By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 29, 2008
UNIONTOWN, Pa. -- They waited for three hours in a chilly gymnasium, more than 2,000 people standing shoulder to shoulder on the hardwood floor, their patience waning through a cheerleading routine, a pep rally and four noisy speeches from local politicians.
Finally, at 8:15 p.m., a brown SUV pulled into the snowy parking lot of the Penn State Fayette campus. Secret Service officers dispersed through the crowd, and the gym fell quiet. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell walked onstage and waved. Next on the platform was Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first presidential candidate to visit this town in 35 years. And then, at long last, the celebrated special guest:
"Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer yelled, "please welcome . . . your congressman! John Murtha!"
Clinton turned to greet the towering Democrat, grabbing his arm and lifting it above the crowd like a referee announcing the winner of a prizefight. It was an odd role reversal for a presidential contender accustomed to being the main act, but everyone opens for Murtha, 75, in southwestern Pennsylvania. For the moment, at least, Clinton appeared content to stand in his shadow.
After all, she owes him. When Murtha announced last week that he would endorse the senator from New York, he gave her a uniquely valuable gift. No politician is better positioned to deliver votes when Pennsylvania holds its presidential primary on April 22 than Murtha, who has lived in the same Johnstown neighborhood since winning a House seat in 1974.
Many constituents and local politicians revere Murtha for his loyalty in bringing new business to a region abandoned by steel, coal and Coca-Cola. Others fear his reputation as an old-school politician given to shouting matches and backroom dealings. But almost everyone in this corner of Pennsylvania agrees: Usually, it's wise to follow Murtha's lead.
"When the congressman speaks, we listen, and we pretty much do as he says," said Rich Kasunic, a state senator. "He is the type of politician that comes around once every 50 years in Washington. He has an incredible presence, and his word means more than anyone's to us."
Last week, a few hours before he took the stage in Uniontown, Murtha postponed a business trip to the West Coast and instead met Clinton's plane at a regional airport east of Pittsburgh. He climbed into the back seat of her SUV, and the two headed off through hilly backcountry. Past Latrobe, which lost its identity and major employer when Rolling Rock brewery left two years ago. Past Connellsville, whose population has been in decline ever since the coal industry faltered in the early 1960s. Past the outskirts of Uniontown, where later this year some residents in the surrounding hills will have running water installed for the first time.
The tour of "hard luck," as Murtha sometimes calls the region, bore little resemblance to the once-proud intersection of Pennsylvania and West Virginia in which the congressman grew up. His relatives worked in the mines, excavating the coal and forging the steel that helped win two world wars. But by the time Murtha won two Purple Hearts as a Marine and returned from the Vietnam War to run a carwash in Johnstown, his home town had new distinctions: abandoned factories, low median incomes and an unemployment rate that eclipsed 20 percent.
Murtha has consistently been returned to Congress with about 70 percent of the vote, in large part because he has become an economic development committee of one, adept at steering money and employment to his home district. He chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense -- his military expertise has been tapped by seven presidents -- and he delivers for his town. Johnstown is now the headquarters for a Marine helicopter squadron and a National Drug Intelligence Center, and is a primary manufacturer of military technology.
In a town that census data once highlighted as the least likely place in the United States to attract newcomers, Murtha has created an annual defense-oriented trade show so popular that it runs a waiting list of 25 companies. Only about 5 percent of adults there remain unemployed.
"Why do people here listen to what [Murtha] says?" asked Tom Trigona, mayor of Johnstown. "I guess because he got us our jobs."
As Murtha and Clinton pulled up to the Penn State satellite campus in nearby Uniontown on Monday, the congressman could look out on one of his old projects across the street -- a once-abandoned manufacturing plant where 150 people now repair Bradley Fighting Vehicles. He followed Clinton into the gymnasium and walked gingerly up the stairs to the stage; taking the steps is so demanding on his legs that he recently moved into a single-story house. The crowd chuckled when Rendell introduced Murtha as a man so accomplished that "the historic commission should put up one of those markers in front of his house."
But when Murtha, still imposing at 6-foot-6, took the microphone, he hardly appeared ready to be relegated to history, thrusting his index finger at the crowd and scowling. "I am convinced that we're probably in the worst situation in my 35 years in Congress," he said. "We need somebody with experience."
Murtha is a logical fit to make the experience argument for Clinton, but his endorsement was hardly a foregone conclusion before he announced it on March 18. He has played golf with Bill Clinton, but the former president rankled Murtha's allies at the Pentagon. Murtha's mentor, former Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey Sr., fought publicly against Bill Clinton after being denied a chance to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Casey's son, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., endorsed Sen. Barack Obama yesterday.
"I don't think anybody knew what [Murtha] was thinking until the day he made his endorsement," said Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who is close to Murtha and has yet to back a candidate. "This whole thing was done in true Jack Murtha style. I can just picture that he got up one morning . . . and said, 'Okay. I'm going to do it today for Clinton.' And that was it. Nobody else knew, and it didn't matter. He's on his own schedule."
Over the past two years, the normally media-averse Murtha has risked his reputation and set aside his distaste for publicity to speak against the Iraq war, which added weight to his endorsement. Obama's campaign pushed for Murtha's support, believing it would solidify the senator from Illinois as the antiwar candidate and offer inroads to the kind of predominantly white, working-class areas in which Obama has typically struggled.
At least four local politicians have endorsed Clinton since Murtha made his announcement. When Murtha works to persuade undecided colleagues to join him, his pitch is less a testament to her qualifications than simple arm-twisting.
"He can say, 'Look, if I think this is the person I'm going to work best with as president to keep all this stuff coming, then this is the best thing for all of Pennsylvania,' " said T.J. Rooney, chairman of Pennsylvania's Democratic Party.
Success has afforded Murtha that sort of brazenness. In the House, he dominates a corner of the chamber where a cadre of about a dozen fellow congressmen surround him and closely follow his lead. An opponent of abortion and a supporter of gun owners' rights, Murtha works well enough with Republicans to curry favor across the aisle and is unapologetic about steering taxpayer money to his district.
In 1980, Murtha testified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam trial of two House members after an FBI sting in which agents offered several lawmakers $50,000 to help a fictitious sheik with immigration problems. In a conversation that agents videotaped, Murtha responded characteristically: He refused to take the money, but he indicated that he might be able to help later if the man invested in local businesses and helped unemployed miners get new jobs.
"He understands the system, and he knows how to work it better than anybody," Rooney said. "I'm not sure there's anybody from around here who wields more influence."