Republicans joust over their conservatism
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Mary Beth Buchanan and an aide have battled rush-hour traffic to drive an hour north from her home in Fox Chapel to a meeting of the Republican Women of Butler. After the "Pledge" and a prayer, the first-time candidate gave her sales pitch to the crowd, saying she wants to bring her combative style as U.S. attorney to Congress.
"Having stood up to drug dealers, to violent criminals and corrupt public officials, I believe I have the training, the determination and the courage to stand up to Nancy Pelosi," she said.
First she has to square off in next month's primary against fellow Republican Keith Rothfus, a lawyer and former Bush administration official, who seems just as determined in his first campaign to fight Ms. Pelosi, Jason Altmire and other Democrats, and Ms. Buchanan as well.
Mr. Rothfus, of Edgeworth, took a leave of absence from his law firm last fall to devote himself full time to the 4th District race, before his opponent entered, and with the support of the district's former congresswoman, Melissa Hart.
Ms. Buchanan "worked in the federal government 22 years. ... I was in the federal government for 22 months," Mr. Rothfus said recently. "We need somebody who's a principled conservative who's thought of conservative values for decades. Those values make up part of a person's thinking -- they're not simply reading talking points from the RNC."
"I can't comment on why he wants to label me at all. Maybe he should get a dictionary and get the meaning of the word conservative," Ms. Buchanan said in a separate interview.
"I never heard of Keith Rothfus before I entered the race. I don't even know him and I can tell you he certainly doesn't know me. I'm confident I developed my own conservative values through my life."
It is common for Republican candidates to try to out-right each other in a primary, just as Democrats are more likely to go southpaw in the spring and appeal to hard-core party voters. In this race, Ms. Buchanan and Mr. Rothfus are forced onto that nebulous turf because they have no major differences on the issues -- or their backgrounds.
Both were raised in Democratic, working-class families, both worked their way up through the legal profession and both worked for George W. Bush, including efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They both criticize the $787 billion stimulus package favored by Mr. Altmire, the McCandless Democrat and the 4th District's incumbent congressman. Both warn against last month's health care reform package and the nation's ballooning debt. Both are regulars at tea party events, and both are anti-abortion.
In terms of fundraising, Mr. Rothfus had $132,000 on hand April 1, most of it from a $76,000 personal loan. Ms. Buchanan's numbers are similar, with $102,000 on hand, half of it coming from a self-loan.
Mr. Rothfus often tries to tie Ms. Buchanan to Barack Obama and Sen. Arlen Specter -- noting she said she was "open" to keep working for the federal government a month after Mr. Obama was elected in 2008, and that she cut a $1,000 check to Mr. Specter the same year, as he was struggling with his then-Republican base. (Mr. Specter recommended her to Mr. Bush.)
Mr. Rothfus also says controversies swirling around the former prosecutor -- including an on-air spat over defamation with KDKA Radio's Marty Griffin in February on her first day in the race -- will weigh down the party's efforts in the fall.
"If she's the candidate, she's the issue. We need somebody who can be on offense every single day in September and October," Mr. Rothfus said. "There's a solid conservative guy running who's going to be able to debate the issues with Congressman Altmire, not have it become a personality contest. These are serious times."
"I'm disappointed in my primary opponent's petty attempts to attack my career and my accomplishments," Ms. Buchanan responded. "It's this experience and this fighting spirit and determination I'll take to Washington."
She addressed their work in New Orleans, where she helped build a $3 million domestic violence response center and he worked for the faith-based initiatives team.
"This is something that I can show I actually did myself, and to think my opponent is talking as though he cleaned up all the messes after Katrina is insulting," she said.
"I wasn't sitting behind a desk in Washington sending out e-mails to make sure faith-based organizations applied for grants," Ms. Buchanan said. "I was rolling up my sleeves, on the ground in New Orleans, bringing people together to create something that was desperately needed."
The married mother of a grown daughter had another message for the married father of six, whose youngest child is 3: "I'm running full time for this position and I will be able to devote my full time to it, as I do not have other responsibilities -- as my primary opponent should be concerned about," she said.
Ms. Buchanan, 46, grew up the daughter of a steelworker in Roscoe, Washington County, and graduated from California University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh Law School. A former intern for then-U.S. District Court Chief Judge Maurice Cohill, she was in a private law practice briefly before becoming a federal prosecutor in 1988. She moved to the criminal division in 1992, when current GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett was still U.S. attorney for the state's Western District. Mr. Bush tapped her for the same job in September 2001.
She proved successful in getting prosecutions and headlines.
During her eight years there, the U.S. attorney's office focused attention on drug trafficking, child pornography and illegal guns (through a national program called Project Safe Neighborhoods) and prosecuted an Allegheny County judge and members of the county sheriff's office for corruption. She was a favorite of the Bush administration, serving as chair of Attorney General John Ashcroft's advisory committee, director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys and acting director of the National Office on Violence Against Women.
She got national attention for successfully prosecuting comedian Tommy Chong for selling bongs and for her failed, three-year case against former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht for fraud and misuse of government funds. Even after dropping the prosecution last year, Ms. Buchanan insisted Dr. Wecht committed crimes, leading former Attorney General and Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh -- a Republican and member of the former coroner's defense team -- to seek an official rebuke, calling her comments "completely improper."
National Republican leaders love the name recognition that comes with the prosecutor's position, and are currently pushing two other former U.S. attorneys -- Tom Marino and Pat Meehan -- in the state's 10th and 7th congressional districts. So do local activists such as Bob Howard, a former PPG executive from Marshall, who likes Mr. Rothfus' message but thinks Ms. Buchanan can take it further come November.
"She's better equipped with the experience and ability to articulate" the conservative message, he said. "She's able to take the issues, policies, principles and values we share and do something about it."
Others praised Ms. Buchanan's budget-wrangling abilities -- she oversaw a $1.6 billion budget with the U.S. attorney's executive office -- saying that also will help in Washington. Tasked with building a new Family Justice Center for victims of domestic crime and sexual assault in New Orleans in January 2007, she held onsite planning sessions and had a $3 million grant in hand by March, before getting the center built six months later, its director said last week.
"I have nothing but high praises for Mary Beth," said Mary Claire Landry, an official with Catholic Charities of New Orleans. "She really made that happen and was really committed to seeing it through."
Mr. Rothfus -- who turns 48 next Sunday -- was one of six kids raised in an ethnic neighborhood outside of Buffalo. He spurned his Democratic roots to cast his first vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
After attending the State University of New York-Buffalo, he went to work for IBM in Washington, D.C., where he met his future wife, a Sewickley native. He attended the University of Notre Dame Law School, then moved to Pittsburgh in 1990 to work for Eckert Seamans and raise his children, now ages 3 through 19.
Mr. Rothfus took a break to become chief operating officer of the struggling law school at Regent University, the Christian college in Virginia founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. He helped it retain its American Bar Association accreditation, then returned to legal practice at Yukevich Marchetti Downtown, specializing in commercial clients and technology firms.
One of his main clients was the Grant Street Group, an Internet auction house that handles $1 trillion in volume per year, largely through government and financial sector clients. It handled the nation's first Internet bond sale for Pittsburgh in 1997, with Mr. Rothfus as counsel.
That work gives him special insight into the dangers of government debt, said the firm's president, Myles Harrington.
In addition, "he works extremely hard, has an attention to details and is ruthlessly honest as far as I'm concerned," Mr. Harrington said. "I don't know how far that goes in Washington, but he believes that's what it needs and I think he's right."
Mr. Rothfus volunteered for Mr. Bush and GOP Senate candidate Pat Toomey in 2004, which opened doors to go to work for the president's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives team the following year. He started two days after Hurricane Katrina struck in September 2005 and was tasked with coordinating the work of religious relief groups with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and later Homeland Security.
When Mr. Bush asked questions of his faith-based initiatives director -- James Towey, the outgoing president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe -- he would get back to the president after a briefing with Mr. Rothfus, he said.
"He'd keep his word [in Congress]," Mr. Towey said in an interview. "There is no pretension about Keith. He is a humble guy, and there are no ego issues creeping in. That's the disease of Congress, and it would not happen with Keith."
Mr. Rothfus left the office after being diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in late 2006, one month before his sixth child was due. In early 2007 his doctors saved him with surgery and a treatment that circulates heated chemotherapy solution through the abdomen. He said he could not be sure of getting that level of care under the new health care bill, a warning that has become a central plank of his campaign.
"Do we really want to have some bureaucrat at H.H.S. or some congressman or congresswoman start to scrutinize all the procedures we're getting, like heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy? I don't think so," he said.
First Published April 18, 2010 12:00 am