SAN FRANCISCO — It was 7 p.m., well into the killing hours at the Sunnydale Housing Project. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio) had been whisked in the back of a van to the project’s deadliest corner, the boundary between two warring gangs that police believe are responsible for eight or nine murders in the city so far this year.
The Democratic presidential candidate, in a navy pin-striped suit, jumped from the van to greet waiting residents. Two dozen people marching in a circle at the corner, as they do every Friday evening in a rally for peace in their streets, let out whoops of hello as he approached them. “This is great!” Kucinich said, smiling to his ears. He knelt down to hug two little girls who rushed to welcome the first presidential candidate to visit this part of San Francisco in as long as anyone could remember.
Kucinich, the longest of long-shot candidates, was on a two-day campaign swing through California. But Friday night, this neighborhood marked the beginning of a new mission. He was launching his “Other America Tour” here, an effort, he said, to spotlight the poorest, most neglected neighborhoods in the country.
Sunnydale, a square mile of row after row of brick barracks-like buildings where nearly half the families earn less than $15,000 a year, is as poor and neglected as San Francisco gets. People who have lived in the city for decades — in the parts where two-bedroom fixer-upper houses bottom out at $500,000 — often confess they have never seen Sunnydale, and are not even sure how to get there.
“One consequence of poverty is being invisible,” Kucinich said, echoing the words of Michael Harrington’s 1962 book, “The Other America,” which helped launch the war on poverty. “Another is drugs. Another is violence. I’ve said before that poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. We need to disarm it.”
He is not the first Democratic presidential candidate this season to mention “the Other America.” Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), in his stump speech, speaks constantly of “two Americas” (“one for the rich, the other for everyone else”) — and frequently mentions the “Other America” — where 35 million Americans live below the poverty line, 43 million have no health insurance and growing, still uncounted numbers are giving up on finding work.
But Kucinich, often called the “peace candidate” for his opposition to the war in Iraq and for his plan to create a Cabinet-level Department of Peace, said his Other America Tour was simply putting “a sharper focus” on issues he has talked about as a candidate for months.
“I’m from the other America,” he had said in the van on the way to Sunnydale, launching into how he and his six siblings lived in 21 places by the time he was 17, “including a couple of cars.”
“So what I bring to this,” the candidate said, “is the wisdom of a heart that is connected experientially and the knowledge of an integrated system thinker who thinks that there is a direct correlation between political action and desired outcome.”
Kucinich’s appearance at Sunnydale did not get much attention. He had more media around him earlier in the day, when he was at the University of California at Berkeley, vowing to win the Bay Area vote in the March 2 Super Tuesday primary. And Kucinich would have more media attention later in the night, at New College of California in the city, where Sean Penn, the actor, was part of the audience cheering his anti-Bush talk.
In Sunnydale, Kucinich did not give a stump speech. He shook hands and chatted and hugged people.
But it was obvious he was talking to people who believed he believes what he has been saying about “reordering priorities” and making sure everyone in this country has equal access to education, job opportunities, health care and hope.
“I think it takes a lot of courage to do what he is doing,” said Damon Garrison, an urban outreach counselor in the neighborhood who volunteered to work on Kucinich’s campaign. “What he talks about, we want a president to talk about. He has the opportunity to influence the discussions going on in this campaign.”
Garrison went into the corner grocery and liquor store to make a point. He pointed to a bulletin board headlined “the Wall of Shame.” Pinned to the board were photos, taken by a video camera, of people caught shoplifting. Among them were a woman caught stealing a bottle of cooking oil and children caught stealing fruit.
“At first, you think the board is funny,” Garrison said, “then you look at what some people are stealing, and you realize it’s sad. That’s what Dennis is speaking to.”
Kucinich, who has won only one delegate so far, said that regardless of what happens on Super Tuesday, where he faces an uphill battle even in his home state of Ohio, he will stay in the race through the Democratic National Convention in late July.
This Other America Tour, he said, will be a big part of his travels throughout the country in the next several months. “Wherever I go,” he said solemnly, “I’ll go to these places where no one goes.”
02/15/2004 Evelyn Nieves, washingtonpost.com