Thursday, May 31, 2001 at 2:28 PM
Congressional maverick James Traficant, Jr. was indicted in April on federal charges for alleged illegal activities in his homebase of Youngstown. Traficant faced similar accusations in 1983 and emerged victorious in a high profile trial. 90.3's David C. Barnett reports on how this master of the sound bite has used the media to maintain a folk hero status in his home district.
David C. Barnett- A mini van pulls up in front of the Youngstown federal courthouse and a flock of journalists and photographers surrounds the man who steps out. Congressman James Traficant smiles as a reporter asks him how he feels.
Jim Traficant: Most people have problems with a fly on their face. I have an elephant eating my ass.
The scribes chuckle. This is vintage Jim Traficant. Short and sweet, rude and crude. For nearly twenty years, Ohio's 17th District Congressman has flaunted convention, much to the pleasure of his constituents. Sporting a 70's vintage polyester suit and a gray hair-do that's been compared to a bird's nest, Jim Traficant gives off the image of a guy who doesn't care if you're offended by the way he talks ... or looks.
All he says he's interested in is helping the people of his district. United Church of Christ minister Werner Lange says that Traficant's strong local following has roots back in the days when he was County Sheriff.
Werner Lange- When the steel mills were shut-down in the late 1970s, there was a lot of foreclosures, including one a judge made him foreclose. He refused, and the judge threw him in jail. That made him overnight a working class hero in this community.
DCB- This part of Northeast Ohio is known as the Valley, after the Mahoning River Valley which defined a corridor of steel mills that shut down due to hard economic times 20 years ago. And then, Sheriff Traficant's working class hero's status was further tested with accusations of bribery and racketeering in connection with the Valley's powerful Mob.
To the surprise of many, he beat the federal charges against him by conducting his own defense in a controversial trial that cemented his heroic stature and led to nine terms as a member of Congress. Supporters like Werner Lange think his style perfectly matches the Youngstown state of mind.
WL- One of the things that he constantly compares himself to is, and I love this metaphor, and I think it resonates here in the Mahoning Valley -- a junkyard dog.
DCB- In mid-April, Federal prosecutors indicted James Traficant on new charges of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. And now, once again, the Congressman is preparing to conduct his own defense in a trial due to begin next year. This past week, he took his case to the people as the substitute host of a local talk show.
Among the members of Jim Traficant's radio audience this week was Dr. Thomas Flynn, an associate professor of Communication at nearby Slippery Rock University, across the border in Pennsylvania.
Thomas Flynn- He fits right into the format. He fits right into the Clear Channel line-up of Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh... kind of all the people who tend to speak of conspiracies in the government. That's his natural constituency - the audience.
DCB- In recent years, the sound-bite savvy Traficant has gained some notoriety for his Special Order one-minute speeches from the floor of the House. Communication analyst Thomas Flynn says the one-minute format is open to all representatives.
TF- Jim Traficant began, in a series of speeches, to talk about corruption in the Justice Department, the treason of Janet Reno, corruption in the local mafia and government here in Youngstown. Through this, he developed what I call "an attack strategy". It's his signature.
The official Washington media doesn't pay much attention to Jim Traficant.
DCB- Communication expert Thomas Flynn thinks it's time they did.
TF- (Jim Traficant) is very able, using the one-minute speeches, using the press releases, using talk radio to bypass any of the local media. There are local media who have questions that they want to ask. There are very serious charges being leveled against Jim Traficant.
Jim Traficant (on air)- I think it's time to take our government back. I think it's time to look them in the eye, like a junkyard dog in the middle of a hurricane.
DCB- Many here in the Valley see Jim Traficant as a junkyard underdog. Some wonder how many times this Congressional "Rocky" can make a late round comeback. But nobody's counting him out yet. In Youngstown, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN.
Jim Traficant (on air)- Just the son of a truck driver. You can reach me at U.S .Courthouse. My name is Jim Traficant, I've got a train to run. See you in Washington... take care.