Why Murtha, and what it means

PITTSBURGH — “Big John” Murtha, representative to the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania’s 12th District, which covers Johnstown and Washington, Pa., is a no-nonsense kind of guy from a gritty no-nonsense district.

In 1999, steelworkers in this district, most of whom are veterans, halted Sen. Rick Santorum’s helicopter from even landing in Johnstown because the state’s junior senator hadn’t done a thing to create jobs and had vigorously tried to destroy unions.

This is a district where people work hard, mining coal and making steel, and say what they think. This is a district that voted for Bush in 2004 because of the abortion and gun issues.

“Big John,” the local moniker, applauded the U.S. invasion of Grenada in1983. When the Reagan administration sought support for the Contras in El Salvador, “Big John” was there to shepherd support through Congress. He supported Gulf War I in 1990.

So when Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations Committee and a retired Marine colonel and highly decorated veteran, took the floor on Nov. 17 to call for the immediate withdrawal from Iraq, it sent shock waves throughout Washington.

According to a spokeswoman in Murtha’s Johnstown office, calls and letters are running 2-1 supporting his call to end the Iraq war and 4-1, nationally. “I’ve worked for John since he was elected 30 years ago, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Ruth Vila, a volunteer in the Johnstown office and former steelworker. “He has always spoke for us and he is now. Bring the troops home. Bush lied. No one should die for a lie.”

Local union leaders here say that Bush has to go all the way to Korea to defend the Iraq war because there is only razzberries or no “rah rah” coming from his right-wing political base, even on military bases.

“Murtha speaks for the men and women in uniform,” says George Edwards, member of the retired steelworkers, Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), executive board. “They can’t speak out. But Murtha, a retired Marine decorated officer, can. This changes the entire national debate. I am optimistic. The Democrats in Congress first shut down the Senate to get an investigation on the use of Iraq intelligence and now, Murtha steps forward to bring the troops home. Things are changing. Bush’s endless war — it’s under debate, finally. Oil corporations’ profits, finally, on the front burner.”

Respect and overbearing are the words used by peace activists who lobbied “Big John” for his positions on Gulf War I and Iran-Contra. Murtha himself, not a member of the staff, meets with peace activists and he makes his arguments. It is plain speaking, full of Cold War rhetoric, but plain words. He thinks what he thinks and does what he does. Murtha is not a representative who wants constituents to feel good, he wants them to think and argue. It is steel and coal, not tea and pandering.

Then there is the connection to the military. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) takes advice from Murtha on military affairs because of his trusted connections to “boots on the ground.” Murtha was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Metal and a Purple Heart for his service during the Vietnam War. In his biography, Murtha lists his job creation activities and awards for breast cancer research before the military honors. This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.

Murtha’s relationship to military contractors is well known in Western Pennsylvania resulting in some companies locating to the Johnstown area. His brother, Kit Murtha, owner of KSA lobbying, a firm devoted to corporations getting the inside tract to defense contracts, are moderately successful. Carmen Scialabba works for KSA, but worked in Murtha’s office for 27 years. That company received a contract for $20.8 million out of an appropriation of $417 billion (that’s billion with a ‘b’).

Murtha was caught up in the Absam scandal. Abscam was a sting by the FBI where eight members of Congress were invited to the Washington apartment of a phony Arab sheik to receive suitcases of money for favorable oil legislation. On FBI videotape, Murtha is seen rejecting the suitcases of dough for a deal investing Mideast oil profits in Johnstown. Every other member of Congress walks out bent over carrying suitcases. Murtha walks out tall. No suitcases filled with money.

This is tough for Bush — a politician who cannot be bought or intimidated and who has their own real military heroism in perspective. Murtha is the real deal, which has shaken Bush’s real base. No wonder the president is off defending Iraq policy on U.S. military bases in Korea and not Pennsylvania.