ARUN RATH, HOST:
Former Congressman James Traficant died today as a result of injuries suffered at his family farm in an accident earlier this week. The fiery Democrat from Youngstown, Ohio, spent 17 years in Congress before he was kicked out in 2002, after being convicted of bribery and racketeering. He spent seven years in prison. From member station WKSU, M.L. Schultze remembers a man who many say represented the best and worst of his hometown.
M.L. SCHULTZE, BYLINE: Before he was convicted and expelled from Congress, Jim Traficant was best known for his improbable hairpiece and his outlandish suits and the broadsides launched at Republicans, his fellow Democrats and big government.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JAMES TRAFICANT: Number one, big farm animals produce more manure than small farm animals.
TRAFICANT: And number two, manure stinks.
TRAFICANT: Beam me up, Mr. Speaker. Two hundred million dollars to determine that manure stinks.
SCHULTZE: Even before he got to Congress in 1985, Traficant knew how to play a room.
TIM RYAN: The only other person I can think of is Bill Clinton. It's that level of electricity.
SCHULTZE: That's Congressman Tim Ryan, who now represents the district. He was a high school quarterback when he met then Congressman Traficant at a team banquet. Traficant himself had been drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
RYAN: The room would shift the moment he got into it. And he was the center of attention in the room, regardless of how many people were in it. And he made everybody feel very special. You met him and you thought, like, you grew up with him. You know, it was that kind of really magical quality that he had.
SCHULTZE: Ryan would go on to work for Traficant. Years later, they ended up running against each other, once while Traficant was still in federal prison trying to regain his congressional seat. This was actually his second time through the criminal justice system. In the early '80s, while he was County sheriff, Traficant was caught taking money from mobsters. He convinced a jury he was just gathering evidence and was acquitted. David Skolnick covers politics for the local newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator. He says Traficant's bombastic style fit the region back then.
DAVID SKOLNICK: There was a time in this area where the place was reeling from the closing of the steel mills. And he was smart enough to feed into that anger, that frustration and be the voice of those people.
SCHULTZE: Skolnick says Traficant always played offense. Here he is, 20 years later, in front of the House Ethics Committee, fighting his expulsion.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRAFICANT: Now, you go ahead and expel me. But you ran this place for 50 years, Democrats. And you made the IRS, the FBI and Justice Department so strong, our people are afraid to death of them.
SCHULTZE: Just once did Skolnick see that facade fade. He and Traficant were on an elevator in a federal courthouse in Cleveland just after the guilty verdict.
SKOLNICK: You could see that he was very much a defeated person. He got out of that elevator. He then walked outside. And there was a throng of like 50 to 75 different reporters and camera people. And he just basically snapped his finger and turned back into the, you know, Traficant bravado, that persona that he played so well.
SCHULTZE: Karen Worstell loved that persona. The Youngstown grandmother says she voted for Traficant whenever she had a chance.
KAREN WORSTELL: If he'd ever run for office again, I would've voted for him because I know what kind of politics he did. He was honest with the people. It was the people, not the government. It was the people he took care of.
SCHULTZE: But many younger voters are looking for something different. Sarah Allen (ph) was in high school when Traficant was convicted.
SARAH ALLEN: Unfortunate - it kind of gave us a bad stigma, a bad representation of our city. But it kind of is what it is. And we're kind of on the up and up now. And it's good to see things happening down here and kind of that rebirth.
SCHULTZE: She's referring to the transformation of Youngstown, with its trendy downtown restaurants and new performing arts center. It's trying to reinvent itself as a global innovation center, but not everything has changed. At Youngstown City Hall, Mayor John McNally has been indicted on corruption charges. But he's refusing to step down. For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.