Mahoning County, Ohio, has long been a Democratic area (until its 2020 vote for Trump, that is). From 1937 to present, there has been only a six-year interruption of Democratic representation in Congress of this Youngstown-based county. Its current representative, Tim Ryan, made a run for president. However, this post is not about him, its about his old boss.
Jim Traficant (1941-2014) came from a humble background and for a time tried out for professional football after his time playing college football, but he returned to his community and participated in efforts to combat illegal drug use. In 1980, he was elected sheriff of Mahoning County as a Democrat despite lacking party support. In office, he took a page from the book of William Langer in his refusal to enforce court orders to foreclose on ten unemployed mill workers on account of the 1981-82 recession. He was jailed for contempt of court for three days and then he agreed to go forth, but there is no support quite like what you can get from sticking your neck out for people like that. Unfortunately, like with Langer, this refusal to carry through the law here carried on to other matters. In August 1982, Traficant was indicted for accepting $163,000 in bribes from mobsters from Pittsburgh and Cleveland who had contributed to his campaign for sheriff in exchange for ignoring their activities. He was tried under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act. Traficant steadfastly refused to resign, stating, “To all those politicians who want me to resign: go fuck yourselves” (Langeveld). In an unconventional move, he opted to represent himself and argued before the court that he had taken the bribes as part of an undercover operation into corruption and that he had intended to entrap them. Normally, this would be the end of a budding political career, but in fact it was just the beginning. The jury bought it and he became the only person to ever win a RICO case representing himself.
Traficant in Congress, Part I: Democratic Rule, 1985-1995
As it turns out, it wasn’t only the jury that bought his story, it was also the voters who ousted Republican Lyle Williams in 1984, with Traficant prevailing by over seven points. The Democratic Party organization once again didn’t support him. This was his closest race, and he would easily win reelection thereafter. Traficant was a consistent foe of President Reagan and his record in this time was quite liberal. He continued to be fairly liberal for his next few terms and stood as a staunch foe of trade agreements, holding that they harmed working class Americans. Traficant held the same was true for immigration, legal and illegal. Indeed, there were cultural issues even in his more liberal years that he stood as a conservative on. Traficant also took an interest in defending people who were accused of Nazi war crimes. He along with Pat Buchanan came to the defense of retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk, who was accused by Israel of being a particularly monstrous Ukrainian SS guard at Treblinka death camp nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible”. Although convicted, he would be released in 1993 as evidence from KGB files arose identifying a man who looked different named Ivan Marchenko as “Ivan the Terrible” (Laub). Traficant would fly to Israel to accompany Demjanjuk home. He was, however, a guard at Sobibor and would be convicted in 2009 in Germany and died during his appeal. In 1990, Traficant urged Arthur Rudolph, a former NASA scientist who had been accused by the Justice Department of atrocities regarding slave labor while working for the Nazis, to return to the United States to force the government to prove charges against him. He also charged that a “powerful Jewish lobby” was intimidating elected officials to not speak up on the case (The New York Times). This was one of the earliest signs of his anti-Semitism.
Beam Me Up! The Speeches of Traficant
Traficant was known for his rather shabby appearance in his wearing of denim jackets and an outrageous toupee but also for his colorful speeches on the floor of Congress, which he would often end with, “Beam me up”. His speeches covered complaints with the federal government and some matters that would be thought of as culture complaints. A few examples of these speeches are as follows:
“Mr. Speaker, a new report says only 7 percent of scientists believe in God. That is right. And the reason they gave was that the scientists are ‘super smart.’ Unbelievable. Most of these absent-minded professors cannot find the toilet. I have one question for these wise guys to constipate over: How can some thing come from no thing? And while they digest that, Mr. Speaker, let us tell it like it is. Put these super-cerebral master debaters in some foxhole with bombs bursting all around them, and I guarantee they will not be praying to Frankenstein. Beam me up” (Bresnahan).
“Madam Speaker, it started with the training bra and then it came to the push-up bra, the support bra, the Wonderbra, the super bra. There is even a smart bra. Now, if that is not enough to prop up your curiosity, there is now a new bra. It is called the holster bra, the gun bra. That is right, a brassiere to conceal a hidden handgun. Unbelievable. What is next? A maxi-girdle to conceal a Stinger missile? Beam me up! I advise all men in America against taking women to drive-in movies who may end up getting shot in a passionate embrace” (Camina).
“From the womb to the tomb, Madam Speaker, the Internal Rectal Service is one big enema. Think about it: They tax our income, they tax our savings, they tax our sex, they tax our property-sales profits, they even tax our income when we die. Is it any wonder America is taxed off? We happen to be suffering from a disease called Taxes Mortis Americanus. Beam me up!” (Camina)
While he had many fans in his district, he had few fans in Congress, his colleagues generally finding him to be an irritation.
Traficant in Congress Part II: The Republican Revolution
Starting with the Republicans winning Congress in the 1994 midterms, Traficant moved increasingly to the right, becoming more and more critical of the IRS and high taxes. He was also strongly pro-life. In Traficant’s first ten years in office, his average MC-Index score stands as a 15%, solidly but not extremely liberal. From 1995 to 2002, however, his average MC-Index score jumped to a 60%, with him scoring a 72% in his final term. His lifetime score was a 35%. In 2001, Traficant voted for Republican Dennis Hastert for speaker, a most unusual move even for someone ideologically out of step with their party. Not even the late Larry McDonald, the most conservative member of Congress to identify as a Democrat, crossed the aisle on that one. The Democratic leadership punished Traficant by stripping him of seniority and denying him committee assignments. Although there was speculation that Traficant would be joining the GOP, they were not interested in taking him in. This rendered him completely powerless in Congress and matters would get worse for him.
On May 4, 2001, Traficant was indicted on numerous corruption charges. Among them was that he demanded kickbacks of up to $2500 from his staffers a month for them to remain employed and that he accepted bribes from local businessmen in exchange for favors (Langeveld). He was convicted of all counts, including fraud, tax evasion, racketeering, and bribery in 2002. As sentencing was being considered for Traficant, Congress sought to expel him and the House Committee on Ethics held hearings. At the hearings, he engaged in his antics, threatening to call for the expulsion of members of the committee and expressing his desire to kick his prosecutor in the crotch (Langeveld). The Ethics Committee found Traficant guilty of nine counts of ethics violations and he was expelled from Congress by a vote of 420-1, with the sole dissenter being Gary Condit of California, who had already lost his bid for renomination. Traficant stands with Michael “Ozzie” Myers of Pennsylvania as the only two people to have been expelled from Congress since the War of the Rebellion. Eight days later, he was sentenced to eight years in prison yet ran for Congress as an Independent against his former aide, Democrat Tim Ryan, and won 15% of the vote. Although long disconnected from the mainstream of American politics, his conviction won him the sympathies of white nationalists and fringe right figures including David Duke and Willis Carto. They had remembered fondly his defenses of Rudolph and Demjanjuk as well as his butting heads with Jewish advocacy groups.
After his release from prison in 2009, Traficant became more outspoken against the income tax and called for the repeal of the 16th Amendment as well as the elimination of numerous cabinet departments. This got him attention from the Tea Party and he spoke at several of their events. He also became a columnist for Carto’s American Free Press, writing in his first article, “America needs to be informed—needs to hear and read the whole story, the truth, the facts and the dynamics of political action that secure and protect our freedom. Having said that, I encourage you to subscribe to AFP and read my weekly column. I plan to address the influence and power of AIPAC and its control over our very lives. The reason to abolish the Federal Reserve system; the reason to abolish our Communist progressive income tax; the absolute need to repeal the 16th Amendment to the Constitution; and my proposals to save and create jobs; to stop the hemorrhaging of our federal debt, to reverse our massive trade deficit and stop illegal immigration” and pledged to once again help John Demjanjuk (Smith). In 2010, Traficant tried to return to Congress, running as an Independent who wanted to repeal the income tax amendment. He also denied that he was guilty of the charges for which he had been imprisoned, stating, “Jim Traficant really didn’t commit any crime. I was the number one target of the Justice Department since 1983. And the number one target of a very powerful lobby, American Israel Public Affairs Committee” (Rayfield). Traficant would also speak at Freedompalooza in 2013 along with former Representative Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), an event sponsored by American Free Press and organized by Paul Topete, lead singer of the band “Pokerface” and virulently anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist (ADL). A year later, Traficant died from injuries sustained in a tractor accident.
Jim Traficant stands as a most bizarre figure in Congress, one whose rise to many seems inexplicable, but he had a way of appealing to the working-class people of his district by sharing many of their social values and was in truth a shrewd but deeply corrupt politician…no less of a figure could turn an (almost) air-tight mob bribery case into a 17-year Congressional career. It is strangely fitting that his career in national politics was essentially bookended between bribery cases.
Anti-Semites And Extremists To Host “Freedompalooza 2013” On July 4th Weekend. (2013, June 19). Anti-Defamation League.
Bresnahan, J. (2014, September 27). James Traficant dies at 73. Politico.
Camina, C. (2014, September 27). Beam me up: 5 classic Jim Traficant quotes. USA Today.
Congressman Defending Scientist Who Is Suspected in War Crimes. (1990, May 15). The New York Times.
Langeveld, D. (2016, April 16). Jim Traficant: beamed out. The Downfall Dictionary.
Laub, K. (1993, July 29). Possible ‘Ivan’ Last Seen In Brothel In 1945. Associated Press.
Rayfield, J. (2010, February 23). Ex-Con And Ex-Rep. Traficant Talks Taxes, Communists On CNN (VIDEO). Talking Points Memo.
Smith, B. (2009, October 30). Traficant, columnist, promises to testify in Germany for alleged Nazi. Politico.
Traficant guilty of bribery, racketeering. (2002, April 12). CNN.