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GOP backs Murtha in redistricting plan

| Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001

HARRISBURG - Republican officials from Cambria and Armstrong counties made strong arguments on Tuesday for retaining U.S. Rep. John Murtha, a Johnstown Democrat, when congressional district lines are redrawn next month to comply with U.S. Census results.

Johnstown Mayor Don Zucco and Armstrong County Commissioner James Scahill said the incumbent simply puts his constituents before party when it comes to representing southwestern Pennsylvania.

"Cooperation has been the key," Zucco said, noting that Murtha works with local officials of both parties to promote economic development.

The Johnstown mayor claimed that Murtha, ranking minority member on the powerful U.S. House Armed Services Committee, has secured about $500 million in defense contracts for his district.

"We cannot afford to lose him," Zucco said in making his pitch before a joint meeting of the state Senate and House committees on State Government.

The panel opened hearings yesterday as the first step in the complex process of redrawing the state's congressional districts.

Charles Lemmond, a Luzerne County Republican and chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, noted that U.S. Census results indicated that Pennsylvania's congressional delegation will drop from 21 to 19 members for the session that opens in January 2003. The state's population grew by only 500,000 to 12.3 million during the 1990s.

Unlike legislative redistricting, which is done by a bipartisan commission, congressional redistricting involves the full General Assembly. As a result, the majority party generally gets it way. And Republicans have control of both legislative chambers.

"We hope that Jack Murtha is not one of the two congressmen cut in the process," Scahill said just prior to presenting his testimony. He also praised Murtha's cooperation and ability to deliver federal money to his district.

State Sen. Robert Thompson, a Chester County Republican, called Murtha "a Pennsylvania treasure." That was an indication that Republicans would not move to jeopardize the powerful Democratic congressman.

Stephen MacNett, chief counsel to the Senate Republicans, affirmed that position. "Certain Democrats have served the commonwealth very well," he said.

Murtha represents the 12th Congressional District, which includes large portions of eastern Westmoreland County.

While MacNett would not comment on how any congressional districts would be redrawn, there was unofficial speculation that any revised 12th District would be pushed further into Westmoreland County.

"I have no problem with that," said Rep. Jess Stairs, an Acme Republican. "He (Murtha) cooperates and gets things done."

"Let it happen," said Rep. James Casorio, an Irwin Democrat. He expressed hope that such a move would help in his efforts to revitalize Jeannette. "If what Congressman Murtha did for Johnstown is an example of his cooperation in economic revitalization, then bring his district further into Westmoreland County," he said.

Murtha's spokesman, Brad Clemenson, said his boss always considers what is good for his district and the state, and not party position. He said the pitch to keep his boss in Congress and the support of state legislative Republicans was gratifying.

The two committees are expected to hold additional hearings on redistricting next week, one in Allentown and another in Pittsburgh. A congressional redistricting plan is expected to clear the General Assembly before the legislative holiday recess, MacNett said.

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