Mark Critz, the former district director to the late John P. Murtha, handily captured a nonbinding preference vote of Democrats gathered yesterday, kicking the next phase to the Pennsylvania Democratic Party's executive committee, which promises a nominee by tomorrow night.
The vote, held in The Lamplighter Restaurant in Delmont, pitted Mr. Critz, of Johnstown, Cambria County, against former auditor general and state treasurer Barbara Hafer, who defected from the Republican to the Democratic party several years ago.
Mr. Critz received 46 of a total of 83 votes cast while Ms. Hafer won 22. Ed Cernic, the Cambria County controller, received 14 votes, while Ryan Bucchianeri, a businessman from Eighty Four, received one vote.
Each side quickly spun its own interpretation of the results which, while not binding, could have significant influence on the 50 state executive committee members, most of whom live well outside Western Pennsylvania and who are expected to look for signs of local sentiment before making their own nomination.
"Now the fun starts. Now I've got to start working state committee people," Mr. Critz said. While he had previously said his goal was to win overwhelmingly and make it implausible for state committee members to decide otherwise, his showing came in at 55 percent -- far from the 70 percent he'd hoped for.
"I'd say it's overwhelming when the closest competitor was less than half of what I had," he said.
Josh Morrow, managing Ms. Hafer's campaign, later issued a statement saying that among the elected state committee members -- excluding the more than 40 delegates who were appointed by county chairmen -- the two candidates tied at 16-16.
While she said she was aware that some state executive committee members were willing to defer to yesterday's vote, "I've also heard that people are going to vote their own conscience and vote for the person they think can win," Ms. Hafer said.
Along with the other three candidates who appeared yesterday, Ms. Hafer has vowed to stay in the race.
While the state committee will name a nominee for the special election to fill the remaining eight months of Mr. Murtha's term, the election will be held simultaneously with the party's May 18 nominating primary, raising the possibility that voters might elect one candidate to fill the seat for eight months while nominating a different candidate for the general election in November.
To date, all four candidates have indicated that they intend to run in the primary regardless of who the party leaders select for the special election.
That possibility brought out a fifth player in yesterday's ritual: former U.S. Rep. Austin Murphy, a Democrat who represented the old 22nd Congressional District. Mr. Murphy distributed a letter to delegates announcing his availability as a compromise candidate to fill in the unexpired term, leaving the field open to the remaining four to fight for the full nomination in the primary.
Mr. Murphy's arrival was the latest twist in a fractious process marked by furtive alliances, cut-and-thrust rhetoric and byzantine intrigue as four -- or possibly five --Democrats sought to persuade state committee members from the nine counties represented in the district that they were the choice to carry on for Mr. Murtha, who died Feb. 8.
The precise turnout was in question until a final tally because members of the Washington County delegation said they would boycott the proceeding. Their chairman, George Vitteck, said he had already rented a hall for a vote earlier today and some members were unhappy over the credentialing of non-elected delegates.
Mr. Murphy received no votes at the Delmont meeting. At Mr. Vitteck's separate committee gathering in Bentleyville, where all 52 county committee members cast a vote, Mr. Murphy received eight votes. Mr. Critz led the balloting there with 19, followed by Ms. Hafer with 12.
Each candidate spoke for five minutes prior to the Delmont vote and those speeches were a reminder of a potentially damaging primary fight. Ms. Hafer last week raised questions about Mr. Critz's ethics -- demanding that he release copies of his statement to the Office of Congressional Ethics, an investigative arm of the House that probed several members of the Appropriations committee and their relationships to the now-defunct PMA lobbying firm.
Mr. Murtha was among House members cleared in that probe, but Ms. Hafer's remarks included a call for the release of details on Mr. Murtha, suggesting that questions remained about his handling of millions in appropriations earmarks in the district for PMA clients. Yesterday, she apologized for those remarks in a speech that brought a shout of "Leave the congressman alone" from one delegate.
She has also publicly questioned Mr. Critz's role as bookkeeper for a bankrupt Johnstown firm, Parkins Concrete. Mr. Critz has responded by calling for the OCE to release all documents connected to him and by stating that he worked at Parkins at the request of his sister-in-law, who was married at the time to the firm's president. He said he quit in a disagreement over the company's business practices long before he joined Mr. Murtha's congressional staff.
"Let's not concentrate on beating the crap out of each other," Mr. Critz said. "Let's concentrate on solving problems."
Ms. Hafer, in her own speech, offered little assurance that the attacks would cease.
"Whatever's thrown at you and whatever's thrown at me," she told Mr. Critz, "It's going to be thousands of times worse by the Republicans."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Mar. 8, 2010) Mark Critz, who won a non-binding preference vote of Democrats to replace the late John P. Murtha, was the Johnstown congressman's former district director. The post was listed incorrectly in this story as originally published Mar. 7, 2010.
Dennis Roddy: email@example.com or 412-263-1965. First Published March 7, 2010 5:30 AM