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Dark Horse Challenging
Congressman Murtha Turns Out
to be a Thoroughbred

by Nathaniel R. Helms | July 28, 2008Join the discussion here.
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Two years after Congressman John Murtha ambushed brother Marines for reportedly slaughtering cowering Iraqi civilians at Haditha, Iraq he is embroiled in another battle--this one for his political life.

His unlikely opponent in Pennsylvania's 12th District is an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel named William T. Russell, 47, a Desert Storm and Iraq war veteran who is barred by the Hatch Act from stumping until August 1 when his active duty stint ends. A Cinderella candidate running against the tide of Democratic hopefuls elsewhere, Russell is garnering national attention for his improbable early success.

Speaking for Russell until he is free to speak for himself is Peg Luksik, a three-time candidate for Pennsylvania governor. She still has enough energy after raising six kids to run a hard-charging campaign.  

Currently, Russell is out-pacing the Earl of Earmarks five-to-one in campaign contributions. Last quarter, Luksik’s efforts helped him generate more than $679,000 in donations, considerably more than the $119,000 and change Murtha raised.

“He’ll out earn us in the end,” Luksik concedes. “But Bill started with nothing. He didn’t do this to be a career politician. Now the campaign is generating donations all by itself. We have had more than 17,000 donors; three-quarters gave $50 or less.”

“Americans don’t like it when Murtha is shooting our Marines in the back while they are getting shot at in the front,” Luksik said.

A Republican in a heavily Democratic state, Russell gets his support from grassroots independents, angry vets, and minority Republicans who want the Keystone State’s version of Mr. Pork to quietly go away. The mix of traditional party politicians and neophyte campaigners has employed a variety of means to blast Murtha with powerful effect.

Not only is Murtha facing very public condemnation for his vitriolic attacks on Marines, his stance on the Iraq war, and his questionable ethics, the aging Congressman is reportedly squirming under a whisper campaign spread by relentless bloggers and e-mail campaigners that question his mental competency, his allegedly corrupt political practices, and his propensity for dining at the trough of Pentagon power brokers buying his good will.

Just getting on the ballot was a tough battle for Russell, a political outsider who came to roost in Pennsylvania after serving his country around the world. During his military career he lived in 11 states and seven countries. Despite such handicaps he still managed to obtain enough voter signatures get on the primary ballot as the only Republican candidate in the district.

“He is just a nice guy,” Luksik explained. “When people hear him, when they meet him, they come away impressed.”

Murtha’s well financed and artfully crafted campaign apparatus was less easily swayed. It challenged the signatures on Russell’s petition in court. Just enough signatures were removed to assure that Russell would not be on the primary ballot-–which was the plan.

Undeterred, Russell asked voters to write in his name on the primary ballot to be the Republican candidate in the upcoming general election. He received more than 4,000 write-in votes in the GOP Primary and another 1,000 in the Democrat Primary, enough to once again make him a candidate, Luksik said.

It is an impressive performance in a district with approximately 345,000 registered voters. Instead of the "dark horse" Murtha’s machine expected, they encountered a thoroughbred who apparently knows how to run.

A Haditha Marine father joins "Murtha Must Go"

Darryl Sharratt is the father of former LCpl Justin Sharratt, a Marine Murtha accused of “cold blooded murder” at Haditha. Sharratt lives in Canonsburg, a small town in Murtha’s district. Last year his son was exonerated and publicly lauded for his remarkable courage by Gen James N. Mattis, the Marine general who originally brought murder charges against him.

Sharratt belongs to “Murtha Must Go”, a group that claims the 18-term Congressman sold out his country, his brother Marines, and the Constitution when he accused Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines of murdering innocent old men, women and children in an orgy of retaliatory murder.  It is harsh commentary in a state that prides itself on a history of unflinching military service that goes back before the Revolutionary War.

The group runs a slick website where viewers can follow Murtha’s sordid political career from the infamous ABSCAM video that reportedly shows Murtha taking bribe money from FBI undercover agents to his unprecedented condemnation of American Marines to further his political agenda.

Murtha's devotion to his constituents was captured 26 years ago when he told an FBI agent posing as a lawyer for a rich Arab sheik that he was reluctant to take the $50,000 in cash the agent placed on a desk, supposedly in exchange for help getting the sheik a U.S. visa.

"After we've done some business, I might change my mind," Mr. Murtha says on the 53-minute black-and-white video the FBI made during the ABSCAM sting in 1980.

Later he cooperated with government prosecutors, testifying against two congressmen who were eventually convicted of accepting bribes. He even explained why he needed to be so careful.

"I expect to be in the f*cking leadership of the House," he told the undercover FBI agents that stung him. "I'm delighted to do business with you. Sh*t, I do business like this all the time to get companies into the area.”

“I was naive. I failed to understand the American political system. Specifically, our politicians,” Sharratt wrote by way of explanation of his latent opposition to Murtha. “I will never be this ill-informed again. We allowed our politicians to undermine our efforts in Vietnam. I will not allow them to send us down the wrong path in confronting radical Islam. I cannot and will not let this happen. My son and his comrades deserve this type of support…”

A citizen's campaign against a pork-fed machine

Russell depends largely on Murtha’s harsh attacks on the Marines at Haditha to criticize the kingpin of local politics in pork-fed Johnstown, PA. It is Murtha’s Democratic base and home to the largest block of voter in his district.

According to local statistics 63% of the registered voters in Murtha’s nine-county district are Democrats. Whether appeals to their sense of fair play is enough to overcome Murtha’s popularity among them is the biggest obstacle Russell faces, Luksik acknowledged.

Russell does have some redeemable political currency by virtue of his military career. In addition to serving in the Balkans and both Iraq wars, he was in the Pentagon with his pregnant Polish-born wife when a hijacked airliner slammed into the building on September 11, 2001. Both they, and their unborn son, escaped unhurt.

Murtha, on the other hand, is a Vietnam veteran, a retired reserve colonel, and the Democrat with his hands on the Pentagon’s purse strings as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Last year his committee handed out $459 billion to Pentagon suppliers. Russell simply has no means to fight that kind of economic clout, the pundits say.

At 75, Murtha has served in the House since 1974 and is known for bringing defense industry money and jobs to his rural Pennsylvania district. Once a center of coal and steel production, the economy in Murtha’s district has withered under the relentless march of industry to foreign shores, economic reports show.

“The only thing we export now is our children,” Luksik said.  

Murtha’s harshest detractors say his frequent gaffes--like arguing for stationing troops in Okinawa and erroneously claiming he was briefed on Haditha by the Commandant of the Marine Corps--suggest old age is taking its toll on his judgment.

Murtha’s call for troop withdrawal from Iraq “is just flat-out wrong,” Russell said in a newspaper interview last year.

Critics of Murtha’s pork barrel politics claim that Johnstown’s good fortune comes at the expense of taxpayers everywhere else. They say defense contractors who kow-tow to Murtha find themselves with lucrative, no-bid contracts. Those that don’t get short shift.

Twenty months ago, Murtha announced plans for the consolidation of Northrop Grumman Corporation operations in Johnstown and the opening of a new office in the city “to expand the company's support of the U.S. Department of Defense, other federal agencies and the commercial healthcare industry.”

"The expansion of Northrop Grumman, bringing their worldwide defense expertise to the Johnstown Technology Park along with the potential for more than 50 new jobs in our local economy, adds further proof that Western Pennsylvania has arrived as a hub for international business and the nation's security and defense work," Murtha said.

Northrop Grumman builds planes, ships and related high ticket defense items around the country.

Another popular example of Murtha’s ability to pour taxpayer dollars into his district is Concurrent Technologies Corp, a non-profit charity based in Johnstown. In pursuit of philanthropy it has dabbled in mine-detecting dogs, managed religion-based initiatives, uses for hydrogen as a fuel in coal rich Pennsylvania, missile-defense and the development of special armor for combat vehicles in Iraq.

Murtha helped arrange funding to launch the organization in 1988 and has since directed to it millions in congressional appropriations called earmarks. Today Concurrent has nearly $250 million in annual revenue and 1,500 employees, it says. 

Concurrent pays no income tax on most of its revenue income, according to government records.

Another Murtha prime cut is the National Drug Intelligence Center. According to the agency the NDIC was created by Congress in 1991 to develop better strategic intelligence for the nation’s remarkably unsuccessful counter-drug policymakers in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Its 300 employees--including 120 researchers--needed $509 million last year to continue investigating the country’s drug problems despite annual White House efforts to shut it down as “wasteful and unnecessary,” government documents show.

Another beneficiary, MTS Technologies, is run by a man the Wall Street Journal says got his start some 40 years ago shining shoes at Murtha’s Johnstown Minute Car Wash.

“This really is a citizen’s campaign,” Luksik says. “Several times hits on our website have exceeded our server’s capacity. But that is a good thing. We get thousands of emails. They say,’ I haven’t given to a political candidate before.’ These are regular people, not political operatives.”

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Nathaniel R. Helms
Defend Our Marines
28 July 2008

Note: Nat Helms is a Contributing Editor to Defend Our Marines. He is a Vietnam veteran, former police officer, war correspondent, and, most recently, author of My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story (Meredith Books, 2007).

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© Nathaniel R. Helms 2008

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