The worst kept secret in local politics is out: Former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan is officially running for Congress, and two-term U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, may face a tough re-election bid this year.
The Fox Chapel Republican has been working on a campaign behind the scenes for months, but her Federal Election Commission candidacy statement went online Wednesday. Now she can focus on raising money and getting her name onto the May 18 primary ballot.
Two other Republicans -- Edgeworth lawyer and former Department of Homeland Security official Keith Rothfus, and salesman John Vinsick of Hopewell -- also are running. Small businessman Bob Klein of Gibsonia decided to end his bid and support Ms. Buchanan, he said.
In a statement, Ms. Buchanan said she has "devoted my entire professional life to public service" and has "always understood that I was accountable to our citizens to keep our communities safe and our taxpayers to protect their hard-earned money.
"I am running for Congress because Washington needs a new direction."
Ms. Buchanan's entrance into the race is just another big storyline in an already volatile mid-term election year in Pennsylvania. Besides statewide governor and U.S. Senate races, there are at least 10 competitive races in the 19 state congressional districts, which is more than in any other state in the nation, according to the Cook Political Report.
The 4th District -- which goes from northern Allegheny County into Lawrence and parts of Beaver, Butler, Mercer and Westmoreland counties -- is a tempting one for the GOP since it voted for Republican John McCain in 2008, even while putting Mr. Altmire back into office.
"She could be a formidable opponent, though [Mr. Altmire] is a proven vote-getter in this district," said Gerald Shuster, professor of political communication at Pitt.
After eight years in charge of the Western District of Pennsylvania -- she was appointed by George W. Bush in September 2001 and resigned in November -- Ms. Buchanan has great name recognition and the baggage that comes with it. As U.S. attorney, she gained a good reputation for task forces targeting guns and child exploitation, and national headlines for getting convictions in obscenity cases and a drug case involving comedian Tommy Chong for selling bongs.
She is probably best known for her 2006 indictment of former Allegheny Coroner Cyril H. Wecht on corruption charges, a case she dropped after a hung jury and other legal setbacks two years later.
Lately, she was a key organizer on behalf of the 54 Haitian orphans flown to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in January, though her efforts were largely upstaged by Gov. Ed Rendell and Mr. Altmire, a former UPMC lobbyist.
Expect Democrats to keep reminding voters of her ties to President Bush and the Wecht case.
"She's going to be remembered, in my opinion, when she campaigns, for wasting millions of taxpayers dollars on meritless prosecutions, and that sentiment is shared on a bipartisan fashion in that district and the region," said Jim Burn, chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. "Being an unsuccessful prosecutor is not a good platform to run on."
Mr. Rothfus resigned from his Downtown law firm Jan. 31 to devote himself full-time to the District 4 primary and said he is confident he can beat Ms. Buchanan for the Republican nomination.
"We need somebody with private-sector experience. I've spent most of the last 20 years in the private sector helping companies create jobs -- versus working in the federal government almost 23 years," he said. Ms. Buchanan started her career as a federal prosecutor in 1988.
Mr. Vinsick, the third Republican in the race, Wednesday said Ms. Buchanan "is an attorney, and the last thing we need in Washington is another attorney."
Mr. Klein -- a small businessman who got into the GOP race with the support of conservative tea party activists -- met with Ms. Buchanan earlier this week and found they had the same stances on fiscal and social issues.
"We had a very meaningful discussion and I believe she and I are on the same page," he said, explaining his drop from the race.
In a statement, Mr. Altmire said, "This is not the time for campaigning. While the Republican candidates focus their attention on partisan politics and winning the Republican nomination, I will continue to focus my attention on doing the job I was elected to do."
The challenge for all the GOP candidates will be money. Mr. Altmire, who has no primary opposition, had almost $1 million on hand at the end of the year, while Mr. Rothfus had $37,000. Ms. Buchanan had none (since she was not a declared candidate) but Mr. Klein said she has commitments lined up from supporters.
Raising money "is always the worst part about running," said former congresswoman Melissa Hart, whom Mr. Altmire defeated in 2006 and 2008. "But this year -- and Altmire is facing this -- people are really angry," which she said will help challengers.
Since last year Ms. Hart has been supporting Mr. Rothfus, a longtime friend and fellow attorney. "People want a new face, a new type of leader in Washington. Keith is that kind of person," she said.
Ms. Buchanan is the third former U.S. attorney battling for a Pennsylvania congressional seat, following fellow Republicans Pat Meehan in the 7th District and Tom Marino in the 10th. The party seems determined to make the federal prosecution of terrorists an issue in the races.
In a statement, the National Republican Congressional Committee said Mr. Altmire's "flip-flopping on the 9/11 trials has shown voters the real Jason Altmire -- a politician who doesn't stand on principle but instead stands on whatever path he thinks can save his political career. It's too late."
In reply, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said, "Buchanan's record as a loyal Bush Administration foot soldier speaks volumes about the kind of policies her candidacy represents. ... That's exactly what we can't afford right now and Republicans are seriously mistaken if they think voters are going to rally around her candidacy in November."
James O'Toole and Daniel Malloy contributed. Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Read the Early Returns blog at post-gazette.com/politics. First Published February 18, 2010 5:00 AM