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Published: Sunday, 2/5/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

The new 9th is a symphony of classic politics

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

Is there a more intriguing congressional election anywhere else in the country this year than the one right here in Ohio's 9th U.S. House District?

For voters in northern Ohio, the stakes in the 9th District race couldn't be higher or the choices clearer. The candidates of both parties are larger than life. The ideas they offer are more than standard partisan cliches.

You don't have to be a political junkie or policy wonk to savor this campaign. To my mind, it's the most important contest on the local ballot in the March 6 primary election, bigger even than our state's stop along the route of the decreasingly competitive Republican presidential marathon.

A self-serving gerrymander by Ohio Republicans redrew the 9th District to hug the Lake Erie coastline from Toledo all the way to Cleveland. Not by accident, the new map is forcing two long-serving, liberal, union-friendly Democratic lawmakers, Marcy Kaptur of Toledo and Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland, to run against each other.

Both also face a primary challenge from an impressive first-time candidate, Cleveland businessman Graham Veysey, who notes that he was born in 1982, the year voters first elected Miss Kaptur to Congress.

The GOP map-makers crammed as many Democratic voters into the 9th District as they could, to make adjacent districts more safely Republican. The winner of the Democratic primary will be the heavy favorite in November.

But don't tell Republican candidate Samuel Wurzelbacher, better known as "Joe the Plumber," that he's anyone's sacrificial lamb. And even then, Mr. Wurzelbacher, of Springfield Township, must first win next month's GOP primary in the district, where he faces opposition from Steven Kraus, an auctioneer from Huron.

The Blade's editorial board has met with 9th District candidates in recent days; we'll offer our recommendations soon in both parties' races. It's instructive to watch the way the candidates present themselves.

Miss Kaptur, the longest-serving woman lawmaker in the House, is the nuts-and-bolts political pragmatist. She notes that she is the second-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, which decides where federal dollars get spent. She methodically ticks off the major projects she has brought to the 9th District, starting in Toledo with the Veterans' Glass City Skyway and working her way east.

"You run on what you've done," she says of her nearly three-decade tenure in Congress. "I have something to show, real results. I've got hard-earned seniority that matters, regionally and district-wide.

"It's not going to get any better" with a different lawmaker representing the district, she says. "Dennis is very good at headlines. What can he show that he's done?"

Mr. Kucinich, twice a Democratic presidential candidate, is the visionary idealist. Words such as "homeostasis" flow easily from his tongue. But he also promotes his ability to work productively with Republican lawmakers whose ideology is far different from his.

"I'm running for this seat because I have made a difference in Congress," says Mr. Kucinich, who joined the House in 1997. "I've been relentless in challenging the status quo. I've been a leader in developing a new industrial policy that will rebuild America.

"I've fought for Cleveland, I'll fight for Toledo," he says. "That's who I am. But I'm not worried about not having an office. If you lose, you lose. It's more important to take a stand."

Since mid-December, when the 9th District's new boundaries became clear, Miss Kaptur and Mr. Kucinich have scrambled to introduce themselves to voters in the parts of the district they don't now represent. Miss Kaptur says she'll have to spend a lot of money -- "way too much," she groans -- on TV and radio commercials in Cleveland's media market.

Last month, Mr. Kucinich attended the University of Toledo's observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, along with Miss Kaptur. At a public meeting in Port Clinton, he challenged executives of FirstEnergy Corp. about problems at the utility's Davis-Besse nuclear power plant -- "Fix it or close it," he demands -- while Miss Kaptur emphasized the jobs the plant provides.

If you're ready for a new face, the 29-year-old Mr. Veysey is pleased to oblige. The owner of a video production company, he calls Representatives Kaptur and Kucinich, both 65 years old, agents of a "broken" political system. He says he offers generational change -- "David versus the two Goliaths."

"Congress is mortgaging my generation's future," he says. "We should have a seat at the table. The only two options are a fresh alternative, or more of the same old same old from two people who have a dated world view and have been politicians for a combined 70 years."

That assessment is too dismissive of the veteran lawmakers' achievements. But Mr. Veysey has ideas worth listening to about turning the Lake Erie region, which he calls the "North Coast," into a new iteration of Silicon Valley.

And if 9th District voters are looking for an even greater contrast to Miss Kaptur and Mr. Kucinich, there's Mr. Wurzelbacher, who famously engaged Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in a debate over tax policy during an Ohio campaign event four years ago. He says he's knocking on doors throughout the district to show voters he's not "a mean old Republican." He quotes Plato as he describes his brand of libertarian populism.

"We need to get the federal government out of the way," he says. "We need to change the tax code with a fair tax, a flat tax. We need to scrap the regulations that are hurting the auto industry."

He adds: "Not all Republicans are rich, dress in three-piece suits, and have $200 haircuts. I'm somebody who's lived from paycheck to paycheck. I'm focusing on my blue-collar roots -- I've worked side by side with union people."

Because of the changes in Ohio's congressional map, Toledo area voters may need to confirm which House district they live in now. If you're still in the 9th District, you have every reason to vote in the primary. You surely can't complain that you haven't been given a real choice.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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