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Rep. James Traficant: 'He's perceived ... to have almost magical powers'

Still revered in Mahoning Valley district

Friday, April 12, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the blue-collar Mahoning Valley, U.S. Rep. James Traficant is as close to political royalty as it gets.

"He was a figure like a Roosevelt or a Kennedy in his district," said Tom Flynn, an associate professor of communication at Slippery Rock University and a scholar on Traficant's career.

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Traficant guilty on all corruption counts


Now Traficant, D-Ohio, is a felon, found guilty yesterday of all 10 counts against him, including racketeering, bribery, kickbacks and fraud.

Blustery and profane to the end, Traficant maintained that the case against him was a vendetta by the federal government.

Back home in the Youngstown area, many believed him.

Gordon Keenan of Hubbard, Ohio, part of Traficant's district, traveled to Cleveland to watch the closing arguments. Keenan, like countless others from the Youngstown area, said he considered the case against Traficant nothing but "hearsay."

They discounted the businessmen and members of Traficant's congressional staff who testified that they paid him bribes or kickbacks from their salaries.

Traficant's conviction could mark the end of a public life that began 42 years ago, when he first tasted fame as a University of Pittsburgh quarterback. He threw the ball to Mike Ditka, among others.

Traficant started at Pitt in 1961 and 1962. His fans say he was so brash even then that he regularly changed the plays sent in by coach John Michelosen.

Traficant's Pitt teammates say that story is pure myth.

Andy Kuzneski, of Indiana, Pa., who was Traficant's center in 1960 and 1961, said neither Traficant nor any other player dared defy Michelosen,

Kuzneski remembered Traficant as a good teammate, a smart quarterback and an engaging personality, a trait that would turn him into the Mahoning Valley's best-known and most controversial politician.

After running a drug and alcohol counseling program, Traficant was elected sheriff of Mahoning County in 1980.

Traficant found himself in deep trouble before his term was half-over.

He was indicted for taking $163,000 in bribes from Youngstown mobsters.

The exchanges of money were captured on tape by federal investigators, but Traficant still beat prosecutors in court.

He claimed that he took the money because he was running his own sting operation. A jury acquitted him in 1983.

Traficant immediately became a white-hot commodity. He won election to Congress in 1984, unseating a Republican incumbent.

Preaching a message of raw populism, he arrived during the worst of economic times, as blast furnaces turned icy and mills closed.

He railed against loose immigration and free-trade policies, which he said were crippling America's working towns.

He mastered sound bites before many politicians knew what they were. His one-minute speeches on the House floor, many laced with attacks on the IRS and other parts of the federal government, were seen back home on cable television as pearls of wisdom.

"He's perceived in the valley to have almost magical powers. But it's always been more about style than substance for Traficant," said Flynn.

He wore cowboy boots, ill-fitting shirts, skinny ties and ordinary blue blazers. He came home on weekends to campaign in person, where his smile, gruff criticisms of Washington and penchant for public cursing made him a folk hero.

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