ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This week, our colleague Robert Siegel has been talking with voters in the swing state of Ohio. Today, a visit to Youngstown, a former steel city near the Pennsylvania state line. Youngstown has long been Democratic, but as Robert tells us, it has taken to Donald Trump with a passion and with memories of a local political hero who foreshadowed much of Trump's message.
ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: This is do-it-yourself campaigning. At Mahoning County Republican headquarters, Steven Carter was cutting sheets of campaign cards and trimming the margins. The cards are for him, for his campaign to be county recorder. For a Republican, it's an uphill climb.
STEVEN CARTER: You know, we're in a Democratic town. There's been a Democratic stronghold forever. Last year, a Republican got elected as the auditor. He was the first non-Democrat in 30, 40 years that's been elected to a non-judicial position in this county. That's a long time.
SIEGEL: So it's big news that this year in Mahoning County, where Barack Obama twice polled over 60 percent, Donald Trump is going gangbusters. Trump lost the Ohio primary, but he won here. And he did it with the votes of thousands of Democrats and Independents. Mark Munroe is the Mahoning County Republican chairman. He says some of those voters may stick with the GOP.
MARK MUNROE: Trump gave them a reason to finally come over.
SIEGEL: I'd been told by a colleague who grew up in Youngstown that to understand the appeal of Trump in this economically-depressed region deserted by the steel mills that once sustained it, you have to understand this man.
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JIM TRAFICANT: Politics is perception and facade, and all life has a little bit of extra glitz and unusual overt behaviors.
SIEGEL: The late Jim Traficant, sheriff turned congressman turned convicted felon, champion of the common man. I tried the Traficant connection out on Mark Munroe.
When people remark on Trump doing something over-the-top, Trump being completely unconventional, do you ever hear the name Traficant?
MUNROE: (Laughter) Who? (Laughter).
SIEGEL: Everybody in the room just laughed at my mention of Traficant.
MUNROE: And I think it's interesting to note - if Jim Traficant lived anywhere else in the country, he would have been a Republican. He was a Democrat because it was politically expedient to do that here in the valley.
SIEGEL: You're saying that - with pride - that he would have been a Republican.
MUNROE: Well, he had many, many pro-conservative, pro-people, pro-Republican positions.
SIEGEL: But he went to prison.
MUNROE: Yes, he did.
SIEGEL: He was convicted ultimately.
MUNROE: Yes, he did. There is no doubt that Jim Traficant was no stranger to the federal prison system, but yet he espoused a political view that was very popular in this valley.
SIEGEL: My colleague was obviously on to something. To the rest of America, the late Jim Traficant might have been a scoundrel, but here, the truck driver's son who went on to play quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh and to be elected sheriff, the brash man with the outsized pompadour-style toupee is remembered fondly.
TRACEY WINBUSH: I don't believe that he was a crook. You have to understand that Mahoning Valley at one time, to be elected you probably had to do some things you probably didn't like.
SIEGEL: Tracey Winbush is the county Republican vice chair and a local radio talk show host.
WINBUSH: If it had not been for him being in office, a lot of people would have lost their houses and kids would have lost their homes.
SIEGEL: When he was a sheriff, he refused to foreclose.
WINBUSH: That's correct. He refused to serve them.
SIEGEL: That was his campaign promise when he ran for sheriff in 1980. He wouldn't evict steelworkers who were losing their jobs by the tens of thousands. For his refusal, he spent three days in jail.
BERTRAM DE SOUZA: That to me was the defining moment of Jim Traficant's future. People just rallied around him. He became the local hero.
SIEGEL: That's Bertram de Souza, the editorial page editor at the local paper The Vindicator, which has endorsed Hillary Clinton this year. As sheriff, Jim Traficant was prosecuted for bribe taking under federal racketeering laws. He defended himself, even though he wasn't a lawyer. His outrageous defense was that he had actually been conducting his own undercover operation when he was taped taking $100,000 from mobsters. Bertram de Souza covered the trial.
DE SOUZA: These high-powered Justice Department lawyers would come in with their blue pinstripe suits, starched white shirts. Jim Traficant wore a corduroy jacket that had patches like the old days, very, very narrow ties and bell-bottoms and cowboy boots, and that's how he dressed.
SIEGEL: And he won. Against all odds, he was acquitted, and he announced he was running for Congress.
DE SOUZA: One of the first things he said, I know the newspaper is going to be against me. It's almost as though we're talking about this year's election.
SIEGEL: He ran against the media.
DE SOUZA: He ran against big business.
SIEGEL: He ran against illegal immigration.
DE SOUZA: He ran against immigration. He ran against China and the dumping of steel. Then he talked about the economy. Blue-collar workers are taking it on the chin, Corporate America doesn't care about them. They just closed these plants because of profits. He went through this whole thing.
SIEGEL: So what's implicit here is that while Donald Trump in 2016 may be an over-the-top novelty in much of the United States, in Youngstown, Ohio, he's the second coming of Jim Traficant?
DE SOUZA: I believe he is. The issues are the same.
SIEGEL: Bertram de Souza of The Vindicator thinks Donald Trump is playing to the same sentiment that Traficant played to 30 years ago.
DE SOUZA: When Donald Trump came to town the first time and talked about I'm going to bring back steel jobs, there were these visions of these huge mills along the river reopening. And I said hold on a minute, a French company recently opened a steel mill in this area - $1.1 billion they invested, 400 people hired. It's all automated. It's all robots.
And I say to these people, even if Donald Trump is able to reopen the steel industry in America, they're not going to hire 50,000 people. But they don't want to hear that. What they want to hear is Donald Trump is going to bring back the steel industry. He's going to bring back all of the jobs that were sent overseas. He'll force these corporations to do that. And they've bought that.
SIEGEL: By the way, Jim Traficant's congressional career ended in disgrace in 2002, when he was prosecuted on new corruption charges. He was convicted and expelled from the House. He is remembered for championing curbs on the IRS and for taking up the cause of two American immigrants who had been called to account for their Nazi pasts. It was a scandalous career, but its cornerstone was an appeal to Youngstown's sense of injury that the rich and the powerful had robbed the city of its life, that the system was rigged.
SHAPIRO: That's our co-host Robert Siegel in Youngstown, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.