Some political opportunists in Ohio are seizing on the problems of U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. to call for the cannibalization of the congressional district he serves.
The Columbus Dispatch, for instance, ran an editorial headlined: "Downsize Traficant; Ohio is losing a House seat; let it be his."
We'd say that depends on what the meaning of "his" is.
To be sure, Traficant was elected to represent the 17th Congressional District of Ohio. The extent to which he is representing his district today is a matter for debate, but more on that later.
But having been elected from the 17th District does not make it "his," anymore than having been elected as a Democrat necessarily makes him a Democrat. (More on that later, too.)
The stakeholders: The 17th Congressional District, comprising Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, does not belong to Traficant. It belongs to the people of this district. And there-in lies the flaw in the Dispatch's logic.
When it says "The Ohio congressman most deserving of a career change is Youngstown Democrat James A. Traficant Jr., who was indicted on 10 charges ..." the newspaper is probably speaking the truth. But whether Traficant has to change careers will be decided by a federal judge and jury in Cleveland soon enough. It shouldn't be decided by gerrymandering politicians or holier-than-thou editorialists in Columbus.
The 17th District has a geographic and economic identity that is far more important than the individual who happens to be representing it at any given time. The Mahoning Valley, and the problems that face the Valley, as well as the potential solutions for its problems, are best addressed by one representative.
Who gets hurt? Pulling Mahoning County out of the district so that it could be represented by a politician from Canton or Akron would not teach Traficant a lesson. It would deprive the 17th District of its identity and its residents of any chance of true representation.
These days, the 17th District is getting sub-par representation. Traficant is operating under a cloud. The likelihood of his bringing new money to the Valley any time soon is slim. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., says Traficant is an independent, not a Democrat. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, says this isn't time for Traficant to declare himself a Republican.
He is a man without a party, a congressman without a committee and a politician who just last week saw officials of his strongest constituency, organized labor, call for him to resign.
None of this bodes well for Traficant. But whatever his sins may be -- and there is reason to believe they are considerable -- that is no reason for people in Columbus who have the responsibility for redistricting the state of Ohio based on 2000 census figures to target the Mahoning Valley and the 17th District.
Setting precedent: Traficant is not the first Ohio congressman to be indicted, and if he is found guilty, he won't be the first to be convicted. We don't recall the legal troubles of any other representative being used as an excuse to disenfranchise his or her constituents. There's no reason to set a precedent with the Mahoning Valley.
There are many ways to redistrict Ohio to eliminate a district without chopping up the 17th District, which has boundaries that make geographic and political sense. The district should get the respect it -- if not its present representative -- deserves.