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Minority leader has the last laugh



Published: Sun, April 14, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)




As Congressman-cum-convicted felon James A. Traficant Jr. would put it, "Payback's a female dog." And Traficant, who was found guilty Thursday of 10 federal criminal charges, was paid back in spades by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., who wasted little time in repudiating the Poland Democrat. The ink wasn't even dry on the jury's verdict forms before Gephardt was calling on Traficant to resign.

It wasn't that the minority leader believed his political nemesis would take his advice. After all, Traficant, who has represented the 17th District since 1985, has largely ignored his party's leader. Indeed, he committed the gravest of partisan political sins when he voted last year for Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois to be speaker of the House. That public snub could not go unpunished. Democrats in the House immediately turned their backs on Traficant as a sign of solidarity with Gephardt and denied him a committee assignment.

Recently, a spokesman for the House Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made it clear that Traficant's vote for Hastert had rendered him persona non grata with the party and that in this year's election, the committee believes a "good Democrat" will be elected to represent the 17th District.

So what was Gephardt trying to accomplish with his very public, very quick statement issued from Washington shortly after the jury of 10 women and two men found Traficant guilty in U.S. District Court in Cleveland? The minority leader was, in effect, challenging the Republican majority, led by Hastert, to try to ignore the very serious crimes of which Traficant had been convicted. They include racketeering, fraud, bribery and tax evasion.

Quick vote? While the House Ethics Committee announced that it would immediately take up the Traficant matter, it isn't hard to imagine a behind-the-scenes push by Democrats for a quick vote on expulsion. There are 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats and two independents in the House and it would take a two-thirds vote of the members to oust the convicted felon. Even if all 211 Democrats and the two independents voted for expulsion, 77 Republicans would still have to reject a man who has publicly sung Speaker Hastert's praises and has voted with the GOP on most major issues.

Meanwhile, Traficant gets to keep his seat and has said that he will appeal his conviction. U.S. District Court Judge Lesley Brooks Wells is expected to hold a sentencing hearing in June and could decide to stay the execution of sentence, meaning Traficant would be free while he appeals. On the other hand, she could order him immediately locked up in a federal penitentiary.

Should he end up behind bars while still a member of Congress, it is a safe bet the pressure would be on the Republicans to join the Democrats in voting for expulsion.

But with Traficant's sentencing at least two months away, the idea of his returning to Washington and passing Gephardt in the hallways or confronting him on the floor of the House of Representatives is intriguing, to say the least. As his comments upon emerging from the federal courthouse made clear, while he has suffered what is conceivably the greatest defeat of his life, he isn't going away quietly.

When told by reporters that Gephardt had called on him to resign, the Mahoning Valley's leading politician since 1985 made reference to the minority leader's manhood thusly: "Gephardt has no [expletive]. He can go [expletive] himself." And when pressed about the resignation issue and Gephardt's statement, Traficant contended that the Democratic leader was as effective as "---- on a boar."

Such venomous language is vintage Traficant, but it certainly won't endear him to his Democratic colleagues. Given the fact that the congressman faces fines of more than $90,000, his congressional paycheck has become a lifesaver. He needs to keep his seat until the end of the year.

Candidacy: Even though he plans to file as an independent candidate for the reconfigured 17th District seat -- the filing deadline is May 6, one day before the primary -- the chances of his defeating the Democratic nominee are slim to none.

While diehard Traficant supporters in the Mahoning Valley would vote for him even if he admitted that he was a cross-dresser -- political, that is -- it's inconceivable that the thinking voters of the district would give this crook a pass.




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