Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) embodies the term “permanent campaign.”
He’s run four political campaigns in the past two years: He won a special election in early 2010 to succeed his former boss, Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) and then won the general election for his first two-year term.
Redistricting forced Critz (right) to run earlier this year against his colleague, Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), and now he faces Republican Keith Rothfus in November.
2chambers spoke with Critz in his Washington, D.C., office last Friday. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, appears below:
2chambers: How can President Obama or Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania?
Critz: Oh, Romney is going to do well in Western Pennsylvania. He’ll lose Pittsburgh, he’ll probably lose Allegheny County, but everything else he’ll win.
To be blunt, I’m running for Congress, that’s what I’m doing. Whatever they do — they don’t coordinate down-ticket. They do their own thing.
Do you think that Romney’s comments on the “47 percent” have any way of swaying the race in Obama’s favor?
I’ve given up on predicting, because I’m terrible at it, but I go by gut feeling sometimes. I think he [Romney] steps in it every chance he gets. He’s not helping himself. Of course, I’m just concentrating on my own race, but him and with Paul Ryan and what they want to do with Medicare, certainly helps those of us who want to protect Medicare.
As soon as he picked Paul Ryan — that’s good for me.
How did you adapt your campaign messaging when Ryan was tapped?
Oh, we were going on Medicare anyway, because obviously the Republican House has shown where they want this argument to go and Romney had bought into it. Him putting Ryan on the ticket just doubles down on where they want to go on Medicare. In my district, you have a very high population of senior citizens. Medicare is extremely important to them. And not only to them – this is really where we really win the argument – they don’t want their children to have the same program that they do.
How does your newly drawn district change things for you?
In the special election two years ago, my whole campaign was wrapped in jobs and the economy. And when I got down here, Democrats said, “Oh, that’s a great message, wow, it really resonated.” I said, “Hey, I’m from Western Pennsylvania. We’ve been talking about jobs and the economy for 30 years.”
It’s a chip on our shoulder in that we’ve always been concerned about will our kids be able to stay in the Pittsburgh area if we want to. And it’s been no for a lot of years. We’ve made a lot of great leaps and we’re doing a lot of things in the high-tech sector and diversifying our economy with the Marcellus Shale natural gas. We’re on the verge of full employment. We’ve got some things to do, but we’re really working those issues and there’s an economic opportunity that we can’t miss.
What specifically about your message intrigued other Democrats? The last cycle was more about President Obama and government spending. So what do you tell your colleagues who have to go home and run on this?
You have to go talk about where you want to go, what do you want to do, how are we going to move this economy forward. Do you want to talk about small business? Trade deals? A big issue for me is Chinese currency manipulation. You want to talk about the ideas that impact your economy and how you can change it. And I frequently say that I’m not looking to make the United States have an unfair advantage – I want a level playing field. Give our people a chance to compete.
So I talk to people about that and tell them that’s a message that works for me. Obviously you have to talk about the issues in your district. I have a large senior population, so Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are huge issues for our people.
This is the most unpopular, unproductive Congress in modern history. When you get asked about it by voters, how do you defend this institution or explain it? And why on Earth be a part of this place if it’s so unpopular?
The Congress has gone through its ups and downs for hundreds of years now. It works. We’re in a timeframe where this partisanship has not halted, but really stifled moving the country forward.
You can’t fix it from the outside, you have to be in here. I feel very strongly that this country is important enough that it needs people who are willing to fight whomever to move the country forward. That means sometimes you stand up vehemently against the opposition, that means sometimes you stand up against your own party thinking what is right for the country.
President Obama did suggest however to Univision that you can’t change Washington from within, it has to be changed from the outside. Why do you feel differently?
Only the people who are in here can change how they work with one another. The election is going to determine who comes back.
It’s the citizenry who decides what the makeup of the Congress is going to be, but I feel very strongly that I’m one of the people who wants to make it work and I’m willing to work with anyone. I guess it’s a nuance of language that you’re talking about.
You’re a former congressional staffer. What is the transition like? How does it change your perspective of Congress?
I ran the district, so I’m not a D.C. guy. This D.C. culture has really been, I’m still learning the D.C. culture. I love Pennsylvania, grown up, will die in Pennsylvania. I’m a southwestern Pennsylvania guy.
It’s a job. You get your job – although thrust into this one – and you learn it as you go. You learn as fast as you can, you learn as much as you can, and you try to make good decisions and you make friends. One thing that I have that a lot of members coming in I knew wouldn’t have, is I hired all of Mr. Murtha’s staff. We had a seasoned staff, who knew how to work the process and work things. It wasn’t like I was the only one who knew what was going on. We had a very strong staff, the vast majority stayed.
Could Jack Murtha win in the current political environment?
I would say so. Lots of people thought he didn’t have to do anything anymore, but he still worked hard at it. I think he would still win, I think that his track record on accomplishments would shine through.
Currently earmarks — which Murtha championed — are banned and a taboo subject. Do you think the pendulum will ever swing back and they’ll be used again?
Let’s say the Department of Agriculture gets $1 billion. Where does that money go? Nobody’s really looking into where that money goes. Earmarks are probably one of the most transparent ways that money is spent. Everybody knows what the project is, who requested it, what it’s going to do. And, we’re the closest representatives that the general public has to the federal government. So where do they go with their priorities that don’t fit into any program that’s within the federal government? To us. So we have to champion these projects that are necessary for economic development.
Heck, Mr. Murtha funded sewage projects to get communities where the raw sewage was running down peoples’ backyards cleaned up. Sounds like a pretty good thing. Well, a lot of that was earmark money.
But you know that “earmark” is a dirty word. So how would it come back?
If Democrats and Republicans say, look, we’re moving forward, we’re doing what’s best for the country, you gain the confidence of the people, then we build a system that’s transparent. The last system really was quite transparent.
It would show everything that is going on, and if you have an open rule or ability on the floor of the House, if it’s a bad earmark, someone will put up an amendment to take it out. The discussion can happen on the floor. There are ways that people will know.
What do you know about your Republican opponent?
Not a whole lot, actually. He’s not really in the press or has done much in the last 10 years that I’ve noticed. I did hear, and I’m pretty sure this is in the research, that he worked for the Bush administration in the faith-based office. That’s all I know of his public service. I know that he’s an attorney from western Pennsylvania. He married someone who had some money, because his worth is somewhere in the $5 million to $10 million range.
I know that he’s not good for this area. We were talking about the low opinion of Congress – it’s because we have a large group of people in here who are unwilling to compromise. The Constitution of the United States was a compromise. This country is built on diverse opinions, coming to the table and figuring out where can we agree.
His philosophy is, draw a line in the sand, if you want to talk to me, you have to come on my side of the line. And the one thing about this job – with the divergence of opinions in this country – is that you have to deal with it. I think I’m right on a lot of topics, but I’ve learned perspective from a lot of people too.
You talk about compromise, so I’m curious: Who is your favorite House Republican?
I work with several. Tom Reed of New York, I’ve worked with Mo Brooks – Mo Brooks is a tea party guy from Alabama, and we’ve actually become close. He’s a nice guy. Dave McKinley from West Virginia, I’ve worked with. Obviously, the Pennsylvania delegation – we’re close as a delegation. So Bill Shuster, Tim Murphy. Jim Gerlach, Mike Fitzpatrick, we’ve worked on different things. We actually watch when one of our own has a bill up. We watch to see what’s going on, because we try to support one another.
I’ve been working a lot with my leadership as well: John Larson, Jim Moran, Pete Visclosky, some of the guys who were Murtha friends for many years, making sure I’m positioned to make sure I have the greatest impact for the 12th District.
You’ve run four races in four years – a special election, the 2010 general election, your primary against Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) and now this one. Having run so many campaigns, how do you advise wannabe candidates?
Most of the time I tell them to volunteer for someone they believe in, find out what it’s all about, make sure this is what you want to do, and make sure you believe in what you want to accomplish. Give it your all.
You have to think about – a lot of people say they want to come in and do certain legislation and don’t think about the campaign side. You have to think about all those pieces. This is a multifaceted job and you have to do them all to be successful.
Many times I tell people don’t think you can focus on one piece of it and everything else will fall into place. No, you have to work every single facet, you have to work at it everyday. Don’t be surprised that you’re going to be working seven days a week maybe weeks or months at a time. There’s a lot of things about this job that aren’t very glamorous.
But I never got more gratification for a job then when I worked for Mr. Murtha. When we would work with a couple of municipalities and some counties and the state and got a sewage project done, that took five years to make happen – but it worked – that really made me feel good. We were able to do things for Western Pennsylvania that moved the ball forward.
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost