Traficant conviction guts political landscape

BY GEORGE NELSON | METRO MONTHLY ASSOCIATE EDITOR

The conviction of  U.S. Rep. James a. Traficant Jr. sent a shock wave throughout the Mahoning Valley, leaving a political landscape on which there may not be another central figure for some time to come – if ever.

The dominant figure in Mahoning Valley politics for two decades, Traficant faces an uncertain future following his conviction in U.S. District Court in Cleveland on all counts of a 10-count federal indictment.

He reportedly could be sentenced to 63 years in prison plus fines, though various legal analysts have put his potential sentence at between five and 10 years. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 27.

Similarly uncertain is the political terrain of the area Traficant has represented in Congress since 1985 in the wake of the tectonic shift in the political landscape. His own district was eliminated in redistricting this year, and Traficant has said he intends to run – despite his conviction, which he plans to appeal – as an independent candidate in the new 17th District. He also faces possible expulsion from the U.S. House of Representatives as a consequence of his conviction.

“The end result is that the Mahoning Valley as a political unit no longer has a voice in Congress,” observed Dr. William Binning, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University and a former chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party.

“Some of us have a congressman from Akron and others of us have a congressman from Lucasville,” he continued. ”I think those incumbents are going to win, so for the first time in a long time we really don’t have a political voice from here that sort of speaks for us, that represents us — not just in terms of voting, but ‘one of us’ in Congress. That’s a big change and I think that is a result not only of the verdict, but the legal troubles brought that division of the district. The indictments, etc., invited the slicing of what was the Mahoning Valley congressional district.”

Traficant has dominated local politics for so long — until recent years he enjoyed landslide victories that daunted many potential political opponents — that his fall leaves no natural successor.

“We have a political vacuum,” Binning remarked. While there are several candidates in office who are rising in the political ranks, no one has emerged as the central figure in local politics. Patrick J. Ungaro, the former Youngstown mayor who takes over as Liberty Township administrator this year, has been out of the political spotlight since 1998, when he unsuccessfully challenged state Sen. Robert Hagan in the 1998 Democratic primary.

Hagan, Binning noted, is the only area politician today who currently has a multicounty base, due to his family history and the fact that he ran for the 17th District against Traficant in the 2000 Democratic primary. Hagan decided against a run this year, instead seeking reelection in the Ohio Senate.

“I don’t necessarily think that Traficant was the central political figure,” said local attorney Michael Morley. The former chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party and a longtime Traficant foe, Morley argued that half of the electorate did not relate to the former Mahoning County sheriff.

“I think this makes it clear that there is a void — not necessarily of leadership but of a singular leader,” Morley explained. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. Politics oftentimes works better when people are working together and not being dictated to.”

Morley said that political, business and community leaders — including U.S. Reps. Tom Sawyer of Akron and Ted Strickland of Lucasville, whose new districts will encompass most of the former 17th District — should get together to try to determine a plan for the future.

“There needs to be a recognition that affirmative steps must be taken,” Morley said. “Now is the time to figure out exactly what the plan is. It’s hard to go somewhere when you don’t know exactly where you want to go. Set priorities — Is it downtown? Is it economic development? Is it the schools? Is it the airport?”

Several community leaders have expressed a desire to look toward the future in the wake of the Traficant verdict. What is unknown is how much of the past they are willing to take with them. Thomas Humphries, president of the Thomas Humphries, president of the Youngstown/ Warren Regional Chamber, immediately faxed a prepared statement following the April 11 verdict.

“The word from Cleveland today obviously places closure on an issue that has taken front stage for several weeks. The trial is now over and we are now focused on the future. Many positive steps are being taken in the Mahoning Valley that are making our region an increasingly desirable place to do business,” he said. “With the Congressman’s verdict today, I believe we can move on to other issues at hand.”

However, warns Dr. Lowell Satre, YSU history professor, “They can’t just forget what’s gone on before because we’ll repeat it. . . . If people deny history, if they deny what’s going on in the past, what they’re trying to do is wipe out what’s happened in the past, and let’s face it – to make good judgments you go on past experience.

“The best judgment for the Mahoning Valley right now is to remember what’s gone on and the terrible cost to the community,” continued Satre, who also serves as president of the Citizens League of Greater Youngstown.

“It’s a cost in economic development. It’s a cost in political leadership. It’s a cost frankly of probably tens of thousands of people who have left this community because the community has in many ways failed to function politically and economically, and at least part of it is because of the political corruption.”

Traficant’s conviction is only the most recent case resulting from an ongoing criminal probe that has resulted in guilty verdicts for several public officials in Mahoning County. Netted public officials have included a county sheriff, prosecutor and commissioner, as well as several area judges. Further, rumors have circulated for several months regarding possible indictments in Trumbull County.

“The best thing to do is keep it before the public, don’t let it die down. We need to educate, we need to remind people,” Satre urged. “That is what we keep saying in history, that you have to know your past.” Additionally, Satre described Traficant as not the cause of the long-term problems of the community.

“Rather I think it is fair to say that he is a symptom of the problems in the community — symptoms of a community that for a long time has tolerated and even encouraged activities where public officials violate laws and take advantage of community coffers,” he said. “Just because Jim Traficant is found guilty — and indeed, as have a number of other public officials over the last three years have been found guilty — that doesn’t mean that the problem is over. What is needed is continued vigilance on the part of the public to make absolutely certain it doesn’t occur again. It also involves a huge amount of educating the public and officers in ethics — the ethics of what we should and can expect from a public official.”

Patricia Rose, president of the Better Business Bureau of Mahoning Valley, concurred. “We have only ourselves to blame for allowing this to happen and for allowing it to continue by re-electing people in places of authority who can use this kind of influence to their own gain,” she observed “And we have only ourselves to blame for continuing to do business with companies that go about gaining business in the wrong way.”

“We need to make the changes. We need to demand that our public officials are held to the highest standards when we elect them, when choose our officials, and then to make sure that they maintain the high ideals that they told us that they had.”

“And the same with business people. If we’re going to do business with a company, then we need to hold them to high standards and if they don’t meet those standards then we need to do something about it,” she continued. “We can’t consider that this is the way, it’s business as usual, and until we send that message to the people who have who always lived by that message it’s not going to get any better.”

Local leaders acknowledge that combating a culture where corrupt activity is tolerated remains a significant hurdle to regional progress.

“Some people are trying to rationalize this [Traficant’s actions] by categorizing the level of graft and corruption that [Traficant] participated in,” observed H. William Lawson, a member of ACTION, the Alliance of Congregational Transformation in Our Neighborhoods. “It wasn’t a matter that he was taking payoffs that amounted to hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars — nothing of that scale. Yet, I think the [Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations] charge in particular shows there is a pattern here where it’s all right to trade the power of your office for favors in return, and you can expect your staff members to kick back to you because you’ve got a cash flow problem. That the rules don’t necessarily apply.”

“That’s why I think you can’t say ‘well, nobody got hurt’ or ‘it didn’t involve millions of dollars’ or ‘national security was not compromised’ or ‘it didn’t stop him from being an effective congressman,’ ” he continued. “That’s not the point of this. The point is that the House of Representatives is governed by laws and ethics, all American citizens are governed by laws, and when you break those laws and when you compromise those ethics you have to be held accountable for it. It doesn’t matter the scale of the crime – it’s the fact that the crime was committed.”

Satre also rejects arguments by many Traficant defenders that other congressman do the same or worse as Traficant but didn’t get caught, or he was targeted for speaking out against the government, or that what id did wasn’t that bad.

“I have colleagues at the university here who have lived elsewhere, and they say that there is nothing like the Mahoning Valley when it comes to politics and the corruption of politics. So those people who say this is done everywhere, it’s done by other people? That’s wrong,” Satre asserted. “And you know what? Frankly, even if it’s done elsewhere it doesn’t mean that we want to emulate it. “He suggests that both public officials and citizens take part in programs to make clear what officeholders can and cannot do.

“One of the words that makes up the name of ACTION is transformation, and this community has to transform itself before the economy can improve, before race relations can improve, before we can really deal with the issues of poverty and neglect and civic responsibility across the region to make sure that everybody has the same chance to succeed,” Lawson explained. “The community has to stop viewing itself as being persecuted or ignored by the rest of the country, and stop feeling like there are roadblocks being set up so that we can’t be anything more than we are now, that somehow people on the outside are trying to take out our leaders and people that are fighting for us. We have to look at this and come away from it differently or else we will lose the opportunity to really change this community.”

One change may be that no central political leader fills the void many perceive to be left by Traficant.

“Politics may change. We may not have these kinds of dominant political figures any more – many areas don’t,”  Binning observed. “Maybe it’s healthier that we’re not do dependent on these political people, and the business community becomes stronger or the union leaders become stronger in terms of their position in the community.

“I’ve maintained for some time that we expect too much from politicians in this Valley.” he continued. ‘I’m not talking about character – I’m talking about in terms of producing jobs or solving problems. I think we look to them to accomplish probably more than they’re able to, and we need to look at other leadership, we have to look at other structures in the community to solve the problems of the Valley.”

Another change is that politics may no longer be the “blood sport” it has been – in part because the big political prize, the congressional seat, is not longer seen as available locally – and Binning reflected that it may be healthier for the region if it doesn’t return to that.

“There are communities where you don’t have the kind of fierce political battles that we’ve had, which has provided a great deal of entertainment but maybe it’s been too much of a distraction, and it’s cost us in other areas,” he  remarked. “Maybe it would be healthy for the Valley if politics wasn’t so central to everybody.”

Copyright © 2002 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

 

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