By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- J.J. Cafaro, the multimillionaire shopping center developer, dreamed of a life in politics, preferably as a U.S. senator or congressman.
It was his lifelong ambition.
But because his father, the late William Cafaro, refused to allow him to run for any political office, Cafaro has satisfied his passion by playing an active role in national politics.
That includes donations from himself and his family of about $1 million during the past eight years to candidates and campaign committees and entertaining presidents and other high-level federal officials at his palatial estates in Liberty and Chevy Chase, Md.
Some people collect stamps or baseball cards. Cafaro collected private telephone numbers of congressmen.
"Even more so than the congressman, J.J. is probably the biggest player in the Valley as far as the Washington scene is concerned," said Don L. Hanni Jr., prominent local attorney and former chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party who has been friends with Cafaro for several years. "He's acquainted with the leaders on both sides of the political aisle."
Monte Friedkin, the Democratic National Committee's finance chairman from 1989 to 1992 and a former Liberty Township resident, said Cafaro has plenty of influence in Washington.
"There was no elected official in Washington who J.J. couldn't get on the phone on either side of the aisle," said Friedkin, who is now the Palm Beach County Democratic Party chairman.
"There aren't 100 people in this country who have the influence Jay has on the national scene," added Vic Rubenstein, a local marketing and political consultant who has known Cafaro for 25 years.
Soon enough, Cafaro also will be a convicted felon -- having agreed to plead guilty to a one-count criminal information filed last week that charges him with conspiracy to bribe U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. of Poland.
His plea will be taken at 1 p.m. Monday in U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver's courtroom in Cleveland.
The price: The admission of guilt comes with a big price. Those close to him say Cafaro's days of being a major player in national political party circles are over.
So why would Cafaro, who can get his calls taken by top Republican and Democratic lawmakers, have to turn to Traficant, D-17th, for assistance in getting the Federal Aviation Administration to purchase laser-guidance technology from his USAerospace Group company?
Perhaps Cafaro's familiarity with Traficant, the Mahoning Valley's congressman, was a factor, those close to him say. Also, between 1997 and 1999, when prosecutors say Cafaro paid off Traficant, the congressman served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee, which could push legislation in the House to help his aerospace company. He also had access to FAA officials because of his subcommittee seat.
There's also the possibility that Cafaro was appeasing Traficant so that when the congressman left office, he would endorse Cafaro's daughter, Capri, who had plans to run for Traficant's seat next year, his friends say. But his daughter's political plans are now uncertain with the charges against her father, particularly since she listed USAerospace as her employer on several campaign contribution forms.
"J.J. crossed a line he shouldn't have crossed, but he should have known better than to trust Traficant," Rubenstein said.
"A lot of people in and around government slide too easily along the edges," added Harry Meshel, a former Ohio Senate president and minority leader and ex-chairman of the state's Democratic Party who has known the Cafaro family for years.
Cafaro declined to comment.
"I suppose J.J. figured he needed Traficant for something," Friedkin said. "It's no different than Eddie [DeBartolo] Jr. getting involved with the payola deal with [former Louisiana Gov.] Edwin Edwards. I don't know where their brains are at. It's dumb. You're just looking for trouble when you start paying off public officials. It's just not a smart approach."
Distrust for congressman: Although the Cafaro family has worked with the congressman in the past, members have had a certain level of distrust toward Traficant since Day 1.
That distrust stems from Traficant's first run for Congress in 1984 as an anti-establishment candidate, when he portrayed big business, including the Cafaro Co., as the enemy. At the time, the Cafaro Co. was one of the largest Democratic contributors in the country.
During the 1984 campaign, Traficant claimed the company received a sweetheart deal from Mahoning County that allowed it to sell the former Treasure Island building on Market Street to the county for a profit. The Cafaro Co. produced documents proving the allegations false.
Also during that campaign, Traficant broadcast campaign commercials attacking the company. Those commercials were paid for by the Democratic National Committee, which had been supported with large cash donations for years by the Cafaro family.
"J.J. called the head of the national committee and told him, 'If you don't stop that spot immediately, you will lose me as a contributor forever,'" recalled Rubenstein, who heard the conversation on a speaker phone in Cafaro's office. "He was told to not play a card he didn't have. He then placed a call to the Republican National Committee and became a Republican on the spot."
Still contributed: But over time, Cafaro contributed to Democratic candidates, including $190,000 to the Democratic National Party between 1999 and 2000, as well as Republicans. Also, his position on Traficant softened.
Cafaro's father, founder of the Cafaro Co., and his brother, Anthony, the company's current president, worked quietly behind the scenes with politicians who they felt could help their business interests as well as those they believed could make a positive difference. J.J. was different, and his family did all they could to reign him in with no success.
"He was more vocal and visible," Meshel said. "He got more deeply involved with individuals, and he worked for both parties."
He desperately wanted to run for political office, but his father was concerned how it would affect the family's business and wouldn't let him do it, Meshel said.
"He would have been a formidable opponent," Meshel said of Cafaro.
Over the years, there was talk of Cafaro as a U.S. senator.
"When you run for office, you expose your entire mind, soul and body to the opposition, and that's what Bill Cafaro was afraid of if J.J. ran," Rubenstein said.
One scenario, Rubenstein said, had Cafaro take over for John Glenn in 1984 if the former astronaut was elected president, thus creating a vacancy in the Senate. Cafaro has told many stories of wanting to run for Congress but being told he could never get that one key vote: his father's.
Approached last year: Hanni said top state Democratic leaders approached Cafaro last year about running against U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican, but Cafaro opted not to seek the spot.
While he would never run, Cafaro has been pushing the candidacy of his daughter, Capri, for Congress.
"It's a natural thing with a bright daughter interested in politics," Meshel said. "She'd be a natural. If you weren't a good ballplayer but you loved the sport, you'd like your daughter to be a good ballplayer."
To some people, Cafaro is known as Anthony's not-too-bright younger brother. Anthony and others say the categorization is not fair.
"He is a person of great vision and great long-term planning abilities," Anthony Cafaro said. "He can see the big picture. He has great perspective and understands trends in various industries."
Hanni said he had heard the stereotype of Cafaro before he met him and was "pleasantly surprised to find out he's a bright guy with some great ideas."
But Cafaro has two major drawbacks, those close to him say. First, he's not a great detail person and tends to delegate too many tasks he should take care of himself. Second, he is not satisfied to concentrate on the company's main mission of shopping center development and management.
"Our philosophy is to be an expert in our chosen area," said Anthony Cafaro. "Whenever we've strayed, we've not been as successful."
That includes a failed attempt at running a restaurant, a microbrewery and a hotel. On his own, J.J. Cafaro struggled to keep his New Avanti Motor Corp. above water before it sank along with millions of his own dollars. And, there was his peculiar foray into the airplane laser-guidance technology business with the opening of USAerospace Group in the summer of 1997.
The Virginia company, which was not affiliated with the Cafaro Co., suspended operations in the fall of 2000 while federal authorities were investigating Traficant on charges including bribery related to USAerospace. His friends wonder how Cafaro even got involved in the business because he knows nothing about airplane laser-guidance technology.
Position at company: Cafaro is back at his family's company in his familiar position of executive vice president.
"His position in the organization has not been modified one bit," his brother said.
He may still contribute to political candidates and committees, but it will be a lot less than in previous years. Also, Cafaro is going to stick to what he and his family's company knows best: shopping center management and development.
Rubenstein is not so sure about that.
"He'll never pull back," he said. "It's too much a part of him."