Ohio's congressional map turns Democrats into foes

October 7, 2011 - 10:20 AM

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's new congressional district map has thrust Reps. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich, two veteran Democratic politicians who call themselves friends, into an awkward primary faceoff that both sides expect to be hard-fought. Already, the veneer of collegiality is beginning to fade.

Kaptur is casting herself as a workhorse who has risen to be an influential insider on Capitol Hill. And while not well-known nationally, she notes she has gone to bat for Ohio. Kucinich is a quirky two-time presidential candidate with a national following among progressives.

Stuck in the middle are the union leaders and blue collar workers who've backed them both for years.

The new map eliminates two of Ohio's U.S. House seats because of the state's slow population growth. Republicans who redrew the state's congressional boundaries decided to solidify their hold on vulnerable districts and lump Democrats into four of the state's new 16 districts, down from 18.

Whichever party controls a state legislature typically structures redistricting so that incumbents in the majority party are protected and the minority party seats are put at risk.

Redistricting is making rivals of same-party incumbents in other states as well. In Illinois, the Democratic-controlled legislature put Rep. Joe Walsh, a tea party follower, into the same district as fellow Republican and tea party supporter Rep. Randy Hultgren. In North Carolina, Democratic Rep. Brad Miller either will have to run against fellow incumbent Rep. David Price in a primary or run in a district that leans Republican.

In Ohio, Republicans who redrew the congressional boundaries put Kucinich and Kaptur together in a district that hugs the Lake Erie shoreline from Cleveland to Toledo. It's heavily tilted toward Democrats, so whoever emerges from the primary, now scheduled for March, will be a big favorite to win the seat.

The move angered Kaptur, who lost much of the Toledo area she had represented since 1983, but it delighted Kucinich, who was so convinced that he would be drawn out of his Cleveland district that he began shopping for a new one out of state earlier this year. He visited Washington state several times for political events over the summer, making it no secret he was eyeing two open seats out West.

His flirtation with running for Congress from Washington state is already giving Kaptur talking points.

"He was campaigning out there," Kaptur told The Associated Press. "I didn't seek to be a representative from the West Coast or the East Coast, I want to represent Ohio's north coast. And I have been."

Kucinich has been gracious in his comments about Kaptur, but a fund-raising email hints at his line of attack. Referring to Kaptur's work on behalf of Ohio's defense firms and military bases, Kucinich's pitch said, "We aren't going to have Wall Street pay for our campaign. We aren't going to ask the defense industry for a donation."

Kucinich praised Kaptur in an interview.

"I can only say good things about her," the eight-term congressman said. "She has always been kind to me. Obviously it's going to be a vigorous competition and I don't take anything for granted."

Kucinich, 64, is known for his offbeat, brash style and zest for political combat since becoming Cleveland's "boy mayor" at age 31. He's won fans for pushing causes like a "Department of Peace" and fighting to impeach former Vice President Dick Cheney.

He ran for president in 2004 and 2008, saying Democrats weren't doing enough to end the Iraq war and winning the backing of many Hollywood celebrities, including actor Sean Penn. He said during a 2007 presidential debate that he saw an unidentified flying object while visiting the home of actress Shirley MacLaine.

Kaptur, 65, isn't an attention grabber. But she can get fiery, especially when she's talking to autoworkers at one of the many factories that dot northern Ohio. And she's taken on other Democrats, once openly criticizing President Bill Clinton for his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, saying it cost Ohio thousands of jobs.

She said she plans to highlight her "real results" for Ohio. She cited her efforts to get the World War II Memorial built in Washington. As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, she's also steered federal dollars to dozens of solar and infrastructure projects in Ohio.

"There's a little bit of a difference between the two of us," Kaptur said. "I think that I am very involved at the ground level, not so much in the atmospherics."

They agree on most issues, with the most notable exception being abortion. She's against it.

Both have been outspoken against NAFTA — a popular position in their Rust Belt districts, where unemployment is in double digits in some cities.

"Everything, everywhere, it's jobs — jobs and crime," said part-time construction worker and college student Richard Regler, 46, of Lorain, a steel-making city in the newly drawn district, which had a 10 percent unemployment rate in August.

Kucinich and Kaptur haven't faced a close general election in a long time or had to raise much money. Kaptur won her 14th term a year ago by an 18 percent margin, while Kucinich had an 11 percent victory.

They had a cordial meeting recently when both spoke at a labor organization fundraiser. Kaptur said she told him she would run on her record, before adding, "We have to do what we have to do."

What's unknown is how many influential Democrats and donors will pick sides.

Mayors and other lawmakers in the district who are sure to be courted by the two campaigns will be weighing how it could impact their careers before making an endorsement, said Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern.

Cuyahoga County Republican Chairman Rob Frost plans on running against the winner of the primary.

Organized labor leaders say choosing among either Kaptur or Kucinich is kind of like being forced to pick their favorite child. "No matter the outcome they get rid of one of their strongest labor supporters," said David Childers, business manager for the International Brotherhood Of Electrical Workers Local 1194 in Milan.

He admires Kucinich's "fighting spirit" and calls Kaptur "a good friend of labor."

"It does put us in a bind," he said.

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Associated Press writer Thomas J. Sheeran contributed to this report from Elyria.