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Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir

Posted: October 27, 2010 10:10 AM

"I want you to disregard all that the opposing council has said," Congressman Jim Traficant told colleagues then sitting in judgment on the House Ethics Committee. "I think they're delusionary. I think they've had something funny for lunch, in their meal. I think they should be handcuffed to a chain-linked fence, flogged. And all of their hearsay evidence should be thrown the hell out. And if they lie again I'm going to go over there and kick them in the crotch."

It was July of 2002, and the Ohio congressman was under indictment and faced expulsion from the House of Representatives. Eight years later, it is Youngstown, Ohio, the depressed steel town he long represented, that is set to give Traficant a solid wallop to the groin.

Expelled from Congress, Traficant went on to serve seven years in federal prison. He's out now, and the one-time Democrat is running for his old seat as an independent. He is speaking at Tea Party rallies, pledging to take care of the IRS -- and, he says, "kick them in the crotch real good."

Upon his release, Traficant jumped right back into Youngstown: hosting an AM radio show, meeting with retirees, and trying to open a casino.

But he's unlikely to get his old seat back. Representative Tim Ryan, a former Traficant aide who has long since distanced himself from his felonious boss, seems like a shoo-in for reelection.

According to the Youngstown's daily newspaper, The Vindicator, Traficant has "lost his political instincts while in the federal penitentiary for seven years and one month. The ex-con is many things -- corrupt, intellectually dishonest, ego maniacal -- but he isn't stupid. So, what's he up to? He knows he won't win the election and he also knows that the Indian casino idea he trotted out again last week is a fairy tale. It could be part of his grand design to secure a huge pay day."

They speculate that he might be after a multi-million dollar movie deal.

The beat up steel city that for many years sent Traficant to Washington has, unlike the former congressman, reformed itself over the past decade. Youngstown, one of the poorest and most violent mid-sized cities in the country, finally has energetic young leadership and a plan to turn the city around after years of decline.

The 2005 election of Mayor Jay Williams, a political independent and the city's first black mayor, broke the Democratic machine's hold on local politics. And he has given hope to a city that under past leadership had consigned itself to socio-economic oblivion. The mayor and a group of civic activists have spearhead Youngstown 2010, a plan to creatively right-size the city: tearing down thousands of abandoned houses for community gardens and diversifying an economy once fatally dependent on steel.

But Jim Traficant still has a link on the Vindicator's homepage -- right below "Weather." And he still retains a base of support in the region, however diminished.

"This is actually a very historic moment in the city," says Phil Kidd, a local activist. "We're seeing the sun go down on an era of Youngstown, and the man who really represented that era trying to make a comeback. This election will be asking the Mahoning Valley, where are we at as a community? Are we moving forward? We didn't know what he was going to do. I'm glad that he's on the ballot, because I want to see some formal closure to this situation."

For his part, Traficant seems eager not only to open old wounds, but to inflict new ones. He gave his first post-prison interview to Fox's Greta Van Susteren. In the process of defending John Demjanjuk, an Ohio man accused of being a former Nazi prison guard, Traficant blamed an Israeli conspiracy for putting him in prison.

Youngstown politics historically feeds off the sort of well-earned cynicism that I appreciate having been born and raised in Washington, D.C., where Mayor Marion Barry was reelected after serving six months in prison for crack-cocaine possession. In the wake of the mill closings, Sheriff Traficant refused to evict people from foreclosed homes. When the professionals and the feds consistently screw you, why not go for a folk hero with some personality and excitement?

Traficant came to power alongside an ascendant regional mafia, filling a local power vacuum created by the steel collapse. In 1980, he was elected Mahoning County Sheriff. The FBI caught him on tape making promises to "Charlie The Crab" Carabbia, allied with the Cleveland mob, that he would protect their rackets and go after Pittsburgh interests. His deputies would fall in line or "they'll fuckin' come up swimming in [the] Mahoning River."

After initially making a confession to the FBI, Traficant recanted.

"All those people trying to put me in jail should go fuck themselves," he told the television news, explaining his change of heart.

Traficant was cleared after convincing the jury that he only took money from the mob to secretly gather evidence against them. Buoyed by his upset against the feds, Traficant was elected to Congress in 1985, where he served until the FBI finally nailed him on bribery, racketeering and tax evasion charges. He would typically end speeches on the House floor with, "Beam me up, Mr. Speaker." Locals appreciated his no-nonsense approach, a prickly defender of a town that needs defending.

But many in Youngstown now want to move on. After November 2, they'll know whether they're ready to. And it's not exactly clear what would happen if Traficant pulled off an upset, either: his supervised parole requires that he receive permission to travel outside northeast Ohio.