James Anthony Traficant Jr. passed away on Sept. 27, 2014 at St. Elizabeth’s Health Center in Youngstown, Ohio at the age of 73.
Traficant was critically injured in an accident that occurred at his daughter’s Mahoning County farm on Sept. 23. He was pulling a tractor into a barn when he lost control and hit a blade that overturned the tractor and pinned him underneath.
Traficant represented Ohio’s 17th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from 1985 to 2002. He was remembered for his irreverent fashion sense that featured denim suits, cowboy boots and an unruly pompadour, as well as one-minute speeches delivered on the floor of the House that frequently included the phrase, “beam me up!”
In a characteristic bit of oratory delivered on Nov. 12, 1997, Traficant claimed it was “easier to find Elvis than it is to find a good factory job here in America.”
Traficant also served as Mahoning County Sheriff from 1981 to 1985, where he gained popularity by refusing to evict unemployed homeowners, several of which were victims of the collapse of the steel industry. He stood trial and served three days in jail for these actions.
Such populist sentiments combined with his offbeat rhetoric helped make him the most prominent politician in the Mahoning Valley over the last 30 years.
Eric Murphy, a Youngstown State University alumnus who is currently in post-production on a documentary titled “Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown,” said this is what drew him to the congressman.
“[He] was a larger than life political figure that embodied, especially in the context of ‘Black Monday’ and the mills closing, and all of the jobs leaving, he was able to voice that anger and frustration and hurt for the people of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley,” Murphy said. “I think that’s a large part of his legacy, that he was a galvanizing force for the valley and gave a singular voice to a large majority of the people living there.”
William Binning, former chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party and Chair Emeritus of YSU’s political science department, said he and Traficant eventually became friendly despite being from opposing parties and managed to work together on a number of projects in the ‘90s.
“He had a great gift for understanding what the average person in the Valley thought, and he was able to give voice to that in a way that they liked, so he was a very good politician for his time, probably the best for his time at that, just speaking out for the down-and-out and criticizing corporations and the banks and everybody,” Binning said.
Harry Meshel, former Ohio state senator and chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party as well as current trustee at YSU, said Traficant was very productive in obtaining money for development in the valley.
“He worked pretty hard for the average person, the working man,” Meshel said. “He was popular in many ways, and appealing to many people, and he was a lot of fun to be with.”
Traficant occupied a unique space in the community’s hearts and minds.
“He was a folk hero when I was a little kid, and you know, later he certainly became a polarizing figure, but I think initially he was regarded as a folk hero,” Murphy said.
Traficant’s tenure in the House ended in controversy as he became only the second congressman to be expelled since the Civil War on July 24, 2001 in a 420-1 vote following felony convictions on 10 counts including bribery, racketeering and tax-evasion.
Meshel said there came a point in Traficant’s career when he began alienating more people in Congress than he was winning over.
“He began fighting with members of his own party, and demeaning some people within that party,” Meshel said. “You can create attention and become someone who’s quoted in interviews frequently, but you may or may not be accumulating support and acceptance for what you’re attempting to do.”
Traficant had previously been charged with racketeering in 1983 during his time as Mahoning County Sheriff after tapes surfaced that showed he received campaign funds from the Cleveland mafia, but he was acquitted after convincing the jury it was part of a secret undercover investigation.
In 2002, Traficant ran for re-election from prison as an independent, receiving 15 percent of the vote, but losing to Representative Tim Ryan, a former Traficant aide who still holds the seat.
After serving seven years in prison and being granted release, Traficant ran again as an independent in 2010 on a platform that centered on repealing the 16th Amendment, which allows Congress to levy an income tax. Traficant lost to Ryan again, but still received 16 percent of the vote.
Despite his convictions, his time as a congressman is still remembered fondly in the area.
“When you have such an emotional connection with your electorate, it’s never going to go away, and I think you see that in a lot of the remembrances coming out this week with very personal touches,” Murphy said. “It’s undeniable how charismatic, and humorous, and a people-person he was.”
Binning said his candid way of speaking stood out in the field of politics.
“He was such a colorful character, and people liked what he had to say. He’d just get out there and tell them the way it is. You don’t find any politicians that speak like that, and he did, and the people of the Valley appreciated it,” Binning said. “He was great entertainment.”
He is survived by his wife Patricia and their two daughters.
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