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Pa. House race was a referendum on legacy of Murtha

The Post has reporters in three states covering Tuesday's elections. Read today's feeds on the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary, the Kentucky Republican Senate primary, and the Arkansas Senate Democratic primary. See also Monday's feeds on: the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary, the Pennsylvania 12th District special election, the Kentucky Republican Senate primary, and the Arkansas Senate Democratic primary.

Earlier: Scrapping over coal, cap and trade; One race to watch but two races on the ballot

Updated 11:50 p.m.
By Sandhya Somashekhar

Johnstown, Pa. - Just down the street from the John P. Murtha Center for Neuroscience and Pain, named for the late congressman who was famously practiced at attracting government earmarks to his district, voters cast their ballots for his successor - and in doing so cast judgment on the legacy he represented.

On one side was Democrat Mark Critz, a former Murtha staffer who bucked this year's conventional wisdom by trying to leverage his Washington ties. On the other was Republican Tim Burns, a businessman and self-proclaimed "Washington outsider" who launched his political career through the "tea party."

In each case, the campaign was a referendum on what Murtha represented as a senior member of Congress who could play the Washington game for the benefit of his constituents.

And in the end, voters went with Murtha - and with Critz.

"He got us millions of jobs," Charles Finnegan, 72, a retired construction worker, said of Murtha after casting his ballot in nearby Windber. "Critz, he's going to follow John Murtha's way of thinking."

The lessons of this race will no doubt embolden Democrats in the November midterm elections because Murtha's seat was considered a prime pickup opportunity for Republicans. Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district encompasses suburban Pittsburgh neighborhoods and coal towns such as Windber. Though Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1, it is a culturally conservative district that supported John McCain for president in 2008.

Democrats poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in an attempt to show that the Republican plan to ride the wave of voter anger will not hold.

For many voters, though, the race came down to one thing: the legacy of their beloved Murtha, who died earlier this year from complications with gallbladder surgery.

"I just feel like Critz is one of Murtha's workers," said Helen Marcinko, who also lives in Windber. "He knows all the same stuff that Murtha accomplished and I think he'll do a good job too."
Updated 6:33 p.m.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
SIPESVILLE, Pa. -- Tim Burns seemed calm, hands slipped into his pockets, as this little mountain town settled into a quiet gray evening around him. There was no sign of the enormous pressure he is under from national Republicans, for whom a Burns victory in Tuesday's special election to succeed the late Rep. John Murtha would be crucial to building momentum for the November elections.

"Everybody reminds me of it all the time," he said outside the Sipesville fire department, just hours before polls closed. "We're not running the race any differently because of it ... though people feel it's important to send a message to Washington that things have to change."

Democrat Mark Critz, by contrast, was bubbly and full of one-liners as he greeted volunteers in his campaign office in Johnstown, in an old building by the railroad tracks.

"How's it look out there?" a woman asked, referring to the atmosphere at the polls. "Cold and rainy," he replied. "You look thin," another chimed in. "I'm down to my fighting weight," he said, assuming the pose of a boxer.

That kind of warmth and familiarity is what Critz is banking on. He is hoping to leverage more than a decade spent as a Murtha staffer to his benefit at a time when Washington ties are not seen as an asset, promising to funnel jobs to the region just as his former boss did.

Critz has tried to distance himself from Murtha in terms of policy, opposing the health care law and environmental cap-and-trade legislation. But he said he has tried to remain "oblivious" to the national chatter about the race.

"I've been so focused on my race, talking about jobs and the economy, that I've been able to tune out all the national attention," he said.

12:37 p.m.: Scrapping over coal, cap and trade

WINDBER, Pa. -- Residents here are reminded daily that their town wouldn't exist without coal. The bronze statue of a miner overlooks Miner's Park. Coal trucks rumble all day over its narrow, winding streets. Its very name evokes the coal company that founded it: the Berwind Corporation.

Much of Pennsylvania's 12th congressional district has been shaped by the coal industry, which has declined as a major employer but remains a potent political issue.

The late Rep. John Murtha last year joined with his fellow House Democrats to vote in favor of the environmental bill referred to as cap and trade, which would limit the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

But both men seeking to succeed him, Republican Tim Burns and Democrat Mark Critz, say they oppose the bill on the grounds that it would cost local jobs in this economically struggling area. But Burns's campaign has sought to persuade voters that Critz, a former Murtha staffer, was integrally involved in Murtha's decision to support the bill and that he would ultimately side with the Democratic majority on similar initiatives.

For many here, the debate underscores the disconnect between policies favored by lawmakers in Washington and their everyday lives. That coal is a dirty, dangerous business is not a revelation. Rather, they have always taken the good with the bad, appreciating the jobs but fearful for their health amid the coal dust, angry about the clear-cutting and environmental degradation, and worried for the safety of those who descend into the mine shafts each day.

The Rev. Donald Wilson, who lives about two hours south of Windber in Greene County, said a company is about to take advantage of some decades-old mining rights and dig beneath his property. The process is likely to damage his home as the soils shift underneath it, and the house might ultimately have to be condemned. He views it as a risk of living in the area, and he opposes cap-and-trade or any move that might negatively affect the coal industry.

"It will absolutely hurt most of our local energy employment," Wilson said of the bill, which has yet to be voted on by the Senate. He is supporting Burns in today's special election. "What the government ought to be involved in is safety. They can protect the environment, purify the water, make sure these companies drill safely and correctly and work on producing cleaner coal."

For some, though, the costs are too great, the job benefits dwindling in the face of automation.

In 2007, Rosebud Mining reopened a long-dormant Bethlehem Steel Mine in Windber. While the company was praised for helping to rescue its financially strapped mining heritage museum, many local residents are still upset that the company clear-cut a section of forest. And they are livid about the trucks piled high with coal that begin weaving through the neighborhoods at dawn, even on Saturdays. Dust swirls up, they say, coating the leaves black and forcing people off their front porches.

Helen Marcinko, a retired police officer and secretary who lives in the shadow of the Rosebud operation, said she bears no love for the coal industry. She said she doesn't know too many people who are employed by the local mine.

"I definitely wish they would shut down," said Marcinko, a Democrat and a Critz supporter. "We're all for jobs, but something has to be done to compensate those of us who live up here and deal with this so everyone can use the energy."

6:00 a.m. One race to watch but two races on the ballot

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- If all goes as expected, the residents of Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District will know by Wednesday morning who will represent them in the House of Representatives -- at least for a few months.

Tuesday's special election will determine who will fill out the final months of Rep. John Murtha's current term. Murtha, who represented part of western Pennsylvania for 35 years, died earlier this year after undergoing gallbladder surgery.

That means voters here will vote simultaneously for their temporary congressman, and for the party nominees who will face off in November. Chances are the same two men, Democrat Mark Critz and Republican Tim Burns, will again clash in November. But maybe not; at least one poll has Republican Bill Russell, a retired Army lieutenent colonel, running even with Burns in the primary.

For people outside the district, the intervening months will provide an interesting glimpse into the voter mind-set. Anti-incumbent fervor has persisted despite predictions that it would subside at the conclusion of the debate over the health-care overhaul.

But will voters stay angry through November? Will their fury subside once they start to feel more optimistic about the economy? Or will their skepticism percolate, leading them to grow even more upset with the Democratic-led establishment?

This race will track those changing impressions, as the party nominees are likely to continue to duke it out through the summer and fall -- especially if the election ends up as close as the polls suggest.

Even so, at least some of the intense attention from national interests will probably diminish. Tuesday's race is one of two special House elections taking place nationally, and national Democrats have pulled out of the one in Hawaii. That makes this race a major focal point now; in November, it will be one of dozens of intriguing contests to watch.

By Sandhya Somashekhar  |  May 18, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Election , 44 The Obama Presidency  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Kentucky primary: Democrats hoping for a Paul victory
Next: Pennsylvania Senate primary results


There was only one race that pitted conservatives vs progressives and in a state with mixed support for the parties, result 55% progressive, 45% conservative. The GOP excuse of course was he took GOP pro-life and pro gun positions. Newsflash Casey spoke his pro life position at the Dem. convention and Obama opened federal parks to guns. Although Reid is pushing for an immigration bill to save his seat (10% hispanic vote gets locked in), I don't think it will happen until after November. The Tea Party support will be dwarfed by the hispanic/black turnout when an immigration bill not done because of the GOP is an issue.

Posted by: jameschirico | May 19, 2010 1:58 AM | Report abuse

"Looks like Critz is going to win, and fairly convincingly. So much for that great anti-Democratic wave building, huh?"

A 53 to 45 split in a precinct where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2:1 is a convincing win? It should have been a lot more lopsided than that in a "safe" district.

Posted by: flatlander1992 | May 19, 2010 1:42 AM | Report abuse

Looks like Critz is going to win, and fairly convincingly. So much for that great anti-Democratic wave building, huh?

Sure, Republicans have won when the Dems put up comically atrocious candidates like Coakley. But if a Democrat can hold the only district to go from Kerry to McCain, where are Republicans really going to pick up seats?

Posted by: ElrodinTennessee | May 18, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse

one lesson so far this year - moderate Republicans are toast. Whether Democrats are hurt by that has yet to be seen.

Posted by: djah | May 18, 2010 10:23 PM | Report abuse

I live in SE PA and it will be nice to have the phone calls end. I feel for you amcmckenna.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | May 18, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

I'm curious why I have received two robocalls and one personal call from the Republican party in PA urging me to get out and vote today. I live in Virginia! They can't be all that smart.....

Posted by: amcmckenna | May 18, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Go Russell!!!

Posted by: cjnorris1 | May 18, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

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