By Mark Lisheron | Statehouse News Online
If U.S. Rep. Mark Critz should upset U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire in Tuesday’s primary, count it a huge win for organized labor against Republican lawmakers responsible for redistricting.
In its congressional redistricting, the Pennsylvania General Assembly reconfigured Critz’s District 12 to include almost two-thirds of the potential Democratic votes from Altmire’s district. The fulcrum upon which district politics hinged for more than four generations shifted from Critz’s hometown of Johnstown 65 miles west to Altmire’s Allegheny County.
None of it matters now. On the weekend before the primary, Critz has closed double-digit polling deficits to four points. A lot of people in this jagged new district in southwestern Pennsylvania think it’s going to be even closer.
“The polls say four today, but things change on election day,” said Marty Marks, a longtime political consultant for the AFL-CIO in Pittsburgh. “Labor has a reputation here for being able to get out the vote, and if they do a good job, it’s going to be close.”
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Altmire, 44, was a popular congressman in his third term in a secure district. When John Murtha, the longest-serving representative in Pennsylvania history, died in February 2010, it was preordained that his protégé, Critz, 50, would take his place.
“In the special election, Jason Altmire came in and worked hard for Mark Critz,” Keegan Gibson, managing editor for the website, PoliticsPA, said. “Both started out as similar Democrats. Prior to this campaign, they had a good working relationship. I think you could say they were friends.”
Altmire and Critz took civility to dangerous levels in two televised debates in early April. Roll Call called the exchanges “tepid.” The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review said the opponents “spent most of a live televised debate on Tuesday night agreeing with each other and offering few new reasons for voters to choose one over the other in the primary election.”
Back in January, Altmire’s pollers gave him a 16-point lead. In February, Critz’s own people said he was behind by 10. By mid-March, Altmire’s polls had him up by 24 points. By the end of the month, Critz’s polls had him down by 7.
Still, this was a race between incumbents that only one could win. Critz started out by going to court to challenge the signatures that had been turned in to get Altmire’s name on the primary ballot.
Early in the campaign, when asked by reporters his opinion of Altmire voting against the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Critz acknowledged he would have voted against it, too, had he taken Murtha’s seat in time.
Critz has since dropped the aside to attack Altmire’s vote on the national health-care law.
Even more effective has been the criticism from Critz of Altmire’s vote with a Republican House majority for a balanced budget, a bill that had no chance of passing in a Senate dominated by Democrats.
Gibson recently took to calling the race a “fratricidal showdown.”
“Voters here are older, and Critz has framed his attacks as Altmire supporting cuts to Medicare and Social Security,” Gibson said. “Those attacks are resonating with voters. They’re direct hits.”
Those votes have put the leadership of many of the 57 state unions in Critz’s corner. The AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Service Employees International Union are among the endorsements for Critz.
The Altmire votes are indicative of a region populated by what used to be called Reagan Democrats, Gibson said. The 12th District strongly supported George W. Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008.
Critz’s opposition to the Dodd-Frank financial industry reform bill, was just such a vote. National Democratic leaders have pointed to that vote in their support of Altmire.
Tim Waters, national political director for the United Steelworkers, has made much of the union influence in this race. Waters has estimated there are 30,000 registered Democrats who are union members in the new 12th district. Compare that to a United Steelworkers membership of 150,000 some 40 years ago.
That could make the race a matter of the General Assembly’s mapmaking. Altmire has spent much of the $1.5 million he has raised and Critz the $1.2 million he has raised on advertising to raise their profiles in the parts of the district they didn’t represent.
And still, as the primary approaches, both have turned their appeals to the parts of the district they know best.
In his latest television ad, Altmire plays to his majority Democratic base by pointedly referring to Critz as a “Johnstown congressman.”
For more than 40 years that meant Murtha, who proudly, avariciously gathered federal funding back to lavish on his district.
John Longo recalled the troubles he and some other Latrobe-area businessmen were having a few years ago booking a show stopper for a public event. Longo, whose media group owns WCNS radio in Latrobe, 30 miles west of Johnstown, turned to Murtha.
“All you had to do was ask,” Longo, whose delivery remains disc jockey smooth, said. “The next thing you know, there was a stealth bomber flying over the grounds. Couldn’t hear it until it was past.”
People who live in the Latrobe part of the district sometimes refer to Critz as Son of Murtha, Longo said. But with less than two years in office, Longo said he doesn’t get the sense that Critz has greatly separated himself from Altmire.
“There’s not a lot between the two of them that says you’ve got to go this way or that way,” he said.
Altmire, however, hasn’t come around to that part of the district. The WCNS news team hadn’t done a single story about Altmire that Longo could recall. “He’s on the other side of Pittsburgh if you know what I mean.”
Conversely, the Susquehanna poll showed that voters in Allegheny and Beaver counties didn’t know much about Critz.
Labor, Marks said, will be the wild card Tuesday. In primaries, where turnouts are always much lower than general elections, a committed organization can make a difference.
“Labor has been known to work hard on election day,” Marks said. “We’ll see what they will do for Mark Critz on Tuesday.”