Made for each other

Why do residents in a depressed corner of the Midwest keep sending back to Washington the man perhaps least likely to improve their fate?

Published March 9, 2000 3:00PM (EST)

In the end, party loyalties, internal and external, won the day for the national candidates in Ohio. But as Tuesday night progressed, watchful glances were cast by both parties at what had been an unexpectedly tight congressional primary, in Ohio's 17th District.

On the defense is Rep. James Traficant Jr., a Democrat who had a tense several days after a poll last week showed him in a dead heat with the one of three primary challengers. (He also anticipates being indicted for corruption.) The implicit message: The 17th District was tired of throwing a nearly two-decade tantrum that has done it no good.

Standing in the crowd at a Jewish community center groundbreaking ceremony last week, local AFL-CIO head Larry Fauver was talking about how he knew that the steel mills and their high-wage jobs that once made Youngstown a postwar workers' boomtown are long gone. And he affirmed his belief in the need to attract modern manufacturing and high-technology jobs to this once-thriving industrial town.

But, he added, he does not believe Traficant (whom he used to campaign for) is still the man to do it. That Traficant himself was standing a mere 20 feet away, shooting Fauver menacing looks and shaking a clenched fist at him, only seemed to buttress the points Fauver and a number of other citizens here have made: that Traficant's behavior, by turns notoriously eccentric, erratic and arguably amoral, has lately done more harm than good to this economically depressed, crime-ridden community.

With a number of officials here under investigation or indictment (last Thursday, the latest one in a string of local judges was arrested by the FBI), it's no wonder, Fauver said, that it has been hard to attract new businesses. When one's congressman has a historical knack for alienating other House members, however, and openly talks about his own probable corruption indictment, "it surely doesn't help" Youngstown clean up its act, or get access to badly needed federal dollars, he added.

Fauver and others had rallied around Bobby Hagan, a veteran state legislator who argued that Traficant's time had come and gone. "He's a demagogue," Hagan said, and a sign at his campaign headquarters indicated Traficant was something else, too. Adorning the front door is a graphic showing Traficant at the center of a spider's web connected to a number of convicted felons. "When the mills left, people got angry, and Jim played to that. It might have been therapeutic, but has it given us anything tangible?" asked Hagan. "It was important to people to see someone who thumbed his nose at authority and the law, but we're at the point where it runs out."

Or not, as Tuesday night's returns showed when Traficant emerged as the victor with just over half the vote. While the immediate threat to Traficant's political survival may be over, the problems for his Mahoning Valley remain. If one looks at the information-based economy as an autobahn, the exit to Youngstown leads to a dead end. While some vestiges of quaintness and dignity remain -- in the form of turn-of-the-20th-century houses, signs inviting anyone to walk into mayor's offices in the surrounding townships and the palatial monument to native son William McKinley in neighboring Nile -- everyone around here agrees that the community's leaders have failed it by constantly searching for one big, quick economic fix that simply isn't there.

The critics include former Democratic Rep. Dennis Eckart (whose district abutted Youngstown) and Staughton Lynd, a veteran left-wing activist and lawyer who has lived in the area since the early '70s.

"They tend to look for grand-slam home runs, like a regional airport. There's been one or two schemes like that, where with one fell swoop, we're going to generate 20,000 jobs," sighs Eckart. "But as we've learned from other places, like Cleveland and Pittsburgh, it's a variety of solutions, not a single grand stroke."

As the community has grasped at the economic brass ring that isn't there ("No wonder none of the presidential candidates stopped here -- they wouldn't know what to do with this place," says Lynd), problems of crime, corruption, education and poverty have all fed off one another.

"All these things are intertwined here," says Ann York, a French professor at Youngstown State University who also heads the public-corruption task force of the citizens group ACTION. "I actually thought this would be a good place to bring my son up in, but I can't open the paper each day without reading about some official being indicted. Between the strong opinions of longtime families that influence opinion here and the malaise the economy breeds, there's a real resistance to change. But people are standing up and being counted because they're tired of corrupt practices."

Last year, a number of local activists, religious leaders and concerned citizens formed ACTION, creating task forces to confront urban sprawl, education, economic development and corruption. At one of the corruption group's meetings last year, 2,500 people showed up to watch a number of local officials sign a responsible-government contract. Several hundred showed up in January to watch more officials do the same.

Conspicuously absent was Traficant, whose name has come up repeatedly in an ongoing federal grand jury probe of corruption in Youngstown. (Thus far, federal and state investigations have convicted 78 people here, including two former Traficant aides, on corruption or organized-crime charges.)

Not that this is unfamiliar territory to the congressman. As Mahoning County sheriff in 1983, he successfully defended himself against corruption charges from the FBI, convincing a jury that his pledges of loyalty to the area mafia were, in fact, just an act in the service of what may have been the most secretly compartmented sting in the annals of local law enforcement.

It's not that those dissatisfied with Traficant necessarily dislike him; even his detractors praise his refusal to foreclose on some imperiled properties back in his sheriff days, and speak with gritty affection toward his "thumb in the eye of power" legislative acts (Exhibit A: A law reining in the Internal Revenue Service's property confiscation powers). But they now wonder if his notoriously Lear-like approach to congressional representation might be seen by prospective business and House colleagues as an impediment to investing private and public monies in Youngstown and its environs.

"I will be surprised if Jim loses," says former colleague Eckart. "I think his heart is absolutely in the right place. But I used to tell people that as a congressman, you have to win two elections: first in your district, second with your colleagues, which is a measure to a large degree [of] how effective you can be for your district. Jim has never spent a lot of time trying to win that second election."

Which may be why, given the palpable sense of alienation here, Traficant once again carried the day Tuesday.

By Jason Vest

Jason Vest is a Washington-based journalist and national correspondent for

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