Anti-government? Not in Rep. Murtha's old district.

The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza give their analysis of the primary elections that sent incumbents packing and has rattled the establishment.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010

JOHNSTOWN, PA. -- The anti-Washington fervor shaking the nation's political establishment has yet to take hold in this old steel town, where residents pride themselves on self-reliance but are acutely aware of what government has done to keep their community afloat.

Wasteful spending in Washington during hard economic times is a dominant theme in the political debate this year. But here in western Pennsylvania, the electoral potency of that sentiment was put to the test Tuesday and came up short.

"Unfortunately people are so wrapped up in this anti-government thing right now; I don't know why," said Phil Glover, 46, a corrections officer. Glover was among the majority of voters who cast their ballots for Democrat Mark Critz in a special House election to succeed the late John P. Murtha (D).

Against the prevailing wisdom, Critz highlighted his experience in government in the campaign. He had served for more than a decade as a Murtha staffer, and he promised to work as hard as his boss famously did to shepherd federal money and jobs to the district. As the powerful chairman of the defense panel of the House Appropriations Committee, Murtha steered hundreds of millions of dollars to the region.

Critz bested Tim Burns, a businessman and "tea party"-affiliated Republican who pitched himself as a "Washington outsider" whose election would strike a blow to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). That message apparently rang hollow with voters who felt it ignored the work government has done for them.

"A lot of people trash government, but it's an important part of our lives out here," said John Vatavuk, a Democratic activist and government official in nearby Somerset County. "I think that's part of why Mark Critz got elected. People will expect a lot from him. I hope they don't expect too much."

People here remember the government's role in rebuilding the town after a devastating flood in 1977. Many are thankful for the influx of government contractors, who have helped fill in the gaps left by the shuttered factories whose shells are scattered across the region.

But the appreciation is not universal. To some, Murtha was akin to a mafia don, keeping his constituents under his thumb by delivering goodies while quietly taking unpopular votes. Murtha voted in favor of the health-care overhaul and cap-and-trade climate legislation, both of which are viewed dimly in the district. Some voters say they resent the region's dependence on government largesse.

"We don't need government to give us everything," said Michele Trevorrow, 47, a Burns volunteer who attended a cookies-and-punch Republican rally Monday evening. "We have a great work ethic here, and we became dependent on one man."

The sentiment could not have been more different at Capri Pizza and Pasta on Wednesday afternoon, as a mix of lunchtime regulars and Critz supporters converged on the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. Both groups could rattle off the names of companies whose presence in the district was a direct result of Murtha's advocacy, and many connected their vote for Critz to that legacy.

"He was Mr. Murtha's right-hand man, and Mr. Murtha did a lot for this community," said Charles George, 46, an independent contractor who happened upon the post-election party.

A few tables down sat Glover, an Army veteran and longtime Critz friend. He was about to be discharged from the Army and without job prospects when he visited Murtha's office in January 1990 on the advice of a relative.

Within 24 hours, he had an interview at the minimum-security federal prison that Murtha had steered to nearby Loretto. When the facility was threatened because of financial troubles years later, Murtha -- along with Critz -- worked to get federal money to add beds and keep it operational, Glover said. It now houses about 1,400 inmates from around the country.

Glover said that because of his job, he felt stung by the anti-government rhetoric. "We keep inmates locked up, and we do a good job at it," he said. "And we do it at a good cost to the taxpayers. People neglect to recognize how government helps."

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