Solid support back at home

Regardless of their views on Iraq, Murtha's Pa. constituents still stand behind him

November 20, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- They take war seriously at the American Legion Hall in downtown Johnstown.

If there's ever a place to find support for U.S. troops, it's here. But regulars at the post's dark corner bar applauded Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, for urging the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

Elsewhere in town, some raged at Murtha for turning on a war they still supported. "Crazy," said one constituent. "Traitor," said several callers to his district office.

But people in Murtha's blue-collar, coal-and-steel country district in west Pennsylvania mostly signaled weariness for the war. They endorse the man who has represented them since he became the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress in 1974.

The support suggested that attacks on Murtha in Washington as a coward will gain no traction in his district. His continued political strength in the face of Republican attacks could potentially embolden others to speak out against the war.

The House voted 403-3 Friday night to reject an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Murtha voted against the measure too, after his earlier call to withdraw U.S. troops "at the earliest practicable date" was reworded.

"I agree with him wholeheartedly," said Robert Bender, a World War II veteran and retired steel worker who serves as the adjutant of American Legion Post 294. "We shouldn't have been involved in the first place. Now that they have a constitution, we should get out."

The blue-collar Democrats who live and work in the small towns of Murtha's district are culturally conservative. Like him, they're pro-gun and anti-abortion. And like him, they're proudly patriotic.

Except for a few Pittsburgh Steelers posters, the Legion Hall's dark-paneled walls are a billboard of support for the U.S. military. "Operation Desert Storm, U.S. military at its finest," says a poster.

"It's a conservative area. But we don't support this particular war," said Bender. "Most of the people around here are in accord with him on this," he added.

In Washington, some Republicans attacked Murtha. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said Murtha and his party "want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world." Rep. Jean Schmidt, an Ohio Republican, quoted a constituent who "asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do." Under fire, she later apologized for the remarks.

Her words didn't sit well in the Legion bar.

"We're proud of him. We don't like it when people attack him," said Barry Sirko of Johnstown, sipping a beer after his shift washing buses. "We've lost more than 2,000 troops so far. Murtha thinks the Iraqis should be fighting on their own. Murtha's right."

Asked whether Murtha was surrendering to terrorists, several patrons jumped in at once to say that the Iraq war was a distraction from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which they considered more important.

"They should have kept going after bin Laden. What the heck are we doing in Iraq?" said Ray Telgarsky, a retired autoworker from Johnstown.

Even if they disagree, many of Murtha's constituents still like and respect him. They know his record in the Marines - Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry. And they know his clout in Congress has helped them weather the lost jobs in the mines and steel mills. Among the bounty he's brought home: the National Drug Intelligence Center and plants or offices set up by defense contractors including Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, Kuchera Defense Systems and Concurrent Technologies Corp.

However, Bill Weigle, executive director of the Cambria County Republican Party, thought Murtha was dead wrong and that U.S. forces should not be withdrawn immediately. But he conceded that Murtha, who ran unopposed in his last election, will not be hurt at home by his new stand.

"I don't think it will help him. But it certainly won't defeat him. It will not affect him in the area," Weigle said. "They think highly of him around here."

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