Status quo or no? Critz vs. Burns race building

| Monday, Oct. 18, 2010

When Democrat Mark Critz faced Republican businessman Tim Burns in May's special election for the 12th Congressional District seat, the race attracted national attention.

Both sought to fill the unexpired term left by the sudden death in February of Democrat John Murtha, Pennsylvania's longest-serving congressman, and news reporters speculated that a second Democratic stronghold could fall to Republicans after Scott Brown's surprising win in Massachusetts for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.

Yet Critz prevailed. Helped by a 2-to-1 registration advantage and a strong union get-out-the-vote effort, Critz -- Murtha's former district director -- beat Burns by more than 7 percentage points to finish the term.

The national news media largely are ignoring the candidates' Nov. 2 rematch. But people in the district cannot ignore the race: Critz and Burns are saturating television with political ads, filling mailboxes with leaflets and knocking on doors.

Until a few weeks ago, Ernest Mantini, a dentist who lives just south of Johnstown, said he intended to vote for Critz. But like many voters disenchanted with the status quo in Washington, he changed his mind.

"I don't like how one party has all of the power in government," Mantini said. "Maybe with a Republican majority in the House, we can slow things down a bit."

James Cavanaugh of Vandergrift disagrees. He thinks President Obama is doing a fine job, and Cavanaugh's supporting Critz for Congress.

"I don't think people have given the Democrats a chance," said Cavanaugh, 62, a retired truck driver and disabled veteran. "What are they going to do• Things are tough."

Critz of Johnstown plans to tour Bucyrus America's plant in Houston, near Burns' hometown of Eighty Four, on Tuesday with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., to talk about the House's "Make it in America" agenda. Bucyrus America manufactures mining equipment with 300 employees there.

Hoyer's appearance follows two fundraisers Critz held with Democratic leaders: Vice President Joe Biden in Pittsburgh and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in Washington.

Since taking office five months ago, Critz has cast 280 votes -- 265 of them, or 94.6 percent, in line with the majority Democrats' position. Yet, typically, Critz backs away from that association when in his district.

He declares in his latest television ad, for example: "I'm pro-life, pro-gun, and I'll always be an independent voice in Congress."

Burns is campaigning hard to counter Critz's ads labeling him as a "millionaire businessman" with a secret agenda of privatizing Social Security.

"I grew up in a half a double in Johnstown that my parents didn't even own," Burns said during a recent visit to Brownsville in Fayette County. "I went to a state university and was a computer geek."

His love of computer science led to a business that employed more than 400 people in Moon Township before he sold it.

Rather than privatizing Social Security, the Republican said, he would "work to pass a bill to put money back in the Social Security trust fund."

"The biggest concern I hear is: Where are the jobs?" Burns said. He also hears complaints about government spending "and a lot of concern among many of our district's seniors who are facing their second year in a row without a cost-of-living increase in their Social Security benefits."

Indeed, in the district meandering through a small patch of Allegheny County, all of Greene County and large portions of Armstrong, Cambria, Fayette, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties, high unemployment makes jobs and the economy top issues for voters.

"Creating jobs is a complex equation," Critz said from his campaign office in Johnstown, "in that government can play a role by being a partner with state and local governments, with funding coming from (the) private sector."

With unemployment nationally exceeding 9 percent, Critz maintains the White House stimulus program worked as it was supposed to, keeping people employed on infrastructure projects. The Democrat said he's frustrated that corporations and smaller businesses "are sitting on money that could be used to hire people."

Burns said he understands why companies might do that: "There is too much pocketbook uncertainty for them right now because they don't know if they need to adjust for a tax hike or if regulations are on the horizon. And no one knows how the health care reform bill will hit their bottom line."

In Johnstown, the largest municipality in the district, Murtha loomed large for decades. As head of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he steered defense and military research contracts to companies there.

Still, many people in the district have struggled financially since its manufacturing base eroded in the 1980s and 1990s, said Chris Borick, an associate professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. That means "they probably have a little more realistic perspective of what government can and cannot do."

"Although jobs and the economy dwarf any other issue, it may not be the deciding issue when residents go to vote," Borick said. "Which candidate creates the highest energy is still to be determined. Yes, Critz has the built-in advantage of the labor unions, but Republican and independent voters are highly motivated to turn out."

Additional Information:

The candidates

• Mark Critz

Age: 48

Residence: Johnstown

Education: Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Occupation: Congressman representing the 12th District

Political party: Democrat

Previous elected office: None

• Tim Burns

Age: 42

Residence: Eighty Four, Washington County

Education: Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Occupation: Small business owner

Political party: Republican

Previous elected office: None

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