WASHINGTON -- Walls that once held an array of images and artifacts from Rep. John P. Murtha's remarkable career are now bare, his office inhabited by a man who is still learning his way around the labyrinthine U.S. Capitol complex.
For Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, who assumed the literal and figurative office of his former boss three weeks ago, it is a frantic time. He was sworn in just two days after winning a nationally scrutinized special election against Republican Tim Burns, whom he will face again in the fall, and now must come to terms with how to carry on in the place of Pennsylvania's longest-serving congressman.
"It's really odd," Mr. Critz said in an interview Thursday in his new, sparsely decorated quarters. He was Mr. Murtha's right-hand man in the Johnstown area.
"This is Jack Murtha's office. He was in this office for over 25 years. ... Being so close to him and the family, it's weird being in here. The videoconferencing [technology], it's his. It's, I don't want to say it's difficult. It's just really surreal."
Mr. Murtha, who died Feb. 8 of complications following gall bladder surgery, had an enormous influence in Pennsylvania's 12th District, which he represented for 36 years. Through his seniority and position at the helm of the appropriations subcommittee on defense, Mr. Murtha was able to steer many a defense contractor to Western Pennsylvania -- a feat that is impossible to replicate.
"I think there's an increased expectation of me from the constituency, especially since I was so close to him," Mr. Critz said. "During the campaign frequently I said, 'I am not Jack Murtha.' But what I can guarantee people is that I'm going to work as hard as I can, and if it works out, that's great."
Some constituents, he said, thought Mr. Critz would immediately step into the subcommittee chairmanship, while others assumed he would get nothing done because he's last in seniority. The reality is somewhere in the middle.
No, Mark Critz will not be the defense appropriations chair -- but he was able to get the new chair, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., to visit Johnstown last week for the annual Showcase for Commerce. It was one of several signs that Mr. Critz is not your average freshman.
Within days of Mr. Critz's swearing in, he appeared on a news media conference call with Democratic leaders to talk about their job creation agenda. He was invited to a reception at the White House. He was given a couple of plum committee assignments -- Armed Services and Small Business.
That is due, in part, to how close House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was to Mr. Murtha, and her continued interest in the seat. But because Mr. Critz convincingly won such a high-profile race, Democrats are eager to tout him as a model for how to keep control of the House in a year that seems to be trending Republican.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said Mr. Critz's constant emphasis on jobs and economic development in the district brought his success.
"They are putting him out there because he's got a good message, and he's just come through a war where this is the only race in the country," Mr. Doyle said of the May 18 special election.
"This is like 'Monday Night Football' -- all the money's being bet on that one game. All the money was being bet on that one race because it's the only race that meant anything, and they wanted it so badly for their message that this was the beginning of the end of us. And of course we wanted to win it badly, too, so we could say, 'No it isn't.' "
Mr. Critz said he never paid attention to the national dialogue and ran a very personal race focused on bringing jobs home. It was his specialty, as district director for Mr. Murtha, but now he has to master the other half of the job -- in Washington.
Moving into an apartment he said is about the size of his living room in Johnstown -- yet the monthly rent was twice as much as his mortgage -- Mr. Critz set to work learning his way around the buildings and the legislative process. The transition has been eased, he said, by the fact that much of Mr. Murtha's staff agreed to stay on to work for him.
He said he was "jazzed" by the Armed Services assignment, which will enable him to stay engaged in military issues, as he was while working for Mr. Murtha.
It was the military that presented Mr. Critz with what he called his most difficult vote so far -- when he broke with most Democrats to vote against a measure calling for the end of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy on gays in the armed services.
Mr. Critz said he did so because military leaders have said they want to study the issue before phasing out the policy. Even though the proposal, sponsored by Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Bucks County, eliminates the policy only if the Pentagon completes its review and indicates it won't harm national security, Mr. Critz said the vote was premature.
"We don't want to put the cart before the horse," he said. The measure passed anyway.
Mr. Doyle said Mr. Critz has established himself as an attentive, curious new member, though he is fairly reserved.
"He just reminds you of a lot of those guys that grew up in Central PA," Mr. Doyle said. "They're kind of mild-mannered and they smile and they're nice, but you know you probably wouldn't really want to make them mad either, because it's them nice quiet ones that really can go crazy and kill you, as opposed to big-mouths like me."
One seat of Mr. Murtha's that Mr. Critz has not taken over is the back left corner of the House, the center of Pennsylvania Corner now occupied by delegation dean Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Luzerne. The clubby Pennsylvania delegation has welcomed its newest member with backslaps and a little bit of razzing.
"They help me sort of relax a little bit, not be so keyed up about what's going on," Mr. Critz said. "I feel very much like a freshman member, and I'll leave it at that."
Daniel Malloy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.