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By Louis Jacobson
PoliticsPA Contributing Writer

CALIFORNIA, Pa. – As Democrats and Republicans clash in the battle to succeed the late Rep. John Murtha (D), the timing of the 18-term Congressman’s death on Feb. 9 couldn’t have been stranger.

As a “cardinal,” or subcommittee chairman, on the House Appropriations Committee, Murtha was legendary for his efforts to bring federal dollars back to his sprawling, Johnstown-based district, from roads and health centers to an airport. Inside the district, his efforts were rewarded with sizable re-election victories every two years, but outside, they drew derision (low traffic at the airport was a particular favorite of critics) and sometimes ethical scrutiny. Within weeks after his death, the House ethics committee cleared Murtha of any wrongdoing in a long-simmering case concerning the allocation of earmarks to clients of a lobbying firm with strong ties to his subcommittee, the PMA Group.

Yet by happenstance, Murtha’s unexpected death came precisely as Republicans generally, and “tea party” activists in particular, were gaining significant traction nationally from attacks on Democratic efforts to spend federal money to fight the recession.

So here, in an ancestrally Democratic district that swung from supporting Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 to Republican John McCain in 2008, the stage is set for a blunt clash of ideas at the ballot box on May 18, the date of a special election to fill the rest of Murtha’s term, as well as a primary for the full-term election in November.

Voters will have to decide whether the district – in decline in many areas since the early 1980s – should continue to seek economic development through federal largesse, as Murtha labored mightily to do, or whether constituents should forswear the “pork” and dealmaking that typified Murtha’s tenure and instead cast their lot with a Republican Party that advocates lower taxes and smaller government.

Even a cursory look at the campaign websites of the two combatants in the special election – who are also the frontrunners to face each other for the full term in November – makes plain that they are hewing closely to these two opposing scripts.

On the front page of his campaign site, Republican Tim Burns, a wealthy local businessman, emphasizes that he is “NOT a politician. I don’t claim to know ‘how Washington works’ because I don’t believe that it does. I’ve never secured wasteful pork-barrel spending, and I don’t spend more than I have. I am a businessman who is tired of the massive government spending, trillions of dollars of debt and the corruption in Congress.”

By contrast, Mark Critz, Murtha’s former district director, spotlights his past service and ties to the district.

Critz “will continue to fight for better highways and improved infrastructure which are key components to accomplishing his greatest goal – creating jobs and improving our economy,” the site says. “Everywhere I go in the 12th Congressional District, people have talked to me about economic development issues. I have been fighting this fight for longer than a decade, and we have already seen some great results. My experience has provided me with the knowledge to hit the ground running and keep important economic development initiatives moving forward.”

Interviews with a variety of sources in the district in mid-March suggested that it is too early to tell whether the Republican call for fiscal conservatism and an end to pork will outweigh the desire to continue the Murtha formula for badly needed economic development.

For Republicans, Massachusetts — in many ways a far less hospitable place than southwestern Pennsylvania – provides an appealing case study. There, voters looked at the vacant seat held by the late liberal lion Ted Kennedy and decided to fill it with a youngish, good-looking Republican who made no bones about breaking with the orthodoxies of his predecessor. Burns checks off many of those same boxes.

“I believe the district is very conservative in nature, and people are willing to vote for someone who will push for less spending and taxation,” said George Dunbar, who chairs the Westmoreland County Republican Committee. “The registration deficit Tim faces is heavy, but we’ve proven can win in that area. There are a lot of independent voters in that area trending to Tim. It will be an extremely close race.”

But interviews with politicos here caution that the old approach to seeking federal support is deeply ingrained.

“You’ve always had a tension that has frankly been fed by the establishments in both Republican and Democratic circles — county commissioners, county chairmen, Chambers of Commerce and economic development directors — that in order for a struggling area to have a shot at a competitive economy, you had to play by the Murtha rules,” said Jeff Coleman, who represented a portion of the district in the state House for two terms and who now works as a Republican consultant. “There was an elaborate system of contacts, all based on longstanding relationships with Murtha. That was how you got on the list of local projects considered worthy. There was subtle argument laid in his 2008 reelection that if something happened, God forbid, to Murtha, the entire structure of economic development in the region could crumble.”

Many here continue to admire Murtha’s labors on behalf of the district, which suggests that the district’s pro-spending leanings could be resilient despite the broader political environment.

Murtha “was a real political force,” said Larry Maggi a Democratic commissioner in Washington County. “He was good at what he was sent to Congress for — to bring bacon back to his district. That can be good or bad, depending on whether you’re from his district or not, but that’s the way it’s always been. That’s what we elect people to do when they go to Harrisburg or D.C. — to represent us and bring back what they can. Right or wrong, that’s the political system we live in.”

Here in California, Murtha was “a good friend” to California University of Pennsylvania, said Angela Burrows, vice president for university relations. She said he helped secure federal seed money for a robotics partnership with Carnegie Mellon University. Other officials wondered about where his death would leave plans for a magnetic-levitation, or maglev, transit system on campus.

“Yes, we worry” about Murtha’s passing, Burrows said. “He was our primary link to the movers and shakers. It’s a tremendous loss to western Pennsylvania in general and the university in particular.”

Even the ethics investigations didn’t seem to dent Murtha’s image much here. “I don’t think it had much of an impact,” said Ray Wrabley, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh (Johnstown). “It became part of the background noise,” in part because there was never “a sense that Murtha was enriching himself. It was all for the district.”

Jon Delano, a political analyst with KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh and a onetime aide to a former Congressional colleague of Murtha’s, Doug Walgren (D), said that “not only the 12th Congressional district but the entire southwestern region lost a great deal with the passing of Murtha.”

If the local mood does favor continuity – and Delano’s early hunch is that it will — then Critz would be well-positioned to benefit.

Sources here agreed that Critz has a reputation in the district for being smart, personable and effective, saying he has gained a good knowledge of the district and has strong ties to key figures.

“He was making more than coffee” as an aide to Murtha, said Bracken Burns, a Democratic commissioner in Washington County (and no relation to Tim Burns, the Republican candidate). “He was making grants and legislation and other things – the nitty-gritty.”

Insiders recall that Murtha and Critz jointly attended an annual showcase put on by Johnstown Area Regional Industries, a business-development group in Murtha’s hometown. Both defense contracting giants and small startups attended, hoping to bend the ear of the influential defense appropriations subcommittee chair and his top aide. The two men are said to have stopped at every booth over multiple days, for far more than just the perfunctory hello.

Critz also benefits from the public backing of Murtha’s widow, Joyce. In addition, he’s made contacts in places such as Washington County, which is on the other end of the district from Johnstown (and which wasn’t part of the district for most of Murtha’s tenure in Congress). At Bracken Burns’ annual St. Patrick’s Day Party, Critz was being introduced around by Peg Wilson, a respected, 80-year old local committeewoman.

“The fact that he identified this venue, which was a very good one for him, and had Peg to show him around shows the advantage that he has going into this race of having worked for Murtha,” said Kirk Holman, a onetime Republican official in western Pennsylvania.

Critz is “pretty savvy politically,” added Democratic commissioner Maggi. Where district projects were concerned, “it was Murtha’s face, but he was doing the grunt work, and was honestly getting it done.”

As for Burns — who faces unsuccessful 2008 nominee Bill Russell in the May 18 primary for the full term — national Republicans are high on him. He also brings the advantage of being able to self-fund.

A mid-March poll by Susquehanna Polling and Research found Critz leading Burns, 36 percent to 31 percent. But the poll is by a Republican firm, it has a nearly five-point margin of error, and it found that 31 percent of voters were undecided. All this suggests that the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

Ultimately, victory may hinge on turnout. Republicans are hoping for an energized base of conservatives eager to make a statement about taking a bold, new path. The Susquehanna poll findings give them some hope: It found that 49 percent of voters said they would oppose a candidate who “pledges to carry on the tradition of John Murtha” even if that means losing out on earmarks. By contrast, 44 percent said they would favor that kind of candidate.

The poll also found that two-thirds of voters in the district were familiar with the tea party, and half said they were more likely to support a candidate with ties to the movement, compared to 20 percent who said they were less likely to vote for such a candidate.

For their part, Democrats are hoping for a boost from the special election’s timing. It’s taking place on a statewide primary day when Democrats have more hotly contested races up and down the ballot, including one for U.S. Senate and one for governor.

Geography could make a difference as well. Murtha’s legacy is strongest in his home base of Johnstown, noted David Patti, president of Pennsylvanians for Effective Government, a pro-business lobbying group. In areas of the district outside Johnstown’s orbit, the late Congressman’s connection was somewhat less direct and visceral. Tea party support is believed to be higher in some of those areas.

Money will matter too. Delano said that with two relatively unknown candidates running in a short campaign in a sprawling district, the race will likely be fought heavily on television. “Whoever can put the most money into TV, and direct mail, in 10 weeks will have the leg up,” he said.

But Coleman, the GOP consultant, cautioned that candidates who focus on television to the exclusion of retail politics do so at their own peril.

“In the 12th Congressional District, humility, access and the personal touch matter,” Coleman said. “Murtha had that down, and people hung in with him because of his responsiveness – the nice letter, the handshake, the affable personality.”

Whoever wins, of course, won’t have the clout that Murtha wielded — at least not anytime soon.

Given the Congressional seniority system, Bracken Burns noted, “you can’t pass that kind of influence onto a successor, whether they want to inherit it or not. You have to get to the back of the line and start all over again. See you in 35 years.”

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