This March, primary voters in Youngstown, Ohio, have the opportunity to weed out the worst haircut in Congress.
Said haircut belongs to Representative James A. Traficant, Jr., a Democrat who faces his first stiff re-election challenge in a 16-year congressional career. Traficant has won a fair amount of national media attention--and has become a favorite among C-SPAN junkies--for his bombastic one-minute speeches on the House floor, which he usually concludes with the phrase "Beam me up, Mr. Speaker." A self-styled populist with a disheveled coif and thrift-store suits, Traficant uses these early-morning tirades to rail against NAFTA, foreign steel imports, and the IRS. Especially the IRS. In one speech last fall, he proclaimed, "I say it is time to literally abolish both the IRS and the progressive un-American socialistic income tax. Audit this. I yield back the socialism of our income tax program."
The tax agency is of very personal interest to Traficant. Just as he was winning his first term in office in 1984, a U.S. tax court ruled Traficant had illegally evaded taxes on more than $100,000 in Mafia bribes he took while county sheriff (although a year earlier, Traficant had successfully defended himself against Justice Department criminal charges that he took mob money). He ended up paying around $180,000 in fines and penalties.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his outlandish personal style, Traficant has always won his re-election campaigns handily, usually with about 70 percent of the vote. But recently there have been signs his luck is changing. Voters were reminded of his alleged mob ties when two former aides were implicated in a Justice Department sweep that has ensnared dozens of Youngstown public officials and wise guys. This included Charles O'Nesti, a longtime top Traficant aide, who pled guilty to acting as the "bagman" for mobster Lenine "Lenny" Stollo. This January, Traficant announced that the U.S. attorney's office in northern Ohio had subpoenaed his office phone and payroll records, an action he denounced as retaliation for his past criticism of the agency. "I have done nothing wrong. End of story," he said in a recent statement.
Corruption, typically of the organized-crime variety, has long been the rule in Youngstown, dubbed "Crimetown U.S.A." by The Saturday Evening Post in 1963. But local activists like Randy Walter, founder of Citizens for Honest and Responsible Government, believe that public sentiment is turning and that ousting the congressman would help rehabilitate the region's image.
Walter and others also argue that the national media's portrayal of Traficant as a quixotic scamp misses the key issue for local residents: He hasn't consistently delivered for Youngstown. An economically depressed former steel town that has been very much left out of the economic boom, Youngstown is in clear need of revitalization. Robert Hagan, a state senator who is one of the Democrats running against Traficant, argues that Traficant's cantankerous relationship with Democrats means Youngstown gets left out when Congress divvies up the legislative goodies each session.
While local polls indicate Traficant's popularity has severely waned, the fact that there are two challengers running against him in the March 7 primary could split the pro-reform vote. Does that mean we're in for another two years of bizarre perorations on Waco and Mexican drug trafficking, and "Beam me up, Mr. Speaker"? Not necessarily. Local activists hope that despite the district's Democratic leanings, an independent candidate has a good chance of winning in the general election this November.