BY MIKE FAHER
After nearly three decades in the military, William T. Russell’s latest mission has brought him to Johnstown.
The career Army man, just two years short of retirement, has left the service and moved to the Flood City in order to mount a political campaign against veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. John Murtha.
As a Republican and first-time candidate facing a powerful congressman in the sprawling, Democrat-dominated 12th Congressional District, Russell faces a tough challenge.
But he is determined to press ahead and will formally announce his candidacy within weeks.
“I recognize this is an uphill battle,” Russell said in an interview last week at The Tribune-Democrat.
“But it’s one that must be fought.”
Murtha, who declined any comment on Russell’s candidacy when contacted through a spokesman last week, has served in the House since 1974.
The 75-year-old is known for bringing money and jobs – especially in the defense sector – to his district, and last year he became chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
But Murtha’s repeated calls for a military withdrawal from Iraq and his criticism of the Bush administration have spurred a backlash among conservatives.
Republican Diana Irey, a Washington County commissioner, tried to capitalize on that sentiment during her 2006 campaign against Murtha. But the congressman cruised to victory.
Russell, 45, is betting on a different result next year. He readily acknowledges that he moved to Johnstown from the Washington, D.C., area specifically so that he could run in the 12th District.
Murtha is a decorated Vietnam War veteran. But Russell also has extensive military credentials.
Born on an Air Force base in Newfoundland, Canada, Russell’s long Army and Army Reserve career includes duty in the Balkans and in both Iraq wars.
Russell and his wife, Kasia, were in the Pentagon when a hijacked jetliner crashed into the building on Sept. 11, 2001. They escaped unharmed.
While Murtha’s encounters with wounded soldiers have solidified his stance on Iraq, Russell said a similar encounter left him with the opposite impression: To withdraw from Iraq, he argues, would render the sacrifices of those soldiers pointless.
“I think Mr. Murtha is just flat-out wrong,” Russell said.
The Republican also cites, as Irey did, Murtha’s public accusation that U.S. Marines murdered innocent civilians in the Iraq town of Haditha in 2005.
The congressman, Russell contends, is “playing right into the hands of this enemy.”
On his Web site, Russell takes that line of thought a step further and attempts to raise the stakes for next year’s election.
“In this war against Islamic radicalism, the political battle of the 2008 election in the Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District is a critical turning point,” he said.
Russell’s platform is not limited to the Iraq issue.
He seeks to turn a long history of substantial economic clout against Murtha, arguing that the congressman is an “extreme practitioner of cronyism” who has not created long-term, sustainable jobs in this area.
As a small-business owner who operates an ATM company, Russell says he wants to help create a local economy that is more dependent on the free market – while also acknowledging that some jobs may be lost if governmental contracts disappear.
“A lot of folks have gotten very, very dependent on this ‘pork’ structure,” Russell said.
Russell still has significant hurdles to clear before he can legitimately challenge Murtha. Political support is one issue.
It is not yet clear whether Russell will have any primary-election opposition from within his party. Irey last week would say only that she is focused on her current campaign for Washington County commissioner.
Russell has met with local Republican leaders, who are not wading into the Murtha race just yet.
“Right now, we’re focused on the Nov. 6 election,” said Ann Wilson, Cambria County Republican Committee executive director. “It’s too early to comment on the 2008 election.”
Adequate fundraising also is a concern, though Russell said he hopes to buttress campaign cash with significant grassroots support.
“There’s a lot of folks who might not have a whole lot of money to throw at a campaign but can donate some time and effort,” he said. “And I’m getting a lot of those types of promises.”