After work today, I headed out to Dennis Kucinich’s Lakewood district office to see how the demonstration was going. I’d been getting e-mails from MoveOn and HCAN (Health Care for America Now) during the past week, asking people to show up to urge Dennis to vote for the health-care bill. Then last night, I had an e-mail from SPAN (Ohio Single Payer Action Network, recruiting people to come show their support for Dennis and his unwavering backing of single payer.
It’s not a long ride to Dennis’ district, Ohio 10. I can see it from my office window. (Our office, like my house, is in the 11th district). I take Columbus Road across the Cuyahoga River, head up out of the Flats and pick up Detroit just off West 25th, and in a few blocks, I’m in his district and heading west to Lakewood. The gay bars of Ohio City give way to social-services agencies and hulking Max Hayes High School, draped with signs advertising trade classes for adults, and then Gordon Square, a gently gentrifying area that’s home to a lot of small arts groups, galleries, restaurants and shops. It crosses my mind as I pass by its snazzy new streetscape that its councilman Matt Zone — young and energetic and deeply involved in neighborhood restoration and sustainability issues — might not mind being a congressman.
I’m looking at the bus stops in front of the churches — La Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel: Cleveland is a very Catholic town — and it’s 5 p.m. and people seem tired. A man in an Ohio State sweatshirt on a corner, holding a plastic shopping bag, is just standing there. I wonder which of these people have health care, which are working two jobs to pay off bills from when they were sick last year, risking getting sick again.
Past West 78th, it’s a jumble of shabby project-like apartments and small storefront restaurants and groceries. Signs are not only in Spanish but Arabic. And things become more diverse as you cross West 117th into Lakewood. It’s said that more than 60 native languages are spoken at Lakewood High School, the sole public high school serving the large inner-ring suburb with tree-lined streets of single-family homes and duplexes, commercial strips with block after block of storefronts where gift and vintage shops mingle with real-estate offices, appliance repair establishments, pizza and sub shops, middle-eastern and Italian restaurants — and lots and lots of corner bars, many of them sporting shamrocks — and not just because tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. Lakewood is home to a diverse population of Regular People.
Approaching downtown Lakewood, I see a mob of sign-wielding people in front of a small office building on the north side of Detroit Avenue. I pull around the corner, park and walk over. It’s clear there are two separate groups, but there’s no unfriendliness. No one’s belligerent, no one’s mad at Dennis, although there’s some audible frustration. It’s mostly a middle-aged crowd, both blue-collar and middle-class. There are some younger people there too though. I run into an elections activist I met during the 2004 recount. She’s there with her three cute young braces-wearing nieces who look to be about 13 or 14.
The section of the crowd organized by MoveOn and UCAN hold signs urging Dennis to vote for the bill. Some of the slightly larger SPAN group wave signs telling Dennis he’s doing the right thing: Kill the bill! Some of them ... well, this is what’s interesting. As I stop to chat with some people I recognize who are part of the SPAN crowd, they are really not so sure that voting against the bill is the right thing to do. Yes, they want single-payer but ... a significant number of them just want to get started on health-care reform and go from there. They’re kind of hoping Dennis votes FOR the bill. As one said to me, “If we kill the bill, single-payer isn’t going to just happen. We’ve got to take a step — and then the next one, and the next one.” They recognize that SPAN’s strategy hasn’t gotten them any closer to single payer in a decade.
And no one seems quite sure what Dennis is going to do. I stop to say hello to my friend Gary, a lobbyist for HCAN, who works every day trying to persuade congresspersons across Michigan and Ohio to take action on health care. He probably expected to be spending time on the phone with John Boccieri or Zack Space’s office, not standing out in front of Dennis Kucinich’s.
As the demonstration winds down, I find myself talking to Peggi, a longtime acquaintance and a community health-center advocate who is part of the SPAN crowd. But she wants to see this bill passed. It helps the people she serves. If this bill doesn’t pass, she says, it’ll be a long time before we get another chance. (Peggi’s kind of a hero of mine for standing up at a town-hall meeting in 2008 and asking John McCain how his health-care “plan” would serve older workers and those with pre-existing conditions, exposing him as a fool when he had no answer.)
While we’re talking, we’re joined by an older man who seems logical at first but soon is talking about the electric vehicle the military has that travels underground from the east coast to the west coat in two hours, and how there are 47 levels of top security above the president who actually control everything. Luckily, a woman pushing a shopping car full of clippings wanders by and, rifling though them, starts babbling about her civil rights and getting an eviction notice in 1981 and putting in a call to Ronald Reagan to fix things. So Peggi and I excuse ourselves and leave them talking to each other. No — no Dennis Kucinich UFO joke here — sorry. I may find him frustrating, but I take him seriously.
In the end, I think Dennis will vote for the bill. It’s what his constituents want and need. This isn’t a fancy-pants district. People eat pizza (and tabouli and tortillas and spanakopita) and drink in bars with shamrocks in the window. They own storefront heating-and-cooling businesses and comic-book shops and attend the Catholic Church their great-grandfather helped build right after he came over from Poland — unless of course they are mad at “Richard the Closer,” the bishop sent in from Boston to shutter and sell off what the blood and sweat of their forebears made. They’re practical people who know a Roman Catholic church wasn’t built in a day, and there’s no heaven on Earth. And Dennis must know there are at least half a dozen Matt Zones in his district — councilmen, mayors and others — whose willingness to work hard for the possible instead of holding out for the improbable would appeal to voters in Ohio’s 10th congressional district.
I think in the end, Dennis will do the right thing. And even many of Cleveland’s single-payer advocates seem to know what that is.