Ten years after John Murtha's passing, friends long for his ability to work 'across the aisle'

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., at a Capitol Hill press conference in 2006.


By DAVE SUTOR | The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa. | Published: February 10, 2020

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — A decade of local political transformation and partisan divide on the national level has occurred since the death of U.S. Rep. John “Jack” Murtha on Feb. 8, 2010.

When Murtha passed, at age 77, he was a lion of the U.S. House of Representatives, revered as the longest-serving congressman in Pennsylvania history and a champion of across-the-aisle cooperation. At home, he was the head of a Democratic Party that dominated Cambria County government.

But those days are gone.

Acrimony is rampant in Washington, D.C., as evident during the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Some closest to Murtha, who died as a result of complications from a gallbladder operation, believe he could have helped set a different tone in the nation’s capital.

“I really don’t think it would have gotten this far had he been still here, because he was the one that could work with both sides of the aisle,” said his widow, Joyce Murtha. “I think he would have worked with both sides and with the president to try to find common ground and to not do some of the things that maybe the president has done that he would have disagreed with because he did have a talent for doing that. I just don’t think it would have reached this point.”

Tom Kurtz, a family friend and president of the Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber, said he believes that “not only would the congressional district be different, I think the country would have been different had he still been in office.”

Kurtz said: “I think that he was one of the last of the politicians who truly was bipartisan. He reached across the aisle and was able to get things done. With this party politics, they just polarize everything. But he was able to transcend those party politics. That was his claim to fame. He broke that Washington tradition of partisan politics. And now that this new generation of politicians is in there everything is just polarized.”

Locally, Murtha often handily won congressional races, with especially large margins in Cambria County – where Democrats held a two-to-one advantage of about 55,000 to 27,000 over Republicans at the time of his death. That edge is now down to fewer than 5,000. Trump carried Cambria County with 67 percent in 2016. In 2018, all Republican candidates on the state or federal level – except one – won election or carried the county.

Voters have trended toward the GOP based on several issues, including coal, manufacturing, abortion, religion and the Second Amendment.

“What’s going on is that the Democratic Party has virtually walked away from the working-class voters that they represented since the New Deal and taken on an urban agenda,” said Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. “The thing to remember is, it’s not that the personnel has changed, it’s that the big shift has come over the last 10 years in the Democratic Party’s philosophy.”

Mark Critz, a former Murtha staffer who succeeded his mentor as the 12th District representative, said Murtha’s beliefs would have been in line with local voters today.

“I could see him still being the conservative person that he was and voting the way his conscience told him to vote and the way he had always voted, but he’s still a Democrat through and through,” Critz said.

‘Because of his influence’

Murtha was born on June 17, 1932, in New Martinsville, West Virginia, the son of Mary Edna (née Ray) and John Patrick Murtha Sr.

He seemed to know at a young age what path his life would take.

His mother told Joyce Murtha “from the time that Jack was just a little boy he always said that he wanted to be a lieutenant in the Marine Corps and in Congress. I think that’s very telling that a little boy would be thinking in those terms. I can see the military because of the uniforms, and all that, and the pageantry and so forth. But in Congress as well? He wanted to be a lieutenant in the Congress.”

Murtha joined the Marines in 1952, earned two Purple Hearts and, in 1974, became the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to the House of Representatives, winning a special election.

Caring for military personnel and building national defense remained important to Murtha throughout his career. He rose to the chairmanship of the powerful House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. With that influence, he fostered growth in the Johnstown area defense contracting sector, assisting companies such as Concurrent Technologies Corp., JWF Defense Systems, Kongsberg and Martin-Baker America.

Showcase for Commerce, an annual defense contracting expo held at 1st Summit Arena at Cambria County War Memorial and other sites in the Johnstown area, grew out of his vision.

The local defense contracting sector and the Showcase, which is hosted by Johnstown Area Regional Industries and the Cambria Regional Chamber, are smaller now than during Murtha’s days.

“We – with the leadership that we have – were able to press forward and we’ve changed it over the years,” JARI President and CEO Linda Thomson said. “But it’s still doing what we need to do to build relationships for our defense industry. It’s not the same, but we were able to continue that legacy of having those kinds of activities here for that industry sector.”

Defense companies were drawn to the event and region, in large part, because of wanting access to Murtha.

“He was always looking for economic improvement for his people,” said John Hugya, Murtha’s former chief of staff and a retired Marine Corps colonel. “All the different companies came here because of his influence. They didn’t come here because they said ‘Oh, Johnstown’s a nice town.’ They came here because of his influence. And that’s the way it is – all over the country – when you have a senior legislator in the right committee. They’ll work with them.”

Showcase for Commerce is scheduled to celebrate its 30th anniversary this year.

“It’s different than when he was here because he was the person that really led,” said Edward Sheehan, Showcase for Commerce chairman and president and CEO of Concurrent Technologies Corp. “That’s why people wanted to be here – to have an opportunity to be with him and to meet the companies in the region. It’s different today, but the fact that it continues ... I think he would be very pleased.

While no specific numbers exist for the sector, Thomson said generally fewer people are employed in defense contracting locally than were 10 years ago.

“The companies that are here are in very strong positions,” Thomson said. “They were in strong positions then, but they’re in a strong position today. They may even be more competitive today than they were then. They probably are because they’ve had 10 more years of building capacity, building momentum, being competitive.

“We certainly had companies maybe that were interested in working with our region because of Mr. Murtha. But today, we have companies wanting to work with of us because of our capabilities and the strength of our companies. Back then, that was true, too, because they wouldn’t have worked with us had we not had the quality and good product lines. But it was an added incentive that he was here.”

Legacy ‘still going strong’

When Murtha learned that women in the armed forces and wives of personnel had no access to mammograms at military facilities, he championed the cause of providing preventative cancer screenings.

His original effort grew into nationally known programs in the fight against cancer at both the Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed Bethesda and Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center at the Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber.

“I was trying to think of how many thousands of women and Windber patients owe their lives to the efforts of the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center,” Kurtz said. “Here’s a war-fighter who started something exclusively feminine and exclusively geared toward the women, not only in this area with the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center, but in the military. They had no breast care services to provide to female soldiers or dependents.”

Kurtz believes Murtha’s “long-term legacy is going to be in health care.”

The two cancer centers are among the numerous projects that benefited greatly from Murtha’s influence, including outdoor recreation in the region, Johnstown Symphony Orchestra, infrastructure, the recovery effort following the 1977 Johnstown Flood, the All American Amateur Baseball Association National Tournament and John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.

“I’m pleased with it – I really am – because so many of the things that he started are still going strong,” Joyce Murtha said. “That was his goal for these different projects that benefitted the people here in this area, that they would still be going after he was gone because he didn’t realize he’d be passing away. But he said, ‘I’m not going to be here in this position forever. I just want these things to continue and to benefit the people particularity in our area, but also throughout the country.’ So I’m pleased at how well things are going.”

Critz added: “Many of the things that the congressman laid down as building blocks continue to thrive and continue to exist here in Johnstown, which is really a tribute to not only what he was able to do, but to the people of the area who picked up what he was able to help with and make a go of it.”

Murtha’s legacy has been preserved in many ways since his passing.

A statue of the late congressman now greets visitors to the city outside 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial. The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown’s John P. Murtha Center for Public Service and National Competitiveness opened in 2017. The USS John P. Murtha, a Navy landing craft, was commissioned in October 2016 at Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia.

Constituents, controversies

Murtha was able to bring billions of dollars of funding into his district through earmarks.

“Throughout his career, he had a long record of working for the constituents of his district, for their interests and their concerns,” Madonna said.

His ability to successfully navigate the earmarking process gained Murtha the praise of his supporters who welcomed the money into southwest Pennsylvania, which struggled after the collapse of the steel industry. However, opponents decried his approach as pork barrel politics, which, in part, earned him as spot on Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s list of most corrupt congressmen.

There were two other main controversies in his career.

He was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in Abscam, a Federal Bureau of Investigation sting designed to catch elected officials accepting bribes from a fictitious Arab businessman.

Also, Murtha originally supported the Iraq War, then later alleged that U.S. Marines killed innocent civilians in Haditha, which resulted in criticism from detractors who thought he made his comments before an investigation was concluded.

He became critical of the war effort, calling for an end to the conflict in 2005.

Critz said the congressman came to the “realization that he had to stand up and say something.”

‘A steadying voice’

Murtha’s last term in Congress was the first for Glenn ‘G.T.’ Thompson, a Centre County Republican who joined the House in January 2009.

“Jack was a friend,” said Thompson, whose 15th Congressional District now includes part of Cambria County thanks to redistricting. “He truly was the spirit of the problem-solver. He wanted to do what was best for the country. That was very apparent to me.

“I do remember the very first time I met him, two things he asked me. No. 1, how are they treating me? And I got the sense if they weren’t treating me well he would have taken care of it. And the other thing was, what did I need? And he was sincere. Was there anything I needed as a brand-new member of the House of Representatives, an institution where he had represented Cambria County and his congressional district for many, many years, as a senior member.”

Critz, who served from 2010 to 2013, said Murtha appreciated the process of governing.

“The rules of the House and the rules that we’re governed by keep us in check and make sure that we do things that we’re supposed to do,” Critz said. “I don’t think he’d like the way that the president has all of these acting secretaries and acting administrators, because it fouls up the process. It’s not allowing the Congress to do its job.”

Critz also looked at current events from the perspective he believes Murtha would have brought to investigations and impeachment.

“It’s sort of funny, I heard someone comment about, ‘Oh, they don’t ever leave the president alone.’ And I thought to myself, ‘If this were Jack Murtha he’d say, ‘Yeah, Congress is doing its job.’ I think in our 24/7 news cycle people get to see that Congress is doing its job,” Critz said. “They didn’t know that this is how it looked before. Congress is always checking on the president. The president is always pushing against the Congress. That’s just the way it is. It’s not this new issue that has arisen. It’s the Constitution. The Congress is there to work with the president, but also to make sure that the president and his administration are held accountable for everything that they do.”

Critz remembers Murtha as more than a politician – also as a mentor and friend.

“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years,” Critz said. “And, then again, I think it seems like forever ago. I miss him. The area misses him. The Congress misses him. He was a steadying voice. He was someone who, whatever he told you, you could take to the bank. I think sometimes we lose that. We devalue the value of our politicians.”

Hugya remembered his friend and former boss by saying, “I miss him. I miss him terribly.”

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