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Support builds for Murtha's wife to take U.S. House seat

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Friday, Feb. 12, 2010

Family members, particularly spouses, assuming a late politician's seat is not unusual in American politics.

Among possible candidates to replace Rep. John Murtha, the Johnstown Democrat who died Monday, is his wife, Joyce.

"While people have been mindful that this is a difficult time for the family, many have called to suggest Joyce as the perfect person to hold her husband's seat," Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said. Murtha represented Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District. His term expires at the end of this year.

Of the 260 women have who served in the U.S. House or Senate, 46 were widows who directly succeeded their husbands.

Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., was elected to the House in 1998 after her husband, Sonny, died in a skiing accident and has been re-elected six times in highly competitive races. Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican, had a long career in the House and Senate after voters chose her in a special election in 1940 to fill the House seat of her late husband, Clyde.

Gov. Ed Rendell will decide when to conduct a special election for Murtha's seat. He told reporters he is leaning toward the May 18 primary to keep costs down.

The state Democratic and Republican parties each would choose a nominee. Independent candidates also could enter the race.

Mary Isenhour, executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said committee members in the 12th District will recommend someone to the state committee's executive board.

Pat Sweeney, a member of the executive committee in Allegheny County, said Joyce Murtha could be a good choice.

"She would probably a very good candidate, in terms of holding the seat," Sweeney said.

A political powerhouse in her own right, Joyce Murtha has served the district beyond the boundaries of a congressional spouse, said Jeff Brauer, a history and political science professor at Keystone College in Lackawanna County. The Marine Corps recognized her for civic contributions; the YWCA, for her advocacy of women. She is active in a Girl Scout council.

Spouses usually win campaigns to succeed their husbands or wives in office, Brauer said. That's because name recognition and constituent affinity for the family are typically strong, and voters can perceive it as distasteful for opponents to attack the family member as a candidate, he said.

"This is particularly true in the case of a long-serving officeholder, such as Murtha, because it lends credibility to the spouse's political experience," Brauer said.

Former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, state Sen. John Wozniak of Johnstown, Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Ceraso and former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer have said they might run for Murtha's seat as Democrats.

Hafer said if Joyce Murtha wants to hold her husband's seat, "I would certainly support her."

Hafer predicted the state committee's vote to nominate Joyce Murtha would be "unanimous. If she wants it, she'll have it."

"She would be a tremendous choice," Hafer said. "She is a wonderful woman, an excellent speaker. If that is what she wants to do, I would heartily concur."

Jim Burn, chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, said the county has slightly more than 700 Democratic voters in the district, and about 150 registered Republicans.

"I think the prospect of Mrs. Murtha holding her husband's seat is something that would be well-received in Western Pennsylvania," Burn said. "I think that approach would be greeted with little to no rejection by the region and the party."

Brauer said Joyce Murtha demonstrated throughout her husband's career that the two had a strong partnership, and that could bolster her candidacy, giving the Democrats an edge to retain the seat.

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