YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Countless former Democrats in Ohio’s blue-collar Mahoning Valley are transferring their adoration for the late Democratic U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
When 76-year-old Connie Kessler casts her vote for the brash and big-haired billionaire Trump, she is sure the equally brash and big-haired Traficant, who died in 2014, will be looking down and smiling.
“Jim Traficant used to yell and holler and scream for the people,” Kessler said. “I mean, he went out there and fought his heart out. And that’s what Trump is doing.”
It’s a pivotal voting trend in the battleground-inside-a-battleground that is Youngstown. More than 1 million registered Democrats and independents voted Republican in Ohio’s presidential primary, according to state elections data. One of the biggest swings was in Mahoning County, where more than half of Trump’s 11,000-vote primary victory came from crossover voters.
The area’s anti-establishment electorate cheers politicians who ruffle feathers, and brushes off criminal activity — even prison time like that which Traficant served for taking bribes and kickbacks — as a cost of doing business.
“They look at it as, ‘Jim Traficant may be a criminal, but he’s our criminal,'” said filmmaker Eric Murphy, who grew up in the valley and recently released the documentary, “Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown.”
Speak to almost anyone in the hardscrabble valley where steel was once king and they seem to be asking, “WWJD?” — that is — “What would Jimbo do?”
Mahoning County Democratic Chairman David Betras knew Traficant when he was a populist superstar strutting around Washington in bell-bottoms, a cowboy hat and a barely-disguised toupee.
“On the surface, they sound very much alike. They’re populist and crass. Traficant wanted to send the National Guard to the border, he opposed NAFTA. But when you look a little bit deeper, you would realize that if Jim Traficant were alive today, he’d never be voting for Donald Trump,” Betras said. “Both say, ‘I’m the only one fighting for you,’ but the difference is Jim Traficant was fighting for them, and Donald Trump never fought for a working guy in his life.”
Kessler doesn’t agree, and she’ll take her convictions into the voting booth. That’s even after the release of a 2005 video that features Trump making lewd and sexually charged comments about women. The footage has many fellow Republicans pulling endorsements or asking the nominee to step aside.
“The Trump supporters have one thing going for them, they don’t care whatever he does,” said Kessler, a Roman Catholic who now volunteers daily at GOP headquarters. “I don’t care if he never shows his taxes, I don’t care if he’s married 15 times and has a girlfriend on the side. This man loves America, and he loves me.”
Such loyalty frustrates Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s efforts in Mahoning County, which has swung loyally Democratic in all but two presidential elections since 1946 — including both times Bill Clinton ran, according to data compiled by Columbus-based election statistics expert Mike Dawson.
Cognizant of the stakes and optics of losing the state’s blue-collar crown jewel, Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine have campaigned in the Mahoning Valley. They’ve also sent a parade of big-name supporters, including Chelsea Clinton with “Norma Rae” actor Sally Field, cast members of the political TV drama “The West Wing” and former President Clinton. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigned for Clinton in nearby Akron and Kent.
Seth Unger, who speaks for the Trump campaign in Ohio, called it “a long sad train of surrogates” engaged in “an attempt to salvage the votes of labor union members, veterans, millennials and disaffected Democrats.”
Don Warg is a disaffected Democrat who cast his vote for Trump in the primary. But the 52-year-old from Austintown said he plans to skip the presidential election entirely this fall.
“I can’t stand Trump. I’m completely disgusted with everything that’s gone on. They have us picking between a couple of imbeciles,” he said. “I knew Jim Traficant personally. I loved Jim Traficant. Trump isn’t even close.”
Murphy, the filmmaker, said comparisons of Trump and Traficant were prevalent over the past two weekends, as he was screening his film at a local theater, holding question-and-answer sessions and appearing on local broadcasts.
“It was all, ‘What would Jimbo be saying?’ ‘What would Traficant be saying?'” Murphy said. “And I don’t think he’d be putting up Hillary signs, but I think he’d be calling B.S. on Donald Trump quicker than anyone.”
Early voting began in Ohio on Wednesday.