Two Former Sheriffs Expected to Enliven House
Jan. 16, 1985
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Among the eager freshmen entering Congress this year are two former county sheriffs who prefer quick action to debate and who have gone to jail rather than compromise.
Either the House of Representatives will have to change or Reps. James A. Traficant and Tommy Robinson will.
Traficant, D-Ohio, is a local folk hero who, as Mahoning County sheriff, tangled with and bested drug dealers, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the mayor of Youngstown.
The tough-talking Traficant, acting as his own lawyer, won acquittal in a 1983 bribery case brought after federal agents made tape recordings of mobsters giving him $163,000.
Robinson, D-Ark., gained national notice when he left six prisoners handcuffed to a state prison fence in 1981 because officials delayed in transferring inmates from his crowded Pulaski County lockup.
Neither man is accustomed to submitting ideas to a committee for action or backing down from a fight.
''I don't like to have a beard grow down to my ankles before making a decision,'' Traficant said in a recent interview.
''I may be a classic example of a one-term congressman because I'm not going to join the group and watch. I'm not against compromise, but if the end result is that nothing happens, then I don't like it,'' he said.
Since running for Congress, Robinson, 43, has abandoned his swaggering style for the business suits and soothing voice of a successful politician. But he makes it clear he won't be cowed, either.
''I understand that to a certain degree you have to sacrifice the way you feel about things, but I won't go along to get along,'' Robinson said. ''I'm a conservative thinker. I don't anticipate everybody loving me. I plan to be talking on the House floor a lot.''
If history is any guide, both former sheriffs should enliven floor debate.
Robinson once publicly called an Arkansas state senator ''a Ninth Street pimp,'' suggesting that the legislator should be working on a Little Rock street known for its prostitution. In 1981, he alarmed county officials when he drew his pistol and arrested a youth who made an obscene gesture at him.
When he was sheriff, Traficant said that almost every public official in Mahoning County was controlled by organized crime. He arrested the mayor of Youngstown when funds were missing from the county airport's account.
And when Traficant, 44, defended himself at his 1983 bribery trial, federal Judge Ann Aldrich frequently scolded him for using profanity and villifying his accusers in court. He still peppers his conversation with vulgarities when talking with reporters.
Traficant got to Congress by ousting incumbent Republican Rep. Lyle Williams.
Although Arkansas' Robinson has moderated his tough-guy image after 16 years in law enforcement, colorful episodes from his public life have followed him to Capitol Hill.
In 1982, for example, he broke up a ''toga party'' among a group of mate- swapping couples in a Little Rock hotel on charges that they were engaging in open sex and smoking marijuana. The case collapsed when he and his deputies said they lost the drugs that were to be used as evidence.
Also in 1982, Robinson was jailed in Memphis for contempt of court after he arrested the county judge and county comptroller for refusing to allocate more money to the sheriff's office.
He was arrested again for ''frivolous prosecution'' after he twice arrested a prominent attorney in connection with the murder of the lawyer's wife.
''The news media consider me flamboyant because I don't mind telling you how I feel about something,'' Robinson said. ''I understand the protocol and rules of the House. I'll show respect, but I intend to keep my independence.''
In winning the House seat vacated by Republican Ed Bethune, Robinson failed to win a majority of votes among residents of Little Rock and its suburbs. He is extraordinarily popular, however, in working-class areas of Pulaski County and the seven mostly rural counties that surround Pulaski.
Like Robinson, Traficant has spent some time behind bars. In 1982, he was jailed for contempt when he refused to process mortgage foreclosures against hard-hit factory workers and farmers in his county.
''Good people were losing their homes because of economic conditions that cost them their jobs,'' Traficant recalled. ''Nobody was doing anything about it, so I dramatized the situation.''
That episode made Traficant even more beloved in Mahoning County, where he ran a drug abuse program before bering elected sheriff in 1980. A former star quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, Traficant continued his anti-drug campaign as sheriff and set a record for drug busts.
He said his top priority now is to try to bring jobs to his economically depressed district and curb imports.