Friday, January 23, 2015

After 36 years, will Kucinich’s City Hall portrait debut in 2015?

This could be the year that Cleveland corrects a historic snub. Thirty-six years after he left the office, Dennis Kucinich is the only modern Cleveland mayor who doesn’t have a portrait hanging at City Hall.

Now, an official portrait of him is finally finished, and Kucinich says he's pleased.

“I’m very happy to learn about its completion,” Kucinich tells me. “I appreciate all people who made the effort to bring it about. I look forward to seeing it. If it’s posted at City Hall, I will be very glad to attend an unveiling.”

Artist Matthew Hunt completed his portrait of Kucinich as mayor last year (see my earlier story here). Kucinich says he doesn’t want to judge the portrait based on the photograph on my blog.

“I can’t comment about portrait unless I see it,” Kucinich says. “I don’t think it’d be fair to assess its value.” He says he doesn’t know if it’s up to him to approve or disapprove.

That’s significant, because some supporters are pausing to be sure Kucinich really wants the honor.

When a Cleveland mayor leaves office, the business community usually pays for a formal portrait to hang at City Hall. But the city fathers were in no mood to honor Kucinich, the fiery young populist, when his two tumultuous years as mayor ended in 1979.

So Kucinich is missing from the mayor’s Red Room -- where, during press conferences, legendary former mayor Tom Johnson looks over Mayor Frank Jackson’s shoulder. Recent mayors — Mike White, Jane Campbell, George Voinovich — gaze down from other walls.

In 2002, after Kucinich revived his career and was elected to Congress, supporters set out to right the wrong. City councilman Joe Cimperman and John Ryan, then president of the local AFL-CIO, got then-mayor Campbell to agree to accept a portrait.

Cimperman, Ryan and others held a pierogi and kielbasa fundraiser in Tremont with tickets at $20 a person. Kucinich attended; so did Campbell. (Here’s my coverage of the event.) Hunt won a competition to paint the portrait in 2003.

Then the project stalled. First, it took Kucinich three years to meet with Hunt. Finally, in 2006, Hunt spent a morning observing Kucinich in his Lakewood office and ten minutes photographing him. Then the portrait took Hunt eight years to finish, due to health problems, business setbacks and a flooded house.

Now, the portrait waits in Hunt’s Akron home. The artist is unsure whose job it is to accept the portrait and pay him.

Ryan, now an aide to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, says he’ll get it done. Cleveland Jobs With Justice, a nonprofit he founded, is holding the money in an account just for the portrait, and will pay the artist, Ryan says.

“My guess is, what they have to do is see if there’s a way to get the former congressman and mayor to participate, even if they have to hold it off for a couple months,” Ryan says.

“If he just refuses, well, we’re going to put this darn thing up,” Ryan adds. “I think it should be some kind of event. Mayor Kucinich’s term of office was not just about him, but about the whole town.”

Officially, City Hall is ready to take in Kucinich's likeness. “We would welcome the opportunity to place his portrait here in City Hall,” a spokesperson for mayor Jackson told me.

But Cimperman says Jackson and Harriet Applegate, Ryan’s successor at the AFL-CIO, want to make sure that Kucinich is OK with the portrait going up.

Though no one says so, Kucinich’s Cleveland friends seem to wonder if he is ambivalent about the honor. Ryan says Kucinich accepted the portrait effort “reluctantly” in 2002, and that he “disappointed” some supporters by taking years to meet with the artist. Perhaps being enshrined in an establishment institution like City Hall feels odd to Kucinich, the proud maverick.

The worst-case scenario, Cimperman says, is that the portrait will end up displayed somewhere other than City Hall. He hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I’m feeling the need to get the portrait closer to the city, closer to the Red Room, where it deserves to be,” Cimperman says. (Though Cimperman challenged Kucinich in the 2008 Democratic primary for Congress, the two have reconciled since, most publicly at a 2011 benefit for Cleveland Public Theater.)

“Like or dislike, support or not support, history is history,” Cimperman says. “This was a person who served as mayor during a fundamental time in the history of Cleveland. The absence of his portrait is conspicuous.

“I think if people saw it, they would recognize it for being a great piece of art and a missing piece in that portion of our history.”

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