Traficant Persistent About Staying in House

He's a convicted felon who for years dodged federal bloodhounds while lambasting his own party – a self-styled rogue in a town where the golden rule is to play the political game with zeal in order to survive.

Despite his maverick behavior, Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, has been buoyed by his ability to adopt unusually loyal constituents out of old friends, colleagues, disenchanted voters and people he has helped along the way.

Now, he'll need all the help he can get. The nine-term congressman, convicted on 10 counts of bribery, racketeering and fraud, could serve up to 63 years of jailtime, though experts say he'll probably be sentenced to 10 years.

But in true Traficant style, he declared Friday he would not resign his office as encouraged by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, but will run for re-election as an independent in the recently redrawn 17th Congressional District.

"I will not allow the government to get rid of Jim Traficant without a fight," said the alienated Democrat, who is known for his outdated denim suits, "chia pet" hairstyle and brazen floor speeches.

"Anyone who knows Jim Traficant knows you're wasting your breath telling him what to do," said State Sen. Tim Ryan, a Democrat who faces a tough primary field for the new 17th District.

While many like Ryan in this economically pressed district are eager to move on from the indictments, media attention and corruption scandals, political opponents say Traficant still holds sway with at least 10 percent of the new district's voting base.

"He has undoubtedly done some good things for individuals in his years of service, and from my experience in office, I know people don't forget those things easily," said State Sen. Anne Womer Benjamin, the only Republican running for the new congressional seat.

Traficant grew up in Mahoning County, which resides in his old district and now counts for about 40 percent of the new 17th Congressional District. He became sheriff in 1980, shortly after the 1979 collapse of the steel and auto markets began the swift demise in this once booming manufacturing stronghold known as the Rust Belt.

As sheriff, Traficant was busted for taking bribes and kickbacks in return for overlooking the burgeoning organized crime in his beleaguered county. Unlike the more recent trial, Traficant successfully represented himself, convincing the jury that he was innocent of the charges in 1983. 

A year after that first trial, he successfully won a seat in the U.S. Congress.

While the district has moved solidly Democrat, Traficant has shown increasing disenchantment with the party leadership, his disrespect peaking during the Clinton years, when he accused the administration of having a vendetta against him.

This won no favors with his party. While remaining true to the union base in his district on their issues, he voted more often with the Republicans. This culminated when he voted to re-elect Republican House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert in 2001. Since then, he has been persona non grata with the Democratic leadership.

Traficant may have some credence in his allegations of a government vendetta. In 1997, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began a new inquiry into Traficant that resulted from a larger anti-corruption operation in Ohio. Aware of the investigation, he told his constituents that indictments were likely, but they re-elected him anyway in 2000.

The charges came and the trial was raucous – eight weeks of sometimes vulgar, often boisterous exchanges with the Judge Lesley Wells in a case that included 55 government witnesses.

Traficant is standing firm and appealing the Wells' ruling. Meanwhile, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct said it will convene hearings to discuss whether it will begin a formal inquiry, which may result in a recommendation of expulsion.

"The House has a process to deal with convicted felons and I'm sure the House Ethics Committee will pursue that process expeditiously," Gephardt said in a statement. In the light of the gravity of the charges, however, "I think the prudent course of action would be an immediate resignation."

Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joined her colleague late Friday. "I urge the Republican Leadership to join us in calling for his resignation," she said in a statement.

In response to his leadership's call, Traficant grumbled in a statement, "As for Dick Gephardt and his premature demand for my resignation, I meant it when I told him to go  it when I told him to go f--- himself. I didn't ask for him to resign as a result of him being an impotent leader and for having screwed up the party."

Some of Traficant's Ohio colleagues in the House appear to be more sobered by the recent events.

"Mr. Gephardt still probably hasn't gotten over the fact that Traficant didn't vote for him as Speaker of the House," said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio. "Mr. Gephardt should afford to Traficant the same due process he would want should he find himself in a similar situation."

LaTourette, a member of the House ethics committee, said he might recuse himself from the investigation of his close friend. "I have not reached the conclusion that I cannot be fair. If I reach that conclusion, then I will excuse myself."

Democratic Rep.Tom Sawyer, D-Ohio, whose 14th District was merged into the 17th and stands to get the full support of the party in the upcoming primary, did not return a call for comment Friday.

Political observers say Sawyer, who represents a more white collar Democratic constituency that counts for about 25 percent of the new district, will have to woo the blue collar conservative Democrats who have embraced Traficant.

"These people have grown up with him and they are loyal to him," said Ryan, who hopes to steal the thunder from Sawyer by gaining the endorsements of the local union machine.

He pointed out that Traficant has brought home the bacon and has done favors for folks who wouldn't necessarily be considered ethical. But people remember.

"He is the classic tragic figure. He was a giant politically here. Now he's going to jail," Ryan said. "I think when it comes down to it he will do what's best for the community and what's best for his family."