Few politicians have earned a reputation equally colorful as it is criminal as former Rep Jim Traficant (D-OH), who is expected to be released from prison today. Though seven years may have passed since Traficant was convicted of racketeering, bribery and fraud, among other gems, the area he represented hasn’t changed much since their Congressman was first elected in 1984.
Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, soil soaked with union sweat, Traficant was first elected Mahoning County Sheriff back in 1980. During that time, Traficant endeared himself to his constituents because he “refused to execute foreclosure orders on several unemployed homeowners” who lost their jobs after several steel mills — the area’s bread and butter — closed. In 1983 Traficant was charged with racketeering and accepting bribes from the mob. The former Pittsburgh Steelers player showed he had brawn and brains and represented himself during his trial. His defense? He accepted bribes only as a part of an undercover sting. The result? He was actually acquitted of all charges. Traficant rolled the publicity he received from trial into a successful run for the U.S. Congress. The Democrat beat a three-term Republican and went on to be elected to eight terms after that.
Traficant was a champion for the blue-collar worker and his eccentricities only increased his popularity. Traficant traipsed around Washington in a skinny tie and toupee and frequently gave one-minute speeches that were as short as they were pointed. In a 2001 speech about the meaning of Christmas Traficant quipped:
Reports say students in Minnesota were disciplined for having said “Merry Christmas.” Now if that is not enough to find coal in your athletic supporter, check this out: A school board in Georgia removed the word “Christmas” from their school calendar because the ACLU threatened to sue. Beam me up. If this is religious freedom, I am a fashion model for GQ.
Traficant didn’t just take his sense of humor and fashion sense to jail, he brought along his artistic side. While incarcerated, Traficant began to paint horses and barns. He sent his art to fellow artist Sybille Oelschlager, who auctioned off the paintings on www.beammeupart.com (now defunct) and eBay with the intent to send Traficant the proceeds for art supplies. One painting sold for $2,001. As an inmate, Traficant has not been allowed to profit from his work, but that didn’t stop him from sending some of his art to a local news station in August concluding a handwritten, 16-page letter. In the letter, the politician says little about politics and instead recounts the glory days playing high school football.
Unfortunately for his devoted constituents, Traficant’s criminal activities cut his ninth term short, despite the fact that his course was full of character. In 2002, a federal jury found Traficant guilty of bribery and tax evasion after receiving kickbacks from businessman and employees. The U.S. House expelled him, something that’s only happened once before in the last 150 years. Given his history, it’s not surprising then that this felon ran for another term while incarcerated, nor that he received 15% of the vote.
While some of Youngstown seems mixed about Traficant’s return, overall, residents have been more receptive of their colorful convict than one might think. The minor league baseball team, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, had scheduled a “Traficant Release Night” on September 2 to recognize their Congressman’s homecoming and only cancelled it after “being flooded with calls and e-mails against the idea.” Said General Manager Dave Smith in a press release: “The night was never planned as a celebration of his release, yet it’s obvious that is how it is being perceived….[t]here are likely better venues than a baseball game for the community to share their thoughts and feelings on Jim.”
Really? If it wasn’t a celebration, then what was it? It’s not like they were going to feed him a dog and a beer and throw him back in the slammer. More likely Traficant was going to throw the opening pitch, then kick a few back with Smith himself.
Still, others lack the sensitivity of Manager Smith, like Linda Kovachik, a former aide to Traficant. She spearheaded a $20-a-plate “appreciation dinner” to be held September 6 at a banquet hall in Boardman, near Youngstown. Though she can’t guarantee the former Congressman will actually attend, all 1200 seats are sold out. Apparently the economy is tough in Youngstown, but not so for the 1200 rabid fans of Traficant who are willing to shell out a little cash to support their ex-Congressman-turned ex-con.
The local news has been abuzz about Traficant’s impending release and few stories conclude without mentioning Traficant’s record or mindset of those he represented for so long. “The former congressman will get a hero’s welcome home,” read the tagline of a story a few weeks ago in the Vindicator, Youngstown’s largest newspaper. Radio talk show host and blogger Louie Free blogged on the Vindicator’s website about a conversation he had with a familiar, local businessman. The man told him: “Everyone in government here is on the take. Everyone in office here is corrupt. Jim Traficant does represent the mindset of this area.”
A local official who is one of the few elected conservatives in the area echoed that sentiment, though he preferred to speak anonymously. “[Traficant] is what’s wrong with Youngstown. He’d get out of jail Tuesday and run again Wednesday if they’d let him — and he’d get elected too. He got caught taking money from the mob when he was a sheriff. He said he took money but gave it back and everyone believed it. That’s how stupid we are.”
Technically Traficant could run again — there’s no law on the books that prohibits an ex-con from running for office — and if the past is any sign of the future, he wouldn’t do half-bad. Depending on your view point, that could be funny or frightening.