The stark contrast between Herb Kohl and Dennis Kucinich

Matt Mackowiak Founder, Potomac Strategy Group
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The community of those in politics is just like the rest of the world — it’s a microcosm. We have arrogant crooks, we have pompous jerks, we have humble servants and we have thoughtful leaders.

Two relatively unknown politicians made declarations last week that displayed the best and the worst of American politics.

First, the best.

U.S. Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) represents the ideal that the framers of our Constitution had in mind — citizen-legislators who earn their trade and come to serve in the legislature for a time before returning home to live under the laws that they wrote.

Kohl is an institution in Wisconsin, but not just because of his 23 years of service in the United States Senate.

He is better known for being president of Kohl’s, a Wisconsin-based supermarket chain, and the Milwaukee Bucks, the state’s NBA team, which he purchased in 1985 to ensure the team stayed in Milwaukee.

Sen. Kohl has become very wealthy through this family business, with a personal net worth of over $250 million. But you would not know it by seeing him in person.

Over the four years that I worked in the U.S. Senate, you never heard much from Sen. Kohl. No complaining, no grandstanding, no partisanship. He just quietly but dutifully served on the Senate Appropriations Committee, securing major funding for worthy projects in Wisconsin. He is also currently the chairman of the Senate Committee on Aging.

Sen. Kohl has been generous in his philanthropic endeavors. He donated $25 million to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was the largest single donation in the history of the University of Wisconsin system. In 1990, he started the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation, which as of 2010 has contributed over $7.4 million to Wisconsin high school seniors, teachers and schools for excellence and initiative.

After narrowly winning election in 1988, Sen. Kohl has won reelection each time with at least 58% of the vote. At 76 years old, this year Sen. Kohl had to decide whether to seek reelection. He considered it, kept his own counsel, and even the Senate Democrat who is in charge of Democratic Senate campaigns recently predicted there would be no more Democratic retirements this year.

She was wrong. Sen. Kohl announced his decision Friday, displaying grace, humility and a deep commitment to public service.

His statement, in part, read:

“I have never believed this was my Senate seat. I always knew and understood that it belongs to the people of Wisconsin. At the end of this term, I will have served in this office for 24 years.

“So even though I continue to love this job, I have decided that the time has come to give someone else the opportunity to serve.

“I’ve always believed that it’s better to leave a job a little too early than a little too late. And that’s how I feel today. The interest and energy I have for this job will find a new home at the conclusion of this term.”

Kohl went on to describe the honor of serving in the Senate, his appreciation to the people of Wisconsin, and his gratitude to his staff over the years.

Very few politicians personally thank their staff, but the good ones always do.

In Sen. Kohl, even a cynical person can see in his example that you may do good while also doing well, give back to the community not just through generous personal gifts, but also through honorable and dedicated public service.

Sen. Kohl did one of the hardest things you can do in politics — retire even though you would easily be reelected. But his job is not to be reelected and he understood that.

Contrast that with the worst of American politics.

One Congressman, whose seat is likely to be eliminated after this year’s Census reapportionment, plans to do whatever it takes to remain in Congress.

Congress is not intended to be a ruling class where elites choose themselves and then choose the voters. This is not the House of Lords. The House of Representatives is intended to be a representative body, that is representative of the country, where majority rules.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) survived a recall election and ultimately drove the city of Cleveland into bankruptcy while serving as its mayor. In 1996, he won a seat in Congress.

But even though Rep. Kucinich has had 15 years in Congress, representing Cleveland, it’s not enough for him. He says he will run for Congress from another state, likely that he has never resided in, so he can continue serving in Congress.

Kucinich is a congenital pursuer of office.

He first ran for office at 23 and he’s been doing it with reckless abandon ever since. He has run for city council, municipal court clerk, state senate, mayor, Congress, governor and president. Note that his two runs for president in 2004 and 2008 did not require that he give up his Congressional seat. Perish the thought.

During periods of his life when he has not been in public office, he has been mostly unemployed. He spent nearly ten years on a self-described “quest for meaning” while living quietly in New Mexico.

In January, Rep. Kucinich, who earns $174,000 a year as a member of Congress, sued the House cafeteria, seeking $150,000 in damages. Kucinich claims that he hurt his tooth by biting into an olive pit that was part of a vegetarian sandwich that the cafeteria served him three years ago. That is not a joke.

Politics defines Kucinich’s life and his own self-worth. Politics, not public service.

His home state of Ohio is set to lose two Congressional seats in the Census-mandated reapportionment, and he is expected to be on the losing end of redistricting. Kucinich is toying with the idea of moving to Washington or Maine to run for Congress in 2012 — wherever he can win.

He’ll do anything to remain in power. Forget that notion of representational government that the framers desired in the House.

Kucinich embodies a selfishness and narcissism that you rarely see in life so distinctly.

In American politics, as in life, there are reasons for hope and reasons to cringe. I will choose to focus on the good examples and see honor in public service, in spite of the many examples to the contrary.

Matt Mackowiak is the founder of Potomac Strategy Group and has been an adviser to two U.S. senators, one governor and worked on two winning campaigns. He can be reached at matt@potomacstrategygroup.com.