JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — This is the town that Jack built, earmark by earmark, into an oasis of economic development projects for 36 years.
But Tuesday could mark the end of the late Rep. John Murtha’s (D) empire.
His top aide — Rep. Mark Critz (D) — has carried the 12th district torch for the past two years since Murtha’s death. But last year, Republican mapmakers reconfigured the district, forcing Critz into an uphill battle against fellow Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire in the gritty former steel towns surrounding Pittsburgh.
“I don’t know a whole lot about Critz, except what I’ve seen on TV,” said Doug Fehr, a 62-year-old Democrat some 75 miles across the district in Altmire’s base of ritzy McCandless. “I do know that he took the Murtha seat. In that area, I think it’s a good thing. But I don’t think it means much out here.”
The geography of the new district favors Altmire, with about 66 percent of Democratic primary voters coming from his current turf. But polls show Critz closing the gap in the final days before Tuesday’s primary, and now both candidates have turned to focus on their respective bases.
In Johnstown, Critz’s defeat would mean the end of the Murtha legacy and the demise of the enterprise commonly known on Capitol Hill as “Murtha Inc.” On the flip side, his victory would signal that organized labor still carries political weight in the region after decades of decline.
“There was also Jack Murtha, and that guy who was with him. That was me,” Critz recalled in an interview last week. “My name was, ‘Oh, you’re Murtha’s guy.’ So when I started campaigning two years ago, people were saying, ‘Oh, you’re Murtha’s guy.’ Well, my name is actually Mark Critz, but, yeah, I’m Murtha’s guy.”
Altmire is also aware of the mantle — or the burden — that being Johnstown’s Congressman brings.
“Johnstown has not had a Member of Congress that has not lived in Johnstown since World War II,” Altmire said. “I don’t want them to look at me and say, ‘That’s the guy who knocked out our Congressman.’ I do approach that always in the front of my mind, of trying to make a first impression.”
Yet Altmire’s most recent TV spot refers to Critz as “Johnstown Congressman” — a dig at his colleague intended to energize Altmire’s base.
Since Murtha’s death in early 2010, there have been significant changes for Johnstown. For one, Members don’t earmark funds anymore like the Pennsylvania power player did for decades.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.