Comparing Ohio-PA border politics

By Dick Miller:   – FIRST OF TWO PARTS.

WE.CONNECT.DOTS:  Since state and national Democrat parties have written off Western Pennsylvania, politics around here are akin to watching paint dry.

Fortunately, southwestern Crawford, northwestern Lawrence and nearly all of Mercer County are part of the Youngstown TV market.  Politics is still drama in this rapidly dwindling region due to vaporizing of the U.S. steel-making business.

To be precise, Youngstown is the southernmost part of Northeast Ohio with Cleveland northern most and Akron to the west.

Primaries are always exciting in Mahoning County (Youngstown) because of the overwhelming Democrat voter registration – at least until recently.  Every four years the presidential general election takes on added importance.

Because the five Youngstown TV stations beam in circles, advertising and news coverage hits potential voters in two electoral college-rich, up-for-grabs states.  Presidential contenders appear in Youngstown frequently, almost never in central Western PA.

Even when Central Western Pennsylvania politics counted for something, it could not equal the Youngstown area for colorful leaders, interesting news or corruption.

Here is a brief, random history of key public figures and episodes that ends with the 2017 primary.

Mike Kirwan was Youngstown’s representative in the U.S. Congress from 1937 to his death in 1970.  He was famous for his lobbying efforts to construct a Lake Erie to Ohio River canal to boost commerce in the region.  While he was not successful with the canal, Kirwan was hailed as one of the most influential members of Congress on conservation.  He also brought back more than his share of pork to his district.

Kirwan was succeeded for two terms by a Republican, Lyle Williams.  That was it for the GOP, four years out of the last eight decades.

Eventually, in January 1985, Youngstown’s version of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” the infamous Jim Traficant became a Congressman shortly after being acquitted at trial for taking a $160,000 kickback from the mob while Mahoning County sheriff.

Traficant lasted until July of 2002 when Congress expelled him after he was convicted of taking bribes, filing false tax returns and racketeering.  Traficant did seven years in prison.

Most of his career was national news.  Traficant was a genuine folk hero with a large following (many in Mercer County), despite repeated efforts by the government to put him in jail.

In cheap leisure suits and unkept hair, he was a frequent protester on the House floor.  To emphasize his disbelief of the direction things were going, he would say “Beam me up, Scotty!”

Traficant literally waded into controversy.  When Sharon Steel filed its second bankruptcy eventually sinking 4,500 good paying jobs, many from Traficant’s district, he became a central figure in the events.

Sharon Steel officers held a public meeting to explain the bankruptcy, drawing 2,000 concerned citizens to Sharon High School auditorium.  Traficant joined them on stage.  His counterpart in NW PA, Rep. Tom Ridge, later to become Governor, claimed he could not make the meeting due to flu.

During much of PA Congressman Joe Vigorito’s tenure, he served in Kirwan’s shadow.  Unfairly, he was once labeled the “dumbest member of Congress.”  Actually, he had been an economics professor.  His Italian accent made it difficult for listeners to digest his brilliant analysis of complex government subjects.

In circa 1966, doctors, mostly Republicans, were outraged over LBJ’s Medicare program.  Vigorito asked Yours Truly to convene a meeting of the medical profession at Greenville Country Club.

He let them speak their views, then told them they were wrong.  “If we don’t insure people, many will not be able to afford you and they will die.  There will be no way to pay you and your practices will diminish.”

Flash forward to today and contrast Congressional representation for Youngstown and NW PA.

Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania makes it tough for Democrats to unseat Mike Kelly, R-Butler.  The Republican-controlled process split the Democrat stronghold of Erie.  Butler and surrounding GOP strongholds dominate the newly created 4thdistrict.

Now in his fourth term, Kelly shuns most public forums with audiences not agreeing with his views.  For six years, he contended Republicans had a better health plan than Obamacare.  As recently as a month ago, Kelly still espoused the party line but never explained what the GOP health option is.

Turns out he doesn’t know . . . and never did.  Kelly is one of many Republicans who do not believe health care is a right.  He will support whatever the proposed “solution” to Obamacare is.

Western Pennsylvania media never called Kelly on the ruse.  Nor did local press pin him down on backing Donald Trump.  Kelly had no opposition last year.

With Democrats weak in the area, he is not a target in the 2018 race.

Not so his counterpart Tim Ryan.  Now in his eighth term in Ohio district 13, Republicans are making him a target, mostly because of how strong Trump ran in the area in both primary and fall last year.  When back home, Ryan is out on the street, attending meetings and participating in local issues.

He began his career on Traficant’s staff.  His style is somewhat similar but there has never been a scent of corruption.  When Ohio’s version of gerrymandering took effect for the 2002 races, Youngstown-based 17th district pushed west to Akron.  Democrat Tom Sawyer, of Akron, had represented the now-abolished 14th district for eight terms.

Sawyer’s weakness was that he seldom showed concern for organized labor.  Ryan, with heavy union support, defeated Sawyer in the 2002 primary.

When the current Congress convened last January, Ryan failed in a respectable attempt to unseat minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

Not only is Ryan corruption-free in contrast to Traficant, he ignores the Pennsylvania border counties.

Bottom Line: The two regions being compared had one aspect in common.  Both were heavily industrialized, losing at least 50,000 good paying jobs in the 1980s.

The contrast between Youngstown and adjoining West Central PA is about more than Congressional representation.  Next week we will report on other local politicians and corruption.

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Updated: April 24, 2017 — 7:06 am
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