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GOP picks nominee for Murtha's seat

Paul Peirce
| Friday, March 12, 2010

Railing against the government and deficit spending, Republican newcomer Tim Burns of Eighty Four captured a special election nomination for Congress on Thursday, besting rival Bill Russell, a retired Army officer.

Burns, 41, will face Democrat Mark Critz on May 18 in the race to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Rep. John Murtha, who represented the 12th District.

Burns and Russell will face off again on primary Election Day, when nominees for a full-two year term will be selected.

Burns, who defeated Russell 85 to 46, told Republicans gathered at St. Vincent College near Latrobe that his election in May will be closely watched by a nation that wants to curb federal spending.

He didn't take long to take a swipe at his Democratic rival after securing the nomination.

Burns labeled Critz a Democratic party insider.

"Voters will have a clear choice between a political insider ... a government bureaucrat versus a businessman," Burns said.

Critz, 48, of Johnstown was Murtha's former district director. He was nominated last weekend by local party leaders and again Monday by the state Democratic executive committee.

Russell, who ran and lost to Murtha two years ago, told GOP leaders that his career in the Army as a lieutenant colonel enabled him to know how Washington works. He said that experience made him better suited than Burns, who has no prior government experience.

"Knowing how Washington works is a critical skill set for a congressman. It's not an appropriate site for on-the-job training," Russell said.

After the vote, Russell, 47, admitted he was disappointed. He criticized Republican party leaders who he claimed backed Burns because he is independently wealthy.

"The party establishment has been saying all along that they prefer Tim Burns because he can write his own checks. We're not surprised ... the party doesn't want a candidate connected to the people, they want one with money," Russell said.

The special election to fill the last seven months of Murtha's term takes place on the same day as the state's primary election, which will determine which candidates face each other in November for a full two-year term.

Pennsylvania GOP and Cambria County chairman Rob Gleason, who voted last night for Burns, predicted both races will be among the most-watched contests in the country this year.

While describing Murtha's death as a tragedy, he said filling the seat "creates a great opportunity for Republicans."

He said he was pleased Democrats chose Critz, who has federal government connections through his career with Murtha.

"I knew Jack Murtha, and I can tell you, Mark Critz is no Jack Murtha. Mr. Critz is going to have to run on the Obama-Democratic Party platform and answer questions about health care and government deficits," Gleason said.

Gleason said Republicans are hoping to continue their winning streak that began last year when the GOP picked up gubernatorial seats in New Jersey and Virginia and then in January by winning the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts.

Murtha, 77, had held the seat since 1974. He died Feb. 8 from complications arising from gall bladder surgery.

Burns was raised, educated and lives in the 12th Congressional District. He grew up in the Hornerstown section of Johnstown and graduated in 1986 from Johnstown High School.

In 1990, Burns graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor of science degree in computer science.

After graduating from college, Burns started his own pharmacy-technology company out of the basement of his house. The company, called TechRx grew to more than 400 employees before he sold it in 2003.

The business consultant has two sons.

In 2008, Russell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in the Iraq war, lost to Murtha by 16 percentage points despite a well-financed campaign. Russell was able to raise $3.6 million during that race.

Murtha's last few challengers also didn't come close to toppling him, either. He won by more than 20 percentage points in 2006 against Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey, he was unopposed in 2004 and in 2002 defeated Bill Choby by 46 percentage points.

Murtha also defeated Choby, 58, by large margins in 2000, 1996 and 1994.

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