Famously brash and infamously mobbed up Ohio politician James Traficant is the subject of a new documentary, Traficant – The Congressman of Crimetown, opening for a one-week theatre run in Cleveland this weekend. The doc will have a one-week theatre run in Traficant’s hometown of Youngstown and nearby Pittsburgh too. Directed by native Youngstowner Eric Murphy, it will be available at Vimeo, ITunes and Amazon in October.

The ever-colorful and outspoken Traficant was a U.S. Congressman for almost two decades before being booted from the House of Representatives in Washington following his indictment and eventual conviction and incarceration on racketeering and bribery charges in the early 2000s. He died in a tractor accident on his Ohio farm two years ago this week at 73 on September 23, 2014.

For more than a half-century, the city of Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley region was synonymous with organized crime activity, car bombs and rampant political and police corruption. Youngstown was rechristened “Crimetown” or ‘Bombtown” by members of the national media.

As a young man, Traficant excelled on the football field and played quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh. He also grew up rubbing elbows with future Youngstown mob heavies the Carabbia brothers (“Ronnie the Crab,” “Charlie the Crab,” and “Orlie the Crab”), Lenny Strollo, “Little Joey” Naples and “Ernie B” Biondillo.

Charlie the Crab, Naples and Biondillo were all slain gangland style, Strollo, the city’s No. 1 mafia figure throughout most of the 1990s, wound up entering the Federal Witness Protection Program, where he resides today at 85. The Carabbias belonged to the Cleveland mafia family. Strollo, Naples and Biondillo reported to the Pittsburgh mafia family.

In 1981, Traficant was elected Mahoning Valley County Sherriff. Four years later and after beating federal racketeering and corruption charges while acting as his own attorney, he won a seat in Congress as a Democratic rep from Ohio’s 17th voting district located in the historically blue-collar Northeast portion of the state.

Traficant was indicted by the feds for a second time in 2002. This time, the charges stuck like glue and he did seven years in prison. Taking one last shot at his old congressional seat, he ran as an independent candidate in 2011 and lost the election to his successor and former aid Tim Ryan.

Eric Murphy originally conceived the idea of telling Traficant’s story on the screen working as an aid himself for Ryan, Traficant’s then-second in command and eventual replacement, while a student at Youngstown State University in the mid-1990s as the city’s mob faction imploded. Violent infighting and brazen intimidation tactics – Lenny Strollo ordered the execution of a prosecutor who survived the hit attempt and several bullet wounds in a Christmas morning shooting which occurred in 1996, only months after Strollo had Ernie Biondillo killed – shook the region to its’ core.

“It was a dangerous city back then, (prosecutor) Paul Gains got shot, they whacked Ernie Biondillo, everybody was running for cover,” Murphy recalls. “Youngstown’s original sin has always been corruption. James Traficant was a symptom of that environment.”

James Traficant in 1982 when he was Sherriff.

James Traficant in 1982 when he was Sherriff.

Traficant became an iconic symbol of the everyman in his climb up the ladder of Mahoning Valley politics, championing the area’s vast community of steel-mill and factory workers and successfully taking on the U.S. government.

“When he beat the first set of charges against him in the 1980s, he became a genuine folk hero in Youngstown,” Murphy said. “Growing up as a kid the topics of conversations at the dinner table were Jesus Christ, JFK and Jim Traficant. He was like the Sherriff from the movie Walking Tall.

Murphy became fascinated by Traficant watching him give speeches on local television as a boy.

“He’d buy time at the local TV stations, get in front of the camera and start barking like he was a pro wrestler, like he was Randy “The Macho Man” Savage,” remembers Murphy with a laugh. “I didn’t know anything about politics then, I just knew this guy was awesome to watch.”

Initially, Murphy wrote a screenplay for a film based on Traficant’s life, shopping it around Los Angeles in the 2000s. In 2004, he shot a “short” starring seasoned Hollywood vet and Youngstown-native Ed O’Neill (Married With Children, Modern Family) as a loosely-based version of Traficant.

By 2009, he decided to begin planting the seeds to transition from telling the story in movie form to unspooling it in documentary form. O’Neill is one of the doc’s interview subjects. His uncle Joe O’Neill was not only the inspiration for his Al Bundy character on the hit Fox television show Married With Children but also a former judge and criminal defense attorney in Youngstown known for repping the notorious Little Joey Naples, shot dead in the summer of 1991 by a sniper’s bullet.

Watch the trailer for Traficant – The Congressman of Crimetown here.

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