To Understand Ohio: Jim Traficant's Legacy and the Politics of the Mahoning Valley

Jan 24, 2020
Originally published on January 27, 2020 8:28 pm

There may be no better place to understand the results of the last presidential election than the Mahoning Valley. For his upcoming book, Barnstorming Ohio, David Giffels has been travelling around Ohio, learning what’s on people's minds to get a better understanding of where we’re heading this election year. 

We've been checking in with the Akron-based author and this month we're talking about his visits to the Mahoning Valley.

The infamous Jim Traficant

One of the most interesting political figures to come out of northeast Ohio is Jim Traficant. Traficant, a Youngstown native, entered politics as an outsider. He was outspoken with a personality that was larger than life. He served as Mahoning County sheriff from 1981-85 and then was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Giffels draws some similarities between President Donald Trump and Traficant. He says they both found a way to reach voters who felt like they weren’t listened to. Trump was able to win over many voters in the traditionally blue region of the Mahoning Valley by saying he would give a voice to those who weren’t typically heard. They both used anti-establishment rhetoric and targeted the media.

Although they found political ground in similar ways, they couldn’t have gotten there in more different ways. President Trump was born into wealth while Traficant came from a lower-class, rural family.

But Traficant, who died in 2014, styled himself as someone unafraid to speak up against institutional power, like the IRS. He was known for ending his floor speeches with the phrase, "Beam me up Mr. Speaker." It's a style not unlike Trump's, who won several Mahoning Valley counties in 2016, including Trumbull and Columbiana. He lost Mahoning County by just 3%. 

Both Traficant and Trump have had trouble with the law. While serving as Mahoning County sheriff in the early '80s, Traficant was accused of taking money from the mob. He was acquitted after persuading the jury it was actually a sting operation. Traficant ran for Congress and was the only newly elected Democrat the year of the Reagan landslide. He served nearly two decades, until being expelled in 2002 following a conviction on federal corruption charges.  

The press as the enemy

Throughout his public career, Traficant was challenged by the press. The Youngstown Vindicator played a large role in bringing his crimes to light.

Bertram de Souza was a political columnist for the Vindicator and wrote many columns about Traficant. He was known for calling out a history of corruption in Youngstown.

The Vindicator shut down all of its operations last August, adding to the list of major cities without a local paper.

Giffels said he is concerned about the closures of many local papers and how it will affect corruption. He said cities need watchdogs to keep the government in check.

David Giffels' next book, "Barnstorming Ohio" will be published in August of 2020.

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