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Bud Shuster's rival enters race against Shuster's son

Thursday, January 25, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. -- U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster and Blair County Republican Chairman John Eichelberger share two things: party affiliation and a simmering antipathy for each other.

And Eichelberger isn't giving deference for a retirement gift as Shuster prepares to quit the Capitol Wednesday after 28 years in office. Eichelberger, 42, a Blair County commissioner, announced yesterday that he's running for Shuster's 9th Congressional District seat, taking on Shuster's son and chosen successor, William Shuster, a 40-year-old Blair County car dealer making his first run for public office.

"I reject the thinking that you give it to somebody strictly because they're related," Eichelberger said.

The heavily Republican district seemed to have long ago anointed the elder Shuster, 68, as congressman for life. But Eichelberger's entry was another splash in a rural, once-serene Republican citadel now churning with political gamesmanship.

It's also an election, likely to be staged in conjunction with the May primary, that's expected to draw heavy financing.

"People I've talked to have said it'll take $1 million," Eichelberger said.

Eighty miles away, at the southeast end of the sprawling district, seven-term state Rep. Patrick Fleagle -- a Republican in Franklin County, the district's counterbalance to Altoona and surrounding Blair County -- guaranteed yesterday that he'd join the race.

State House Transportation Committee Chairman Richard Geist of Altoona offered that if he didn't jump into the race, he could be there as a compromise candidate when Republican conferees meet to choose their nominee. Veteran state Reps. Lynn Herman of Centre County and Daniel Clark of Mifflin County and a slate of lesser-known candidates -- including Eichelberger's fellow commissioner, former New York Jets linebacker John Ebersole -- waited in the wings.

"There are all kinds of deals going to be made," said Geist, who publicly urged last week that Bud Shuster renounce retirement rather than walk out and leave the rest of the party brawling to fill the seat. Shuster never responded.

Eichelberger's entry brought a new tension to the race.

For five years, Bud Shuster has been dogged by allegations of pork-barreling and breaches of ethics, drawing a mild House Ethics Committee rebuke three months ago for using congressional staff for political purposes.

While political allies closed ranks around Shuster and he routinely ran unopposed for re-election, Eichelberger often chided him publicly, especially rankling Shuster with a "60 Minutes" appearance two months ago in which he questioned the lawmaker's behavior.

Shuster's lone foray into the current campaign has been to endorse his son and to deem Eichelberger "unfit to hold any position of public trust."

For his part, Eichelberger questioned yesterday whether Bud Shuster's retirement announcement, two months after he won re-election to his 15th term, was designed to throw the contest into special-election mode, where Republican conferees -- not voters -- will choose the candidate for the May special election.

Republicans will meet this weekend to fix the timing for that selection process.

The process leaves the elder Shuster and state Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Jubelirer, R-Altoona, a William Shuster supporter, to call in favors from the county party officials with whom they've had longtime relationships, Eichelberger said.

But William Shuster's sister and campaign manager, Debbie Shuster King, scoffed at that yesterday. Her father won re-election, fully expecting to return to Congress, then changed his mind after his wife fell seriously ill Dec. 23, she said.



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