The primary here serves as a test of organized labor’s remaining strength in the region. If steel unions can’t turn out voters to elect one of their own, then what kind of political boost do they offer?
“Altmire’s got huge name recognition and more money, and he was 30 points ahead,” said Waters, a Critz supporter. “The fact that it’s even close is a tribute to Mark’s message and his position. If we pull this out, it will be the biggest upset in the history of the House of Representatives in 20 years.”
Labor’s 40-year decline is widespread across the district. In Altmire territory in Beaver Falls, Douglas Stopp looked out over the vacant brown lots and decrepit tubular steel factories where he worked decades ago.
“It was a very powerful union at that time,” he recalled. “Politically, they were very strong. But today, they just don’t have the membership.”
A few minutes earlier, Altmire met with constituents in the basement at St. Philomena Community Hall. The lanky former high school football star proclaimed the economy is on the upswing in southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s a tough argument to make.
“I don’t see economic growth here in Beaver Falls. I see desperation,” Mary Bentley, a 47-year-old undecided Democrat, told Altmire. “I tell all my three children to run as far away as they can from Western Pennsylvania.”
Altmire’s argument played better the next day at a golf club Rotary Meeting in the wealthy Pittsburgh suburb of McCandless, where the Congressman reiterated that he’s “bullish” about the region’s economic prospects.
The redrawn 12th district crosses all income levels, joined together by Altmire’s middle-class hometown of Lower Burrell — current Critz territory.
Lower Burrell Mayor Donald Kinosz remembers Murtha. They shared space in the municipal building for years, but now he’s ready for Altmire to succeed.
The Congressman “could be to Lower Burrell what Murtha was to Johnstown,” Kinosz, 71, said. “Drive through Johnstown and you’ll see ‘Murtha, Murtha, Murtha.’ Maybe someday we’ll see, ‘Altmire, Altmire, Altmire’ here.”
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.