“A Champion of the People”: Youngstown Says Goodbye to Jim Traficant

2015-01-27T11:29:29+00:00December 3rd, 2014|

By Vince Guerrieri

Jim Traficant hadn’t won an election in more than a decade.

He hadn’t won a football game in more than 50 years.

Since his release from prison in 2009, after serving seven years on federal corruption charges, Traficant kept a low profile, making the odd television or radio appearance, but mostly spending time with his family. But in death, he could still draw a crowd.

The November 30 public memorial service for the nine-term Congressman drew about 2,000 to Powers Auditorium, the home of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra since 1969, more than two months after Traficant diedof injuries sustained in a tractor accident on his family farm in Green Township, south of Youngstown.

Speakers included former lightweight champion Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini, like Traficant a Cardinal Mooney graduate; Jim Menighan, a childhood friend; “Fast Freddie” Woak, a disc jockey for the local FM rock station, who used Traficant as a regular guest and a comic foil; and former Youngstown Mayor Pat Ungaro. Traficant’s wife of 46 years, Tish, spoke briefly, uncomfortable in front of the crowd but grateful for the turnout. “This is not me,” she said. “I never liked the stage.”

[blocktext align=”right”]It would seem unnatural for Traficant – a man who had to be thrown out of Congress rather than resign – to go quietly.[/blocktext] Traficant was a public figure, but his family life was private. In fact, his burial wasn’t even announced until after it happened. There was some debate over whether to have a public memorial service, but it would seem unnatural for Traficant – a man who had to be thrown out of Congress rather than resign after being found guilty of corruption charges – to go quietly, without one last chance for the public to say good-bye. And of course, there was beer.

To anyone who isn’t from the Youngstown area, Jim Traficant looks like an embarrassment. For one, he dressed funny – some of his particularly bold fashion choices, including a denim suit, were on display at the memorial service, standing out in the ornate movie palace lobby, designed to look like the Palace at Versailles.

Traficant didn’t sound like a Congressman, either. He turned the Congressional one-minute speech into an art form, invariably ending with, “Beam me up, Mr. Speaker,” the implication being that there was no intelligent life in Washington.

[blocktext align=”left”]In some of [his speeches] Traficant is almost a prophet – and he wouldn’t seem out of place in a Tea Party rally today.[/blocktext] His one-minute speeches were interspersed into the service. In some of them, nearly 20 years old, Traficant is almost a prophet – and he wouldn’t seem out of place in a Tea Party rally today. He railed against gun control, drawing on his law enforcement experience by saying that responsible gun ownership was a deterrent to crime and talking about how you were 80 times more likely to die from medical malpractice than a gun. “Should we mandate a five-day waiting period for vasectomies?” He inveighed against the United States’ relationship with – and debt to – China, saying in 2001, “China is destabilizing the world with American cash.” And he talked about how porous the American border was, and the threat it posed – in 1999, saying that three out of every 100 trucks that come across our borders are inspected.

Even in death, he got wild, uproarious applause from an admittedly partisan crowd, who thought his only crime was telling it like it was. The people who loved him came. The people who hated him stayed home and watched the Browns – or the Steelers, the team that drafted Traficant in 1963, after he played three years at the University of Pittsburgh. Relics of his football career at Pitt and before that at Cardinal Mooney High School were also on display.

To the people who called the Youngstown area home, Jim Traficant was the closest thing they had to a friend in a high place for a long time. He was the guy you wanted in your corner when things were going to hell. And he was in the Mahoning Valley’s corner when just that was happening.

Sept. 19, 1977, is still referred to in the area as “Black Monday.” The Lykes Corporation, the parent company of Youngstown Sheet and Tube – at one point the largest corporation in the state of Ohio – announced that they would be closing one of the mills at the end of the week. More mill closures followed. The Youngstown area didn’t have a friend in the world. The state continued to take tax money out of Youngstown and return very little in aid. The federal government refused to guarantee loans for employees to buy one of the mills.

In 1980, Traficant, a counselor who worked with community organizations throughout Mahoning County, ran for county sheriff and won. One of his duties was to sign foreclosure notices, which he refused to do – and for which he served time for contempt of court. It might have been a symbolic gesture – and it definitely was good political theater – but he couldn’t buy the kind of good will he earned with three days in jail.

“Jim Traficant understood who we were and who we are,” said Mark Mangie, chairman of the Youngstown Symphony board. “He knew we were fighters.”

Four years later, he’d parlayed that folk heroism into election to Congress, defeating three-term incumbent Republican Lyle Williams (who introduced Newt Gingrich to his second wife – a native of Leetonia. Newt was still married to his first wife. It didn’t stop him then, and it hasn’t stopped him since).

He was the only Democrat newly elected to Congress in 1984, the year Ronald Reagan carried 49 states. Even more impressive, Traficant had already beaten a federal rap. He was accused of taking money from organized crime interests. He defended himself in court, admitting he did, but saying it was part of a sting against the Mob, ever-present in the Mahoning Valley. He walked, but the IRS garnished his salary, saying that he never impounded the money, and he never declared it on his taxes.

[blocktext align=”right”]”Jim made some mistakes, and he had to be punished, [but] Jim Traficant did a lot more good than bad.”[/blocktext]Traficant continued to wage a one-man war against the IRS, at one point authoring a taxpayer bill of rights that changed the burden of proof from the accused to the IRS, reducing the agency’s seizures of private property. Traficant also continued to give whatever forces aligned against him enough rope to hang him. He was indicted again in 2001, and this time he was found guilty – which was obliquely referred to at Traficant’s memorial service by U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, a Tennessee Republican who counted Traficant as a friend. “Jim made some mistakes, and he had to be punished,” Duncan said in a video message. “It doesn’t diminish my respect for him. Jim Traficant did a lot more good than bad.”

And that was his appeal. It’s difficult to believe, but there was no shortage of people willing to attest to the honor of a man who was indicted twice by federal grand juries. “He was a political figure you could trust,” said former Youngstown State University political science chairman Bill Binning. “His word was his bond.” U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who served with Traficant in the House, called Traficant a trustworthy friend, able to keep confidences. Portman was one of several people to offer video messages during the two-hour service, including Mike Ditka, Traficant’s former Pitt teammate, and Ted Nugent, who called Traficant a true patriot and played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Even weeks after Traficant would appear on his show, Fred Woak said, people whom Traficant or someone from his office had helped out would approach him to tell their stories.

[blocktext align=”left”]Traficant practiced Tip O’Neill’s maxim that all politics was local.[/blocktext]Traficant practiced Tip O’Neill’s maxim that all politics was local. If you were in his district – or even if you weren’t, but had some connection to him – he would help you out. John Boccieri talked about getting a letter of recommendation from him to become a pilot. Ken Williams said Traficant helped end a strike – a not-uncommon role he took in an area with a strong and confrontational labor presence. Problems getting your Social Security check? You called Jim Traficant. Needed to navigate federal red tape? He or someone on his staff would help. He also never shied away from unpopular causes. He made it a point to defend John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian autoworker from Cleveland accused – wrongly, as it turned out – of being “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka concentration camp (Demjanjuk was ultimately found guilty of being a guard at a different concentration camp, Sobibor, but died pending appeal, so the conviction was invalidated).

Downtown Youngstown is Traficant’s monument. He secured federal funding to remove a pedestrian mall that did nothing to help retail there, and he brought two federal courthouses and a convention center to the city center. The $26.8 million grant for the Covelli Centre might have been Traficant’s 30 pieces of silver for voting for Dennis Hastert for Speaker – a move that essentially exiled him for the remainder of his time in Congress – and it was regarded as a white elephant even after it was built, but today it’s a cornerstone of a downtown entertainment district that nobody believed was possible 20 years ago.

Traficant had no use for the Washington power structure – which he demonstrated time and time again. But Duncan said nobody was more beloved by him than the tour guides, elevator operators, and clerks who made the city and the Capitol go – and they all loved him back. He might have walked with kings – and fought with presidents – but he didn’t lose the common touch.

“He was a champion of the people,” said “Boom-Boom” Mancini, who knows a little something about being the people’s champ.

Vince Guerrieri has spent pretty much his whole life in the Rust Belt. He was born in Youngstown three weeks before the mills started closing, and left there without really escaping. He’s a Bowling Green State University graduate, spent 15 years in newspapers, and lives with his wife and daughter in suburban Cleveland, where he’s slowly trending toward respectability (and he’s just as surprised by that as you are).

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