Tracking traficant: Bertram De Souza has been a harsh critic during the 23 years he has covered the colorful congressman-turned-inmate. James A. Traficant Jr. and his supporters haven't hesitated to fire back.
De Souza, who writes for the Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, and David Betras, a local attorney, were providing live analysis for the "Traficant Task Force," a catchphrase the Youngstown NBC affiliate coined for its coverage of the Ohio Democrat's federal trial, conviction on corruption charges and subsequent expulsion from Congress. Behind the pair an eye-catching graphic proclaimed "Congressman in Crisis" and below that "The Sentence."
At 12:40 p.m., the television reporter on the scene at U.S. District Court in Cleveland broke in to say that the judge had sentenced Traficant to eight years in prison. De Souza, off air, laughed sharply and then shook his head. "What a waste," he said of Traficant's talents. "What an absolute waste."
Back on air moments later, de Souza contributed final thoughts, his accent a striking blend of South Asian and Ohio influences. "I started covering Jim Traficant more than two decades ago. And it's been a fascinating subject, story, for a political writer. I regret the fact that Jim Traficant never could get out of this small-town mentality, 'everything's OK' corruption mode, which was his undoing.
"I only hope the voters of this district recognize the harm that would be done to our region if Jim Traficant is reelected in November. It would bring shame, it would bring national attention, and people would really begin questioning our thought process and our mentality if we elect a convicted felon."
Long before Traficant's July 30 sentencing, the congressman and the columnist bad sparred repeatedly in Youngstown, a decaying industrial city in northeast Ohio. A generation after the steel mills closed, Youngstown businesses have dried up and life has drained away Windows are smashed or boarded up, storefronts are empty, and the downtown is eerily sleepy, even during business hours.
Youngstown is home to the irrepressible Traficant, but it's not de Souza's home, not really. De Souza arrived in Youngstown by accident, stayed by accident and built his career writing about a charismatic populist who personified the shot-and-a-beer community.
A one-time antidrug counselor, Traficant ascended to Mahoning County sheriff and then to the U.S. House, styling himself as a defender of the downtrodden. De Souza dogged him, first as a beat reporter and later as a political columnist and editorial writer, documenting his mob ties, deriding his ethics, lambasting his motives.
Their relationship has been tempestuous and often downright mean. De Souza, shunning "touchy-feely" columns, has used his ink to denounce Traficant as the "Archie Bunker of politics" and a "two-bit criminal." Traficant has lashed out at de Souza with bizarre and profane invective, cursing at him during press conferences and public meetings and assailing his personal life. De Souza, 52, pushing 5'6" and braving graying hair, jokes that in his pre-Traficant days he had black hair and stood 6'2."
But both men seem to relish the battles. When the nine-term Democrat claims de Souza made his living writing about him, de Souza cheerfully agrees. At times, Traficant has courted de Souza to promote stories. "Come on, work with me on this," de Souza recalls Traficant urging him. Traficant, 61, imprisoned at the low-security Allenwood Federal Correctional Institution in White Deer, Pennsylvania, declined to be interviewed for this article.
"I would characterize it as a love-hate relationship, but a dependent relationship," says Bill Binning, chairman of Youngstown State University's political science department and former chairman of the Republican Party of Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown and surrounding suburban communities. "It's been an interesting dance over 20 years."
The dance began in 1979, when de Souza unexpectedly found himself in Youngstown.
He had arrived in the United States a decade earlier, an eager 19-year-old of Indian heritage from Kampala, Uganda. ("De Souza" is a Portuguese name; his grandparents hailed from Goa, then a Portuguese colony on India's west coast.) After attending an Oklahoma junior college, de Souza completed his bachelor's degree in journalism at Kansas State University.
But in 1972, the year de Souza graduated, he also lost his home. Dictator Idi Amin expelled tens of thousands of Asians from Uganda. De Souza's parents and sister fled to England, his brother to Canada. De Souza remained in Kansas, briefly covering the state Legislature for the Associated Press, and then headed to Selma, Alabama.
De Souza started as a city government reporter at the Selma Times-Journal and became the paper's managing editor. He recalls that the intensity of the rift between black and white residents surprised him. He once sent a black female reporter to cover a civic meeting. Its irritated white male members phoned the paper afterward to request a different reporter in the future.
De Souza reported on the 10th anniversary of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches, made infamous when state troopers and Sheriff James Clark's posse descended on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and assaulted peaceful marchers with billy clubs and bullwhips.
Joe T. Smitherman, the former segregationist mayor who lost in 2000 after 35 years in office, gave de Souza a billy club with an engraved brass plate proclaiming it a "friendship stick." De Souza still keeps it in his burgundy Toyota RAV4 as an evocation of Selma's past and as protection should he ever need it.
In 1979, after departing Selma and earning a master's in political science at Milwaukee's Marquette University, de Souza faced a bleak job market. He sent out 300 resumes before receiving a call from a Vindicator editor, who invited him for a weeklong audition. De Souza had never heard of Youngstown. When he survived his tryout and accepted a job covering city government, he informed the editor that he would remain in Youngstown no more than two years.
Twenty-three years later, he has become an influential and well-known writer in the struggling city. He found himself enthralled by Mahoning Valley politics and intrigued by the economic upheaval after the mills closed. He wanted to witness the region's rebirth and tried through his column to incite residents and leaders to cast off their political and economic past.
Besides urging readers to eschew Traficant, de Souza devotes much column space to advocating Mahoning Valley economic development and the revitalization of downtown Youngstown. He urges state politicians in Columbus and Washington, D.C., to send Youngstown more money, and he implores local officials to spend the money wisely. For a columnist who thrives on political intrigue, the region offers reams of material.
De Souza enjoys carte blanche with his column, but Editorial Page Editor Dennis Mangan occasionally suggests a softer touch in "unnecessarily edgy" pieces. "There are times when I think he could use a little bit more of a velvet glove," Mangan says, laughing. "I don't think he has one in his wardrobe."
Mangan believes de Souza's unusual background helps him connect with many different kinds of people. "His strength is his contacts," Mangan says. "Hands down, he knows more people than anybody else in the building." De Souza works late into the evening and frequently meets sources for breakfast on the weekends. His boss says he "just lives his job."
While passionate about Youngstown, de Souza still doesn't consider it home. No family roots bind him to the area: Twice divorced, he has no children. His second marriage, to Vindicator City Editor Cynthia Rickard, ended in the mid-1990s.
But even if he wanted to forget his outsider status and embrace Youngstown as his adopted home, some locals have made that impossible. On radio talk shows and in telephone or e-mail messages, people have urged him for years to "get on his elephant" and go back to Africa or India. Others privately spew derogatory epithets for Indians and then insist that they spoke out of turn, that they didn't mean them and that they don't want their names attached to their whisperings.
"Jim is from this area," Traficant's supporters tell de Souza. "You're not."
And Traficant is indeed woven into the working-class community He grew up in Youngstown: His father was a truck driver, his uncle a labor activist. Traficant worked in the steel mills during summer vacations and played quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, a feat some locals still recall proudly.
When de Souza first met Traficant, the latter was an antidrug counselor with political ambitions. De Souza recognized Traficant's magnetism from the start. In his appearances at schools, he would captivate not only skeptical students but also their parents. At the end of an hour in the room, people would line up to shake his hand.
Traficant, abrasive even then, was elected sheriff in 1980. He defied a judge's order to fore-close on homeowners who defaulted on their mortgages, a stance that briefly landed him in jail. His action established him as a local hero--it's still cited by a bewildered national press corps struggling to explain his appeal.
In 1982, a federal grand jury indicted Traficant for bribery after the FBI taped him taking $163,000 from local mobsters. To de Souza's disgust, the nonlawyer defended himself and convinced a jury that he accepted the bribes as part of a secret sting operation known only to himself. Traficant's fame spread.
"People truly believe that he is a fighter for the little people, that he understands their pain," de Souza says. He compares Traficant to another populist whom de Souza briefly covered, George Wallace. The former Alabama governor once explained his 1963 "stand in the schoolhouse door," blocking two black students' entry to the University of Alabama, by saying, "That's what the people wanted." Traficant understood what the people wanted. He shared their anger and offered them hope. When he pledged to go to Washington and "save our community," people believed him.
But many people distrusted de Souza, who by then had become the paper's politics writer. In 1984, Traficant won his first congressional race, and de Souza attended the victory celebration to cover the acceptance speech. A few of Traficant's supporters began screaming at de Souza, which Traficant encouraged by verbally attacking de Souza and the Vindicator during his speech. As de Souza departed, two "huge oak trees of men" stood in the doorway blocking his path, forcing him to squeeze through to escape. Far from being bitter or cowed, de Souza giggles at the memory.
Traficant's bluster and intimidation masked a more complex relationship. "In a community where there were no outspoken critics of Traficant, Bertram stood out," says Thomas Flynn, an associate professor of political communication at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. "Traficant had a grudging respect for Bertram de Souza, and I also think that de Souza had--I wouldn't go as far as 'admiration,' but he understood how good of a politician Jim Traficant was."
Traficant excelled at "retail" politics, connecting with constituents by hailing them--"Hey ya, how you doing, Big Guy"--as he sauntered along the Youngstown streets. People tend to love or hate him. But as Traficant's legal and ethical troubles mounted, some Mahoning Valley residents began to reassess the folk hero.
"Those are the people Bertram influenced the most, who slowly peeled away [from supporting Traficant] over the last year or two," says Flynn, a resident of the Youngstown suburb of Boardman. "He is a thoughtful writer."
De Souza acknowledges Traficant's political talents. He long believed that the congressman could remain in the House indefinitely if he stayed out of serious trouble. De Souza caine to view Traficant's swagger, outlandish dress and self-deprecating humor as a carefully cultivated persona. The journalist even mastered "Traficant speak," the politician's propensity for assigning his own definitions to words, such as describing cowards as people with "no balsam." And Traficant once shared a prescient insight with de Souza. "You can get lost there," Traficant said shortly after his election to Congress. "So you have to find a way to stand out."
Early in Traficant's congressional career, he revealed an unexpected vulnerability. During a rare visit to the Vindicator, Traficant spotted de Souza. A bearish man, Traficant grabbed the diminutive de Souza's hand and pulled the reporter toward him, a tactic he used frequently to assert his domineering presence.
"He looked at me and said, 'You know, I don't care if you ever like me, but one of these days you'll respect me,'" de Souza recalls. "And I looked at him, and I said, 'Congressman, you have to earn respect.' And that ended that. But I've always remembered it because I wondered why it was so important to him. To me, it said so much about where he was. He would do his act out there, and he would rant and rave, and he was the big hero and all of that. And yet it showed a side of him where it was so important that he be respected by the very institutions that he was attacking."
But the incessant tirades made reporting difficult, and Traficant further complicated news coverage by periodically forbidding his staff to talk to de Souza. Usually de Souza could circumvent these edicts by finding an aide who understood that silence harmed the boss. "And then [Traficant would] go nuts because he'd see a story and I'd have all the details," de Souza says. "And he'd say, 'Who the hell gave him that stuff?"'
Traficant and his supporters have attacked de Souza personally, ridiculing his marital troubles, questioning whether he obtained his U.S. citizenship legally and calling him a drunk. De Souza incurred two DUI charges in the 1980s. The first was dropped; he pleaded no contest to the second after crashing into another car on Youngstown's East Side.
The Vindicator covered the accident, de Souza's plea and his sentence of three days in driving school and a $175 fine. The municipal judge also suspended de Souza's driver's license for 60 days but allowed him to drive for work. De Souza says he agreed with the editors that the newspaper had to report on the charges because he is a public figure.
The perpetual personal attacks sting a bit, but de Souza likes to stir things up in his columns and enjoys getting folks talking even if they're criticizing him. He contends that people like a little "blood and guts" on Sunday morning--which is when his column appears. And, although he says he's never written about Traficant's personal life, his column offers plenty of opportunities to excoriate Traficant's professional actions.
A sampling from de Sousa's July 28 column listing the top 10 reasons why Traficant should be sent directly to prison on his sentencing day:
"No. 10: He needs a change of diet. Traficant's recent public pronouncements about his bowel movements and his gastric emissions make it clear that all those meals at Taverna, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., paid for by USAerospace, a Cafaro Co. enterprise, have played havoc with his intestinal tract. Bread and water are just what the doctor would order."
"No. 8: The Mahoning Valley desperately needs a break from his incessant whining about how the big bad government has been out to get him for almost 20 years."
"No. 5: The fashion world is abuzz about this self-proclaimed trendsetter--polyester bell-bottom pants, ill-fitting denim jackets and narrow ties--who is about to model orange penitentiary garb."
"No. 2 : Traficant is a two-bit criminal who used his public position for personal gain.
"And the No. 1 reason this blot on the Mahoning Valley's reputation should be sent to prison immediately: Gary Condit. Condit, a Democratic congressman from California who was cast as a possible suspect in the murder case of a former government intern, Chandra Levy, was the lone vote in Traficant's favor [when the House voted to expel him]. He admitted having a close relationship with Levy--and the voters of his district rejected his bid for another term... Yes, politicians should be judged by the company they keep."
On the morning of Traficant's sentencing, a steady stream of customers trickled into George's News, a Youngstown newsstand, to buy lottery tickets, cigarettes and the occasional newspaper. Owner George Hubert, 57, bought the newsstand 14 years ago after the family trucking business that he expanded from Pittsburgh soured.
"Bertram's right. This guy's gotta go. All you have to do is look at this place to see what's going on," says Hubert, his hazel eyes scornful. He pronounced Youngstown "dead," adding, "It hasn't been buried yet."
Across the street from George's News, the discount drug chain Phar-Mor has closed. Jim Tressel, the popular Youngstown State football coach, left last year to become head coach at Ohio State University. The Youngstown airport lost its last commercial airline in September. And the new private prison has shut down, beset by violence when Washington, D.C., sent its maximum-security inmates to the medium-security penitentiary. Ironically, the only attractive building constructed recently downtown is a federal courthouse financed with money secured by Traficant.
"This place keeps getting worse and worse and worse," says Ron Smith, 43, who runs RL Smith Printing Co. Buying Marlboro Lights, Smith adds that "Bertram pretty much tells it like it is" and that he's "kinda glad" the Traficant business is over.
Some customers vent their frustration with politicians in general, seeing nothing out of the ordinary about Traficant, except that his big mouth landed him in trouble. Frank Naples, 51, says he'd like de Souza to expend more energy rapping other politicians in the city government and county commission, "taking them to task, too." And Merle Madrid III, 45, an athletic-looking man with a booming voice, says that when de Souza "gets on something, he just won't let it go."
That opinion was seconded more profanely in a telephone interview with Don Hanni, a Traficant friend and former Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman. Hanni said de Souza hasn't given Traficant enough credit and called some of the columnist's writing "so damn lopsided that it's nauseating."
De Souza works for a relic, one of a handful of independently owned, afternoon city dailies scattered across the nation. The Vindicator newsroom is housed in a downtown industrial building and enclosed by a foreboding fence. Its impersonal exterior does not even display the Vindicator name, although the bright orange delivery trucks in the loading dock do. Circulation has dropped in recent years, now barely exceeding 68,000 daily and 98,000 on Sunday.
Around 2 p.m. the afternoon of Traficant's sentencing, de Souza completed his live commentary at WFMJ and walked back to his office a few blocks away. A Youngstown-area family owns the TV station and the newspaper, so editors have supported de Souza's television appearances.
Back in the newsroom, de Souza sat at his cluttered desk and assumed a familiar pose: leaning back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head. Never still, he bounced his knees up and down as he discussed Traficant's sentence with Editorial Page Editor Mangan. A three-person team, including de Souza, writes editorials, lays out the editorial pages and edits syndicated columns.
As an editorial writer, de Souza is a generalist by necessity. His tiny team produces two editorials a day, seven days a week. De Souza expounds on Memorial Day, national politics, friction between India and Pakistan and starvation in Africa. Mangan also credits him with boosting the editorial focus on local issues.
At that moment, de Souza was focused entirely on Traficant. Others may assume that the long saga of Traficant's political career has concluded and that the political columnist who created a career covering him can consign their relationship to the clip files. But de Souza knows better.
Traficant, is running from prison as an independent candidate in the redrawn 17th Congressional District. If he wins or garners a significant number of votes, he again will capture the national media's interest. De Souza feels sure that Traficant, a master of the sound bite, will continue to get his message out. Reporters and columnists, himself included, will persist in pursuing a politician whose dress, speaking style and ethical lapses have made him such a compelling story.
"The big question," de Souza told his editor, "is who will get the first interview with him."
RELATED ARTICLE: Bertram's Barbs
From "TV antics paint Traficant as Archie Bunker of politics" October 14, 1990
"What happened last Monday on the 'Donahue' show goes beyond U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s stupid reference to an antagonist's Jewish heritage.... Sheriff Pusser or Rambo would not have reacted the way Traficant did when he was bushwhacked by Vic Rubenstein and Atty. James Callen....
"The crowd roared its approval, to no one's surprise. But Traficant, the maverick politician, the anti-establishment congressman, became just another petty, dumb officeholder who, when backed into a corner, could think of nothing more intelligent to say to Rubenstein than, 'You're a Jew.'
"Sheriff Buford Pusser? Rambo? Not on your life. More like the Archie Bunker of politics."
From "Casting movie on Traficant's career" July 21, 1991
"Yes, Congressman James A. Traficant Jr., the darling of the network news sound bite, the smiter of a federal prosecutor, the ex-sheriff who told the mob to take a hike--they laughed--believes his life story is worth preserving on celluloid.
"The 17th District House Democrat has held preliminary talks with a not-so-well-known Hollywood producer about doing a movie. One of the story lines: A modern version of David and Goliath, of Traficant successfully defending himself against the federal government on charges of bribery and racketeering. He was accused of taking $163,000 from mobsters Orly and Charlie Carabbia in the 1980 campaign for Mahoning County sheriff."
From "Traficant in role of dead man walking" July 14, 2002
"Editor's note: In about 24 hours, the chairman of a House ethics subcommittee will gavel an extraordinary meeting to order. There will be only one item on the agenda: James A. Traficant Jr. of Poland, D-17th, convicted felon....
"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee:
"The time has come to bury James A. Traficant Jr.--figuratively, at least. He is undeserving of praise, and there is nothing honorable about him. Not only has this man violated his sacred oath of office, he has contributed to the public's distrust of government.
"Mr. Traficant must be expelled from this august body before he is, sentenced on July 30 by U.S. District Court Judge Lesley Wells Brooks. The honest, law-abiding citizens of the 17th Congressional District are looking to this committee to do what a disturbingly large number of voters in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties have refused to do: give this pariah the boot....
"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, there is no doubt that if Mr. Traficant does appear before this committee, he will live up to his reputation as a buffoon, a court jester, a conspiracy theorist and, yes, the village idiot."
From "Long Valley nightmare soon over" July 21, 2002
"Time and time again last week, Traficant made reference to his gastric emissions, talked about kicking people in the crotch and, generally, lived up to his reputation as the black sheep in the congressional family. The more he opened his mouth to spew the putrid garbage that still seems to impress his followers, the deeper the Mahoning Valley's reputation was shoved into the sewer....
"It is now clear that Traficant is a pariah in Congress, and soon he'll be gone. A vote on expulsion is a certainty. But what isn't clear is whether the people of the Mahoning Valley are willing to stand up and say to this despicable human being, 'Mr. Traficant, have you no shame?'...
"Therefore, the thinking voters of the 17th District have only one option: Vote to expel James A. Traficant Jr. from the Mahoning Valley's political scene--forever."
Rachel Smolkin, a Washington, D.C.-area writer, has covered Washington for Scripps Howard News Service, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade.
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|Publication:||American Journalism Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2002|
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