Congressman Corruption?

When the Feds announced last week that they were indicting Democratic Representative James Traficant from Ohio on a slew of racketeering, bribery and corruption charges, the acerbic, polyester-clad legislator and former sheriff of Mahoning County let fly one of his usual anti-federal rants: "You'd best beat me," he said of the U.S. Attorneys prosecuting his case, "because if I beat you, you'll be working in Mingo Junction. And when he pled innocent at his arraignment today, he couldn't help but rail against the "undefeated bureaucrats" of the U.S. government, lamenting that "even Congress doesn't control America anymore."

While Traficant seems thrilled at staging a repeat performance of his successful pro se defense 18 years after the Feds first charged him with being mobbed up, his bravado belies the reality that he's in a political no-man's land. His own party has shunned him as an embarrassment: "We may not be out there supporting a particular candidate [in Ohio's 17th District]," House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said last week of the 2002 elections, but "we are not for Representative Traficant."

Though Traficant may be well-liked by some of the conservative Republicans he's voted with in recent years, right now he's the last new member the GOP wants to sign up. And while he has gotten a lot of mileage for his besting of the Feds in 1983, he's likely to find himself up against a much more seasoned crew this time around. Youngstown's proximity to Cleveland and Pittsburgh has always made it attractive to various mafia organizations, and while federal anti-mob efforts have waxed and waned over the past 40 years, the last few have seen over 70 successful indictments and convictions of mafia figures and corrupt local officials. The Justice Department has not rushed into Traficant's prosecution, taking well over a year to bring the case after indictments were rumored to be imminent.

Yet all of this is potentially good for Traficant, who's built his career on gritty, angry empathy with a marginalized, socially conservative blue-collar constituency that's been seething at chronic underemployment since the region's steel mills began closing over two decades ago. (Traficant opponent and local Democratic state senator Bobby Hagan has called Traficant's term in office a two-decade long "venomous rant" that "may have been therapeutic, [but] didn't improve the quality of life.") There are plenty of folks around his district in Youngstown who love Traficant's ranting anti-government approach to representation. And more than a few visitors to Youngstown and its surrounding environs come away with the impression that Traficant's working-class-hero shtick is so resonant that he'll never lose his seat. But perhaps more interesting are the citizens of the 17th District who have not only been distancing themselves from Traficant and what he stands for, but also consider Traficant the symptom of a larger problem that may actually be in the early stages of abatement.

While the titularly-Democratic Traficant's "working-class" demagoguery has helped him maintain a strong base in his one-party dominated corner of Ohio, last year's elections signaled a not insubstantial shift in public opinion: In both a three-way Democratic primary and three-way general election, Traficant barely scraped by with the lowest numbers ever of his political career. Longtime labor supporters like local AFL-CIO chief Larry Feuver had stopped backing him at that time, and last week the United Auto Workers local at the General Motors plant in Lordstown rescinded its long-standing support of the beleaguered congressman. "Unfortunately, it's time for us to move on," Local 1112 president Jim Graham told the Associated Press, explaining that "a lot of our members are tired" of the factors which have made Youngstown one of the most disreputable cities in America.

United Auto Workers is merely the latest entity to embrace a gradual shift in public sentiment. When local attorney James Callen first testified before the U.S. Senate in 1984 about the Mafia's corruptive impact on Youngstown's economic and political institutions, his Citizens' League seemed like a voice in the wilderness. Seventeen years later the group is still active, and works in conjunction with newer community efforts like the interfaith ACTION, which has formed citizens' committees to address everything from economic development to crime. Last year Callen arranged for nearly two dozen Youngstown-area citizens and elected officials to visit Palermo, Sicily, so they could learn about the successes the community there has had in tackling a Mafia problem that goes much farther back than Youngstown's.

"We went to get a better understanding of the problem of the Mafia and endemic corruption, and to help people better understand what it is we're facing here, and that was certainly [the] case for those who went," says Callen. "Essentially what we learned was that change is possible, even in the worst of circumstances. Of course law enforcement is important in Palermo, but we also learned about how to involve all elements of the community, from churches to the media to schools, and we learned about some of the successes they've had in trying to promote educational activities that have an impact on changing the culture of corruption."

One of the most successful efforts has been an adopt-a-monument program, which encourages schools to take responsibility for various historical sites as a way of reclaiming their heritage -- a program that started for schoolchildren but rapidly became popular with adults. Since the Ohioans returned from Sicily, Youngstown State University professor Susan Russo has been developing a similar program for local use.

While importing an idea aimed not at mobsters but schoolchildren may seem less decisive than a sustained federal investigative and prosecutorial effort, Callen and others who went to Sicily (including Mahoning County's sheriff and prosecutor, who paid their own way) say they came to appreciate the reality that it takes at least a generation for genuine anti-corruption efforts to bear fruit. Prosecutor Paul Gains -- who, unlike his early 90's Palermo counterpart Giovanni Falconi, survived a 1996 Mafia assassination attempt -- was particularly taken with the Palermo school effort. "Their mayor, Leoluca Orlando, appointed a superintendent to incorporate a curriculum about the history of the mafia, to destroy this myth that they're all-powerful, honorable people, because they're not," he says. "They're attempting to teach children the truth about the mafia, so they're not seduced by members of the mafia -- which might be a good idea here."

In Callen's view, Youngstown needs a next generation of leaders who more closely resemble Palermo's Orlando than "the most charismatic politician who's arisen here -- Traficant." That charisma is part of the reason Youngstown's reformers have faced such an uphill battle. While the 1992 Sicilian murders of Falconi and his colleague Paolo Borsellino provoked massive public outrage and sent the community rallying around leaders like Orlando, the Gains assassination attempt prompted nothing in Youngstown that resembled the massive protests in Palermo. That's an indicator, says Callen, that community efforts in Youngstown have to focus on changing the culture. That's why he says he doesn't want to put too much emphasis on Traficant's upcoming trial. "I think there's a danger in people investing too much in this," he says. "The fact is he's simply a symptom of the problem, which is the culture and values that allow someone like him or organized crime figures to reach such levels of leadership and prominence."

Veteran labor activist and lawyer Staughton Lynd, who makes his home in nearby Niles, agrees that the focus shouldn't necessarily be on Traficant. "I really don't think Traficant gets to the heart of the matter by any means," he says. "There's a segment of the community that feels that political corruption is the key to the difficulties of Youngstown, and that Traficant's indictment will be the last chapter in I-don't-know-how-many local officials being prosecuted, and I simply don't agree with that. I think Youngstown's problems stem more from plant closings and the "

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But he adds that, in terms of real leadership aimed at addressing the complex economic problems the region faces, Traficant hasn't been an able visionary. "He lent himself to private prison projects in a very extravagant fashion, and put it in writing he'd try to obtain two additional sites for the Corrections Corporation of America," notes Lynd, who has been a critic of Corrections Corporation's Youngstown facility, the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (NOCC). Despite his stance against private prisons, Lynd recently helped the NOCC's guards unionize -- an action he believes had something to do with Corrections Corporation's announcement that it's shutting down the facility.

Traficant did not support the union, and his subsequent suggestion that the Immigration and Naturalization Service take over the facility was appalling. "To move the INS into Northeast Ohio . . . is a really obscene proposal," Lynd says, "and if only for that reason, I'm glad Traficant got indicted, because now he won't have much time to do anything about it."

For Traficant, such matters are indeed likely to take a backseat to his defense. And it's possible Traficant may beat the Feds again. But even if he does, there's a chance his seat may simply be erased from the Ohio political landscape. Based on the latest census, the Ohio legislature has to redistrict and lose one House seat in the process. While Traficant is well-liked by a number of conservative congressmen in Washington, he's never been that chummy with other pols in the Buckeye State. Increasingly, Ohio influentials are getting to the point where they consider him more travesty then eccentric comic relief.

"Politically-speaking, he hasn't been a member of the Democratic party for a while, and if he came over to us, let's just say not a lot of people would be rushing to embrace him," says a senior GOP state official. "Because once you get past the fun of cracking jokes about him, it's not a stretch to say there's a consensus that the people of the 17th district could be better represented, and that there's a real injustice there."