Why Youngstown, Ohio, Loved ‘Jimbo’ Traficant

September 27, 2014

On national holidays, I hang a beautiful American flag in my front yard. It’s a keepsake flag that, at the request of a congressman, flew over the Capitol.

It was sent to me by Jim Traficant, the Ohio Democrat who spent 17 years representing my hometown in Congress. He spent seven more years in prison after being convicted in 2002 of bribery and racketeering. He was one of only four congressmen in history to be expelled from Washington.

That flag helps me understand why Traficant remained popular with so many people in Youngstown. It helps me appreciate rogue politicians.

Traficant died on Saturday following injuries sustained in an accident on his family farm earlier in the week. He was riding a tractor that flipped over. He lingered a few days and then died; he was 73.

Few outside of Youngstown will mourn his passing. Many will laugh at the memory of his oft-used command on the House floor: “Beam me up, Mr. Speaker.”

The bad toupee, the denim suit with the high-water pants, the bombastic style; he was like a profane cartoon character. When he was in Congress and I was a reporter on the Hill, people would laugh if I mentioned I was from Youngstown. My parents’ congressman was a punch line.

In fact, he was much worse than that. He was a crook. In the early 1980s, while serving as county sheriff, he got caught taking money from mobsters. He convinced a hometown jury that he was merely gathering evidence, and he was acquitted.

But a crook is a crook. Eventually, he was convicted of bribery and racketeering and the House Ethics Committee expelled him.

Still, so many people in Youngstown loved him. They did to the end.

Karen Worstell, a Youngstown grandmother, told NPR that she would have voted for Traficant any time: “If he’d ever run for office again, I would have voted for him because I knew what kind of politics he was; he was honest with the people. It was the people, not the government, it was the people.”

Back when Traficant was still in high office, I gave a speech in Youngstown to a large group of business leaders. I told them that Youngstown would never be able to rise above its reputation for organized crime until voters there stopped electing crooks.

A few days later, a box arrived. It had that beautiful flag and a note from Traficant praising me for making my hometown proud with my achievements as a journalist. No mention of my speech’s message — just hometown pride.

And you know, I felt proud.

When you are from a place that has been kicked down by industry, overrun by crime, abandoned by government and treated like a pariah, you feel kind of bad. And when someone says, “We may be down, but we stick together” — you feel that too.

Unlike the big corporations, Traficant never deserted his community — except, of course, for those years in prison.

Now, whenever I hear people wonder how a guy like Marion Barry could keep getting elected time and again in Washington, D.C. — despite the crack pipe video and his long list of legal troubles — I understand. Sometimes, even a bad guy can make you feel good.

Marilyn Geewax is a senior business editor for NPR.

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