NOTE: MY NEXT COLUMN WILL APPEAR FRIDAY MORNING (JAN. 4). I'M FIGHTING A HEAD COLD, AND IT HAS BEEN WINNING!
Murtha, the human equivalent of the Johnstown Flood
In recent years, as Pennsylvania has become "Bluer," more Democratic, the state has accelerated its long decline. Here's how Michael Barone's and Richard Cohen's The Almanac of American Politics, 2008 edition, puts it:
"[The state has had] the slowest population growth of any major state. There were 9.5 million Pennsylvanians in 1930, 12.4 million in 2006. Pennsylvania cast 36 electoral votes for Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, and 21 for John Kerry in 2004; it had 30 congressmen, as many as California, in 1960, but now has 19 to California's 53. People growing up here are as likely to leave the state as stay, and few out-of-staters move in. Pennsylvania looks and sounds more like it did in the 1940s than any other major state. With the significant difference that Pennsylvania in 1940 had lots of young people, while the Pennsylvania of 2006 has the second largest elderly population (after Florida) of any state."
The Median Household Income (MHI) in Pennsylvania is about $2,000 less annually than the U.S. average. Tuition costs at public colleges and universities are the highest of any state. The state has many fine institutions of higher education, but as Barone and Cohen point out, there are few jobs for graduates -- and many have to leave the state to find decent jobs.
In the congressional districts centered in the two large cities -- the 1st and 2nd districts in Philadelphia and the 14th District in Pittsburgh -- the MHIs are $10,000-plus below the Pennsylvania average and more than $11,000 below national averages. The seats in the 1st, 2nd, and 14th Districts are extremely "safe" for Democrats.
What about another traditionally safe seat -- that of Rep. Jack Murtha in the 12th District? There, population growth has not just been slow, but rather non-existent. Barone and Cohen estimate there's been a decline of 17,000 residents since the turn of the century. Population in Murtha's hometown of Johnstown has been in decline for two generations -- and has fallen about 6% since the year 2000.
When Murtha was born 75 years ago, the population of Johnstown was more than 60,000, but now it's just over 20,000. As a leader, unfortunately, he's been the human equivalent of the Johnstown Flood.
The MHI in the 12th is $30,600, almost exactly the same as in inner-city Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It has been a depressed area, and there's little prospect that will change under its current Congressman, John Murtha. What jobs have been created in the Johnstown area are the type that result from short-term government handouts ("earmarks") and that rarely outlast the tenure of a powerful congressman. They're the kind of jobs not available to most recent graduates.
Murtha gets great credit for all he's "done" for the 12th District -- and especially Johnstown. A critic would say that Murtha has driven such a huge number of people -- especially the young -- from Johnstown that unemployment appears to be relatively low (although still higher than national averages).
Some Republicans in Pennsylvania, particularly the 12th, throw up their hands. They'll tell you that Murtha is an "icon," that he's the "savior" of his district. Of course, the facts are very different. He's handed out hundreds of millions in earmarks, and the main beneficiaries have been corporate executives, high-priced professionals, and lobbyists.
One lobbying group headed by a former Murtha aide (PMA Group, led by Paul Magliochetti) has given him over a million dollars in contributions. They certainly didn't do so for his expertise in good government or his talents in job creation.
The points I've been making about Murtha aren't easy ones to get across to typical voters. However, when many people are relatively poor and short on prospects, they know it, much as they might wish things were otherwise.
Can Bill Russell win against an entrenched, cash-rich incumbent like Murtha? He can if he can raise enough money to get his message across and mobilize supporters who know the real story in Pennsylvania generally -- and in the 12th District particularly.