The party may become an annual event.
YOUNGSTOWN — Happy birthday, Jim Traficant — even if you are behind bars.
That’s the message two brothers and a bar full of Traficant supporters meant to send to the imprisoned former Mahoning Valley congressman. They had a birthday bash in his honor Thursday at the Royal Oaks Bar Grille on Oak Street.
The place was transformed into a haven for Traficant’s friends, supporters and those who believe that Traficant is an innocent man, despite his 2002 conviction on federal charges of racketeering, bribery and tax evasion.
A banner reading “Happy Birthday Jimbo” greeted anyone entering the bar. Songs such as “The Congressman Can” — sung to to the tune of song “The Candy Man Can” — filled the bar most of the night.
The birthday bashers say he was 67 on Thursday.
There were hand-held fans, fashioned in the image of Traficant’s face, passed around to anyone feeling a little hot or just looking for a cool souvenir. Some people placed those fans in front of their faces and recited their favorite Traficant quotes.
For those who could not remember any quotes, such as “Beam me up” from the U.S. House floor, a compact disc with some of Traficant’s favorites was provided.
Fast Freddie of 93.3 The Wolf supplied the tunes and the Jimbo CDs.
A federal jury found Traficant guilty of 10 felony charges, also including obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to eight years in prison July 30, 2002, and his projected release is Sept. 2, 2009.
The jury convicted Traficant in connection with having congressional aides perform chores at his farm in Greenford and on a houseboat he used to own in Washington, D.C., on taxpayers’ time as well as have a few of them kick back portions of their salaries to him. The jury also convicted Traficant of accepting money, gifts and favors from local businessmen in return for his help with local, state and federal agencies.
Bar owners Lou and John Kennedy said the idea to throw the birthday bash came about while planning a celebration of Traficant’s release from prison.
“We were sitting around drinking and decided that we wanted to have a coming-out party when he gets out. Then Freddie called me and mentioned how Jim’s birthday was next month and we knew it was time to do it,” said John Kennedy.
John Kennedy said no other place would likely throw the bash, but he and his brother recognize the legacy of Traficant and wanted to show that he still has support in the Valley.
“We didn’t really expect a big turnout with all the gray issues,” he said. “With all that is going on with [Ohio Attorney General] Marc Dann, here we are celebrating another local politician who got into trouble. But he [Traficant] was all about Youngstown first. He was definitely for this area. He could come out and run for any office and win in this town.”
The Kennedys’ bar just wasn’t the place for those who don’t support Jimbo.
Joe Halas of Austintown is a regular patron but said the Traficant celebration was his reason for coming out Thursday.
“Jimmy is a good man and he helped the Valley. He just got caught between a rock and a hard spot. I just wish he didn’t represent himself and let someone else do it,” he said.
Halas said he hopes Traficant can emerge from prison and help the community. He said his good past deeds should overshadow any legal issues.
“I will never forget when they were foreclosing on people and he [as former Mahoning County sheriff] refused to enforce that court order. I will never forget that,” he said.
John Brown, a Traficant friend and supporter, has been intently studying all the Traficant court proceedings and is convinced the former congressman is innocent. He spent a part of the day telling Traficant stories on the radio.
“The more I read these transcripts, the more I can’t see how a jury of his peers reached that decision. It wasn’t even a jury of his peers after they moved [the trial],” he said.
Jess McElhinny said Traficant would be happy and likely offer a simple “thank you” to his well-wishers.
“Well, if I were in jail, I would want someone to party for me,” she said.
The Kennedy brothers plan to make the celebration an annual event. In the future, they want any proceeds to go toward Traficant’s legal bills.