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Political survival at stake

Incumbents' relations had rocky start; now it's a bare-knuckle tussle

Sunday, May 12, 2002

By Joe Smydo Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When he entered Congress in 1995, Frank R. Mascara said he expected senior members to accord him more respect than the typical freshman because of his age and 15 years' experience as a Washington County commissioner.

Congressman Frank R. Mascara, D-Charleroi, at the opening of his new New Kensington office April 30. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

And, he said, all did, "with the exception of Jack."

Mascara, 72, and John P. "Jack" Murtha, 69, two titans of Democratic politics in Western Pennsylvania, have been pushed by reapportionment into head-to-head combat for political survival. If relations between the two congressmen got off to a rocky start 7 1/2 years ago, as Mascara recalled, they're growing steadily worse as the primary race in the revamped 12th District rushes to a climax.

Murtha, ranking Democrat on the House panel overseeing Pentagon spending, has lobbed a few missiles Mascara's way.

"I challenge you simply to tell the truth," the Johnstown lawmaker said last month, angry about Mascara's characterization of their records. He demanded Mascara fire his firebrand campaign manager, Billy Horton, known as the "Texas Mudslinger."

After Murtha declined to participate in a series of debates, Mascara plastered his foe's face on 6,000 "wanted" posters two weeks ago. In a jab at Murtha's support for congressional salary increases, the posters offered $1,000 to anybody who could make "Jack P. 'Payraise' Murtha" agree to a debate.

Republican-controlled reapportionment scuttled Mascara's 20th District and gave a westward shift to Murtha's 12th District, which, beginning next year, will include Greene County and parts of Allegheny, Armstrong, Cambria, Fayette, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

The redrawing put Mascara's house in the 18th District and his parking space across the street in the 12th. Leery of Republican leanings among Democratic voters in the 18th District, where Republican state Sen. Tim Murphy looks to be a formidable candidate, Mascara opted for a dogfight with Murtha.

The winner of the May 21 primary faces lone Republican candidate Bill Choby, a Johnstown dentist, in the fall. About 48 percent of the Democrats in the new 12th are from Mascara's current district, about 43 percent are from Murtha's current district, and the remaining Democrats now are represented by neither man, Mascara aide Lou Lignelli said.

The candidates are alike in many ways.

Both are Catholics who served in the military, Mascara in the Army after World War II and Murtha in the Marines during the Korean and Vietnam eras.

Congressman John P. Murtha, D-Johnstown, center, tries to start a conversation with Poppy Queen Kaitlyn Fike, 6, as her mother, Renee Fike talks to state Sen. Richard Kasunic, at American Legion Post 51 in Uniontown last Sunday. Murtha and Kasunic were at the legion for the 69th American Day Celebration. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Choby criticized Murtha, the first Vietnam combat veteran elected to Congress, for not turning over medical records proving he's entitled to his two Purple Hearts. Murtha spokesman Brad Clemenson insisted his boss deserved the medals.

Marine Corps casualty records show that Murtha was injured in "hostile" actions near Danang, Vietnam, on March 22, 1967 and May 7, 1967. In the first incident, his right cheek was lacerated, and in the second he was lacerated above his left eye. Neither injury required evacuation.

Mascara and Murtha have similar voting records, received campaign contributions over the years from many of the same groups and received comparable ratings from some special-interest groups.

The two are hard-nosed and battle-hardened. And in his home territory, each is king of the hill.

A former accountant, Mascara served two terms as Washington County controller before his election as county commissioner in 1979. Board chairman for the next 15 years, he acted with the power of a county executive and made economic development a top priority.

"This is my legacy," Mascara said recently at Southpointe, the county business park in Cecil that he jokingly calls "Frank's Folly" because of early criticism he received. The park, which got off to a slow start, now is regarded as one of the region's premier business addresses with dozens of high-tech tenants jointly employing about 4,000 people.

While portraying Murtha as an elitist who likes to "run with the big dogs in the barnyard," Mascara characterized himself as a workaholic and homebody who has remained true to his constituents' small-town needs and values.

"I'm about water and sewers," he said.

"I don't go to the nightclubs and big restaurants. ... I don't drink. I don't gamble. I don't whore around," he said, reiterating a phrase he has used to describe himself for years.

Murtha, owner of a car wash, served three terms in the state House before his election to Congress in 1974. He is the second-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee and chief Democrat on its defense subcommittee, lofty positions that have enabled him to funnel millions of dollars and thousands of jobs into his district.

At a time when pork-barrel politics is a pejorative term, Murtha brags about bringing home the bacon. He doesn't consider himself an elitist but said voters should be happy he keeps a high profile inside the beltway.

"I'm an insider. ... I work with people to solve problems," Murtha said during a campaign stop at Uniontown Hospital.

Mascara's constituents got a taste of Murtha's power about five years ago, when Washington County lost a National Guard attack helicopter battalion that had outgrown quarters near the county airport. The unit landed in Johnstown.

Mascara has blasted Murtha for supporting congressional pay raises, and Murtha has criticized Mascara for voting himself a pay increase as a commissioner and accepting congressional pay increases he voted against. Mascara ripped Murtha for voting against campaign finance reform, and Murtha said Mascara, once fined $50,000 by the Federal Election Commission, can't obey the current laws. Murtha said Mascara should have run in the 18th District because it has more Democrats than Republicans, and Mascara contends he was squeezed by a reapportionment plan Murtha quietly supported.

"That's about the 10th lie he's told about me," Murtha said.

In some respects, the campaign is getting downright nutty.

After Murtha told a television station that voters were less interested in a debate than in prescription drug coverage, health care and, in an obvious cast-off line, "squirrels in their yards," Mascara's campaign rented a squirrel suit in a publicity stunt last week. Murtha's office issued a statement saying Mascara needed the gimmick because, "He doesn't have much of a record to run on."

Because the candidates' voting patterns are similar, policy issues probably won't be the deciding factor in the campaign. Millersville University political analyst G. Terry Madonna said voters instead would be pondering such issues as which congressman would have a bigger impact on the region.

Mascara maintains he made a difference from the start, fighting for military installations in Oakdale and Moon that were near-victims of a round of federal base closings in 1995. Mascara didn't accept the figures some used to justify closing the bases, saying that, as an accountant, he knew bad math when he saw it.

Citing the link between seniority and clout, however, Murtha said his defeat would be disastrous for the region. Murtha is billing himself the "congressman who delivers" and keeps a count on his campaign Web site of the jobs he says he's helped create this year -- 1,002 to date.

Tired of the poaching in his back yard, Mascara asked a House ethics panel to investigate his rival's use of taxpayer money after Murtha presented checks of $1 million to Washington and Jefferson College and $2 million to the United Mine Workers in Washington, Pa. As Mascara tells it, Murtha likes to parachute in with an oversized check and ego to match.

"Jack shows up with some check, then he leaves," Mascara said. "I hate that."

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