- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

JIm Traficant, a nine-term Ohio congressman, is fast becoming a TV superstar. Possibly for a hairstyle that could host Joyce Kilmer's nest of robins but more likely because, headed for prison, the man is shouting defiance all the way to the jailhouse door.

The congressman's earthy, often scatological comments have provided what many news editors deem titillating TV fare. And chances are he'll remain in the news. Traficant's present intent is to become the second person ever to win election to Congress from behind prison bars.

The first was Boston's storied Mayor James Michael Curley, whose hold on voter affections some 60 years ago surmounted his undeniable guilt on charges roughly comparable to the case against Traficant.

But there are significant differences. Curley's sins were like Robin Hood's. If he stole from a public treasury fed generously by Boston's despised Brahmins, the loot was passed along to indigents in North Cambridge and other needy neighborhoods. Curley himself died penniless.

A Cleveland jury and the House Ethics Committee both concluded that Traficant's pilfering has had a single beneficiary the congressman himself. And it included the most contemptible thievery possible cash kickbacks from one or more members of his publicly paid staff.

Another profound difference would be apparent to anyone who's read "The Last Hurrah," a 1950s novel based on Mayor Curley's career. Here was a class act. Standing over 6 feet tall, Curley had the good looks and presence of a matinee idol. Despite a formal education that ended in early grade school, he spoke with wit and erudition. Tip O'Neill, the longtime House speaker of a later era, recalled Curley as "the greatest orator I've ever heard a man who could mix Scripture and Shakespeare with ease."

Jim Traficant is something less. His shaggy-dog appearance aside, ponder this man's intellectual gifts as reflected in the Congressional Record for Aug. 8, 1988. It highlights a debate on global warming.

"Mr. Speaker," Traficant began, "a new report says only 7 percent of scientists believe in God. That is right. And the reason they gave was that scientists are 'super smart.' Unbelievable. Most of these absent-minded professors cannot find the toilet.

"I have one question for these wise guys to constipate over: How can something come from nothing? And while they digest that, Mr. Speaker put those super-cerebral master debaters in some foxhole with bombs bursting all around them, and I guarantee they will not be praying to Frankenstein.

"My colleagues," the soliloquy concludes, "all the education in the world is worthless without God and a little bit of common sense."

Such talk keeps Traficant on the airwaves. What on Earth might the guy say next?

He rarely disappoints. This man was elected as a Demo-crat from an economic disaster area surrounding Youngstown, Ohio, whose voters rarely choose Republicans.

A maverick from the start, he has long been at odds with the party leadership. On opening day of the current Congress, Traficant voted to elect the Republican speaker, Dennis Hastert, aware that such apostasy would cost him all seniority rights other than office space.

No party welcomes an accused or convicted felon. Thus no candidate slate will list Traficant's name in November. But he says he'll seek re-election as an "independent." And should he prevail clearly a possibility, given his district's past loyalty there'll be a highly conspicuous absentee when the new Congress convenes.

And a thorny constitutional problem, too. A past Supreme Court has held that the House cannot refuse to install a duly elected member who meets the three standards set in the Constitution: a U.S. citizen at least 25 years of age and a legal resident of the state from which he has been elected. (Nothing there bars a convicted felon.)

Despite his expulsion this month, therefore, the House would seem compelled to accept a re-elected Traficant with the likelihood that a House clerk would be dispatched to administer the oath of office in a prison cell. His colleagues might again muster the two-thirds vote required to expel him, although this surely would raise hackles.

The Curley case provides no further precedent, because the mayor's prison sentence in 1942 ran out before his congressional term was to begin.

So the solution will lie with Youngstown voters on Nov. 5. Traficant again? Better they should fulfill the guy's oft-stated suggestion to "Beam me up."


Lionel Van Deerlin, former member of Congress, is a contributing writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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