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Strong incumbents hurt Valley politicians



Published: Sun, January 20, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A majority of the population in the proposed 17th Congressional District live in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

By DAVID SKOLNICK

VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- If you just take population into account, the Mahoning Valley has a strong chance of having two local politicians representing this area next year in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But the political reality is the local candidates would have to defeat two well-financed incumbent congressmen and persuade other locals not to seek the posts, according to politicians and political scientists.

Based on the state Legislature's proposed redistricting plan, about 58 percent of the new 17th Congressional District's population would come from Trumbull and Mahoning counties with the rest coming from Portage and Summit counties.

Trumbull would have more than 210,000 residents in the new district and Mahoning would have about 150,000 residents in it.

U.S. Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer, an Akron Democrat, lives in the proposed 17th District. But Sawyer, an eight-term congressman, would be running for the first time in Mahoning and Trumbull counties under the redistricting plan. Also, much of Summit, his home county, has been taken from him.

What expert said: "The Sawyer district is where someone from the Valley is most likely to be elected," said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.

But he warned that going after Sawyer is an uphill battle for any Valley politician.

"Could someone come out of the Mahoning-Trumbull area? Yes, they certainly could," Green said. "But it's going to take a talented politician to compete with Sawyer because they'd be running against a highly skilled congressman."

Also, Sawyer has the power of incumbency, the most important trait for a congressional candidate, Green said.

"When you talk about incumbent congressmen, that's the A-team; the best of the politicians in this country, and if you throw a new district at them, they know how to get it done," Green said.

"Incumbents are entrenched, so they have the capacity to raise money and they have the staff, mailing lists and other resources they can use to their advantage."

If anyone from the Valley has a shot at seriously challenging Sawyer, Green said it would have to be a Democrat, because the district is drawn overwhelmingly in favor of that political party, and he or she would have to run this year.

If not, it gives an incumbent time to be more familiar to people he has not previously represented, he said.

Hagan's view: State Sen. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, who is considering a congressional run, said someone from the Valley could be elected to that seat, based solely on population numbers, but it's going to be "extremely difficult" to beat Sawyer.

"I think it can happen in the future, just not the near future," Hagan, a Democrat, said. "It's do-able if you get people, particularly organized labor, behind one candidate. The numbers are in our favor."

Hagan said some labor leaders have approached him about challenging Sawyer, but he is leaning toward running for the state Senate again. The filing deadline for congressional candidates is Feb. 21.

Those considering a run against Sawyer include state Sen. Timothy Ryan, a Warren Democrat; state Rep. Anthony A. Latell Jr., a Girard Democrat; and Mahoning County Recorder Ronald V. Gerberry, an Austintown Democrat and former state representative.

"If it was just one local candidate, we'd have a darn good shot, but Tom Sawyer is going to be very tough to beat," said state Rep. John Boccieri, a New Middletown Democrat.

"He can raise a lot of money and he's a sitting congressman. But if we put one person in, it could be a horse race based on population."

Defeating U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, a Lucasville Democrat, is also a major obstacle for Valley politicians, Green said.

Strickland was placed in a 12-county district that stretches more than 250 miles up the state's eastern border from his home county of Scioto into Columbiana County and ending in Poland in Mahoning County.

Also in the district is U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., a Poland Democrat whose political future is uncertain because of his federal indictment on 10 felony counts including racketeering and bribery. His trial is set to begin Feb. 4.

Another possibility: Mahoning County Treasurer John Reardon of Boardman had originally said he did not see much of a chance of beating Strickland.

But after looking at the proposed redistricting map, Reardon changed his mind and said he is considering a challenge to Strickland.

Under the redistricting plan, Columbiana would be the largest county based on population in the new 6th Congressional District with 112,075 people.

The section of Mahoning that is included in the district, all but its northeast portion, would be the second-largest county in the district based on population with more than 100,000 people followed by Jefferson County, which borders Columbiana, with 73,894 residents.

Columbiana and Mahoning would make up about 34 percent of the 6th District, and would jump to about 46 percent if Jefferson is included.

Although Traficant lives in the proposed 6th District, most political observers say if he runs for re-election, he would target Sawyer and the 17th District.

Traficant says he plans to run for re-election, but didn't say in which district. Under the law, state residents can run for any congressional seat in Ohio.

Traficant's chances: If Traficant is acquitted of the charges, he could beat Sawyer, said Bill Binning, chairman of Youngstown State University's political science department.

Green said it would be a very competitive primary if Traficant is acquitted.

But if Traficant runs while his legal issues are unresolved, he'll have big problems beating Sawyer, Green said.

The best bet for a Valley challenger to Strickland would come from Columbiana County, which could attract voters from the surrounding counties of Mahoning and Jefferson, and possibly Belmont, Binning said.

Any challenge to Strickland would prove to be very costly because there are many media markets, most of them small, in the proposed district, Green said.

Also, Strickland currently represents half of the counties in his proposed new district, giving him an advantage there. Those six southern Ohio counties make up about 42 percent of Strickland's new district.

When it became apparent that the Valley's congressional district was going to be eliminated and the pieces placed in other districts, several local politicians were upset that the area could be left with no U.S. House members living in Mahoning, Trumbull or Columbiana counties.

But their position is softening.

"Influence comes from the voting totals and congressmen in this district will pay close attention to us because of our size and out of concern of a potential challenge coming from this area," Hagan said.

"You'll see a lot of staff people in the Mahoning Valley. Strickland and Sawyer will have offices here. If you have two congressional offices here, that's pretty influential."

"If we have a larger segment of population in our area, it figures we should have the lion's share of our congressman's ear and time," Boccieri added. "When everything shakes out, we may not be in bad shape."

Also, the proposed plan brings with it the possibility of congressmen in future years from both Mahoning and Trumbull, Latell said.

As for the chance that someone in northern Trumbull County could capture the proposed 14th District seat, which is currently held by U.S. Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, a Madison Republican, Binning and Green said it is extremely remote.

The redistricting effort strengthened LaTourette's power base in Northeast Ohio. Trumbull County, which would be new to LaTourette's district, counts for about 2 percent of his new constituency.

If anyone is to replace or defeat LaTourette, Green said it would be a Republican from Lake County or possibly Geauga County.

skolnick@vindy.com




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