As a staffer for U.S. Rep. John Murtha, a thought often occurred to Mark Critz as he watched his powerful and influential boss maneuver through the 12th Congressional District and the nation’s Capitol.
“I used to say, ‘I pity the poor fool that follows Jack Murtha,’ ” Critz recalled with a laugh.
At the time, Critz had no idea that he would take on that challenge when Murtha – soon after becoming the longest-serving representative in Pennsylvania history – died Feb. 8, 2010.
Critz took a moment last week to reflect on the chaotic year that followed – a year that saw him elevated from a near-anonymous staff member to the twice-elected congressman for a sprawling, nine-county district.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year now. I can’t believe all that has transpired,” Critz said. “It’s just been one whirlwind after another.”
Critz, a Johnstown Democrat, had worked for Murtha for 12 years including more than three years as district director.
Murtha had committed to running for another term before he died from surgical complications at age 77. That threw open political floodgates, and some candidates already had entered the race when Critz resigned from his job and announced his candidacy Feb. 22.
With an endorsement from Murtha’s widow, Joyce, Critz quickly attained front-runner status.
Still, he faced a gauntlet: Critz had to win endorsement from state Democrats, win both a May special election and primary and then win the November general election in order to gain a full, two-year term in the House.
He gained his party’s backing easily, and then – after a tough spring campaign that drew national attention and investment – he cruised to victory over Republican Tim Burns in the May 18 special election.
But there was no down time, as Critz was sworn in two days later to serve the remainder of Murtha’s unexpired term.
“I had to get to work right away,” Critz said last week. “We had been without Jack Murtha for three months, and a lot can happen in three months.”
He also had another election to prepare for, facing off against Burns, the GOP primary winner, again in November. During the fall campaign, Critz had both the advantage and disadvantage of incumbency.
“People had to believe in me,” he said.
He narrowly defeated Burns a second time.
However, that also made Critz a member of a newly configured House dominated by Republicans. He acknowledges that, even as a freshman, he had a louder voice in the prior, Democrat-controlled Congress.
Last year, “I could go to leadership and say, ‘Look, I need this,’ ” Critz said.
But Critz also notes that, in some ways, he has benefited from Murtha’s 36-year legacy. For instance, he retained some of the late congressman’s staff.
“We have a tremendous amount of staff relationships with committee people,” he said, adding that his former boss’s standing with military leaders also has been a plus.
“They’ve sort of adopted me,” Critz said.
There is no doubt that Critz is operating in a long shadow, and he acknowledges “a tremendous amount of pressure.”
But Critz also said his experience working with Murtha changed him.
The late congressman and Marine Corps veteran often toiled quietly behind the scenes but also could be vociferous and gruff when he felt the occasion demanded it.
Critz said he considered himself mainly a “rule-follower” before meeting Murtha and, later, becoming a congressman himself.
His new philosophy?
“Sometimes, you have to throw a couple elbows,” Critz said. “When you believe in something, you have to fight for it.”