed local mobster Ronald Bey as a caseworker for a correctional workhouse. In September 1973, two Plain Dealer reporters uncovered that, for the eleven months Perk’s administration employed him, Bey rarely showed up to the facility. Workhouse officials said they were instructed by the mayor’s office to fill out his time card regardless.

Kucinich refused to continue business as usual.

He demanded that the city renegotiate contracts that mafia members controlled, like trash collection and sewage cleaning. He also told a friend of the mafia who visited him at city hall shortly after taking office that, unlike his predecessor, he wouldn’t look the other way when it came to their activities.

Now, with their operations drastically curtailed and their no-show jobs disappearing, it was time for the mob to target the man responsible.

In one of the first attempts on his life that we know about, an individual fired a shot into Kucinich’s home. The bullet missed him by inches. In another instance, a Cleveland police officer chased away but failed to capture an armed suspect lurking outside his house.

Investigators soon unraveled another plan to shoot Kucinich while he ate breakfast at his favorite diner. After that, he was forced to wear a bulletproof vest whenever he went out in public, most notably donning the item at a Cleveland Indians baseball game while he threw out the first pitch.

But even with the attempts on his life, Kucinich wouldn’t back down.

As he put it to me, “I grew up in the streets of the city. What is somebody gonna tell me they’re gonna do to me? I don’t care. I can’t be threatened. I can’t be intimidated.”

In the end, Kucinich says former Cleveland police chief Ed Kovacic told him point blank that the hit placed on him wasn’t the result of renegotiated city contracts — it stemmed from his refusal to sell Muny Light to CEI. It seems the chaos of a citywide mob war provided the legitimate interests behind the sale of the public utility with the perfect smoke screen to take Kucinich out for good.

The now seventy-five-year-old political veteran described to me this conversation with Kovacic in vivid detail. “I’m asking, ‘What’s going on here? Why’s this happening?’ He tells me, ‘You’re stopping some people from making a lot of money.’ ”

Backing up the account, in 2007, Kovacic told James Renner at the Cleveland Free Times that Licavoli, the Italian mob boss at the time, had “said it had something to do with the electric company.”

I asked Kucinich if he ever confirmed the connection between all of them.

“Oh, let’s say I had an inkling,” he said.

Kucinich was clearly not willing to look the other way on mafia-related activities, which would certainly have aggravated them. Yet the link between CEI, the banks, and the Italian mafia has never been confirmed.

“I wouldn’t doubt [the connection] one iota. Kucinich was a marked man. There was lots of shady shit that went on in this town,” Polensek tells me.

With the city of Cleveland on the verge of default, not to mention the attempts on his life, the pressure was on Kucinich to make some kind of deal. But despite coming up with several plans to appease the banks and pay back existing debts, the Cleveland Trust chairman still refused to negotiate with him unless he sold Muny Light.

Kucinich wouldn’t budge.

Mayor Kucinich and city council members spent the last hours on the last day before impending default denouncing one another on live television during a late-night council meeting.

For his part, Kucinich made a final prophetic statement just minutes before midnight:

Mr Chairman and Members of Council, ultimately the history of Cleveland will reveal that Cleveland Trust and CEI and some members of this City Council brought shame to this city and besmirched its history. But it will also show that there were people who recognized wrong when they saw it and condemned it for what it was.

At 12 AM on December 15, 1978, Cleveland failed to pay the banks, entering default — the first major American city in decades to do so.

On the morning of the default, Cleveland’s municipal services were still up and running — fire, police, trash collection. Despite having physically tagged city vehicles months earlier in a sign of a potential repossession, the banks did not immediately move to take city property.

Over at Cleveland Trust, though, Kucinich and his wife, Sandy, removed their life savings. And in a heartbreaking event across town, Perry Kucinich, Dennis’s brother who was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, robbed a local bank to help the city with its finances, creating another point of inquiry for reporters.

But alongside stories of Kucinich’s family, the press finally began to publish stories on the relationship between CEI and Cleveland Trust, at long last illustrating the close links between the two. In response, council members and the banking community blatantly lied, claiming they never tied the city’s default to the sale of Muny Light — despite explicitly demanding the sale for years. Some even did so publicly, including former council member Basil Russo, who called for the sale on live television the very evening before the default.

A Kucinich administration sign proclaiming “Power to the People: Muny Light” is vandalized with the words “For Sale.”

“It was all political,” says Rokakis. “Everything was about the corporate power structure deciding they were willing to put a city under water to get Dennis.”

I asked Kucinich what was behind this bizarre attempt to pretend no demand for a sale had ever taken place. “They were concerned about criminal prosecution — as well they should have been. In a just world, Brock Weir would have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, he got a golden parachute. This is the way the system works.”

Even after the default, the pressure to sell Muny Light was still strong. Exhausted, Kucinich asked City Council to put the question to a popular vote: Should the city sell Muny Light to CEI or not?

Council president Forbes agreed to the referendum just two months after the default. In response, Kucinich notes how Cleveland Trust purchased a whopping 92,000 more shares of CEI stock following the referendum’s announcement — betting they were going to win.

With only weeks to work, Kucinich and his team once again went into full campaign mode, this time enlisting the support of consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader. Nader assisted Kucinich in the design of the campaign, as well as generating national attention for the upcoming referendum.

On February 27, 1979, Clevelanders shocked the local power elite by overwhelmingly voting to keep Muny Light by a vote of nearly two to one.

Finally, the matter was decided — by Clevelanders themselves, not bankers and power brokers. After a campaign of intimidation, Kucinich and Cleveland residents had saved public utilities from private interests.

Kucinich had won — but it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory.

In the 1979 mayoral election, businesses flocked to the campaign of Republican George Voinovich. And worse, many Cleveland residents grew weary of the unorthodox personalities on Kucinich’s team.

As one door-to-door campaign worker for Kucinich put it: “If I hear one more person mention Weissman and Betty [Grdina], I think I’ll throw up,” referring to two of Kucinich’s most controversial cabinet members. “They still like Dennis, but they won’t vote for him because of Bob and Betty.”

Voinovich won the race with 56 percent of the vote. After only two years in power, Kucinich was gone.

When Voinovich came to city hall, everything seemed to settle. Councilman Polensek, for one, remembers how the hostile situation involving the banks and City Hall vanished almost immediately.

“When George Voinovich became mayor, it all disappeared. Why? It reinforced what we all know. The default was man-made in bringing down the mayor. It was a vendetta against [Kucinich]. It was like a mob story. They were acting like they were gangsters.”

He, too, remains enraged by the behavior of the banks.

“They almost destroyed this city financially! They didn’t care about the people. . . . It was a ridiculous sum, and they brought this city to its knees.”

Kucinich’s political death knell had seemingly rung — but the fallout extended far beyond his own career. Amid the mergers and acquisitions of the late twentieth century, Cleveland Trust and National City Bank were both bought out. The once-thriving city continued to lose population and is no longer the national banking hub it once was.

Several mafia members in those late-1970s wars also found their way to prison, including Licavoli, who died there in 1985. In its ensuing disarray, Cosa Nostra entered the drug business and suffered a widespread FBI takedown not long after, greatly reducing their influence in the city.

Facing a similar fate as Licavoli, mob boss Angelo Lonardo decided to turn state’s evidence and went into a witness protection program. But there were no operations left to give up in Cleveland. As a result, Lonardo turned on New York’s Gambino crime family and the entirety of its national operations. He became the highest-ranking mafia member to break the omertà code of silence and served as Rudy Giuliani’s star witness while he was a prosecutor in New York City, sparking Giuliani’s own political rise.

The mob violence in Cleveland had ended, but only after decades of political corruption, racketeering, and murder.

To this day, both Muny Light and CEI persist. Muny Light is now Cleveland Public Power (CPP), and it continues to operate throughout the city. CEI renamed itself the Illuminating Company and is currently owned by parent company FirstEnergy, the namesake for the Cleveland Browns stadium. Its criminality, however, has only changed in form.

Kucinich on the campaign trail seeking a second term, 1979. He won the fight against CEI — when Clevelanders voted overwhelmingly to keep Muny Light in the hands of the city — but in doing so lost the fight for reelection.

FirstEnergy has recently been implicated in Ohio’s largest bribery scandal ever. The company has been accused of providing $60 million to a nonprofit, knowing that the funding would find its way into Ohio GOP campaigns. In return, FirstEnergy requested a public bailout for two nuclear power plants. With the passage of Ohio House Bill 6 in October 2019, FirstEnergy got its bailout, but the arrangement has begun to unravel.

Amid an FBI investigation, the corporation fired CEO Chuck Jones. In October 2020, two individuals connected to the affair, a lobbyist and a political strategist, pled guilty to racketeering charges. In March 2021, another lobbyist charged in the scandal committed suicide.

Finally, in July 2021, FirstEnergy entered into a deferred prosecution agreement, agreeing to pay more than $230 million in criminal penalties. It also issued a statement admitting wrongdoing, writing that they had “used the 501(c)(4) corporate form as a mechanism to conceal payments for the benefit of public officials and in return for official action.”

“Two generations later, and the same fucking corrupt utilities are doing it again,” says Rokakis.

Amid his renewed recognition, Kucinich returned to Cleveland and successfully ran for a congressional seat before his district was mangled in gerrymandering efforts. He ran in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary race, too, putting many of the same ideas on the public agenda that Bernie Sanders would later turn into a national phenomenon. He objected to the North American Free Trade Agreement, supported single-payer health care, rejected the war in Iraq, and proposed a Department of Peace.

Yet today Kucinich is remembered by many as little more than a quirky oddball. Many forget — or don’t even know — about his early political battles with the mafia and the banks. Talking to Dennis now, it’s clear that recognition never mattered much for him. Winning did.