By ARLENE JOHNS
DELMONT — Mark Critz, former district director of the late U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha, won the recommendation of a Democratic caucus Saturday to be the party’s nominee for a special election to fill the congressman’s seat.
In a split party vote, Critz, a Johnstown resident, picked up 46 of 83 credentialed votes.
Barbara Hafer of Indiana, a former state treasurer and auditor, received 22 votes. Trailing were Ed Cernic Jr., Cambria County controller, with
14 votes, and Ryan Bucchianeri of Allegheny County, with one vote.
In the local delegations, Cambria split with 13 going to Cernic and six for Critz, while Somerset County gave its five votes to Critz.
Saturday’s vote was a nonbinding recommendation that will go to the 50-member state Democratic executive committee. The committee will choose a nominee for the 12th Congressional District seat on Monday.
The vote was taken at a convention held at The Lamplighter restaurant.
The chosen candidate will face a Republican challenger in a special election to be held in conjunction with the May primary. The Republicans will pick their nominee at a convention Thursday at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
At Saturday’s convention, Jack Hanna, chairman of the Southwest Democratic Caucus, said it was with a “heavy heart” that the group gathered following the death of the longtime congressman.
He spoke of Murtha as being “fearless and dedicated” and asked for a moment of silence in the late congressman’s honor.
Hanna alluded to the Democrats’ loss of Ted Kennedy’s congressional seat in Massachusetts in a special election in January, saying “the country will be looking at this race as a bellwether” and one that would gauge the nation’s mood.
He called on all Democrats to support the candidate – regardless of who it is.
“It’s a great honor and responsibility that has been put in our hands.”
Although the vote is a recommendation only, Hanna assured the crowd that their voice would be an important element in the choice to be made Monday.
“You are not wasting your time,” he said.
Bucchianeri, a Naval Academy graduate who completed two tours in the Middle East, spoke first and told the gathering that the election was going to be about change.
“We need to offer authentic change. We cannot present a political insider,” he said. “The voters are just too smart for that.”
Bucchianeri said he would be able to bridge the generation gap with new voters.
Up next, Cernic called himself a proven election winner.
“Washington is broken down in all aspects,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll promise you one thing. I’ll give you 24 hours a day, seven days a week as your representative in Congress. In life there are leaders and there are followers, and I submit to you I’ve been a leader all of my life.”
Critz, an Irwin native who has lived for the past 19 years in Johnstown, received cheers from the crowd.
“I’m the guy on the ground,” he said. “I’m not some politician.”
Critz said he has grown to appreciate the people of the 12th district through his work with Murtha, and he pointed out that he has the endorsement of the congressman’s widow, Joyce.
“No one is going to outwork Mark Critz in this campaign,” he promised.
Critz said he will run a clean race.
“I will not resort to tearing someone down so I can build myself up.”
Hafer, who spoke last, said she agreed with Bucchianeri that the race is about change.
“Ryan, someday you’re going to win an election, but not this time,” she told the 34-year-old candidate.
Hafer said voters want Washington “cleaned up and working for them.”
She said her record proves she is not part of the establishment.
“They can’t attack me as being part of the mess. I’ve never played the political games that they play in Washington.
“I know what it takes to win. I’ve been tested.”
The nonbinding recommendation is a big boost for Critz, who is campaigning for the first time.
He said he was thrilled with the outcome.
“Nobody is Mr. Murtha,” he acknowledged. “My goal is to work as hard for the district as he did.”