Rep. John Murtha (D)
Pennsylvania 12th District
The mountains and valleys within a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh comprise one of America’s most beautiful—and economically troubled—regions. This has been tough, hard-working country ever since Scots-Irish farmers settled here in the 1790s. Their first big product was whiskey—this was the site of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794—but historically the most important product was bituminous coal. Discovered in the 19th century, it was the basic energy source for the production of iron and steel. The offspring of the original settlers were joined by immigrants from Italy, Poland and Czechoslovakia, living in little frame houses packed into the towns on interstices between hills and rivers, within walking distance of steel factories, foundries and coal mine shafts. It is an industrial landscape and yet there are spots of natural beauty, like the swirling waters of the Youghiogheny River, now much enjoyed by rafters. Its best known community is Johnstown, where on May 31, 1889, floodwater from the ruptured South Fork Dam, gaining speed during an 18-mile trip down steep-walled valleys, poured into the little industrial city with a force equal to Niagara Falls. During 10 awful minutes, buildings crumpled like paper, and tumbling hearths and gaslights ignited the wreckage, creating a flaming pile of debris over a 30-acre expanse; 2,209 people died. It was the worst single-day civilian loss of life in American history until September 11, 2001, when airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and another airliner came down in a field just 50 miles southwest of Johnstown near Shanksville.
2008 Presidential Vote
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The 1889 flood had class overtones. The dam was owned by western Pennsylvania’s richest families, and had been negligently maintained, facts that are thoughtfully documented by the Johnstown Flood Museum in the old Carnegie Library. The museum provides an offset to the economic woes of Johnstown, whose population fell from 67,000 in 1920 to 22,000 in 2006, a decline similar to that of many communities in this region. Life was never easy here. After some prosperous years in the 1960s and 1970s, the “Cradle of the American Steel Industry” was hit hard by the recession that followed the 1979 oil shock. Young people have been leaving the area for years, downtown has been deserted and this district now has the highest elderly percentage in the state. Yet there are some signs of revival. The Johnstown area gained jobs mid-decade, thanks in part to defense firms locating here, and Texas investors, noting the area’s low incomes, are putting in money too. But this small revival is so far not drawing newcomers. Johnstown ranks No. 1 among the 318 metropolitan areas in the percentage of residents born in the state, 90%.
The 12th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, with highly irregular boundaries, contains much of this coal and steel country. It includes all of Greene County and parts of Fayette, Somerset, Cambria, Indiana, Armstrong, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The boundaries were drawn by Republican legislators who wanted to create a new Republican-leaning 18th District in the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh while also accommodating Democratic Rep. John Murtha, the second ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee who has brought millions of federal dollars to the region. The district unites Murtha’s home base of Johnstown and Democratic territory in the southwestern corner of the state.
Politically, this was one of the most Republican parts of America from the Civil War up to the 1930s. Republican policies, including high tariffs and hostility to labor unions, were seen as protecting jobs and increasing growth in the steel economy centered on Pittsburgh. With the coming of the New Deal, and success of the United Mine Workers and the United Steelworkers, the area began voting mostly Democratic. Since 1945, on the Monday before primary and general elections, Democratic pols from across southwestern Pennsylvania have attended the “rally in the valley” held at the Slovak Home in the mill town of Monessen. But this area has not followed the national Democratic Party on all issues. Voters here have strongly favored trade restrictions on steel imports and have opposed the free trade agreements of recent years. Voters here also tend to take conservative stands on cultural issues and foreign policy. This carefully carved district voted 55%-44% for Democrat Al Gore for president in 2000. But after Republican President George W. Bush imposed import quotas on steel and boosted clean coal technology, the district voted only 51%-49% for Democrat John Kerry. In 2008, it voted by 49.4%-49.0% for Republican John McCain, making it the only district in the country that voted for Kerry in 2004 and McCain in 2008.
Rep. John Murtha (D)
Elected: Feb. 1974, 18th full term.
Born: June 17, 1932, New Martinsville, WV .
Education: U. of Pittsburgh, B.A. 1962, Indiana U. of PA, 1963-64.
Family: Married (Joyce); 3 children.
Military career: Marine Corps, 1952–55, 1966–67 (Vietnam); Marine Corps Reserves, 1955–66, 1967–90.
Elected office: PA House of Reps., 1969–74.
Professional Career: Owner, Johnstown Minute Car Wash.
The congressman from the 12th District is John Murtha, a Democrat first elected in a February 1974 special election that signaled the political weakness of President Richard Nixon. He was the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress. Murtha grew up in the Johnstown area, attended Washington and Jefferson College, then in 1952 enlisted in the Marine Corps. He became a drill instructor at Parris Island and was selected for officer candidate school in Quantico, Va. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and re-enlisted in the Marines in 1966, at age 34, and then served in Vietnam. For his distinguished service, he was awarded the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry.
|John Murtha (D)||155,268||(58%)||($3,656,397)|
|William Russell (R)||113,120||(42%)||($3,492,873)|
|John Murtha (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (61%), 2004 (100%), 2002 (73%), 2000 (71%), 1998 (68%), 1996 (70%), 1994 (69%), 1992 (100%), 1990 (62%), 1988 (100%), 1986 (67%), 1984 (69%), 1982 (61%), 1980 (59%), 1978 (69%), 1976 (68%), 1974 (58%), 1974 (50%)
Murtha is a member of the Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, making him one of the most powerful “cardinals,” as the appropriations subcommittee chairmen are known. He is the Democrats’ go-to guy on the defense budget. His voting record over many years—hawkish on foreign policy, interventionist on economics and usually tradition-minded on cultural issues—is perfectly suited to steel and coal country. He opposes abortion rights and gun control. Murtha is also one of those old-time politicians who operates best in secret, holding court in the back corner of the House chamber, “the Murtha corner” as it’s known, where he trades gossip and votes with colleagues who crowd around him. For most of his career, he spoke for attribution to few national or local reporters, hardly ever appeared on television, and rarely spoke on the House floor unless it was about the annual defense spending bill, which often passes with little debate. He wields power not only on his committee work but also on many back-room issues dear to his colleagues, including congressional pay raises and committee assignments.
When Republicans controlled the House, Murtha was caught sometimes between Democratic demands for lower defense spending and Republican desires to spend even more on defense, but in the bipartisan culture of the Appropriations Committee, he exerted major influence even while in the minority. Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., has called him a man “who likes to get things done with virtually no spoken words.” Murtha voted for the Gulf War resolution in 1991, but opposed intervention in Bosnia and deployment in Somalia, arguing that United Nations officials lacked the know-how to command U.S. troops. Inside the Democratic Caucus, he wielded considerable clout, and became an ally of Nancy Pelosi in her quest for ever higher positions in leadership. In 2001, after David Bonior of Michigan resigned as Minority Whip, Murtha managed Pelosi’s campaign for that post against the more senior Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and Pelosi won 118-95, a victory that put Pelosi on the road to the speakership. It was a role similar to that played by coal-country Democrat Wayne Hays for San Francisco’s Phil Burton in his quest for the majority leadership in 1976, providing assurance to conservative and traditional Democrats that a West Coast liberal would be acceptable. Murtha’s admiration for Pelosi is unbounded. In January 2007, he said, “The speaker has the best political mind I’ve ever seen.”
Murtha voted for the Iraq war resolution in October 2002, contrary to Pelosi and most House Democrats. But he had reservations about the war early on. He complained loudly that troops in Iraq were poorly equipped, with both personal gear and machines, and he questioned the civilian decision-making. In May 2004, he said, “We cannot prevail in this war as it is going today. We either have to mobilize or we have to get out.” In October 2004, he was one of two House members who voted to reinstate the military draft, advanced on the theory that Congress would be less willing to support wars if their constituents were subject to conscription. In early November 2005, he called the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret prisons “absolutely outrageous.” Then on November 17, to much publicity, he called for withdrawal from Iraq. “It is time for a change in direction,” he said, decrying “a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.” This was treated in the press as the sudden conversion of a military hawk, but Murtha’s previous statements about the stress on the troops suggested that his thinking was moving in that direction for some time. When Vice President Dick Cheney criticized his statement, Murtha dismissed comments from “people with five deferments.” When Ohio Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt, probably to her everlasting regret, suggested Murtha was a “coward” for wanting to withdraw from Iraq, she set off a firestorm in defense of Murtha and was forced to apologize. Murtha’s position made him a hero to many House Democrats, but not to all. Hoyer, by then minority whip, said that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would be a “disaster.” House Republicans insisted on a vote on a resolution stating that “deployment of United States forces be terminated immediately” and it failed 403-3.
After Democrats won a majority in the House in 2006, Murtha challenged Hoyer for majority leader with Pelosi’s blessing. It was a closely watched contest, one that pitted Pelosi and her handpicked candidate, Murtha, against her old nemesis in the race for power in the House, Steny Hoyer. Most of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats backed Hoyer, as did senior incoming committee chairmen like John Dingell of Michigan, Henry Waxman of California and Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Democrats had won in 2006 in part by campaigning against a Republican “climate of corruption,” and some Democrats thought Murtha’s record was inconsistent with that theme. Videotape was unearthed of Murtha’s interchange with a purported sheik, actually an undercover FBI agent, in the Abscam scandal in 1980. It showed the “sheik” offering Murtha $50,000, and Murtha responding that he wasn’t interested “at this point,” but “I want to get [expletive] jobs in the area, you know, a few bank deposits. . . .Later on, after we’ve dealt a while . . . we might want to do more business.” Back then, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct voted not to bring charges against Murtha, after which its special counsel resigned in protest; Murtha was a cooperating witness against two other members. After the old video was unearthed, Murtha explained himself to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, “Listen, I wanted to negotiate with them about investment in the district. That’s what I was interested in. It’s the only thing I was interested in.” In October 2006, The New York Times ran an article on how Murtha “often delivers Democratic votes to Republican leaders in a tacit exchange for (spending) earmarks for himself and his allies.” The story said Murtha sided with Republicans on close votes 169 times since 1994, more than all but three other Democrats. Despite confident statements that he would win, Murtha lost to Hoyer on the secret ballot 149-86.
Despite this loss, Murtha continued to be a leading spokesman for House Democrats as Defense Appropriations chairman. In January 2007, he said that the military faced a $100 billion shortfall in equipment because of Iraq. “We have no ability to deploy and sustain a deployment in Iran or Korea, and the enemy knows this,” he said. During consideration of a bill for supplemental spending for the war, Murtha wanted to attach conditions that troops must have at least one year between deployments, that no deployment last more than a year and that the stop-loss program end. He got a harsh reaction from many quarters, including fellow Democrats. Antiwar Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina called it an attempt to “starve” the war. And Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said that it “sends the wrong message to our troops.”
Later that year, Murtha again proposed attaching conditions to a war spending bill. He wanted to add to the defense appropriations bill amendments mandating troop reductions within 60 days, full training for soldiers before deployment and the closure of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But there was waning support in Congress for conditions once Bush’s strategy for a surge in troop strength in Iraq began showing results late in 2007. In November, Murtha said, “I think the surge is working.” Early in 2008, he voiced no objection when the Democratic leadership sent a war supplemental bill to the floor directly, bypassing his subcommittee. However, he did manage to insert into the defense appropriations bill that year $500-per-month in compensation to service members retained on duty by stop-loss orders since 2001.
Murtha is an energetic earmarker of special projects for his district, despite the controversy surrounding the practice in recent years that it results in grossly wasteful spending of tax dollars. Johnstown has a Murtha highway, a Murtha airport and Murtha health centers. In 1988, Murtha persuaded the University of Pittsburgh to set up a nonprofit organization called Concurrent Technologies, which would use Navy money to establish a Center for Excellence in Metalworking Technology in Johnstown. Between 1999 and 2006, military and other federal agencies spent nearly $1 billion on contracts and grants to Concurrent. Meanwhile, Concurrent executives donated $114,000 to Murtha’s 2000, 2002 and 2004 re-election campaigns. Concurrent also paid about $500,000 a year to a lobbying firm, the PMA Group, founded by Paul Magliocchetti, a Murtha aide in the 1980s. Executives of PMA and its clients contributed some $2.4 million to Murtha from 1989 to 2008 as well as about $1 million each to his Defense Appropriations Subcommittee colleagues Peter Visclosky of Indiana and Jim Moran of Virginia. In 2007 and 2008, Murtha, Visclosky and Moran sponsored $137 million in earmarks to PMA clients, and PMA became one of Washington’s 10 largest lobbying firms. At the least, the revelations furthered the perception of insider wheeling and dealing on Murtha’s part.
In May 2007, Murtha tried to get a $23 million earmark for the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, which the Office of Management and Budget had recommended not funding. After Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Rogers objected, Murtha approached him on the House floor and said, according to Rogers, “I hope you don’t have any earmarks in the defense appropriation bill, because they are gone and you will not get any earmarks now and forever.” Rogers accused him of violating a new House rule by the Democrats that barred members from considering the inclusion of earmarks on the basis of a member’s vote on other matters, and he sought to have Murtha officially reprimanded. The matter came to the floor on May 22 and the Democratic leadership moved to table Rogers’ resolution. All but two Democrats voted to table. But on May 23, Murtha sent a written apology to Rogers.
More serious publicity for Murtha came after a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid on PMA’s offices in Virginia and Pennsylvania in November 2008. Murtha said he was not approached by the FBI and defended his work by holding up a copy of the Constitution. “What it says is the Congress of the United States appropriates the money. Got that?” he said. In the spring of 2009, Republicans demanded roll call votes on resolutions demanding the ethics committee investigate Murtha. They were voted down largely on party lines, but with increasing numbers of Democrats defecting.
Before 2008, Murtha seldom got involved in presidential politics. Five weeks before the Pennsylvania primary, he endorsed New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her primary battle with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Yet his involvement was not exactly helpful. He made a few controversial remarks, such as: “Obama’s got a problem with the race issue in western Pennsylvania,” and “There’s no question western Pennsylvania is a racist area.” In any case, Clinton carried the state and carried the 12th district with more than 70% of the vote. Murtha endorsed and campaigned for Obama after he clinched the nomination.
Murtha gets re-elected every two years without a fuss. In 2006, after the release of the Abscam tapes and Murtha’s outspoken opposition to the war, Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey, a Republican, opposed him. Murtha won 61%-39%, a convincing margin but one considerably smaller than in 2002. In 2008, William Russell, a veteran of the Gulf and Iraq wars, moved from Northern Virginia to Pennsylvania to run against Murtha. As a Reserve member, he was deployed during the campaign, which prevented him from actively campaigning until he resigned from the military in August 2008. He called Murtha the “king of pork,” and criticized his vote in the fall for the $700 billion rescue of the financial services industry. Former President Bill Clinton came to the district to campaign for Murtha. He won 58%-42%, leading in all but one county.
In early 2009, as President Obama was preparing to step up U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Murtha said, “I’m very nervous about getting too far in Afghanistan.” But he supported Obama’s commitment to close Guantanamo and said that the government could hold detainees in maximum security prisons in the United States. In January 2010, he would be the longest-serving House member from Pennsylvania ever.