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WASHINGTON With Traficant gone, staffers begin transition



Published: Fri, July 26, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Congressional vacancies are common. This is the eighth one this session.

By DAVID ENRICH

STATES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Every time staffers answer the phones in Suite 2446 of the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, they are smacked in the face with a painful new reality: They no longer work for James A. Traficant Jr.

"Office of the 17th District of Ohio," aides say quietly as they answer the main office phone. Until late Wednesday night, the preferred greeting had been "Congressman Traficant's Office."

Shortly after the Traficant era ended Wednesday with a lopsided vote to expel the Poland Democrat, Jeff Trandahl, the House clerk, set up a conference call with staffers in Washington and three district offices.

Trandahl explained that, as is the case whenever a House seat becomes vacant -- usually because a lawmaker dies or retires -- the offices continue to operate under the clerk's leadership.

"This is getting treated like any other vacancy," said Jim Forbes, spokesman for the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the office of the House clerk.

"The clerk, in essence, has become the member. The office is continuing its regular work."

What clerk can do

Trandahl has the power to hire and fire office employees, although Forbes says that is unlikely. If the office wants to spend money on anything, it has to be approved by the House Administration Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Bob Ney, a St. Clairsville Republican.

While the transition was swift, 20 staffers in Traficant's four offices will hover in an unusual state of limbo until January, when a representative for the 17th District is elected.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft announced Thursday that he would not call a special election to fill Traficant's vacancy. He decided that an additional primary and general election in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties would be too costly and confusing to voters.

Charles Straub, Traficant's chief of staff and press secretary, was still recuperating from an exhausting two weeks of ethics committee hearings and Wednesday's expulsion vote.

"You can imagine the mood, the transition will not be easy," Straub said in an e-mail. "We are all ready for a little time away from the office this weekend."

Not uncommon

Although Traficant's is the only empty congressional seat, vacancies are fairly common. This is the eighth vacancy during the 2001-02 legislative session.

The last one came in February, when Rep. Steve Largent, a Republican from Oklahoma's 1st District, retired.

Five months after Republican Rep. John Sullivan was elected to fill that vacancy, all but one of the former congressman's staffers have left the Capitol Hill office. Many have moved on to work for other lawmakers.

Traficant's aides are likely to follow course. As they start hunting for new jobs, Straub and other senior aides will have to struggle to keep the 17th District office functioning effectively.

"Morale can get hurt a lot of ways when you lose a member," said Brad Fitch, a 13-year Capitol Hill veteran who is deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation. "The biggest challenge for the office is to maintain some semblance of a public service mission. They can still as a staff provide many public services, such as helping constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy."

Rep. Ted Strickland, a Lucasville Democrat whose redrawn district includes chunks of Mahoning and Columbiana counties, says he has offered legislative assistance to local officials.

Traficant barely set foot in Washington all year, Strickland said, making him doubt whether the expulsion will have a big effect on the district.




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