By Alex Roarty
PoliticsPA Staff Writer
LATROBE — Tim Burns will represent the Republican Party for the special election to pick John Murtha‘s successor after a group of GOP conferees Thursday night voted for him over his chief rival, former Army officer Bill Russell.
The vote total was 85 votes for Burns, 46 for Russell.
Burns will now face Murtha‘s former district director, Mark Critz, in the May 18 special election, a contest sure to draw nationwide attention as Republican try to keep the political momentum gained since President Obama’s election in 2008. It offers the GOP a chance to win Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat and Murtha‘s congressional seat — two legendary Democrats — in back-to-back special elections.
Businessman Ron Robertson, Luke Summerfield of Indiana, and Bill Choby of Johnstown also sought the nomination, but their candidacies were considerably lower-profile than the two favorites. Although some Republicans thought Russell had an outside chance to win Thursday’s nomination, Burns was the solid favorite for the nod.
Although Burns defeated Russell Thursday night, he will face him again on the May 18 primary ballot. Russell made it clear in an interview after the vote that he still plans to run.
“We have open primaries for a reason,” he said. “This is the Republican Party of Pennsylvania not the communist party of North Korea.”
Burns, a political neophyte, is an independently wealth businessman from Eighty Four, which is in Washington County. Critz hails from Murtha‘s hometown of Johnstown, in Cambria County.
The 132 conferees present at the meeting came from the nine counties spread across the southwest 12th Congressional District. The number of each conferees for each was determined by the number of votes cast for John McCain in 2008.
Each candidate gave a five-minute speech outlining their proposals and qualifications before answering questions from the conferees.
Burns, speaking before the vote was taken, used his opportunity to frame the conferees’ choice as one of the most important decisions in the 12th District’s history because of the impact it would have on Washington. His comments were in line with what seems like a clear strategy by his campaign and Republicans to make the election a national referendum on President Obama and the Democratic controlled Congress.
When you look back at tonight will you think “this was the moment when we began the movement to save the country, or will you’ll look back at this moment as a point in time when we had the opportunity and let it slip away?” Burns asked.
The candidate said he wants to eliminate the federal deficit and vociferously opposes the Democrats’ health care bill.
Russell, who spoke after Burns, didn‘t hesitate to criticize his opponent.
“My opponent has openly stated he doesn‘t know how Washington works,” he said. “I appreciate his interest, but a seat in congress is not a site for on-the-job training.”
He later called Burns the “party-chosen candidate,” an allusion to past criticism from Russell that state party leaders have tried to thwart his campaign.