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Jim Traficant's Release From Prison Evokes Strong Emotions in Youngstown

Traficant: Why not?

A Contrary Bent

Traficant's iconic status began to form when as sheriff in the early 1980s he refused to foreclose on the homes of laid-off steel workers despite bank orders. While a congressman in Washington living on a modest boat in the Potomac, he won applause for railing against NAFTA and sticking "Buy America" provisions on every bill he could.

Even as he angered Democratic Party leaders when he voted with Republicans, he steered two federal courthouses, a 6,000-seat arena and a vital connector road to this city of 80,000. He also landed a Veterans Affairs medical clinic so that hundreds of local veterans no longer had to drive to Cleveland or Pittsburgh.

Tony Trolio, a friend who was selling "Welcome Home Jimbo" T-shirts outside the party hall Sunday, noted that former Washington mayor Marion Barry spent only six months in prison on drug charges, and later became mayor again.

"How do you explain that?" he said, adding Traficant's seven-year stint was excessive. "And then you have all those bankers making millions in bonuses who never go to jail at all."

Reginald Orem, 78, a retired teacher from College Park, drove from the Washington area to attend the party, because "I don't think he got a fair shake."

Many people in the crowded hall Sunday were older. They remembered the smell of sulfur in Youngstown's air, a smell associated with prosperity and a time when people felt good about supplying steel for America.

As the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen's "Youngstown" recall: "These mills they built the tanks and bombs/that won this country's wars."

But today, Youngstown's median income of less than $22,000 is the lowest of any medium-size city in America. Unemployment is 14 percent, one of the nation's worst.

"We were spoiled in those days we made so much money," said Anita Akins, 52, a hotel housekeeper. Her husband earned more working in the steel mills when he was in his 20s, three decades ago, than at any time since.

She said she is glad Traficant, a fixture of the past, is back: "We missed his mouth. . . . I know people say he is a crook, but he's not the only crook in politics."

Still a Big Fan

Perhaps Traficant's biggest fan is Linda Kovachik, a former stretch limousine driver who worked for Traficant for years.

She organized the dinner, tied giant yellow ribbons around the trees in front of her bungalow to mark his release and at the dinner, presented him with a framed photo that said, "Jim Traficant: American Hero."

Outside the hall, even many of those who disagreed with that said he was changing the political landscape.

Paul Gains, the county prosecutor who was once shot by Mafia hitmen, said: "Nobody believes he will sit back and retire."

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