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Jim Traficant remembered for political skill and heart

By Denise Dick

Sunday, September 28, 2014

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Some of those who knew ex-U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. best remember him as a skillful politician and someone who fought for his district and cared about people.

Traficant, 73, died Saturday after being injured Tuesday when a farm-tractor flipped over on him at his daughter’s Greenford farm.

Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman Dave Johnson, although from a different party, considered himself a Traficant fan through much of Traficant’s time in office.

“I’m the Republican chairman, but I did support Jim Traficant over the years, especially because of his positions on trade,” he said. “He was one of the few congressmen of either party who fought against NAFTA and other trade issues that have hurt this country so much.”

Johnson is also president of Summitville Tile and owner of Spread Eagle Tavern, and first met Traficant in 1991. The restaurant, now a popular staging spot for Republican events, had just opened, and Traficant had been invited to speak at a fundraiser for indigent children. Johnson and his father, Pete Johnson Sr., attended even though Columbiana County wasn’t part of Traficant’s district at the time.

“When we got done, Dad went up to him and said, ‘You sound more like Barry Goldwater than Ted Kennedy. What the heck are you doing in the Democrat Party?’” Johnson said. “Jim was a staunch conservative and opposed to reckless spending, and he stood up to it on both sides. I admired him for that.”

Over the years, Johnson called Traficant whenever there was an issue before Congress that affected manufacturing, and Traficant always took his calls.

“I remained friendly with him throughout his tenure and even after his tenure,” he said. “The Spread Eagle Tavern was one of the first places he came when he got out of prison, and he brought two of his paintings. We hung them up and they’re still there today.”

A signed portrait of Traficant hangs above a booth in the restaurant, and that’s the Jim Traficant booth.

“In many ways Jim was bigger than life,” Johnson said. “In many ways he could have people sitting on the edge of their seats...I feel bad for his passing. I extend my condolences to Tish, his wife, who is a lovely person, and to his family. He spoke for the Valley when a lot of others didn’t have the ability to speak for them.”

Paul Marcone, president of Marcone & Associates in Chantilly, Va., worked as chief of staff in Traficant’s Washington’s office for about 10 years.

“It’s very sad,” he said. “I have a lot of good memories. He treated me very well.”

Marcone remembers how Traficant “had a lot of heart and how very focused he was in helping out his district.”

He hopes people remember Traficant for all of the good things he did, not just the few bad.

“He was a human being. He had a lot of faults. It’s a shame the only thing people remember are the bad things. I look at the whole picture of the man... He was someone who cared about people. He really did care about Youngstown, Mahoning County, Trumbull County. He cared about his district and the people,” Marcone said.

“On a personal level, when I started working for him, I was a young guy and I worked long hours and I loved every minute of it,” he said.

When he returned to work for the congressman years later, Marcone was married.

“When I started having kids, at 5:30 he’d come into my office and say, ‘Go home, be with your family. If I need you, I’ll call you.’”

Family was important to Traficant.

“I also remember that he called his father just about every single day, just to talk to him,” Marcone said.

One day Traficant was in the members’ dining room and called Marcone to come to meet him. When Marcone got there, Traficant had just one question.

“He said, ‘Have you called your mother today?’ She worried about you. You should call her every day.’ That’s all he wanted to talk to me about. He wasn’t one-sided at all. There were a lot of layers to him.”

Traficant was a lot smarter than many people give him credit for too, Marcone said. He liked to call himself “just a son of a truck driver,” but had earned two master’s degrees, and he knew how to work the political system and bring funds back to the district, Marcone said.

Atty. Heidi Hanni has been the Traficant family spokeswoman since Traficant’s injury. She’s the daughter of the late Atty. Don L. Hanni Jr., former long-time Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman, and got to know Traficant and his family through her father.

“They had a volatile relationship in the beginning, but in the end they were like brothers,” she said of her late father and Traficant. “My dad was the only one Traficant would let see him in the penitentiary. He was the only one that could visit.” In the early years, Traficant challenged Hanni for the party chairmanship and lost, and Hanni tried unsuccessfully to have Traficant declared mentally incompetent and committed. But the two men’s relationship changed. “You know how politics are in the Mahoning Valley. They came from the same school of hard knocks. Both of them were so hard-headed. They were very close. That’s how I got to know the family, and Tish [Traficant’s wife] is one of my very best friends.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, succeeded Traficant in Congress. Ryan also had worked as a Traficant aide and issued a statement in response to Traficant’s death.

“My thoughts and prayers go out to Congressman Jim Traficant, to his family and close friends,” the statement says. “He was a man who possessed tremendous charisma and throughout his career helped thousands of citizens in the Mahoning Valley in many ways. We all pray that he may rest in peace.”

Atty. David Betras, Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman, also issued a statement:

“On behalf of the Democratic Party, we express our deepest condolences to the Jim Traficant family. Jim Traficant was a complex man. He gave voice to the frustrations and anxieties of the common man. The public felt he was one of them, and because of that connection they supported him in good times and bad. He was a larger than life character who will be long remembered.”

Mahoning County Commissioner Anthony Traficanti worked for Traficant for 11 years as a congressional regional director, but since Traficant went to prison the two hadn’t had much contact.

“He was one of the greatest people I ever knew,” Traficanti said. “I got my start in politics working with him.”

Traficanti said that Traficant wrote to him during Traficant’s first year in prison, but then the letters stopped and the two didn’t have much contact after Traficant was released from prison either.

“He was always, always a dear family friend, particularly of my dad,” Traficanti said. “My dad knew him for years. They were lifelong friends.”

Saturday was a sad day for Traficanti, he said.

“I can still hear his voice. I can smell his cologne — the cologne he wore. He wore the original Polo. All of those different outings and speaking engagements, it all totally comes back to you.”

One of those memories was of a 4 a.m. phone call when both Traficant and Traficanti were sleeping in Traficant’s congressional office — Traficant on the couch, Traficanti on a cot.

“The call was from Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff [Thomas F.] ‘Mack’ McLarty,” Traficanti said.

It was during the time that the Youngstown Air Base was facing closure and Traficant was fighting against it.

“All his wishes were granted in that phone call,” Traficanti said.

The base got new plans, improved runways and several million in additional upgrades.

“I was in the office when that phone call came,” he said.

“Prior to that, Jim had gotten into a heated argument with [Deputy Secretary of Defense] John Deutch” regarding a federal Defense Finance

and Accounting Service Center that was supposed to be located on Belmont Avenue, bringing about 1,000 jobs, but instead went to Columbus, Traficanti said.

Traficant kicked Deutch’s briefcase across the room during the argument.

“It was actually pretty heated,” Traficanti said.

The phone call about the base improvements came shortly thereafter.

“One of the most important things I remember about him is he never forgot his roots,” Traficanti said. “He never forgot where he came from, and he always helped people who were less fortunate. The legislation that he sponsored always targeted the middle class, targeted the underdog.”

State Rep. Robert F. Hagan was a longtime critic who lost the 2000 Democratic primary for Congress to Traficant.

“My deepest sympathy for his family,” he said.

Hagan’s introduction to Traficant occurred in the mid-1980s, before Hagan ran for office.

“Interestingly enough, I was at a retirement rally in downtown Youngstown and there were probably 800 to 1,000 people there,” Hagan said. “He was being Jim Traficant with this incredible amount of personality and everyone, including myself, was rising to their feet...I turned to my brother and I said, ‘This guy has an incredible amount of charisma to get us to jump to our feet like this.’ His passing is obviously the passing of a political icon in the Mahoning Valley. Good, bad or indifferent, he had an incredible amount of charisma.”

Hagan opted to run against Traficant for his congressional seat in 2000 after the two men argued after an event at Youngstown State University. Traficant was taking credit for Ohio Department of Transportation funding for projects in the Mahoning Valley, he said.

“He said, ‘If you have that big of a problem with me, you can run against me.’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m going to do now.’”

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said in a statement that he met Traficant while Redfern was a Bowling Green State University student.

“On behalf of Democrats everywhere, I offer former Congressman Traficant’s family and friends our condolences and thoughts at the passing of Jim,” he said. “It’s tremendously painful to lose a loved one, and I personally wish Jim’s loved ones nothing but the best in this difficult time.”

Mahoning County Republican Chairman Mark Munroe called Traficant “first and foremost an enormously talented politician” whose ability to connect with an audience was unmatched.

“His skill to put into words what many people were thinking, but were afraid to say, may have been his most powerful tool,” Munroe said. “It was remarkable that he ran as a Democrat, then an Independent, and then tried to find support to run as a Republican. His rants against the federal government, especially the IRS, ring true today. If he hadn’t got caught up in sleazy politics he might still be speaking plainly on Capitol Hill.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, said in a statement that he was saddened to learn of Traficant’s death.

“He was a bold figure who often spoke passionately about the problems so many working families face,” he said. “Our prayers go out to his family.”

Long before Traficant gained national attention for his one-minute speeches in Congress or infamy for his conviction for taking bribes and his subsequent expulsion from Congress, he was a star on the football field at Cardinal Mooney High School.

Traficant quarterbacked the Cardinals to victory in the first Mooney-Ursuline game in 1958, throwing a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion to tight end Jack Vasko in an 8-6 victory.

“He threw the two-pointer to Vasko and half of it got caught in his facemask, because Traficant threw an extremely hard pass,” said Mooney alumni director Paul Gregory, who watched the game as an eighth-grader.

Mooney was in just its third year of playing football and was a two-to-three-touchdown underdog in that game, Gregory said. One of the key plays came on a fourth-and-one at the Ursuline 44. Then-Cardinal coach John Hudzick told Traficant to punt.

“Maverick that he was, he didn’t,” Gregory said. “He told Bill Crawford he was going to throw the ball to him and he did for a 23-yard first down.”

Traficant later played quarterback at Pitt and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 20th round in 1963, but one of Traficant’s teammates at Mooney, Gill Berquist, said football wasn’t his best sport.

“As good as he was in football, he was probably a better basketball player,” said Berquist, who grew up on the South Side but now lives in Austintown.

Berquist met Traficant when they were both sophomores in Cardinal Mooney’s first year in 1956.

“I think he was really two people in one,” Berquist said. “There was his public persona and there was his private side, where he didn’t feel like he had to put that tough-guy image on display. If he liked you, it was embarrassing because he’d be slobbering all over the place, hugging you.

“In spite of everything, he really was a good guy with a good heart. All I can say is, who hasn’t done something wrong in their life?”

Legendary Cardinal Mooney coach Don Bucci was hired at Cardinal Mooney in 1961, two years after Traficant graduated, but said the ex-congressman became a “dear friend.”

“When we talked on the phone, he would always give me advice,” Bucci said, chuckling. “He was always after us to throw the ball. His coach at Pitt was [John] Michelosen and he did the same thing down there.”

When asked if he ever let Traficant call a play, Bucci laughed and said, “Not really, because the play would have been, ‘Coach, throw the ball.’”

Traficant often roamed the sidelines during Mooney games and even attended last December’s Division IV state championship game, which the Cardinals lost to Clarksville Clinton-Massie in a snowstorm at Massillon’s Tiger Stadium.

“You know what that weather was like, so that tells you what a die-hard fan he was to the end,” Bucci said. “He felt as bad after the game was over as any of us did. He loved Youngstown, he loved Mooney and he loved the game of football.”

Harry Meshel, former long-time Ohio senator, said he and Traficant shared a special relationship.

“He respected everything I did and I understood travails he was going through with the leadership and the activities encamped in Congress,” Meshel said. “His early voting was excellent, the typical Democratic line.”

Traficant’s trouble started when he began picking fights with individuals, Meshel said.

“Jim was never one to be careful with his words. He wanted to say what he thought,” he said. “That’s when he began to strain his own credibility.”

Meshel said he tried to talk to Traficant about it, but Traficant continued to do things his own way.

Traficant began alienating not only political opponents but allies too, Meshel said.

“There’s no way to retain any ally under those circumstances if you’re given to constant debate and disagreement,” he said.

Contributors: Vindicator sports writer Joe Scalzo and Vindicator politics writer David Skolnick