Woes of a congressional oddball


WASHINGTON - The corruption trial of Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., which began this month, will determine not just the guilt or innocence of the Ohio Democrat, but also something else: the future of free entertainment on Capitol Hill.

If Traficant is convicted, who would take the place of a politician known for lime-green polyester pants, bizarre floor speeches and hair so bad that no bald man would want it?

Prosecutors don't find the particulars of the Traficant case, which centers on charges of bribes and kickbacks, very amusing, and they say he belongs in prison. To those who relish political theater, Traficant is a reminder of how eccentric Congress used to be and how much blander it seems to grow.

Some congressional veterans see Traficant as one of the few remaining throwbacks, the kind of rough-hewn politician who populated Capitol Hill before the political parties began instructing lawmakers to guard against unguarded moments, before the scripted candidates started crowding out the idiosyncratic ones.

David Pryor, a former Democratic senator from Arkansas who heads the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, says he is struck by the desire of so many current members of Congress to blend in.

"There's all this talk about, 'I got a bald place on the back of my head.' Or, 'I got to put powder on.' Or, 'How am I going to show up on TV?'" Pryor says, noting the increasing influence of C-Span, which feeds minute-to-minute coverage of Congress to political junkies in every congressional district.

"People used to be elected because of their individuality, because they stood out in a crowd," he says. "Now there is a tendency for not showing your individual characteristics too much and speaking in 30-second sound bites."

When Traficant entered Congress in 1985, he worked alongside the late Rep. Jamie L. Whitten, a Mississippi Democrat with an accent so thick his Northern colleagues would smile and nod and wait for a translation, and the late Rep. Silvio O. Conte, a fun-loving Massachusetts Republican who cruised around in a bright red Pontiac nicknamed "The Judge."

Traficant has hung on while colleagues such as former Rep. Charles "Good Time Charlie" Wilson have left the spotlight. Wilson, a Texas Democrat who retired from the House in 1996, drew almost as much attention for taking a Playboy model to a White House party as he did for donning a bullet belt and sneaking into Afghanistan on a personal mission to support the mujahedeen rebels in the 1980s.

With flamboyance often comes scandal. Traficant could have learned that from the brash power broker Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat and former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who served time for mail fraud.

And there was the late Rep. Daniel "Dapper Dan" Flood, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Shakespearean actor with a pointy mustache who paraded around Capitol Hill in a cape. Flood was charged with influence peddling and quit in 1980 after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy.

Traficant, 60, was indicted last spring on charges of tax fraud, racketeering and bribery, including allegations that he accepted payoffs from executives in exchange for congressional favors. In the federal trial in Cleveland, Traficant is also accused of delivering false testimony to the grand jury and of trying to persuade a congressional aide to destroy evidence in the case.

The 10-count indictment also alleges that he siphoned $2,500 from an aide's wages and required staffers, without pay, to work on his farm - building a horse corral and baling hay - and to repair his houseboat. Traficant has pleaded not guilty "by reason of sanity" and argues that the government is waging a vendetta against him.

"I didn't force anybody to do anything," Traficant bellowed in his opening statement last week. "You know what I did: I fought like hell for my people."

The case is seen as the final element of a sprawling federal investigation that over the past 25 years has incriminated more than 70 public officials in the Mahoning Valley of northeastern Ohio, where Traficant was born and raised.

The area has long been so rife with purported ties to organized crime that The Saturday Evening Post once dubbed it "Crimetown U.S.A." (At one point, a Mafia-related car bombing was known as a "Youngstown tuneup.")

Voters in this depressed steel region, the thinking goes, identify with Traficant's spirit of rebellion against entrenched power, even if he comes out looking nutty.

He won national attention once he began delivering oddball soliloquies on the House floor. With his trademark Star Trek sign-off, "Beam me up" (or, for emphasis, "Beam me up, Scotty"), he has used the one-minute speeches that all House members are regularly allotted to attack such targets as the federal prosecutors who are bringing him to trial, the "nincompoops" at the Internal Revenue Service and a suspected transvestite in a French beauty contest.

The erratic behavior is not confined to Traficant's style. He so often votes Republican, even supporting Dennis Hastert for House speaker, that Democrats have barred him from serving on any committees, making him the only House member without a committee assignment.

In court, Traficant cuts an equally unorthodox figure. He is serving as his own attorney, though he is not a lawyer. Forgoing image consultants, he is mouthing off outside the courthouse, calling himself a "jackass and a fool" for having no fear of the legal fight. There is no damage-control team in sight.

Traficant's strategy then and now illustrates how little he seems to care about the conventions of public relations and how shrewdly he has manipulated them. To many in his hometown, Youngstown, he is a folk hero, a voice of the wounded Rust Belt, a lone man against a federal machine.

"The bellbottoms, the skinny knit ties, the hair not even combed - I think it's absolutely calculated," says David Betras, a criminal defense lawyer in Youngstown. "It's been the way he gets his message across. He's so unconventional you wind up listening to him. He has a very populist appeal."

In his 2000 campaign, Traficant pointed to the federal indictment against him to try to fire up long-time supporters against his accusers. He won easily, though he failed to capture more than half the vote in a crowded field.

As jury selection began last week, Traficant insisted that the note-taker he had hired not sit at his table, hoping to project the image of a man against a brigade of prosecutors armed with a voluminous and complex case.

In the trial, expected to last until at least the middle of next month and to include about 75 witnesses against him, Traficant is likely to cast himself as the victim of a vengeful government, though the judge has forbidden him to make that argument directly.

The argument has served him well in the past. In 1983, a jury in Youngstown acquitted Traficant, then the local sheriff, of federal charges that he had accepted bribes from organized crime figures.

He had come to trial with plenty of local goodwill. A former high school football hero, Traficant was elected Mahoning County sheriff in 1980 and was known for refusing to foreclose on the homes of out-of-work steel workers, a stand that landed him briefly in jail.

He represented himself in the 1983 bribery case, appearing in court with ripped green pants, carrying his notes in a paper bag and displaying wacky flourishes such as referring to himself as "my client."

Despite a signed confession and incriminating statements recorded on FBI tapes, Traficant won acquittal after arguing that he had been devising a covert sting operation and that the government was out to get him.

The next year, he was elected to Congress.

As bizarrely entertaining as Traficant strikes many of those outside his district, some Ohioans are mortified by his sometimes cartoonish ravings. Others are standing by him, saying they admire his working-class scrappiness and his refusal to yield, not even for the feds.

"He's a guy's guy, and he's a man's man," says Doug Bouslough, who owns the Newport Cafe, a Traficant haunt in Youngstown. "And I don't want to give him up."

Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

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