The Rich Girl's Guide to Congress

She empathizes with old voters and parties with young ones. Capri Cafaro may be running the perfect campaign.

The Cramps, with the Gore Gore Girls and the Vacancies The Odeon, 1295 Old River Road, the Flats 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 13; $17.50 advance/$19 day of show, 216-241-5555
It's nearing 6 p.m., and Capri Cafaro doesn't have a thing to wear.

Actually, the 26-year-old millionaire has a lot to wear -- form-fitting skirts, cigarette pants, Zeppelin T-shirts. Unfortunately, this arsenal remains at home, and Cafaro's outfit of the moment -- a pinstriped suit and low-heeled pumps -- isn't going to cut it at Ozzfest.

"I really need to start carrying a suitcase in my car," she sighs.

Ever the pragmatist, Cafaro heads to Rave, the low-budget teen-fashion store at Great Lakes Mall. "You can't go wrong with black pants ever," she notes, pushing through the hangers, then holding a Spandexy pair up to her hips. Satisfied, she takes them to the cashier, a teenage girl with a high ponytail that spouts above her head like a fountain.

"Hello," Cafaro says, extending her right hand and smiling brightly. "My name's Capri Cafaro. I' m running for Congress. If elected, I'll be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress."

The girl pops her gum. "Uh-huh," she says, scanning the price tag. "Your total's $21.34."

When Capri Cafaro declared her candidacy 10 months ago, she was considered too young and too inexperienced to challenge the four Democratic veterans also running for the congressional seat in the 14th District, a seven-county area that encompasses most of Cleveland's eastern suburbs.

But Cafaro, who completed college while still in her teens and worked two years on Capitol Hill before her 20th birthday, sent the competition home in the March primary. Using well-placed commercials and billboards that capitalized on her good looks, she promised voters that "no one is going to work harder for you," told them they could look forward to "a new voice for Ohio" and "a new direction in Washington." More important, she spent over $200,000 of her own money. It was enough to win the primary with 54 percent of the vote -- a landslide in a five-person race.

"She ran a real grass-roots campaign. She was really good at getting her name out," says David Porter, a political consultant from Youngstown, where Cafaro was raised. "She really couldn't have done anything differently."

Cafaro's opponent next month is Republican incumbent Steven LaTourette, a former Lake County prosecutor whose name is as firmly ingrained in the regional geography as the Erie coastline. Cafaro, by contrast, is a recent immigrant to the district, with no local track record of her own.

But five terms into his congressional career, LaTourette is no longer looking so untouchable. He made headlines late last year, when his wife of 21 years told the media he called her to say he was having an affair with a Washington lobbyist and that he wanted a divorce.

LaTourette has also been in the hot seat of late for his refusal to recuse himself from the House Ethics Committee investigation of Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Nicknamed "The Hammer" for the hardball tactics he uses to keep Republicans in line, DeLay was accused by Democrats of ethical breaches involving fund-raising, gerrymandering, and strong-arming a Republican congressman into changing his vote on the Medicare bill. LaTourette, who sits on the Ethics Committee, was called on by Democrats to step aside, citing the fact that LaTourette received more than $16,000 in campaign funds from DeLay. LaTourette refused, saying, "I'm not his boy." The Ethics Committee admonished DeLay two times in six days, but declined to levy additional penalties.

Last week it was reported that LaTourette's mistress is Jennifer Laptook, vice president of a Cleveland-area firm that lobbies members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on which LaTourette also serves. Since Laptook started her job last year, her clients have been awarded more than $15 million in federal funds through that committee. (LaTourette did not respond to numerous phone requests seeking comment for this story.)

Analysts say the LaTourette headlines have significantly jeopardized his campaign, and what was once considered a safe Republican seat is now up for grabs. The Hill, a Washington political buzz sheet, has tagged District 14 one of the most important races to watch. And Roll Call, a nonpartisan paper in D.C., editorialized in June that LaTourette was in "for the run of his life."

Last month, LaTourette's former wife posted a "Capri Cafaro for Congress" sign on her lawn.

Capri Cafaro is short -- barely 5 feet tall -- with a round face, long blond locks, and a big, gummy smile. She wears tinted contacts that, depending on the day, can make her eyes look green, blue, or hazel -- though actually they are quite brown.

On the campaign trail, she repeats such statements as "I spent most of my youth as a Republican. When I was younger, I campaigned for [the senior] Bush." Then she'll smile, toss back her carefully coiffed hair, and chuckle at her youthful folly. At these moments, it's easy to forget that she's talking about a time when she was 10 years old.

At other moments, when her hair is loosened from its hairsprayed cage and her makeup does not appear painted on, Cafaro looks kind of hot. On car rides to and from her seemingly endless campaign events, she sings along to songs by Crosby, Stills & Nash and R.E.M., and uses teenagey expressions like "That's cra--zy!" and "Are you ser-i-ous?" Following her speeches, young male voters often ask her out for drinks.

And she knows how to work an audience. When speaking to young voters, Cafaro widens her eyes, smiles seductively, and invariably says, "Wouldn't it be great to elect the youngest woman ever to office?" But when she's out with veterans or union members, she lectures them that her age is irrelevant. When asked how old she feels, Cafaro says, "I don't really think about it." The only time she gets really angry is when she's pushed about her family. "My name has nothing to do with my politics," she snaps.

But her name is as defining as her smile, the width of which could bridge continents.

The Mahoning Valley, where Cafaro grew up, boasts a legacy of steel production that's rivaled only by its history of corruption. For years, politicians have been happy to turn a blind eye to the dealings of warring mob factions from Pittsburgh and Cleveland in exchange for monetary returns and campaign support. When the steel bosses closed shop and left town in the late '70s and early '80s, the entire economy collapsed. Chaos reigned, and the FBI moved in. But rather than embrace the feds, residents resented them for going after the politicians whom they considered so loyal to their region. As sheriff of Mahoning County, James Traficant once went to jail for refusing to foreclose on steelworkers' houses.

Amid the scandal and chaos, there were also legitimate success stories. In the 1940s, William Cafaro, the son of immigrants and a former steelworker himself, started one of the nation's foremost mall-development companies. In the Mahoning Valley, Cafaro was known as a stand-up guy and a champion of Democratic causes.

"If you ran locally, you went to see Bill first," says Bertram de Souza, a columnist for The Vindicator, Youngstown's daily newspaper. "It was not only for financial purposes. To say that Bill Cafaro supported you meant something."

Capri's father, John, was the middle child of three born to William and his wife, Alyce. John -- commonly known as J.J. -- was the most capricious, dropping out of college, then alternately joining, quitting, and rejoining the family business. He constantly tried to assert his independence from his family, yet his attempts at individualism were often sloppy and misdirected. His 1988 effort to resuscitate the Youngstown Avanti automobile plant was a complete failure, as was his plan to start his own land-development company. He ultimately fell back on his family's wealth.

J.J., like his father, had strong political leanings, though his were mostly of the Republican slant. During the 1990s, he donated more than $300,000 to conservative campaigns, and he counted then-Governor George Voinovich among his close friends. He considered opposing Traficant for Congress in 1994, but was dissuaded by friends and family. He also contributed to Democratic causes -- more than $100,000 in the late '90s alone, including fund-raisers for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. (J.J. Cafaro declined Scene's request for an interview.)

But if J.J.'s career choices were erratic, his family life was not. He met his wife, Janet, in the fourth grade and married her at 19. Capri, their first child, was born in 1978 and seemed groomed for politics from the beginning. She attended the prestigious (now closed) Kennedy School for the Gifted in Youngstown, a progressive institution where nine-year-olds read Beowulf and wrote papers on the Cold War.

"It was a funny time," recalls Megan Schutz, a childhood friend of Capri's. "We all thought we were 30."

Capri and her sister, Renee, grew up in a Trumbull County mansion equipped with a private bowling alley, movie theater, discotheque, and pool. "I had some fun birthday parties growing up," is all Capri offers about the experience.

Her parents also owned a $3.6 million house in Washington, where they entertained a slew of politicians. Even as a young girl, Capri was shepherded around these mixers by J.J. "Capri," says de Souza, "learned her politics from her father."

The rigorous education at Kennedy prepared Capri to enter a private high school at age 12, during which time she also took classes at Youngstown State. At 15, she was on her way to Stanford, where she majored in American studies. Capri, like her father, was acutely aware of the national political pulse. And though she had previously attended the Republican Convention in the 1996 election, writing dispatches about the conference for The Vindicator, she says that by the time she was 19, she had definitively changed her party position.

"The politics of the Republican Party had changed in the post-Cold War era," says Cafaro. She believed that Republicans were continuing to focus on issues of containment when they should have been focusing on domestic issues, which were becoming a personal concern to Cafaro: Her maternal grandparents were ailing and struggling to afford health care.

By the time she was 19, she resettled in Washington, earning a master's degree in international studies from Georgetown University and working for a year in the office of Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-Delaware), a close family friend. A year later, she was a congressional aide in the office of New York Republican Senator Al D'Amato.

Cafaro cites her year with D'Amato as proof of her bipartisanship. She would need a politician's charm to get past the next episode in her life.

In 1999, Cafaro was named president of her father's newest venture: USAerospace Group. On J.J.'s insistence, the Cafaro family had recently acquired a patent to new, laser-guided aircraft technology that was supposed to help jets navigate landings. With congressional and Federal Aviation Administration backing, the system could rake in millions. But until that support came, the Virginia-based company was hemorrhaging money.

In an apparent attempt to speed up the approval process, J.J. leaned heavily on his then-friend Traficant, the notorious Youngstown congressman. In exchange for Traficant's lobbying efforts, Cafaro agreed to hand over $13,000 in cash to Traficant and spend $27,000 to purchase and repair a dilapidated boat that Traficant owned but no longer wanted.

The transactions caught the attention of federal prosecutors, who were already investigating Traficant for alleged bribery, racketeering, and tax evasion. When pressed by federal agents, J.J. agreed to testify against Traficant in federal court; his own sentence, U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. said, would be based on how helpful he was to the prosecution. For this reason, many in the Youngstown area continue to doubt Cafaro's testimony. They believe he had much to gain by bringing down Traficant, who was still revered in the area. (Indeed, the prevailing attitude in the Mahoning Valley was that the feds were unfairly picking on the congressman.)

"Shouldn't the one who bribes be held as accountable as the one who accepts the bribes?" argues de Souza, who reported on the proceedings.

Rumors at the time suggested the money Cafaro confessed to giving Traficant actually had nothing to do with USAerospace, but rather was intended to ensure Traficant's support of Capri in a future election.

"There was talk that the Cafaros were going to support Jim for senator or governor, so the [House of Representatives] seat would open for Capri," says Bill Binning, head of the Youngstown State political science department and former leader of the Trumbull County GOP. In a pretrial hearing, Traficant himself got the Mahoning County commissioner to admit that he believed J.J. had been greasing Traficant for an endorsement of Capri in a possible 2002 bid for Congress. (The lead prosecutor countered that the notion was absurd.)

Prosecutors granted immunity to Capri in exchange for testimony against her father's former partner.

Traficant was sentenced to eight years in prison. J.J. Cafari was given 15 months' probation and a $150,000 fine. USAerospace folded, and Capri started her own public-relations firm in Washington. The Feds never revealed whether she had been targeted for investigation.

"Capri was never charged with anything, but the question is always asked -- 'Was she just a figurehead in a company that her father owned, or did she have day-to-day responsibility? If she had day-to-day responsibilities and was not aware what was going on, then what exactly was she doing?'" says de Souza.

When asked today about her involvement with USAerospace, Capri responds grimly, "I am not responsible for my father's actions. I was the lone dissenting voice while I was there, but the dissensions fell on deaf ears. Ultimately, I was not the decision-maker. My dad was the one with the financial decision-making power."

Still, says David Porter, a Youngstown political consultant and Cafaro's former professor at Youngstown State, "The family name and its association with Traficant gives her a presumption of corruption."

For a year, the Cafaro family secluded itself at home. But by the end of last year, Capri emerged from her cocoon. "I decided to focus on the future," she says. "I always wanted to run for political office, and I thought this was the time." She opted not to challenge Democrat Tim Ryan for the seat in her home district, where he enjoys strong union support. The seat held by Republican LaTourette, she decided, was the better target. (Candidates need not reside in the 14th District.)

She announced her candidacy in December, to the chagrin of her father. A week later, she came home to the Hubbard house she shared with her sister to find a note nailed to her door: "I do not want you to run anywhere anytime in this election cycle. Love, your father," it read.

Capri tore it down. "I was not going to listen to him," she says. "I'm very stubborn. If anything, that spurred me on." (Cafaro's family refused to be interviewed for this story.) In speeches throughout her campaign, she has distanced herself from her father.

At the Summit County Fair in late July, Cafaro sashays through the crowd, wearing her oversized "Capri Cafaro for Congress" buttons and waving, in pageant-queen fashion, at passersby.

She stops for a moment at a corral to watch a teen-equestrian competition. When it's over, Cafaro claps her hands loudly, then turns to the mothers.

"Hi," she says, smiling that gummy smile. "My name's Capri. I'm running for Congress. Are you registered to vote?"

When they nod yes, Cafaro moves on to the next throng of parents. When she leaves, one of the mothers taps a member of Cafaro's group on the shoulder and asks: "How old is she anyway? We were taking bets."

This is Cafaro's conundrum: Her youth is both her ally and adversary.

In debates, LaTourette has made constant digs about Cafaro's age and inexperience. ("I don't think a 16-year-old makes the best driver necessarily," he's said.) Their joint appearances serve only to magnify the point: LaTourette, at 50, is tall, bearded, and starting to gray. He wears round, grandfatherly glasses that magnify the wrinkles surfacing around his eyes. When the two stand together, Cafaro, even in heels and a business suit, looks like a kindergartner wearing her mother's dress-up clothes. (Cafaro is aware of this contrast. "As a male, it's easy to just put on a suit," she says. "But with a woman, it's either you're too well made-up or you're trying too hard to not look made-up. It's impossible to win.") At times, when LaTourette talks to her, he seems almost scolding, like a teacher addressing a student. At a debate at Lakeland Community College, where Cafaro had touted her "eight years' experience in Washington," LaTourette challenged her math, claiming that she hadn't spent more than two years on Capitol Hill. She mumbled a response and went on to the next topic. A few days later, she issued a public apology to those who felt she exaggerated her time in Washington. She blamed it on her quick tongue.

The battleground of District 14 is as diverse as the clothes in Madonna's wardrobe. Its borders zigzag through Ashtabula, Lake, Geauga, northeastern Summit, eastern Cuyahoga, and northern Portage and Trumbull counties -- an area still divided fairly evenly among small farming communities and prosperous suburbs. During his 10 years in Congress, LaTourette has cultivated a reputation as a moderate Republican, popular with conservatives and liberals alike. "In the last election," says Dale Blanchard, who opposed LaTourette the past two terms, "he got as many Democrats to vote for him as I did."

LaTourette has brought more than $150 million in federal highway funds to the district, sponsored a bill to clean up Lake Erie, and introduced legislation to declare Ashtabula, Trumbull, and Mahoning counties part of Appalachia, in order for them to be eligible for greater federal funding.

When asked about the congressman's weaknesses, Christopher Skubby, a political science professor at Lakeland Community College, finally offers: "Well, I can't think of too many."

Cafaro has an easier time with the question.

"In the last four years, we have lost one in six manufacturing jobs in Ohio," she says. "LaTourette's vetoed overtime pay and supported tax cuts that reward companies that move overseas."

She pauses to catch her breath.

"LaTourette's changed. He's not the same moderate Republican. He's been in Washington too long to be in touch with the average citizen."

She may have a point. At a September 28 debate in Akron, LaTourette didn't show up.

When people talk about Cafaro, the first thing they mention is her energy. Fueled by Sour Patch Kids, Laffy Taffy, and Mountain Dew, she explodes upon the scene of each campaign visit like a character in a pop-up book. A recent September day included a business walk in Willoughby, a sign-waving in Mentor, the opening of a John Kerry headquarters in Portage County, the Mantua potato festival, and a Chardon football game. When her campaign manager asks her which of two public gatherings she'd rather attend, Cafaro invariably answers, "Let's do both!" In the past 10 months, she's logged over 50,000 miles on her Pontiac Sunfire, attending the usual meet-and-greets, as well as tattoo parlors, rock concerts, and plenty of other places politicians seldom venture.

She visited the Solon Fire Department in July to talk about the prohibitive cost of proper armor. "No other politician has ever stopped by our station before," assistant fire chief Steve Shebeck said at the time. "That says a lot about her."

After a 10-minute meeting with Cafaro, Bud Irons, president of United Auto Workers Local 122, told her, "You've got that spark. You've got our backing."

When she listens to veterans discuss their worries about the Iraq war, or about the closing of the Brecksville V.A. hospital, she leans in to them, caresses their hands, and tells them, "My heart breaks for you." She says the same to recent college graduates who cannot pay back their loans and to ailing elders who cannot afford health care. For the number of times Cafaro's heart breaks each day, it's a wonder she hasn't been rushed into cardiac surgery.

"We want Capri to meet as many people as possible," says Mike Cook, Cafaro's 34-year-old communications manager. "Because when people meet her, they like her."

Virtually unlimited finances haven't hurt her efforts either. Whereas other candidates must hold down jobs or spend their spare time seeking handouts, Cafaro merely needs to write a check and get to her next appointment. (She's spent more than a million dollars of her own money on the campaign, thereby activating the so-called "millionaire's amendment." Once Cafaro spent more than $350,000, Federal Election Committee rules stipulate, LaTourette became eligible to receive triple the normal maximum contribution per donor, or $6,000.) In debates, LaTourette tries to paint her as a spoiled rich girl, a female Richie Rich. Cafaro responds by pointing out that LaTourette has spent as much as she has.

Of course, constant outreach can be suffocating. In August, a Solon family complained about receiving four recorded phone calls from Cafaro. In three days.

Indeed, admits Dan Banks, one of Cafaro's campaign administrators, "It's a fine line between being out there and being annoying."

It's a long trek from the outer parking lot of Blossom to the ticket window. Once inside for Ozzfest, Cafaro and her expensively dressed male entourage are immediately accosted by drunks wearing shirts sporting such enlightening phrases as "Kick Me in the Fuckin' Head Bitch" and "Ozzy for Prez." Cafaro approaches one who is less aggressively attired.

"Did we miss Slayer?" she asks, by way of introduction.

The boy, whose blond hair is spiked like a stegosaurus, says no.

"Good." Cafaro smiles one of her supermodelish smiles and sticks out her right hand.

"Hi. I'm Capri Cafaro. I'm running for Congress. It's nice to meet you. Are you registered to vote?"

The guy, whose name is Ron, shakes his head, and she gives him a registration form to fill out.

When Ron hands the form back to Cafaro, her smile presses deeper into her cheeks. "You're in my district!" she says with delight. This realization inspires the candidate. She chats a bit more, interspersing policy talk with tales of her fondness for Ozzy (in his pre-MTV days). Then she walks over to the next metalhead.

"She seemed pretty nice," Ron says out of earshot. "She made a good impression. She's got nice, intense green eyes. She's got a cute ass. It's pretty cool she came to Ozzfest. Yeah, I'll vote her her," he says lazily. Then he drifts off in an alcoholic haze.

Cafaro spends about 45 minutes shmoozing, heartily recalling her last two Ozzfest experiences, back when she had no election to win.

In the parking lot on the way out, Cafaro is as bubbly as a can of Coke. "That was fun!" she says, so happy she practically skips. But as elated as she is, she does not neglect her newest obsession: checking the county tags on license plates. She points out a plate with an Ashtabula label and pauses to tuck a "Capri for Congress" flier underneath the windshield wiper.

As she makes her way back to the car, Cafaro spots a group of scruffy twentysomething males.

"This show fucking sucks. Where's the nearest strip joint at?" screams one of the group, Gregg Kelley.

Cafaro looks coyly at Kelley's friends. One of them is wearing an Andover sweatshirt. Andover, she knows, is a high school in her district.

"Hey," she says, walking over to them. "You're not real fans -- you left before Slayer."

With her entourage following, Cafaro introduces herself, then asks them to fill out voter-registration forms. And just as she had intuited, the boys are all in her district.

Kelley looks suspiciously at Cafaro: "Are you a Democrat or Republican?" he asks.


"Oh," he says. "I'm a Bush supporter. I met both of them before. When I shook their hands, Bush looked me in the eye, Kerry looked away, so I'm voting for Bush."

"Well, there are a lot of people who are splitting the ticket," Cafaro says determinedly. "If you vote for Bush, you can still vote for me."

He mulls this over a second, then shrugs his shoulders. "You're hot, you said shit. I'll vote for you," he concludes.

In the car, Cafaro lectures her staff. "Everyone needs to be represented equally. Even the metalheads."

There is a tap at the door, and Kelley squeezes his face against the window.

"Do you know how to get to 271?" he asks. "That's where the strip joint's at."

Cafaro directs him. "If nothing else," she says, "the campaign's given me an impeccable sense of direction."

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