In 1984, Mahoning Valley Sheriff James A. Traficant Jr., who rode a wave of popularity to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, challenged political boss Don L. Hanni Jr. for the chairmanship of the county Democratic Party.
During the weeks leading up to the night of the party’s reorganization meeting, Hanni worked the phones reminding members of the executive and central committee of the favors he had done for them – and their relatives and friends.
And he tossed out these political words of wisdom: If you rise up against the king you had better make sure you win. If you don’t, you’ll end up losing your head.
Hanni was a student of British history. He also was an old-time politician who demanded loyalty in return for the favors a powerful party chairman could dispense.
Traficant, who had parlayed his victory over the U.S. Justice Department in a criminal trial on charges that he had taken money from the Mafia during his bid for sheriff, ran for Congress in 1984 and shocked the political world by winning.
However, his bid to take over the Democratic Party turned out to be a reality check. Hanni retained the chairmanship with 274 votes. Traficant received a meager 74.
And although Traficant went to Washington and held on to his congressional seat for almost two decades – until he was expelled and ultimately ended up in federal prison – Hanni remained a political thorn in his side.
Both men are dead – but the story of their clash has relevance today, given the high stakes battle in the U.S. House Democratic Caucus between Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Mahoning Valley Congressman Tim Ryan.
It is noteworthy that Ryan began his political career as a congressional aide for Traficant. He has been in the House for 14 years and was re-elected Nov. 8 with a huge vote in the 13th Congressional District. Mahoning and Trumbull counties dominate the district.
Last week, the congressman announced he is challenging Pelosi, one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill, for minority leader.
It was an announcement that grabbed national headlines and thrust Ryan into the political spotlight.
But, it is a move that’s fraught with danger – even though the resident of Howland insists there’s no downside.
He describes his challenge of Pelosi, whom he has called a mentor and a friend, as a “battle within the family,” but it isn’t as simple as that.
This writer was reminded of Hanni’s observation about rising up against the king (queen) as news of Ryan’s challenge spread like wildfire.
Pelosi, who represents a district in California and was the first female to serve as speaker when Democrats controlled the House, wasted little time in responding to the challenge.
“Without even asking anybody for a vote, I have over two-thirds of the caucus supporting me,” Pelosi said. “It’s a funny thing, in a caucus or any place: When somebody challenges you, your supporters turn out.”
Ryan disagrees with the minority leader’s assessment of the vote count and says that because there will be a secret ballot on Nov. 30, the outcome is uncertain.
But what if he loses? This writer has suggested Ryan could be stripped of his membership in the powerful House Appropriations Committee that is the lifeblood of the Valley’s economic well-being.
The congressman insists that such political retribution would be unprecedented and that Pelosi will not take his appropriations committee membership away from him.
To be sure, Ryan’s 14 years in the House of Representatives and his willingness to take on the majority Republicans on a whole range of issues, from job-creation to health care to the cost of a college education, has endeared him to the caucus.
He also was a prominent surrogate for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But Clinton’s loss to political novice Donald Trump, who had hijacked the Republican Party, and the drubbing Democrats received in congressional and statewide elections has diminished the party’s fortunes. It has forced an examination of the loss of its traditional base of support, especially among the working class.
White, male, blue-collar workers were drawn to billionaire Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign. His anti-global trade agenda, his pledge to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, his commitment to force American companies to bring back the jobs they’ve sent abroad and his promise to dismantle Obamacare resonated in economically hard hit regions like the Mahoning Valley.
Trump’s supporters had visions of steel mills dotting the banks of the Mahoning River like the “good old days.”
His pitch certainly didn’t reflect the traditional Republican Party’s political agenda and, in fact, echoed the sentiments of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Ryan and others contend that the string of losses suffered by Democrats going back to 2010 is a clear indication that the party has lost its way.
The Valley congressman contends that his candidacy for minority leader is a reflection of the change that’s necessary in the upper echelons of the party.
But his public comments about Pelosi may have crossed a line that could haunt him.
Consider the following text message about Ryan sent to this writer by a long-time reader of this column:
“A political insider friend of mine just sent me this: ‘It’s one thing to have others quietly boosting you. It’s another to give CNN an interview and say ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and thinking you will get a different result.’ Pelosi is Italian – she will not forget the jab and the fact that he is now going public against her.”
So why would Ryan throw caution to the wind when he isn’t sure that he has a majority of the 188 Democrats in the House supporting him?
Here’s a possible explanation: He is setting the stage for a bid for Ohio governor in 2018.