The governor sponsored a fund-raiser for the Republican candidate for Congress, touting her as the best choice for the Mahoning Valley.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
CHAMPION -- If U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. is kicked out of Congress, Gov. Bob Taft believes state law compels him to call a special election to fill the vacancy, even if the seat is open for just a few weeks.
Taft said he is having the Ohio Secretary of State and Attorney General offices research the law on filling vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives and hopes to have a legal opinion soon.
"Our understanding is, I would be required to call a special election," Taft said during a local visit Wednesday.
But state law on U.S. House vacancies is vague. The law reads:
"When a vacancy in the office of representative to Congress occurs, the governor, upon satisfactory information thereof, shall issue a writ of election directing that a special election be held to fill such vacancy in the territory entitled to fill it on a day specified in the writ."
The state law does not require a certain time frame for a special election -- although it requires a primary be held before a special general election -- which means it is left up to Taft to decide when it is held.
Also, an Ohio Secretary of State spokesman has said the governor has broad statutory authority to set the dates.
"The people of the Mahoning Valley would like to have strong, vigorous representation in Washington," Taft said. "That has to be taken into consideration."
For Taft, that person is state Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin, an Aurora Republican running for the 17th District.
Taft, a Republican, sponsored a fund-raiser Wednesday at the Youngstown Club for Womer Benjamin, raising about $20,000, and the two visited Kent State University Trumbull Campus to tour the school and tout the governor's Third Frontier project to promote high-technology programs and companies.
"She's honest, hard-working; she's independent-minded," said Taft, who had Womer Benjamin on his short list earlier this year as a running mate. "It would be a great opportunity for this district to have someone so vigorous and effective bringing home dollars and resources from Washington to the Mahoning Valley."
Taft said Womer Benjamin would be in a great position to do so much good for the Valley if she is elected to Congress because she would be in the majority party, and has a proven track record.
"She has experience -- something you can't say about her opponent," Taft said in reference to Democrat Timothy J. Ryan of Niles, a state senator with 19 months of elected political experience.
Taft said he would prefer to have the special primary held before the Nov. 5 general election and hold the special general election Nov. 5.
Could be some confusion
A special primary and general election for the 17th Congressional District seat has the potential for much confusion among voters, Taft acknowledged.
First, the district lines are significantly changing effective Jan. 1. The current 17th District includes Mahoning County, nearly all of Columbiana County, and all of Trumbull County except its western portion. The new 17th District would include portions of Mahoning, Trumbull, Portage and Summit counties, but not Columbiana.
"If we held the special and general elections at the same time, it would be complicated," Taft said.
Second is the cost.
Under Taft's Nov. 5 plan, Columbiana County, which is going through a financial crisis, would have to spend thousands of dollars to hold special elections to select a member of Congress for about seven weeks.
A special primary and general election would cost Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull about $400,000.
"The expense and cost is a major factor," Taft said.
Also, those in Columbiana County would see two congressional races on their ballots -- one for the new 6th District, where the county will be located effective next year, and one for the current 17th District, where it is now.
Lack of representation
The 17th District has essentially not been represented in Congress this year. Traficant, a Poland Democrat, has not cast a vote in Congress this year. He spent the first portion of the year preparing for his federal corruption trial and then defending himself against the charges. He was convicted April 11 of 10 felonies, including bribery and racketeering. Since his conviction, the House ethics committee has warned him to not cast a vote. He has honored that request.
The ethics committee is deliberating its recommendation to the House as to how Traficant should be punished. He could face expulsion.