Traficant's release from prison stirs strong emotions
September 9, 2009 4:00 AM
Scott Shaw/The Plain Dealer
Former U.S. Rep. James Traficant greets friends at the Jim Traficant Appreciation Dinner Sunday in Boardman, Ohio.
By Mary Jordan The Washington Post
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- The Elvis impersonator had ceded the stage, and the toupee contest was over. The main act appeared to thunderous applause, looking pretty plucky for a guy who had just spent seven years in prison.
"I plan to get right back in it!" boomed James Traficant, Ohio's former 17th District Democratic congressman, announcing to 1,200 cheering supporters Sunday that he just might still have a little of the old magic under that memorable rug.
Just like in his salad days, Mr. Traficant promised that he'd take on the federal government that he said "cheated" to put him behind bars for racketeering and bribery. As the crowd shouted "Run for Senate," he trashed the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and caused a frenzy when he proclaimed: "If we can take care of people all over the world we can take care of people here!"
Jimbo is back. Calling himself "a congressman and a convict," Mr. Traficant, released from prison last Wednesday, invoked imprisoned Nelson Mandela and said he "knew America better" because of his years behind bars.
The more Mr. Traficant talked, the more people pressed toward him for autographs. He looked fit. A friend described his new hair as a "partial toupee." He had cut off the ponytail he grew in prison and was wearing a vest and his trademark skinny tie.
Nobody at this welcoming party in suburban Youngstown's Mr. Anthony's Banquet Center cared that Congress voted 420-1 to expel him. Bunch of Washington elites; who trusts 'em?
"I think he still feels he has a mission," said John Brown, 73, a retiree in the crowd who used to own a steel company. He said he believes that Mr. Traficant was "wrongfully accused. I never thought our legal system could get this low."
Looking around the packed hall, where 1,200 people sat eating meatballs and chicken and listening to Elvis songs (a Traficant favorite) and Patsy Cline, he said: "I don't think all of these people are screwballs."
"He is the only one in Youngstown who ever says what he means," said Glenn Davies, 41, who pressed his "Welcome Home Jimbo" T-shirt into Mr. Traficant's hands for his signature, as the former lawmaker shook hands for more than two hours Sunday night. "I am going to hang this on the wall of my car wash," Mr. Davies said.
Mr. Traficant's return has thrown a spotlight on, and riled up, this struggling northeast Ohio old steel-mill valley. In a county whose minor league baseball team is called the Scrappers -- the chamber of commerce chief explained, "the population is scrappy, they fight back" -- many see Mr. Traficant as one of them, a regular guy railroaded by the federal government.
But many others are appalled at the welcome he's getting. They remember the envelopes of money he demanded of his own staff, the taxes he didn't pay, the political clout he traded for gravel and contractor muscle on his horse farm. And now, they worry that his re-emergence as a figure in Youngstown will set back efforts to improve the city's image.
Even if he doesn't run for office again, it's dumbfounding to some local people that Mr. Traficant could be a political player in this valley of more than 500,000. "The perception that he is being received back as a conquering hero is not true," said Mayor Jay Williams, adding that the quiet majority believes that he "no longer represents who we are."
"His antics, his vision of what is appropriate and inappropriate, ... we are beyond that now," said Mr. Williams, elected Youngstown's first black mayor in 2005.
A decade ago, during the Traficant era, the sheriff, county prosecutor, judges, mob boss Lenny Strollo and people with names like Charlie the Crab -- more than 70 altogether -- went to prison for mob-related activity. Hitmen had rigged so many car bombs that explosives triggered by the ignition became known as a "Youngstown tune-up."
"We have moved on," said Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras.
There is evidence he's right: The mayor and congressman are in their 30s and talk more about software jobs than the steel-mill heyday.
Entrepreneur magazine last month lauded Youngstown as one of the 10 most attractive places in the nation for starting a new business (costs are low, hope is high).
And other Rust Belt cities are copying Youngstown's demolition of 2,000 derelict homes and businesses, a "shrink to survive" strategy.