A hero of the tea party movement is seated in a corner booth at his favorite diner, his famous toupee sticking out above the wooden slats like a warning. That mop of hair, possibly more famous than the man himself, tells the regulars bent over coffee mugs all they need to know: Jimbo has entered the building.
He has arrived, as usual, with an entourage. But ever since he was released from prison last fall, Jim Traficant's entourage is more befitting of an elderly grandparent being eased to and from doctor's appointments than the blustering politician he once was. His assistants are old friends whose loyalty he has counted on over the years, as he tumbled from the House floor on Capitol Hill to the sports room at a prison in Minnesota, where he bided his time cheering on the Los Angeles Lakers with his buddies and painting watercolor landscapes of barns beneath full-mooned skies.
Anxiously, the entourage watches as their leader doodles all over a piece of loose-leaf paper, then folds the paper twice and abruptly shoves it under a place mat. Traficant is liable to storm out of here at any moment, as every beating heart in this eggs-and-bacon place knows. Patience is not one of his strong suits.
This is the man who once compared the U.S. Congress to a bunch of prostitutes — then publicly apologized to prostitutes for comparing them to the U.S. Congress. This is the man who, while defending himself against a House ethics committee, told lawmakers that he would like to "kick them in the crotch." This is a man who, according to his friends, claims that his ancestors are from Transylvania, making him a distant relation of Dracula.
Above all, though, this is the man who will decide, come Monday, whether he will yet again make a run for Congress, this time as a felon who was convicted of racketeering and bribery and as an independent proudly bearing the mantle of the tea party. The notion of a convicted felon running for Congress might seem slightly preposterous. But here, in the gloomy ruins of shuttered steel mills, the name Traficant reminds people of better times.
And weird times.
The man has a gift, if you can call it that, for one-liners. And on this morning he fires off more than a few, if only to prove that after seven years of confinement, Jimbo's still Jimbo.
"I don't know how many years it's gonna take," he says, "but America will implode similar to the Soviet Union. Stevie Wonder could see it coming."
During the 17 years that Traficant represented northeast Ohio, his penchant for outlandish outfits irked his fellow lawmakers almost as much as the speeches he gave about everything from cow manure to Janet Reno. For this trip to the diner, just minutes from his home, he has selected a white turtleneck, his trademark yellow-tinted glasses and a pair of baggy sweat pants held up by a brown leather belt.
He talks for nearly two hours in stream-of-consciousness fashion, hardly stopping to take a breath, repeatedly referring to himself in the third person.
In his own mind, at least, Jim Traficant is still on trial.
"They had no physical evidence against Traficant," he says, leaning over the table. "Seven people said they bribed him. They had no crime against Traficant. They taped every phone call he ever made, probably. Since 1983."
He ticks off names and dates and federal dollars down to the decimal point, boasting about his accomplishments. But mostly, he rails against the panoply of people and institutions he's mad at: the IRS, primarily, but also the federal government in general, Democrats, Republicans, the Department of Energy, Communists, illegal immigrants, Socialists, the tax code, the Justice Department, the media and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
All of which makes him a natural fit for the tea party, which was just getting started when Traficant emerged from prison to a "Jimbo"-themed welcome, replete with Elvis impersonators. Since then, he's been a frequent keynote speaker at tea party town hall events throughout his old stomping grounds.
His former congressional district has been split in two, both currently represented by Democrats up for re-election: Rep. Tim Ryan, a homegrown congressman who worked for Traficant many years ago, and Rep. Charlie Wilson. He has also weighed running against Rep. John Boccieri, who represents a neighboring district to the west. If he does run, Traficant must decide which district would pose a less insurmountable race.
"I don't have a dime, don't even have a campaign account," he admits. "I haven't run no polls. And most of the people who have money are probably afraid to give me money. Damn IRS will probably audit them."
So why run? Traficant may have been sidelined for a while, but he still knows how to play the game. Besides, he already ran for Congress from prison once — and managed to win nearly 20 percent of the vote.
Oh, and he's got a platform, too.
"Repeal the 16th amendment, abolish the Internal Revenue Service," he declares. "No more corporation tax, no more Social Security, no more Medicare taxes. No more audits. No more deadlines. No more tax courts. And everybody pays."
In a nation under The Traficant Plan, as he calls it, every illegal immigrant would be thrown out and troops would be stationed at the border. A flat 25 percent consumption tax would be instituted. The Department of Energy and the Department of Education would go the way of the Confederate dollar.
And finally — and here the bravado falls away, and suddenly there's anguish in his eyes — something must be done about America's prisons. Where he spent the better part of a decade, refusing to accept visitors or a reduced sentence. Where he made many friends, one of whom called him from Haiti after the earthquake.
"He says, 'I can't talk long, I just wanna let you know I'm OK,'" Traficant says with a bit of pride. "Just a friend. And I was glad to hear from him."
Technically, he's not supposed to keep in touch with pals who are still behind bars, but he admits that he does hear — "occasionally, circuitously" — from certain ones.
"I met some great people," he says. "And they're doing much more time than they should've got."
And so the final tenet of the Traficant platform is rather stark in its simplicity, and surprising even for a man of many polarizing ideas: Let them go home.
"These nonviolent offenders," he says, "instead of spending all that money in prison, send 'em home. You don't need to be in prison in America like this."
But that, of course, won't interfere with his plan to punish every last person who helped put him away.
"I'm going after a few people that perpetrated a crime against me and before it's over that's gonna be resolved," he says. "See and these sons of bitches gotta pay for that. You understand?"
Daylight is fading fast outside an auction barn in the tiny town of Rogers, Ohio, where about 150 people on folding chairs are listening raptly to Traficant as he hits the sweet spot in his speech, the part where he really lets the government have it.
In the throes of a speech, Traficant is many things all at once: Traficant The Victim. Traficant The Congressman. Traficant The Sage.
"The missiles are all that's keeping us together," he warns. "So help me God, if the dollar fails."
He points at his audience accusingly. He growls into the microphone.
"God Almighty, the corporation tax!" he shouts. "Get rid of the IRS!"
There is spontaneous applause. A cell phone rings and someone scrambles to shut it off.
"That's probably the IRS now," Traficant says. Everybody laughs.
"I hope not, Jim!" a man yells out.
In Youngstown, some would like to see Traficant quietly disappear, says William Binning, a professor of political science at Youngstown State University. They believe he is an embarrassment to a rough-and-tumble place that's trying to plant fledgling shoots of prosperity in the ground. To them, he is an unsightly splotch on an already stained past.
"But I run into lots of people — they're Jim fans," Binning says. "And they want him to run. And they're going to vote for him."
Behind the podium, a woman named Anita Fraser glows as she watches Traficant on the microphone. Fraser is the tea party's head organizer for several counties in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Shyly, she points to a brightly colored poster on a table.
"Did I show you the painting Jim gave me?" she says.
The subject of the piece is a curvaceous cartoon woman in a formfitting tank top and cowboy hat, a muscular arm hugging her hip. Her eyes are heavy, blue-lidded. Her lips are dark and garish. Her chest is huge.
There's something familiar about her face. A satiric rendering of a female politician whom Traficant reviles? A lighthearted sendup of a staff member?
"Oh," Fraser says. "Can't you tell? It's Madonna."
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