An incumbent Democrat easily won the 6th Congressional District primary and will face a former Columbiana County commissioner in November.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
NILES -- So much for the insight of political pundits.
Every election expert from Youngstown to Akron predicted a win, and an easy one at that, for U.S. Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer in Tuesday's Democratic primary for the 17th Congressional District seat.
It turns out they were wrong.
State Sen. Timothy J. Ryan of Niles, a 28-year-old with 17 months of elected political experience, trounced five other Democratic candidates, including Sawyer, of Akron, and state Rep. Anthony A. Latell Jr. of Girard, both of whom have more than 25 years of elected experience.
"I thought I could win big, but I was too scared to believe it," Ryan said.
Also, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland of Lucasville turned back the challenges of two opponents in the Democratic primary for the 6th Congressional District seat.
He will meet Michael Halleck of Salem, a former Columbiana County commissioner, who beat former U.S. Rep. Lyle Williams of Lordstown in the Republican primary.
Strickland won 11 of the district's 12 counties, losing in Mahoning by less than 500 votes; Halleck won in 10 of the counties.
Sawyer, an eight-term congressman who lost for the first time in 19 elections, said the geography of the new 17th Congressional District did him in. The new 17th includes portions of Mahoning, Trumbull, Summit and Portage counties.
What was expected
Political experts believed that Sawyer, because of his incumbency and ability to raise money, would have no trouble winning in Summit and Portage, two counties he has represented for years, and the five Mahoning Valley candidates would split Mahoning and Trumbull, neutralizing the two counties' 58 percent majority in the new district.
Sawyer dominated in Summit and Portage but was left in the dust by Ryan in Mahoning and Trumbull. In the two Valley counties, Ryan beat Sawyer by about 15,000 votes.
"You can't work any harder, but some things are logistically beyond capability," a somber Sawyer said at a press conference outside Anthony's on the River in Youngstown. "Some of it is hometown preference. It was a geographic issue."
Another major issue, Sawyer said, was his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which upset a number of local union members who blame the agreement for job losses. Sawyer said if he had been representing the Valley when that vote was taken, perhaps he would have voted differently.
Sawyer said he had "no sense" of how well Ryan will do as a congressman. Sawyer said he would vote for Ryan.
Latell also said he had no idea how Ryan will do as a congressman and had no sense as to why the state senator won so easily.
The Ryan victory leaves Latell and Sawyer possibly looking at the end of their long political careers. Sawyer will have to give up his congressional seat at the end of the year after holding it for 16 years. Latell gave up his seat in the Ohio House to run for Congress and will leave that legislative body at the end of this year.
The Ryan win surprised several Valley political pundits.
"Maybe the people realized something the political experts didn't," said Dr. William Binning, Youngstown State University's political science department chairman and a former Mahoning County Republican chairman. "He became the Mahoning Valley candidate. He was the new face."
A questionable $50,000 loan to Ryan's campaign became a major issue in the final two weeks leading up to the primary. Binning and Melanie J. Blumberg, an assistant history and political science professor at California University of Pennsylvania who has been active in Valley Democratic politics, both said the negative publicity turned out to be a benefit for Ryan.
"It might have backfired on the critics with people wondering why he was being picked on," Binning said.
"The establishment assumed the loan issue stopped him in his tracks, but it gave him a lot of publicity. It is a stunning upset."
Blumberg said Sawyer did everything right in his campaign, but Valley residents rallied around Ryan.
"The negative campaigning may have crossed the line and voters rebelled," she said. "People begin to think a candidate is getting picked on and Ryan is a likable person."
Binning and Sawyer said Ryan is the heavy favorite in the November general election. The other candidates are state Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin, the Republican nominee, and two independent candidates -- labor leader Warren Davis and U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., who was convicted last month on 10 felony counts including bribery and racketeering.
Ryan worked for Traficant as a summer intern while in college.
"The results of the Democratic primary election show me that people of the 17th Congressional District have decided it was time for a change," Womer Benjamin said. "The people of the 17th Congressional District are lucky to have such a wide variety of viewpoints offered in this race."
Binning and Blumberg expect Davis to drop out of the race because he was running primarily to target Sawyer over his NAFTA vote. Without naming Davis, Sawyer said he believes a congressional candidate will withdraw.
Traficant will be sentenced June 27 and could be in a federal penitentiary during the November election. There is a question as to whether Traficant could serve in Congress if elected.
Ryan declined to talk about Traficant's candidacy, opting to focus on his upset victory.
"Jim's a legend; that's the bottom line," he said. "Everyone has a right to run. But this is a Democratic seat, and we want to keep it."
In the 6th
It wasn't close in the Democratic primary for the 6th Congressional District, which includes Columbiana County, all but the northern portion of Mahoning County, and 10 other counties along the state's eastern border.
Strickland, a four-term incumbent, captured more than two-thirds of the vote, easily turning back the challenges of Lou D'Apolito of Boardman, who tallied 22 percent of the vote and won Mahoning County, and Charles Brown of Yorkville, who garnered 11 percent of the vote. More than half of D'Apolito's votes came from Mahoning.
"Quite frankly, I wish I won Mahoning, but I feel good about the vote there," Strickland said. "I feel very welcomed in the northern counties in my district. Three months ago, the people there had no idea who I was, and after a lot of hard work, they showed their confidence and trust in me."
Strickland represents half of the 6th District's 12 counties. Because of state redistricting, the other six counties, including Columbiana and Mahoning, were added to that district, effective next year.
Strickland's support in the counties he now represents was staggering. In his home county of Scioto, Strickland tallied 1,609 votes compared to 92 for his two opponents. In Lawrence County, he received 2,391 votes compared to 268 for the two other candidates.
Strickland will meet Halleck in the November general election. Halleck garnered 58 percent of the vote over Williams.
"I'm really humbled by the results," Halleck said. "Anytime you beat someone with that name ID, it is great. The general election will be very interesting. It becomes a regional race in many respects."