Melissa Hart, the three-term incumbent in the 4th Congressional District, is painted by her opponent as a sort of female Rick Santorum. Both of the Republicans are conservative followers of President Bush, but that comparison goes only so far.
True, her political views are similar to Sen. Santorum's, but Ms. Hart, 44, of Bradford Woods doesn't have a contemptuous sneer or attack-dog persona. Although she has some steel in her character, her manner is friendly and engaging.
She sought funds to clean up brownfields and bring old sewer systems into the 21st century; she helped to save local military facilities. Her work ethic explains why she has been successful in politics, first in the state Senate for 10 years and now in the 4th District, which includes northern Allegheny County, all of Beaver and Lawrence counties and parts of Butler, Mercer and Westmoreland counties.
Ms. Hart has also had the advantage the last two elections of not being seriously tested by a Democratic challenger. This year is different, and it may explain why she has ducked various invitations to debate her opponent.
The Democrat is Jason Altmire, 38, of McCandless, who is willing to debate without reservations. Although he has never held public office, Mr. Altmire is no stranger to Washington, D.C. He was a legislative aide to former Rep. Pete Peterson of Florida and later worked for the Federation of American Hospitals. In 1998, he returned to Western Pennsylvania to work for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He was the acting vice president for government relations and community affairs at UPMC.
For this, Mr. Altmire is called a "lobbyist" by the Hart campaign, which is real chutzpah, considering that the Republican Party has lately been a great friend of lobbyists to the detriment of the nation (as in the Jack Abramoff affair). The challenger says that lobbyist is an accurate description for only part of his duties at UPMC. Anyway, the reason he was inspired to run was to reform the mess he saw in Washington.
As his background suggests, Mr. Altmire's No. 1 issue is the health-insurance crisis, which has left 46 million Americans without coverage. His remedy involves a three-point plan that includes paying doctors and hospitals for quality of care, not quantity; taking millions of people who are privately insured and putting them into a large pool so that risks are spread out and individuals are not penalized for becoming sick; and allowing people younger than 65 to buy into Medicare, thus getting them affordable coverage and invigorating the system.
Ms. Hart's prescriptions include getting more Americans to buy into health savings accounts and getting laws to curb malpractice lawsuits and damages -- the sort of initiatives that can help, but that are far from being a comprehensive solution.
We also find Mr. Altmire more convincing on his support for a higher minimum wage and for ending tax cuts to the wealthy, particularly at a time of war and growing national debt. With guns and abortion largely neutralized as issues in this race because of common ground between two socially conservative candidates, the contest is for many a referendum on the performance of the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. Rep. Hart is the smiley face on some unsmiling policies -- and none more so than the growing disaster in Iraq.
Melissa Hart is the good soldier who doesn't depart from President Bush's marching orders. She is glad that the administration is talking about a change in tactics, but gives no hint that Iraq was a mistake or a miscalculation. The job must be finished, she says, or else calamity will ensue.
Mr. Altmire is for taking the president at his word and getting out, now that the Iraqis have an elected government and training from the U.S. military. He may be too glib about leaving; Ms. Hart is too unrealistic about staying.
The problem for Ms. Hart is that she must shoulder the failures of the GOP. As a member of the ethics committee she may be upright herself, but her party has ruled a swamp. She and her colleagues blindly follow a president who is out of new ideas and who stands over an administration lacking basic competency.
Voters in the 4th District deserve better in Washington, and 2006 is their chance for change. Jason Altmire is the one who can deliver it.