Pennsylvania lawmaker ran scared from his own experience--but won

November 07, 1990|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Incumbency unfashionable? Ask eight-term Representative John P. Murtha.

The usually unflappable Democrat was so alarmed by the results of an unexpectedly bruising primary election that he dumped his campaign slogan: "Experience Makes It Happen."

Experience, many voters here agreed yesterday, was not the attribute to showcase in an election year that will be remembered for a far different battle cry: Throw the rascals out.

"It's more a matter of voting against than voting for -- more so this year than ever," said Corinne Wright, a church secretary here. "We vote these people into office on a lot of promises they don't keep. They do nothing, they stay there, and there's no getting them out."

Despite the angry talk, most incumbents, including Mr. Murtha, retained their seats.

The Pennsylvania power broker handily defeated Republican Willeam Choby, his relatively unknown challenger in the sprawling 12th District, with about 68 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns. Mr. Choby's platform -- which included a call for public executions and killing deer for export -- never quite caught on.

However, it was clear that the anti-incumbent mood reported across the nation this fall had landed squarely in Johnstown, a struggling industrial community of 30,000 tucked in the hills of Western Pennsylvania's Rust Belt.

"Sure, people are dissatisfied and frustrated. A recession is going on, and people would like to see things get better," Mr. Murtha said last night. "Used to be, I just got things done. Now, I have to tell everybody about it."

For the first time since he was elected in 1974, Mr. Murtha -- who had shunned publicity, even refusing to talk to hometown reporters -- hired a press secretary to broadcast his new message: "Fighting for You."

The trouble is, most people here feel less fought over than forgotten.

This town once hummed with industry. As the steel and coal industries declined, so did the fortunes of Johnstown, best known as the site 101 years ago of the worst U.S. flood.

The region lost 20,000 well-paying jobs in the 1980s. Johnstown's population was cut in half over the last 30 years as the young left the mountains to find work..

Folks in this meat-and-potatoes town long for just a little bit of gravy -- people like 64-year-old Ed Kindler, who works at the Johnstown Flood Museum.

"I live on $900 a month. I'd like to see Murtha try it sometime," said the chatty Mr. Kindler, who, like his wife, is diabetic. "The economy today isn't based on minimum wage but people's pain. Every week the prices go up: groceries, gas, utilities."

At the Coney Island downtown diner, John Pavlosky and Anthony Kurtz prattled about politics yesterday, finishing each other's sentences with friendly familiarity.

"If you keep the incumbents in," said Mr. Pavlosky, "it's going to be the same thing all over again," said Mr. Kurtz. The men, both seventysomething Democrats, voted against Mr. Murtha.

"We won't throw them all out this year," said Mr. Pavlosky. "But just you wait. This is a start."

Mr. Murtha, chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee, captured only 51 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary in May. His closest opponent, Greensburg attorney and political newcomer Ken Burkley, pulled in an impressive 43 percent. A third candidate picked up the remaining votes.

The close contest was all the more remarkable because the incumbent spent $400,000 to Mr. Burkley's $48,000. It was quite a wake-up call for Mr. Murtha, who once boasted that his middle initial stood for "power." In recent days, it seems to have stood for "penance."

"He's everywhere now," said Mr. Burkley, who during the primary carried a photo cutout of Mr. Murtha to campaign appearances after the incumbent refused to debate him. "This is a man who stepped foot in my county once in 1988. These past weeks, he's at every little function in every little hamlet. . . .

"You know seniority doesn't build confidence anymore. Experience doesn't build confidence. Experience in this district has meant empty stores, empty factories and empty coal mines." Mr. Burkley favored a 12-year limit on congressional terms.

There's no question that the anti-incumbent mood has been pervasive this year, but the disenchantment rarely matches incumbency's powerful advantages.

Ken Berring, a 43-year-old building maintenance mechanic, spent several minutes yesterday ripping apart Congress.

Then he excused himself -- and voted for Mr. Murtha.

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