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Remembering former Congressman Jim Traficant
The fiery Youngstown Democrat died today at age 73, after injuries from a farming accident left him unconscious Tuesday
by WKSU's M.L. SCHULTZE


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M.L. Schultze
 
Former Congressman Jim Traficant died Saturday, following several days in a coma after a farming accident
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Former Congressman Jim Traficant died Saturday after a tractor he was riding flipped over on his family farm. The fiery and colorful Democrat from Youngstown, Ohio, is one of only four members ever to be kicked out of Congress. That was in 2002, after he was convicted of bribery and racketeering. WKSU's M.L. Schultze has this remembrance of a man many say represented the best and the worst of this old steel town.
Remembering former Congressman Jim Traficant

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Before he was convicted and expelled from Congress, Jim Traficant was best known for his improbable hair piece and his outlandish suits. And the broadsides he launched at Republicans, his fellow Democrats and big government.

“No. 1, big farm animals produce more manure than small farm animals. And No. 2, manure stinks. Beam me up, Mr. Speaker: $200 million to determine that manure stinks.”

Even before he got to Congress in 1985, Traficant knew how to play a room.

“The only other person I can think of is Bill Clinton. It’s that level of electricity.”

That’s Congressman Tim Ryan, who now represents the district. He was a high school quarterback when he met then-Congressman Traficant at a team banquet. Traficant, himself, had once been drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The room would shift the moment he got into it and he was the center of attention in the room regardless of how many people were in it. And he made everybody feel very special. You met him and you thought you grew up with him. It was that kind of magical quality that he had.”

Ryan would go on to work for Traficant. Years later they ended up running against each other -– once while Traficant was still in federal prison trying to regain his congressional seat.

The 'Traficant facade'
This was actually his second time through the criminal justice system. In the early '80s, while he was county sheriff, he was caught taking money from mobsters. He convinced a jury he was just gathering evidence -- and was acquitted. David Skolnick covers politics for the local newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator. He says Traficant’s bombastic style fit the region back then.

“It was a time in this area where the place was reeling from the closing of the steel mills, and he was smart enough to feed into that anger, that frustration and be the voice of those people.”

Skolnick says Traficant always played offense. Here he is 20 years later in front of the House Ethics Committee fighting his expulsion.

“Now you go ahead and expel me. But you ran this place for 50 years, Democrats. And you made the IRS, the FBI and Justice Department so strong, our people are afraid to death of them.”

Just once did Skolnick see the façade fade. He and Traficant were on an elevator in the federal courthouse in Cleveland, just after the guilty verdict.

"You could see that he was very much a defeated person. He got out of that elevator, he then walked outside and there was a throng of 50-75 reporters and camera people, and he just basically snapped his fingers and turned back into that Traficant bravado -- that persona that he played so well.”

Man of the people
Karen Worstell loved that persona. The Youngstown grandmother says she voted for Traficant whenever she had the chance. 

"If he’d ever run for office again, I woulda voted for him because I knew what kind of politics he was; he was honest with the people. It was the people, not the government, it was the people.”

But many younger voters are looking for something different. Sara Allen was in high school when Traficant was convicted.

“Unfortunately, it kind of gave us a bad stigma, a bad representation of our city, but it is what it is and we’re kind of on the up and up now. And it’s good to see things down here happening and kind of that rebirth.”

She’s referring to the transformation of Youngstown, with its trendy downtown restaurants and new performing arts center. It’s trying to reinvent itself as a global innovation center.

But not everything has changed. At Youngstown City Hall, Mayor John McNally has been indicted on corruption charges, but he’s refusing to step down.
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