Obituary: John P. Murtha / Powerful Johnstown congressman

June 17, 1932 - Feb. 8, 2010


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John P. Murtha, the powerful dean of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation who survived scandal and seismic political shifts to become the longest-serving U.S. House member from the state, died Monday afternoon in Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington from complications following gallbladder surgery. He was 77.

Presiding over what became "the Murtha Corner" in the House, the Democrat wielded power quietly, working deals for his party's leadership, advising members on everything from defense spending to how to line up money for their districts. His 36 years in Congress were marked by extraordinary access to presidents of both parties. He was a confidante of the late Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill.

Republicans and Democrats alike sought his advice on defense matters and, from his perch on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, he personally dispensed billions of dollars in federal funds, steering much of it to his economically wracked 12th Congressional District.

Revered in his district, never winning by less than 55 percent in a general election since he first went to the House, Mr. Murtha became famous initially as the first Vietnam combat veteran to serve in Congress, then as one of the kings of congressional pork. He was a perennial target of reform groups, a hero to lobbyists for his defense of their role in shaping legislation, and he created an elaborate and subsidized defense industry in his hometown of Johnstown, Cambria County.

"If I'm corrupt, it's because I take care of my district," he said in a 2009 interview. The remark was intended to illustrate his argument that he never personally profited from his deals to force defense contractors to set up shop in the 12th District. Critics seized on it as a paradigm of congressional cynicism.

Never once did he offer even a hint of apology for his methods and the billions in earmarks that became, in effect, a de facto industrial policy in the 12th District.

"Let me tell you something -- that's my job. My job as a member of Congress is to make sure we take care of what we see as necessary. Not the bureaucrats who are unelected," he said.

In a classic Murtha moment, in 1993 he attended the ribbon cutting for the National Drug Intelligence Center. Ordinarily, such a facility would be located somewhere in the Washington beltway. Instead, it now sits in the building that housed Penn Traffic, Johnstown's premier department store that closed after the 1977 flood.

Why, Mr. Murtha was asked, was such a center sitting in Johnstown?

"Because this is where I wanted it," he snapped.

A champion of organized labor and an opponent of both abortion rights and gun control, Mr. Murtha exemplified his steel-and-coal district, where labor unions still held political sway and religious, ethnic voters are still courted with a curious mix of economic liberalism and social conservatism.

Lost in so much of the swirl of controversy over a congressman who brought home the bacon, if not the whole hog, was Mr. Murtha's origin as a message of reform in his first arrival in Congress.

Born in West Virginia and raised in Westmoreland County, Mr. Murtha walked off the football practice field at Washington & Jefferson College in his second year to enlist in the Marine Corps.

He said the decision was spurred by a conversation with teammates about how many of their classmates were then fighting in Korea.

"I said to myself, 'This isn't right. I got a deferment because I'm in ROTC,' " he explained. He entered the service in the middle of the conflict but never made it to Korea, working, instead, as a drill sergeant.

A decade later, serving in the Reserve and running the Johnstown Minute Car Wash, he lobbied to be sent to Vietnam.

"I had to fight my way to the front lines," he said. He later received two Purple Hearts.

He came home and challenged Rep. John P. Saylor, a Republican so comfortably ensconced in office that he didn't bother to maintain a district office. Mr. Murtha then was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

When Mr. Saylor died on an operating table in 1973, Gov. Milton Shapp called a special election for the first week of February. Party leaders nominated Mr. Murtha and the Republicans selected Mr. Saylor's chief of staff, Harry Fox.

National press flooded Johnstown, setting up the contest as the first test of President Richard Nixon's standing with voters after the famed "Saturday Night Massacre," when he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Within the district, that message was mostly lost amid worries about Bethlehem Steel's threat to pull out of the city and the woes of the coal industry, which constituted much of the other sources of jobs and income.

Mr. Murtha won that special election by a scant 200 votes and, amid recounts and challenges, congressional Republicans at first balked at seating him. An agreement was made to seat him tentatively, assuring nine months of extra seniority to the first of what came to be known as the Watergate congressmen -- ostensible reformers sent by voters angry at Washington scandals.

In subsequent general elections, Mr. Murtha would never win less than 55 percent of the popular vote. He faced one tight moment, in 1990, when Greensburg attorney Kenneth Burkley nearly upended him in the Democratic primary. Mr. Burkley accused Mr. Murtha of being aloof, inaccessible, more concerned with the machinations of congressional power than the 12th District.

In an acknowledgement that he'd lost touch with the locals, Mr. Murtha hired a press secretary -- the first in years -- and began to aggressively court attention to the funds he poured into the district from his perch on defense appropriations.

He secured his status as a virtual congressman-for-life in 1977 when a flood struck Johnstown and dozens of surrounding towns. Dropping from spot-to-spot in a commandeered military helicopter, Mr. Murtha directed aid to the stricken region. Later, he interceded with then-President Jimmy Carter and his Cabinet to steer flood recovery dollars into the valley.

At the same time, Mr. Murtha faced down suburban homeowners in nearby Richland Township, a new-money suburb where some residents objected to the setting up of emergency housing trailers in their community. Standing in the auditorium of a local junior high school that served as a refugee center for displaced families, he confronted critics head-on.

"I want you to tell me," the congressman demanded. "What is your objection to them being here?"

The crowd backed down. The relief trailers stayed.

Mr. Murtha's first brush with scandal happened in early 1980, when a team of FBI agents mounted an elaborate sting that ensnared several members of Congress. The agents posed as representatives of a fictitious Arab sheik who wanted a special immigration bill introduced to allow him to stay in the United States. During the probe, Mr. Murtha was videotaped talking about ways to get the phony sheik to invest in businesses in his district.

That same tape turned out to be his salvation. Repeatedly, he declined to accept a drawer full of cash.

"They opened a drawer and there was $50,000 in cash," he recalled last year. "And I [told] 'em I wasn't interested."

Still, the incident cost him politically. Once thought a likely speaker of the House in years to come, Mr. Murtha was unable to succeed in a recent bid to become majority leader. Some members were angry at him for later testifying against two colleagues, Reps. John Murphy, D-N.Y., and Frank Thompson, D-N.J. Both men went to prison.

The tape also was ambiguous in some ways. Mr. Murtha held out the possibility he might later accept the money. At the time, he told a reporter he was simply stringing the fictitious businessmen along, hoping to find investment for Johnstown.

In subsequent years Mr. Murtha would enjoy an unlikely celebrity with his party's left, the same quarters from which he was often attacked for his old-school dealing and social conservatism.

In 2005 he called a news conference to declare that the Iraq war was an unwinnable proposition and called for an American withdrawal. The declaration, by an avowed Democratic hawk, created a storm in Washington, with a late-night facedown between House Democrats and Republicans.

Mr. Murtha lambasted the George W. Bush administration, saying it failed to brief members of Congress on progress in the war and it shut out questions.

"I just decided to myself all at once, I said 'I can't wait any longer,' " he explained at the time.

The move made him a sudden target of the political right. Mr. Murtha blamed it for later controversies over earmarks, including widespread theorizing that he was the ultimate target of a criminal probe into a prominent lobbying firm, PMA, run by Pittsburgh native Paul Magliocchetti, a former staff member at defense appropriations.

Mr. Murtha was never charged in that or another probe into Kuchera Industries, one of the dozens of defense contractors to spring up in the 12th District.

Mr. Murtha is survived by his wife, Joyce, his children, Donna, John and Patrick, and three grandchildren.

The family suggests memorial contributions be made to the UPMC John P. Murtha Regional Cancer Center in Johnstown, or to the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center in Windber, Pa.


Dennis B. Roddy: droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965. First Published February 9, 2010 5:00 AM


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