James A. Traficant Jr., an Ohio Democrat whose career as a colorfully combative congressional gadfly ended in 2002 when he became the fifth House member ever expelled, died Saturday at a hospital in his native Youngstown . He was 73 and had been critically injured Sept. 23, when the tractor he was driving at his family farm flipped over.
That horse farm was a central location along the trail of low-impact corruption that caught up with Traficant 17 years after he started playing the part of the most bombastic populist at the Capitol. He was convicted of conspiring to commit bribery, seeking and taking illegal gratuities, racketeering, obstructing justice and lying on his tax returns. Among Traficant’s crimes were having members of his House staff do work on the farm (and the boat he kept there) while on congressional time, and doing official-business favors for a pair of construction contractors in return for their sprucing up his 76-acre spread.
Almost all members convicted of felonies have decided to resign rather than endure the additional humiliation of expulsion. But Traficant refused to depart sooner than he had to, wanting the last word in front of the TV cameras — and the maximum number of paydays — before his colleagues voted 420-1 to kick him out of the House.
His final appearance in the well was characteristic of his rhetorical style, that is, long on flamboyance but lacking any sustained effort to change minds. He returned to several of his favorite tropes: Vast federal conspiracies, unproven cover-ups, the unfairly long arm of the IRS and the government disinterest’s in the fading lot of the Rust Belt working man.
Traficant made his mark in the House with tirades on these and countless other topics. His preferred venue was the daily period for “one-minute” speeches, where members may hold forth for a few sentences on whatever strikes their fancy. In the early C-SPAN years, his punchy encapsulations of working-class anxieties became must-see congressional TV.
His signature finish was “Beam me up, Mr. Speaker,” a Star Trek-inspired phrase that sought to capture both his indignation and befuddlement.
He focused much of his ire at trade liberalization, foreign aid, eased immigration and restrictions on labor unions. But he also railed against environmental regulations, high taxes, bureaucratic inefficiencies and tears in the traditional social fabric. And he laced all of it with a robust blend of profane double entendres and purposeful malapropisms. Government scientists were dismissed as “super-cerebral master debaters.” Proponents of a budget deal were urged to “shove this big tax increase up your compromise.” A 27,000-word regulation was “enough to give Hulk Hogan’s dictionary a hernia.” Foreign policy would be improved if only “our national security brain trust had a proctologist on staff.”
During at least five different one-minute speeches in the 1990s he cited the same Labor Department job classification as emblematic of the decline in American manufacturing might: “Pantyhose crotch closer machine operator supervisor.”
And as for the promises that lowering trade barriers would create a clean-manufacturing boom? “The only high-technology job I see is that new Slurpee machine at 7-Eleven."
Behind the carefully cultivated populist shtick, though, was a consummate politician whose antics at the Capitol had been carefully crafted for their appeal back home, where thousands of his constituents were suffering from the collapse of the steel industry. His positioning worked. After ousting a GOP incumbent in 1984, Traficant won seven of the next eight elections with more than two-thirds of the vote.
His flair for the dramatic had propelled him to his seat in the House: As the sheriff in Youngstown in 1982, he became something of a local legend when he went to jail for three days rather than serve several laid-off factory workers with foreclosure papers. The next year he was indicted for bribery, with the FBI obtaining recordings of him accepting money from underworld figures. Despite a lack of legal training, Traficant defended himself by asserting he’d taken the money as part of his own off-the-books investigation of the mob. A jury acquitted him after a seven-week trial.
The lone-wolf theatrics were matched by a unique personal style. In a House chamber thick with navy suits and careful comb-overs, Traficant stood out in outfits of checked earth-tone polyester or denim with contrast stitching. His unruly salt-and-pepper thatch of hair was pressed into a reverse mullet, the sideburns totally covering his ears. (When he went to prison it was revealed his trademark 'do was actually a toupe.)
Despite his anger and passion on the floor, Traficant had a reputation offstage as one of the friendlier and more easy-going members. “Chairman” was the way he addressed colleagues of both parties as well as the junior aides, Capitol Police and custodial staff he passed in the halls.
The attention his showmanship received was disproportionate to his influence in the House. While rising to No. 5 in seniority on the Transportation Committee, he had some success directing money for public works to northeastern Ohio. And, to accompany his criticism of corporations that shifted jobs abroad to take advantage of cheaper labor, he succeeded now and then at attaching “Buy American” language to several spending measures.
But the Democratic leadership laughed him off when he lobbied for more prestigious assignments. That was in part because of his iconoclastic ideology — he routinely voted with the GOP more often than just a handful in his caucus — and his willingness to confront the party establishment. He ran in the 1988 Ohio presidential primary and got enough votes for one delegate to the Democratic convention. Four years later, he openly talked of aligning himself with Ross Perot’s independent candidacy.
At the start of his final term he effectively became a member without a caucus. Democrats took away his committee assignments after he voted with the GOP to re-elect Speaker J. Dennis Hastert in 2001, but the Republican Conference declined to welcome him when he wouldn’t formally renounce his lifelong party allegiance.
By then, he was predicting he would soon be indicted, and the federal grand jury handed down its 10-count bill of particulars that May. He was convicted of every charge 11 months later and, after the Ethics Committee reviewed the matter, he was expelled in July just a week before he was sentenced and began serving eight years in federal prison.
Three House members had been expelled at the start of the Civil War for supporting the Confederacy. The other, in 1980, was Ozzie Myers, a Pennsylvania Democrat who’d accepted bribes from undercover FBI agents in the Abscam sting operation.
Traficant ran for a 10th term from behind bars as an independent in 2002 and took 15 percent in the election that sent one of his former aides, Democrat Tim Ryan, to the House. After his release in 2010, he declared his innocence anew and launched another independent bid against Ryan — that time raising his share of the vote to 16 percent.