By Jim Carney
Beacon Journal staff writer
The 17th Congressional District race would be pretty mundane if not for Jim Traficant, a leading political expert says.
Traficant, the former sheriff and congressman from Mahoning County who spent time in federal prison on corruption charges, is running as an independent against Democratic incumbent Tim Ryan of Niles and Republican political newcomer Jim Graham of Cortland.
Traficant has enjoyed a populist appeal for many years as somewhat of a folk hero in the Youngstown area, said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
''For a long time, many analysts from that part of the state felt he had the capacity to still draw a significant number of votes,'' Green said. ''I don't see any evidence he is doing that now, but having him on the ballot makes it more interesting.''
The predominantly Democratic district stretches into Mahoning, Portage, Please see 17th , B3
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Summit and Trumbull counties, and includes Youngstown, Warren, Tallmadge, Green and portions of Akron.
Ryan, 37, a Bowling Green State University and Franklin Pierce Law Center graduate, is seeking his fifth term. He was an aide to Traficant for two years and later was elected to the Ohio Senate.
In 2002, he won the seat in the newly redrawn district, defeating Democratic Rep. Tom Sawyer in the primary and Republican Ann Womer Benjamin and Traficant, who was serving time in federal prison at the time, in the general election.
He is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Ryan said it is important that the economy grow.
''We're in the worst economic situation we've been in since the Great Depression,'' said Ryan, who is not married.
He said the Mahoning Valley led the nation in the second quarter with nearly a 9 percent increase in manufacturing employment.
''We are running as hard as we ever have,'' Ryan said of his campaign.
He added that he believes the local economy will turn around.
''This time, as opposed to the last few times, we are going to come out stronger than most areas of the country,'' he said.
Graham, 57, is a newcomer to politics. He is a pharmacist who received an undergraduate degree and doctorate in pharmacy at Ohio Northern University.
He said his life was transformed when President Barack Obama's health-care reform was passed last December.
A pharmacist and corporate manager for clinical pharmacy services for Humility of Mary Health Partners, Graham is also a reserve sheriff's deputy in both Mahoning and Trumbull counties. He teaches pharmacy at several colleges and has been a Boy Scout leader for nearly two decades.
''I felt like I got a message from God,'' Graham said of his decision to run. ''I know health care.''
He said that with the help of family members, he compiled lists of why he should and shouldn't run. The list of reasons not to run was 20 times longer than the other list.
But Graham chose to run anyway.
''There is a lot of sentiment, not just in the country but in our district, that things have to change,'' Graham said.
In the fundraising department, Ryan has outspent and outraised his Republican opponent by more than $700,000.
Traficant, 69, of Poland, did not make himself available to be interviewed for this article.
But in a speech Traficant gave to a Portage County Tea Party meeting in September, he said he was ''the only man who was put in prison with no evidence.''
And if elected, he pledged to work to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and get rid of the federal income tax and replace it with a 25 percent flat national sales tax.
His proposal would eliminate capital gains taxes as well as corporate and estate taxes.
''Right now, 53 percent pay an income tax; the other 47 percent consume our dollars,'' he said.
Graham said he is disappointed that Ryan has not agreed to meet for a debate.
Hanna Kassis of Ryan's campaign spokesman said Ryan has attended many candidate forums ''that provide all candidates the opportunity to communicate their stance on issues facing constituents of the 17th District. Our opponents choose not to attend these events to discuss the issues.''
Graham, a Greek immigrant, came to the United States as a 1 year old and became a U.S. citizen at age 16. He is married and the father of two sons. He is a critic of government spending.
''We are at $100 trillion or more in debt and liability,'' he said. ''Where is that money going to come from?''
He said he is not surprised at the depth of anger he has seen in the district.
''People are exhausted and angry,'' he said, adding, ''I am the people.''
Green, the political scientist, said Ryan is popular in the district and exemplifies the values of the people there.
And whether one agrees with him politically or not, Green said, Ryan ''seems to fit that district well.''
Green said most analysts believe Ryan will win re-election.
''His Republican opponent is facing an uphill challenge given the way the district is drawn,'' Green said.
''What makes it interesting is whether Traficant will be able to draw a significant portion of the vote.''
Green said there is a potential for some protest votes for Traficant, given the economic times.
There is ''a lot of unhappiness in Ohio and in that district having to do with the economy,'' Green said. ''But economic difficulty is not unusual for the Mahoning Valley.''