The National Republican Congressional Committee lists the 17th District among its 50 most competitive U.S. House races.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Democratic congressional candidate Timothy J. Ryan worked his way through a small crowd of students at Youngstown State University, telling them he understands their problems and concerns because it wasn't too long ago that he was one of them.
Ryan, 29, of Niles, pulled off an improbable upset of an eight-term congressman in the Democratic primary in May, thanks, in part, to his ability to mobilize college students to register, vote for him and volunteer their time toward his campaign.
Ryan, who received his undergraduate degree from Bowling Green University in 1995, is trying the same tactic for the Nov. 5 general election. Ryan is spending time on college campuses in the new 17th Congressional District -- YSU, Kent State University and the University of Akron -- holding voter registration drives and telling students that he will look after their concerns if he makes it to Congress.
At a press conference Thursday at YSU, Ryan, a first-term state senator, railed against Republican leadership in Washington, D.C., and Columbus -- including state Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin of Aurora, his Republican opponent -- for raising the cost of college tuition and for making it harder for middle-class families to send their children to school.
Ryan says that Womer Benjamin's budget votes amount to an average $550 tuition increase for every public university student in Ohio and that the Republican's decision to remove tuition caps led to double-digit tuition increases.
On the federal level, President Bush wants to increase interest rates for student loans, and freeze and/or eliminate special federal loan programs for college students, Ryan said.
"I want to let these students know that they are being taken advantage of," Ryan said. "They don't vote and politicians know that."
Although Ryan is talking the talk, when it comes down to walking the walk on higher education, he is at least a step or two behind, said David All, Womer Benjamin's campaign manager.
It was Womer Benjamin who obtained $3 million in state funding for YSU to create an education and training institute that was in the May state budget correction bill, All said. Ryan voted against the correction bill, thus voting against the $3 million, All continued.
"She can get the access to leadership to get money for the district," he said.
Also, enrollment at Ohio public universities is increasing so tuition increases are not having as significant impact as Ryan claims, All said.
Ryan said polls conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee show him with a lead that continues to grow over Womer Benjamin and former U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. of Poland, an independent candidate who is serving an eight-year federal prison sentence for bribery, racketeering and tax evasion.
Ryan plans to conduct his own poll next week.
GOP panel's view
Despite the 17th District -- which, beginning next year, will include portions of Mahoning, Trumbull, Portage and Summit counties -- being heavily Democratic, the National Republican Congressional Committee believes Womer Benjamin can win the race. The NRCC lists the 17th District among its 50 most competitive U.S. House races.
"The 17th is a district in which the Democratic vote will clearly be splintered" between Ryan and Traficant, said Lee Ann McBride, the NRCC's press secretary. "Traficant is a wild card. You can't discount him. Our candidate has an accomplished record and is a seasoned campaigner. The vote on YSU speaks volumes that Ryan doesn't realize how important economic development is for the district."
As part of the belief that Traficant will syphon votes from Ryan, Womer Benjamin's campaign is enthusiastically embracing the idea to include James Bunosky, Traficant's campaign manager, in the upcoming 12 congressional debates.
"We have absolutely no objection to his inclusion in the debates," All said. "We encourage it. When we set the debates up, we felt [Traficant] should be allowed to participate in some way."
Ryan, who believes Traficant will take a number of votes away from Womer Benjamin and not adversely affect his own campaign, isn't concerned about the inclusion of Bunosky in the debates, which begin Monday. Ryan said it is fine with him if Bunosky is at the debates representing Traficant, whom Ryan worked for a few years ago.