Most people in Portage and Summit counties, when asked about the congressional race, could not identify any of the candidates fromthe Mahoning Valley.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
Despite having never represented Portage and Summit counties and also being a felon, U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. has fans in those areas of the new 17th Congressional District.
A number of them who were questioned by The Vindicator during a trip through the two counties said they would vote for Traficant if his name were on the ballot. Even though he faces potential expulsion from the U.S. House for his 10-count federal conviction, Traficant, a Poland Democrat, has no plans to resign and says he will run in November as an independent candidate.
"I'd vote for Traficant because he's done a lot of good stuff," said Mike Large of Ravenna. "I think he'll win in a landslide."
Traficant also has his detractors.
"I think he's an idiot," said Warren Henry of Kent.
The state Legislature enacted new congressional districts, which take effect next year. That severely alters the Mahoning Valley's representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Most of Trumbull County and the urban portion of Mahoning County, including Youngstown, Struthers, Campbell and Lowellville, Poland Township and most of Austintown were placed in the 17th Congressional District along with much of Portage County and a section of Summit County.
Much of Portage and Summit counties have been represented by U.S. Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer, an Akron Democrat, for several years. Most political experts say Sawyer is the favorite to win the May 7 Democratic primary because of his power of incumbency and because he is the only non-Valley candidate in the race. The thought is Sawyer will win Summit and Portage easily, and as long as he can be competitive in Mahoning and Trumbull, he will win.
But among the Summit and Portage county residents who spoke to the newspaper about the race, the support for Sawyer was mixed.
"Sawyer's one of those nicey-nice guys who shakes your hand and pats you on the back and does nothing," said Vern Glenn of Akron, a retired laborer. "We can do better. I don't vote for anybody who smiles as much as he does. Traficant's a pretty cool guy. He's done a lot of wrong things, but he's done a lot of good things for his people. He hasn't done any more or any less than those yahoos. The only difference is he got caught."
Sheldon Craft of Akron, a barber, had a different perspective of Sawyer.
"He's a good man who's thinks of people," he said. "People have benefited from his knowledge, and his expertise is going to show, especially in the new areas. I think the Youngstown area will benefit from having Sawyer in the district."
Out of date
Craft had praise for Traficant but says the Poland congressman's rough-and-tumble style doesn't work anymore.
"You've got to be the nice guy," he said. "People need a helping hand. You don't want to offend more people than you help."
Besides Sawyer, there are five other Democrats running in the May 7 primary -- state Sen. Timothy J. Ryan of Niles, state Rep. Anthony A. Latell Jr. of Girard, Maridee Costanzo of Warren, Bryan Taafe of Austintown and Joe Louis Teague of Youngstown. State Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin of Aurora is the lone Republican candidate.
As far as name recognition in Portage and Summit counties, the Valley candidates have a long way to go. An overwhelming majority of those in the two counties who were asked about the race could not identify any of the Valley candidates.
Sawyer has received criticism from labor for a few of his votes, including his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Akron labor leaders are split on whether Sawyer's votes will cost him the support of union members.
"Despite the notable exceptions, he has voted with labor 99 percent of the time," said Mike O'Connor, president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 7-L, which represents workers at Akron's Bridgestone-Firestone rubber plant. "In terms of the Youngstown area, we really don't know the candidates. Latell and Ryan appear to be the front-runners from Youngstown, but I don't know much about them."
Howard Kropff, vice president of the USWA Local 2-L at Akron's Goodyear rubber plant, said Sawyer has been a good congressman, but some of his votes have hurt labor.
"It's too bad he can't focus on jobs," Kropff said. "What we can't understand about Tom is he's a Democrat and he knew what our concerns were, and he didn't listen to them."
Although the Akron union is not terribly familiar with the Valley candidates, its members opted to endorse Latell because of his proven pro-labor track record, Kropff said.
Residents of Portage and Summit counties are mixed about whether the redistricting plan that puts them in the same congressional district as much of Trumbull and Mahoning is a good thing.
"It's a big district, but I don't see it as a problem to be in the same district as Youngstown," said Roger Blair of Ravenna, who said he would vote for Womer Benjamin. "I think it was done because the Republicans weren't sure they'd be able to get Traficant out any other way."
But fellow Ravenna resident Holly Christopher has real concerns about redistricting.
"Ravenna is small enough; by putting us in with other areas, we'll probably disappear," she said.
David Payne of Kent said he can see few similarities between the Akron-Kent area and the Mahoning Valley.
"Congressional districts should be tied to economic bases," he said. "It doesn't seem as though the economic bases are similar. How can a person in Congress address the issues from two divergent areas?"