Santos's independent bid echoes case of last expelled member of Congress

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Former Rep. George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) decision to run for reelection as an independent after being expelled from Congress mirrors a similar incident involving a disgraced lawmaker from more than 20 years ago.

Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) was expelled from Congress in 2002 in a 420-1 vote after his conviction on federal racketeering and tax charges. The same year, and again eight years later, he ran for reelection as an independent candidate — though unlike Santos, it was both during and after a prison sentence.

Santos and Traficant are among a handful of House members to be expelled, and an even smaller handful expelled for a reason other than taking up arms against the United States in the Civil War.

Traficant was an unmistakable figure on Capitol Hill, notorious for his wide-lapeled, 1970s-style suits and his hairpiece, which he facetiously claimed to “cut with a weed whacker.” He frequently closed out his floor remarks with “Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life here.”

Under the bluster, however, Traficant was beloved in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley for his populist rhetoric and his opposition to free-trade and globalization policies that his constituents blamed for the loss of factory and manufacturing jobs, according to Bertram de Souza, who covered Traficant as a columnist for the Youngstown Vindicator.

Traficant was “Donald Trump before there was a Donald Trump,” de Souza told The Hill. “He had a sense of his constituency, of the region he represented.”

As sheriff of Mahoning County, Traficant had already been charged by federal prosecutors with accepting bribes from the Mafia. However, the charges had no effect on his popularity — apart from maybe enhancing it — especially after he won the case, making him the only person in history to successfully represent himself on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act charges.

Casting himself as a target of overzealous federal prosecutors — and then triumphing over them — squared perfectly with the image Traficant wanted to project, de Souza said.

“He framed his entire political career as the little guy against the big, bad government, and it resonated,” he said.

First elected to the House in 1984, Traficant cruised to reelection eight times in Ohio’s 17th Congressional District, including in the 1994 wave election that saw Republicans take the House majority for the first time in four decades.

As a legislator, he was to the right of both then-President Clinton and much of his party on issues like abortion and immigration, in an era before the parties were fully polarized on them. Even before his conviction, he made enemies with his own party when he voted to make Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert Speaker in 2001, prompting his caucus to deny him committee assignments in the 107th Congress.

Ultimately, de Souza said, what brought Traficant down was an inability to get away from his roots.

“If he got rid of all his ass-kissers from the region, he would be a leader on Capitol Hill, because he was that talented as a politician, but he just couldn’t do that,” de Souza said.

In 2001, Traficant was indicted in federal court on multiple corruption charges. Unlike Santos, whose charges have not yet been adjudicated, he was convicted in 2002 on 10 counts. The House voted almost unanimously to expel him on July 24, six days before he was sentenced to eight years in prison. The sole vote against his expulsion was outgoing Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.), himself the center of an earlier scandal involving questions about his relationship with Federal Bureau of Prisons intern Chandra Levy.

That fall, Traficant ran as an independent candidate from prison, losing to his former intern Tim Ryan, but winning more than 28,000 votes.

“He did not win but he received 15 percent of the vote, inexplicable for someone who was a convicted felon,” de Souza said. “That’s embarrassing for a region.”

One key difference between Santos and Traficant is that the New York lawmaker was expelled before he could establish the level of loyalty with his constituents that Traficant had, according to de Souza.

Traficant stayed comparably popular even after his prison sentence — about a year after his release, he mounted another third party bid in 2010, the year a wave of Tea Party candidates swept to victory on rhetoric that sounded remarkably similar to his.

He lost again, but improved on his 2002 margin, with 16 percent of the vote.

Another difference between the two men is that Traficant continued running in the 17th district, unlike Santos, who is running in a different New York district this time: The 1st Congressional District, which is currently held by Rep. Nick LaLota (R).  

Traficant, who died in a tractor accident on his farm in 2014, leaves behind a legacy of a politician who retained a grip on a certain segment of the electorate even amid the controversies that engulfed his career.

“The explanation I gave is there are people out there who will believe everything you say so long as you say it,” de Souza said.

In contrast, de Souza said, if Santos is able to notch a win it will likely have more to do with general cynicism around politics.

“The question is, even though Santos is a liar, proven so, does that matter to the voters?” he said. “Is lying in politics that big an issue or the kind of issue it used to be?”

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