Remembering Jimbo, the area’s most controversial public official


With The Vindicator closing its doors at the end of the month and the Tribune Chronicle purchasing the paper’s subscription list, masthead and web domain, I thought I’d share my experiences with, to me, the most controversial person in the Mahoning Valley’s political history.

I wasn’t in the area during James A. Traficant Jr.’s heyday. But I covered his downfall.

I’ve heard the stories about Traficant’s time as sheriff and his first decade in Congress. It’s still incredible to me that he was able to beat federal charges against him for taking bribes from organized crime figures, caught on tape, as part of a supposed one-man crime sting.

I first met Traficant around 1996, about a year after I started working out of The Vindicator’s Niles bureau. He was speaking at an event at Niles McKinley High School.

I was warned by other reporters to not get too close to him because he would put people in headlocks. I couldn’t believe it. After all, this was a congressman.

Yes, he wore clothes that were barely in fashion in the 1970s and had peculiar hair – which my stepfather, who ran a hair salon on Staten Island, N.Y., where I grew up, immediately told me was a toupee. But a headlock? No way.

But I got too close and it happened. I quickly reached between Traficant’s legs, made him jump a little and that was the last headlock for me.

He had a love/hate relationship with The Vindicator. He desperately wanted the newspaper’s approval. The few times he received it, he loved us. But he often didn’t get support for his plans on the editorial page so he hated us.

Before I left Niles to become the politics writer, I had numerous experiences with Traficant as he tried to bring minor league baseball to the area. It was a great idea, but Traficant hadn’t thought out the financing. He tried a few backers – including some pretty shady ones – without success while he tried to bully Niles city officials into following his plan.

My favorite story during this time was when Traficant had a meeting of about 200 to 300 people in Niles to discuss his plan and asked if he could go off the record for a moment. I spoke up and simply said, “No.” Traficant turned to me and said something to the effect that The Vindicator was always against the proposal and was trying to sabotage it.

He then proceeded to make the statement anyway: the new team was likely to be an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, something that had been widely reported.

If it wasn’t for the Cafaro Co. bailing out Traficant the Mahoning Valley Scrappers wouldn’t exist. But Traficant was eager to take the credit.

When I started covering politics at the main office downtown in 2000, Traficant was a huge part of my beat.

While he was always big news – often far bigger than necessary – one strange thing was he never took my phone calls. I mean never. And when he would announce a proposed bill or something else, he often did it by mail. I was lucky to get a fax.

When he had a news conference, it was an experience. It often turned into a sideshow with him hurling insults and not saying much else.

He was re-elected in 2000 to a ninth two-year term despite it being common knowledge that he was under federal investigation. Traficant said it himself several times.

I vividly recall being at Poland Seminary High School on May 4, 2001, a Friday morning, with Traficant speaking to juniors and seniors about the dangers of alcohol.

Indictment

Traficant told me that he heard from reliable sources that he was going to be indicted that day.

“I’m waiting to be served,” he said. “I had heard there was an indictment yesterday.”

Shortly after noon, it happened. I was in the office when we found out about the indictment and I quickly put a story together for the late edition.

While I didn’t handle the day-to-day coverage of Traficant’s federal trial in Cleveland, I was there for several days of it. It went terribly for Traficant, who was obviously in over his head.

A jury found him guilty April 11, 2002, of all 10 counts against him including racketeering, bribery and conspiracy. After the verdict was read, I somehow got into the elevator with Traficant on his way to meet a large crowd of media waiting for him outside the federal courthouse.

We exchanged a few words in the elevator and he seemed completely stunned. When we went outside, various photographers screamed at me to get out of the shot. Traficant went into “Jimbo mode,” putting on a brave face and shouting his objections to what he contended was a fixed case.

I didn’t see him for several years after that as he was in federal prison and wasn’t granting media access.

I next saw him Sept. 8, 2009, at an event to welcome Traficant home. He spotted me in a crowd, walked through it and came over to give me a handshake and a hug.

We came in contact with each other several times over the next year as Traficant went from one misadventure to another. There was his run for Congress in 2010, his efforts to be a radio talk show host and his ridiculous plan to have an Indian gambling casino in the area despite there being no federally recognized tribes in Ohio.

Indian casino

I believe our last conversation was in late October 2010 when he claimed an Indian nation was going to buy property in North Jackson for not only a casino, but also a hotel, convention center and bank. He was yelling while also pleading with me to buy into this ridiculousness and help him. I told him I was simply stating facts, but that seemed to only anger him.

The scheme was dropped shortly after and Traficant scaled back on public appearances. He’d travel around the country to speak at anti-government and tea-party rallies and wrote columns for a government conspiracy publication.

He was in Washington, D.C., two months before his Sept. 27, 2014, death to discuss his longstanding idea to abolish the IRS and go to a national 15-percent flat tax.

I was saddened to learn of his death. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost five years since his passing.

He was the most colorful and outrageous person I’ve ever covered. While he did some good, he’ll probably be remembered for the bad.

But the memories of Traficant verbally sparring with me still bring a smile to my face.

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