Rep. Jason Altmire (D)
Pennsylvania 4th District
For a century, one of America’s great industrial zones was near the intersection of the Beaver and Ohio rivers in western Pennsylvania. This was steel country, with mills rising black and brooding from the bottomlands and filling the narrow river valleys with smoke. Immigrant families lived in small frame houses on hillsides, looking down on riverscapes lined with piles of iron ore, limestone, and coal and littered with cranes, stocks and furnaces. This was not an environmentalist’s idea of perfection, but it was a land of opportunity for thousands whose lives were worse before moving to steel country. One grandchild of a Hungarian immigrant steelworker in Beaver Falls grew up to be Joe Namath, one of the many great quarterbacks produced by southwestern Pennsylvania (fellow Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Joe Montana and Dan Marino are a few of the others). During the heady years, high union wages and early retirement plans made working in the mills a path to the middle class. But the industry crashed after the oil shock of 1979. Many mills closed and jobs vanished. Today, thousands of workers who long ago exhausted their unemployment benefits have given up and left the Beaver and Ohio valleys.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 4th Congressional District of Pennsylvania includes much of steel country and, equally important, a large swath of suburban Pittsburgh. The 4th begins around Farrell in Mercer County, located as close to Erie as to Pittsburgh, then travels south along Route 60 through steel-mill country in Lawrence and Beaver counties. Aliquippa, a typically distressed former steel-mill city, is where composer Henry Mancini and football icon Mike Ditka grew up but then left for brighter futures elsewhere. The district then turns to the east, taking in a fast-growing tier of suburban southern Butler County and the longer-established Allegheny County suburbs north of Pittsburgh. It includes old-money Fox Chapel and Sewickley, which is now attracting the region’s high-tech wealth, and affluent McCandless and middle-class Ross in the North Hills. It also takes in a tiny portion of Westmoreland County. The steel mill areas tend to be Democratic, with unions still capable of flexing some muscle. The suburbs of Butler County are tax-averse and strongly Republican, with solid growth in Cranberry and Seven Fields. The older suburbs in Allegheny County, with some of the highest senior citizen populations in the country, are politically marginal; they are more Democratic than Butler, but much more Republican than the city of Pittsburgh. Overall, the district’s heritage is Democratic but it has been trending slightly toward the Republicans. George W. Bush carried this district with 54% of the vote in 2004. Although 2008 Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama launched his post-convention campaign in Beaver County, Republican John McCain won it with 55% of the vote.
Rep. Jason Altmire (D)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: March 7, 1968, Kittaning .
Home: McCandless Township.
Education: FL. St. U., B.S. 1990, George Washington U., M.H.A. 1998.
Family: Married (Kelly); 2 children.
Professional Career: Aide, U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson, 1991-96; Asst. VP, Fed. of American Hospitals, 1996-98; VP of Govt. Relations, U. of Pittsburgh Med. Ctr., 1998-2005.
The congressman from the 4th District is Jason Altmire, a Democrat elected in 2006. Altmire grew up outside of Pittsburgh, the only child of a single mother who was a school teacher. He was a star high school athlete until he suffered a knee injury. He attended Florida State University, worked to rehabilitate his knee and made the football team as a walk-on player. He suffered another injury as the team trained to play in the Sugar Bowl. Altmire volunteered for the successful campaign of Florida Democrat Pete Peterson for the U.S. House, and then worked as Peterson’s legislative aide for six years, developing expertise in health care issues. Altmire earned a master’s degree in health administration at George Washington University while working on Capitol Hill, and at age 25, was appointed to President Bill Clinton’s health care task force. Following a short stint with the Federation of American Hospitals, he returned home to western Pennsylvania in 1998 for a job with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, eventually becoming vice president for government relations. Sixteen months before the general election in 2006, Altmire quit his $130,000-a-year job and jumped into the race against Republican Rep. Melissa Hart, who had held the seat since 2000. A conservative, Hart was seen as one of the Republican Party’s rising stars and had faced only light opposition in her re-election campaigns.
|Jason Altmire (D)||186,536||(56%)||($2,986,360)|
|Melissa Hart (R)||147,411||(44%)||($1,362,528)|
|Jason Altmire (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (52%)
In the Democratic primary, Altmire defeated businesswoman Georgia Berner, who supported abortion rights while Altmire stressed his opposition to both abortion rights and gun control. He was outspent, but he enjoyed support from key labor groups. He won 55%-45% with strong support from his Allegheny County base, which he carried by nearly 10,000 votes. In the general election campaign, Altmire positioned himself as more socially conservative than the national Democratic Party, but also turned to two liberal lightning rods to help fill his coffers. In July, he went door-to-door with Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and in October, comedian (and later senator) Al Franken appeared at an Altmire fundraiser. An ad financed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tied the incumbent to the sinking popularity of Bush and conservative Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. An Altmire ad criticized Hart for voting to “raid” the Social Security trust fund and to cut veterans’ benefits and student loans. Hart outspent Altmire by more than $1 million, but she was fighting an anti-Republican current in a traditionally Democratic district. Altmire won 52%-48%, narrowly losing Allegheny County but winning by large margins in traditionally Democratic Beaver County.
In the House, Altmire went his own way from Democratic Party leaders. His voting record left him almost precisely at the center of the House in each of his first two years. He joined the centrist New Democrats and the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats. When anti-war groups in 2007 criticized his votes to support military funding for the Iraq war, Altmire responded, “I am never going to vote to cut funding for our troops when they are on the field of battle.”
With his legislative experience, he scored some accomplishments. His proposal for increased screening for traumatic brain injuries for U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq was included in the defense spending bill that became law in January 2008. With help from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Altmire won passage of a bill to prevent the military from curtailing bonuses to soldiers who ended their service because of serious injury. But he made life difficult for Hoyer in 2009 by insisting on repeal of the District of Columbia’s strict gun control laws as a condition for his support for D.C. gaining a voting member in the House.
On the Small Business Committee, Altmire tended to his district’s technology interests in 2007 by pushing a bill through the House to permit small businesses to qualify for research grants even if they have benefited from venture capital.
Hart sought a rematch in 2008. She blasted his votes for higher taxes and said that he failed to take action on high gas prices. Altmire said Hart was “wrong then and now.” Altmire raised twice as much money as Hart and easily held the seat, 56%-44%. But he cannot take the seat for granted, as he could be a Republican target again.