Rep. John Murtha,True Populist: 1932-2010

A conservative Democrat from an increasingly Republican corner of Pennsylvania who nevertheless would become a hero on the Left for his criticism of George W. Bush’s Iraq war, Rep. John Murtha has died. He was 77.

At his death serving in his 19th term, Murtha became an influential lawmaker on defense issues and a close confidant and ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. Murtha died as a result of complications from a January gallbladder surgery. This past Saturday, Feb. 6, Murtha became Pennsylvania’s longest serving member of Congress. Also, of the nearly 10,600 men and women who have served in the House since 1789, only 79 have served longer than he has, his office says in a statement announcing his death.

“Today, with the passing of Jack Murtha, America lost a great patriot. He served our country on the battlefield winning two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. He served his country in his community winning the hearts of his constituents and served in the Congress winning the respect of his colleagues,” Pelosi says in tribute to her friend.

From his perch as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee, Murtha was a final word on military spending. A former Marine, he became the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress.

“Chairman Murtha will be remembered as a man who was not just Congressman from Johnstown, he was the Congressman for Philadelphia, the Congressman for Pittsburgh, for Allentown, for every corner of our Commonwealth,” says Murtha’s home state colleague, Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah. “He really carried the weight of Pennsylvania on his shoulders. In Congress, he always sat in the same chair and he always had the same disposition: Pennsylvania first.”

Murtha represented the Keystone Stone’s 12th Congressional District, a working class corner of southwestern Pennsylvania that had suffered economically due to the decline of the state’s coal mining and steel industries. Like his district, Murtha could be socially conservative — he was anti-abortion — but he was also very pro-union and became nearly synonymous with “pork barrel” spending because of the amount of federal funds he funneled back home as an economic driver. Murtha also opposed the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), supported by Republicans, as well as Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“During his career, he worked hard to bring tens of thousands of middle class jobs to western Pennsylvania,” says Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic Party. “His legacy as a fighter for his causes and his constituents will be remembered long after his passing.”

Murtha’s district over the years has become more Republican — it went for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 but voted for Republican nominee John McCain four years later.

Initially known for his association with the Abscam FBI corruption sting in 1980, Murtha wouldn’t rise to national prominence again for a quarter century. The hawkish Murtha initially gave Bush authorization to go to war with Iraq but quickly soured on the conflict.

Murtha visited U.S. troops on the eve of the Iraq invasion, inspecting the build-up in the Gulf region weeks before the invasion and five months later in August 2003. He found severe shortages of body armor, electronic jammers, and vehicle spare parts. He has worked to ensure that our troops have the proper equipment and training that they need. He wrote to Bush in September 2003 warning that, “we have severely miscalculated the magnitude of the effort we are facing” and said that he agreed with an assessment by Clinton administration defense official John Hamre that we have a “narrow window of opportunity available to deliver progress in terms of economic infrastructure, security and basic service improvements.”

Murtha received a reply seven months later from the Department of Defense saying that “we have made substantial progress in the very ways that you suggest.” After voicing his concerns and suggestions directly to the Bush administration and being continually ignored, he made the decision to publicly argue for the redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq on November 17, 2005, according to a statement by his office.

Since then, he has become one of Congress’s most outspoken critics of the war in Iraq, convinced that the conflict can only be solved politically, diplomatically and economically by the Iraqis — not the American military. Since the war in Iraq has begun, he has made eight visits to the region.

“Congressman Murtha, I believe, will be best remembered as the first serious hawk to stand up and call for our withdrawal from Iraq. As a former Marine -– he would say ‘always a Marine’ -– Jack Murtha’s courageous stand marked a turning point in America’s involvement in that ill-advised war,” Fattah says.

Once Democrats retook Congress in 2006, Murtha appeared poised to go even further since he was Pelosi’s choice to become House majority leader. However, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) ran for that post and beat Murtha in that race among Democratic House members.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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