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Newsmaker: Tim Ryan / His win ends Traficant era in troubled Ohio district

Monday, November 11, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Congressman-elect Tim Ryan wasn't yet born when magazine editors branded this place "Crime Town USA."

But Ryan, 29, has lived long enough to understand why politics in Ohio's Mahoning Valley are still considered a moral cesspool.

More than 70 of the area's government and mob figures were indicted for corruption by a federal strike force during the last five years. Most of them have pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial.

A Mahoning County prosecutor who would not take bribes was shot.

The region's nine-term congressman, James Traficant, was convicted in April of 10 felonies. Traficant still got 28,487 votes when he ran again last week.

 
 
Newsmaker

Name: Tim Ryan

Date of birth: July 16, 1973

Place of birth: Niles, Ohio

In the news: Ryan, a Democrat, was elected last week to represent four northeast Ohio counties in Congress. He succeeds former U.S. Rep. James Traficant, who was expelled from Congress in July after being convicted of 10 felonies, including bribery and racketeering.

Quote: "We have a fresh start to make things better. In 10 years you won't recognize this valley."

Education: Ryan graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Warren, Ohio, in 1991. He received a bachelor's degree in political science from Bowling Green State University, and a law degree from the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H.

Family: Single

   
 

But Democrat Ryan received 92,708 votes, or a shade more than 50 percent. It was enough for him to defeat Republican Ann Womer Benjamin, who had 61,269 votes, and Traficant, who campaigned from prison as an independent.

"After all the corruption, people want a change," Ryan said.

He stood out as the freshest face in a valley of old pols, shuttered steel mills and vacant storefronts.

Ryan says the region's people are hard-working and fundamentally decent. He sees his job as restoring confidence in government and using the power of his office to bring jobs to northeast Ohio.

Its military installations and industrial parks are underused, Ryan says, and gracious Downtown buildings in cities such as Youngstown and Warren await a revival.

"There's been no real plan for this valley. Everyone has been going in their own direction," Ryan said. "We're going to put forth the employees that businesses need, and we're going to go 150 miles an hour until we've turned the economy around."

Unlike many who win seats in Congress, Ryan started life without any connections or advantages. His parents divorced when he was 7. He has had no relationship with his father since then. He and his brother, Allen, now 31, were raised by their mother, Rochelle. Her parents, John and Ann Rizzi, lived in the same neighborhood in Niles, so they helped look out for the boys.

Both boys gravitated to the school yards, where they occupied themselves year-round playing ball.

"They were always together, and they were always well-behaved," John Rizzi said of his grandsons. "Both of them were top-shelf in sports."

Like Traficant a generation earlier, Tim Ryan first came to the public's attention as a star quarterback. Ryan played at John F. Kennedy High, a Catholic school in Warren. Mid-major football programs showed interest in him.

Ryan started his collegiate career at Youngstown State University but wrecked a knee. Done with football at 19, he transferred to Bowling Green State University to study political science. His plan was to become a social studies teacher.

An internship in Washington, D.C., changed his mind.

"I fell in love with the public policy side of government," he said.

After graduating from college in 1995, Ryan landed a job on Traficant's staff. He worked on cases involving Social Security and veteran benefits, and researched ways to invigorate the region's brownfields, or abandoned industrial sites.

Ryan enjoyed the work but saw little chance to improve his $18,000-a-year salary on Traficant's staff. He left for law school in 1997 and graduated, but then decided he wanted to be a politician instead of an attorney.

He won a state Senate seat in 1999, when he was just 26. Then, with Traficant under indictment and headed for trial, Ryan decided to take on his old boss, who promised to run for re-election even if he was convicted.

Ryan began as an underdog in a six-way Democratic primary. The field included a sitting congressman, Rep. Tom Sawyer of Akron. But Ryan, a husky man of 6 feet 3 inches, seemed to take over crowds with the sheer force of his personality.

Tom Koroni of Warren says he has never seen a better campaigner. He remembers the day Ryan visited a nursing home and approached a woman who had no family and had stopped communicating with the staff.

"After 45 minutes in the room, Tim had her talking again," Koroni said. "He's the most sincere guy I've ever met."

Ryan's run for Congress was anything but easy. He had so little money for the primary that his high school basketball coach had to co-sign a $50,000 loan for him. One Democratic rival accused him of violating campaign finance laws, but the complaint seemed unnecessary. Candidate polls showed Ryan trailing by as many as 17 points less than two weeks before the election.

The polls turned out to be dead wrong, as Ryan crushed the primary field. He did the same in the general election, even with Traficant picking off voters who usually supported Democrats.

Critics say Ryan does not know enough about politics or life to be effective in Washington.

Benjamin, who was his Republican opponent, painted him as inexperienced in almost every way.

At 48, she emphasized her ability to blend family and career. Benjamin has raised two college-age daughters, practiced law for 20 years and served eight years in the Ohio House of Representatives, where she helped shape state policy and budgets.

"He doesn't have a clue about any of that," she said.

Ryan smiles at such taunts. As a state senator, he was one of just 12 Democrats in a 33-person chamber. Benjamin's party called the shots, he said, and Republican rule saw college tuition double and prescription drug charges eat up the income of senior citizens.

Ryan plans to plunge into his congressional career by pushing new investments in northeast Ohio's universities and business incubators.

Still a bachelor, he figures he can devote himself to Congress and to the people back home.

The Traficant is era over. Ryan says politics as usual in Crime Town USA are finished, too.


Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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