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Rogue Democrat Could Upend Congress

Politics: Rep. Traficant has vowed to vote for GOP's Hastert for speaker in the new session, even if it means upsetting the leadership apple cart.


WASHINGTON — Every legislative body seems to have one. Congress' gadfly is Ohio Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., a free spirit who single-handedly could help Republicans keep control of the House.

Never mind that he is a Democrat.

The renegade lawmaker has pledged to vote for Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as speaker of the House in the new Congress, a move that could put Traficant into the history books if Tuesday's election leaves the GOP one seat shy of a majority in the chamber.

The tight battle for the House is not all that's on Traficant's mind: He expects to be indicted any day on federal corruption charges. He denies any wrongdoing.

Democratic leaders shudder at the thought that their political fortunes could be upended by Traficant, a 16-year congressman best known for his blustery speeches that end with the line: "Beam me up."

"Only in America, huh?" said Thomas E. Mann, a political scientist at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

"It's symbolic of the political moment in Washington that someone who in any other circumstances couldn't be taken seriously has the potential to decide who controls the House," added Marshall Wittmann, senior fellow for the conservative Hudson Institute.

Traficant, whose Web page features a picture of him swinging a 2-by-4 with the words, "Bangin' Away in D.C.," is among a handful of lawmakers who could play pivotal roles in deciding control of the House.

Republicans now hold a seven-vote majority. If the parties are divided by even fewer seats after Tuesday, "you're going to see the political equivalent of 'Let's Make a Deal,' " said Amy Walter, an analyst for the Cook Political Report newsletter.

In that event, the party controlling the House may not be known until January, when its members convene for their next session and vote for a speaker. In the interim, both parties could be expected to court lawmakers from across the aisle with offers of prized committee assignments and other perquisites.

The courtship of Traficant, 59, is well underway. GOP leaders recently provided $25 million for a community center in his Youngstown district. And while the House has been locked in partisan warfare, Republicans have made a point of praising him from the House floor.

Traficant said that he decided to support Hastert because the speaker helped him pass a bill dealing with one of his pet causes: abuses by the Internal Revenue Service.

He charges that Democratic leaders, by contrast, have sought to derail his political career. He attributed that to "my independent voting record."

Traficant earlier this year announced that he was the target of a federal investigation--and then proceeded to win a four-way Democratic primary. He is a heavy favorite to win reelection. He has pledged to fight the anticipated charges against him "like a junkyard dog," contending that the Justice Department is conducting a political vendetta against him because of his frequent criticism of the agency.

As Mahoning County sheriff, Traficant was tried in 1983 on charges of taking bribes from mobsters. But, acting as his own attorney, even though he has no law degree, he won acquittal.

Also as sheriff, he went to jail for three days rather than serve laid-off factory workers with foreclosure notices, an act that endeared him to voters in his blue-collar district.

Elected to Congress in 1984, he is the champion of the one-minute speech, a time set aside each day for lawmakers to talk about anything.

On the Navy's recent decision to replace urinals on warships with a "gender-neutral" commode, he said: "The CIA said China is buying nuclear attack submarines with missiles that experts say can destroy our entire Navy fleet. Knowing this, the Navy has decided to replace all aircraft carrier urinals with gender-neutral water closets. Unbelievable. We have a dragon breathing down our necks and the Navy is constipating over urinals. What is next, bidets in powder rooms? Beam me up."

He frequently targets his colleagues for barbs. He once said that many lawmakers are "so damn dumb, they could throw themselves on the ground and miss."

Democratic leaders have threatened to exclude Traficant from their caucus because of his pledge to support Hastert for speaker.

Traficant couldn't care less.

"I may exclude them from the Traficant caucus," he said.

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