The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Chip Minemyer

January 22, 2012

Chip Minemyer | 12th district contenders have much in common

— If familiarity breeds contempt, the Democratic primary race in the 12th Congressional District could get downright opprobrious.

Which is to say, nasty – although all involved have been taking the high road so far.

Consider ...

Mike Mikus is campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown.

Thanks to redistricting in Pennsylvania, Critz is running against U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Aliquippa.

Mikus once was Altmire’s campaign manager.

And Altmire’s first campaign was led by the late John Murtha, who was at the time Critz’s boss and whom Critz succeeded in office.

Confused yet?

As Mikus said, “It’s definitely interesting.”

Yes, interesting, and building toward a compelling primary election on April 24.

It all began, Altmire said, in 2006. That’s when an upstart Altmire was making his first foray into politics after working in health care.

That year, in what is now the 4th Congressional District, Altmire upset well-connected and financially powerful Georgia Berner in the Democratic primary.

Then, he took down incumbent congresswoman Melissa Hart in the fall.

“When I ran the first time, I had a contested primary against a very wealthy businesswoman (and) very few people thought I was going to win that,” Altmire told our editorial board last week.

“Jack (Murtha) stepped out and supported me and endorsed me and served as my chairman. So he’s somebody I’ve known and re- spected.”

In his early days in the House of Representatives, Altmire said, he often visited Murtha’s office in Johnstown.

That’s where Altmire met Critz, who was then Murtha’s district director.

But when Altmire ran for re-election in 2008, it was Mikus who got the call to lead the charge.

That year, Altmire again turned away Hart, this time to keep his seat in the 4th district.

Two years later, after Murtha’s death in February 2010, Critz was elevated from a congressman’s staffer to a candidate for the office.

With Mikus guiding the campaign, Critz won a special election in the spring, then also won the fall election for the current two-year term in the 12th.

While Critz and Altmire worked together in Congress in 2011, Mikus was involved in the race to replace gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato as Allegheny County’s chief executive.

Mikus developed a strategy that helped Democrat Rich Fitzgerald capture that office in November.

In naming Mikus his campaign manager, Fitzgerald said: “He’s an experienced guy who can also handle an aggressive campaign if it comes to that.”

Want more irony?

Both times in 2010, Critz out-polled Republican Tim Burns. Burns, a Johnstown native, was living in Washington County – where Mikus grew up and went to college, and cut his teeth in politics as an intern with U.S. Rep. Austin Murphy of Fayette County.

Mikus has worked with candidates all across the country – always Democrats and generally moderates, he said.

He said he has had chances to work on the administrative side of politics, but is more at home in the trenches of a race than to the halls of Congress.

“I’ve found I’m more suited to campaigning,” Mikus said.

“I’m a frustrated athlete. I wasn’t blessed with size or speed. But in a campaign, you build up to a day, and then you win or you lose.”

And so it will be in the 12th district primary.

Regardless of which candidate is employing him – Altmire, Critz or someone else – Mikus said his role is simple: “I analyze the race, develop a strategy, and make sure the plan gets executed.”

Mikus’ goal in 2012 is obvious: Help his new boss beat his old boss.

Altmire called his relationship with Mikus “cordial,” and seemed unfazed at the prospect of facing his own former campaign manager.

“It’s a small circle of people who are pros in this business,” Altmire said. “And it’s not that he was on a fence and had to choose one or the other. He’s been working with Mark and he’s still working with Mark.”

And of his relationship  with Critz, Altmire said:

“We’re friends ... And after April 24th, we’ll be friends again.

“That’s just the situation that we find ourselves in.”

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091.

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