“Swift Boat” Veterans Set Sights on Rep. Murtha

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Times Staff Writer

Two years after a cadre of veterans helped sink the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), they have found a new target in the old steel country of southwestern Pennsylvania: Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha.

In a fight that organizers say will feature rallies, TV ads and an aggressive Internet campaign, these activists are promising to make Murtha pay for his criticism of the Iraq war.

“I will do my best to ‘Swift boat’ John Murtha,” retired Navy Capt. Larry Bailey said at a recent news conference here, invoking the 2004 campaign against Kerry that took its name from Vietnam War-era Navy vessels.


Few believe that Murtha, a Vietnam veteran who has represented his district since 1974, is in much danger of being driven from office.

But in the wake of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s defeat in Connecticut’s Democratic primary last week, Murtha’s showdown with an increasingly vocal group of opponents provides more evidence of the prominent role the Iraq war is playing in this year’s midterm campaign.

Unlike Lieberman, whose support for the war cost him Democratic voters, Murtha confronts a challenge sparked by his repeated calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Long among the most hawkish Democrats in Congress, the once media-shy Murtha has become a standard bearer for the party’s antiwar wing since airing his criticism of the Bush administration’s commitment in Iraq. And on street corners and town squares of this Rust Belt district, a small but committed corps of volunteers has joined Bailey, a North Carolina resident, in trying to make sure Murtha’s constituents remember it -- and vote against him in November.

Murtha has brushed aside the attacks.

“It’s ludicrous,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week. “What they are trying to do is distract from the [Iraq] issue.... There is no one who supports the military more than me.”

Murtha’s allies, led by a veterans group based in Richmond, Va., held a counter-rally in Johnstown that largely overshadowed Bailey’s news conference. The pro-Murtha event featured former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who lost three limbs while serving in Vietnam.


The battle over Murtha’s opposition to the Iraq war is unfolding in a place where support for the military has been an article of faith at least since the Civil War. The communities that form Murtha’s district were among the first to send volunteers for the Union war effort -- a distinction proudly noted on a memorial in Johnstown’s town square.

Today, 15.3% of the district’s residents are veterans, slightly above the national average of 12.6%, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

And when a Pennsylvania National Guard battalion stationed outside Johnstown returned in June from a yearlong deployment in Iraq’s Anbar province, some 1,000 well-wishers turned out to show their support, according to a unit spokesman.

For years, Murtha has been the embodiment of that spirit, many locals say.


A decorated Marine wounded in action, Murtha became the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress. He backed the first Persian Gulf War and has been a longtime champion of robust defense spending.

Perhaps most critically for Johnstown, the congressman helped bring home defense-related jobs. Firms such as Lockheed Martin, DRS Technologies and Concurrent Technologies have opened facilities in the new industrial park on the hills above the city.

“What you find here is a tradition that goes way back with the military,” said Robert Layo, president of the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce. “His position has always been in line with that.”


But Murtha, 74, established a new persona on Nov. 17, when he called a news conference to declare that, in his view, U.S. troops had become “the primary target of the insurgency” in Iraq and that it was “time to bring them home.”

Murtha almost immediately became an antiwar icon -- a role he has embraced in the months since.

Now a regular on news talk shows, Murtha made headlines again in May when he said that Marines in Iraq had killed more than a dozen civilians “in cold blood.” His comments caused one Marine under investigation in the Haditha killings to file a libel and invasion of privacy lawsuit against him last week.

With Congress on its summer break, Murtha is spending much of his time crisscrossing the country, headlining the nationwide Democratic push to take control of Congress in November’s election. And he recently contributed an item on the war to the Huffington Post, a leading liberal website edited by Brentwood’s Arianna Huffington.

Murtha’s new identity has made him a prime target in a national Republican campaign to portray Democrats as defeatists. Some Pennsylvanians in Murtha’s 12th Congressional District agree with that assessment.


In tiny Charleroi, Pa., Nikki A.C. Sheppick, a 54-year-old housewife who served as an Army personnel officer in 1972-73, has made a series of dining-table-sized panels with cartoons, text and photos attacking Murtha for his comments about the alleged civilian massacre in Iraq.


“You just don’t talk about the troops that way,” said Sheppick, who recalled how hurtful criticism of soldiers was during the Vietnam era.

She is helping organize an effort called “Operation Street Corner,” in which volunteers are to take the cartoon panels to fairs, shopping centers and other public places.

About 75 miles away in Johnstown, Murtha foes are working on plans for a rally in October, which they hope will draw thousands.

The organizers stress that theirs is largely a local campaign. But they have linked with Bailey, who from his North Carolina home is reassembling members of the national team that took on Kerry, including a Web expert in Texas and a Georgia developer who is helping bankroll the “Boot Murtha” effort.

For fundraising help, Bailey also has joined with an Iowa political action committee -- Iowa Presidential Watch -- that touts its efforts to “hold accountable” Democratic presidential candidates.

And he has invited the participation of John O’Neill, the Houston lawyer who was a founder of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group that ran ads questioning Kerry’s military record in Vietnam.


Meanwhile, Murtha’s Republican challenger, county commissioner Diana Irey, is making Murtha’s comments on the war a focal point of her campaign. “That’s the issue that people come up to me and talk about,” she said in a recent interview.

At Point Stadium in Johnstown, where thousands converge every summer for the All American Amateur Baseball Association championships, Jeff Katarski said the issue bothers him.

“I think [Murtha’s] talking out of both sides of his mouth,” said Katarski, who served in the Navy for five years in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. “To me, he should know better than to criticize the administration and the troops during war, at least openly.... It hurts morale.”

But even Katarski concedes that Murtha’s opponents will have a hard sell.


At the VFW post in Uniontown, another aging industrial city that was the birthplace of World War II hero Gen. George C. Marshall, retiree Joe Hawkins said he doesn’t know many people who question Murtha’s judgment.

“I think he’s doing a hell of a job,” Hawkins said.

Murtha may reflect the feelings of a large portion of his constituents, said Clay F. Richards, assistant director of the polling institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, which polls extensively across the Northeast.

Opposition to the war “emerged earlier [in the region] than it did in other parts of the country,” Richards said.


Murtha, who was in San Francisco on Friday visiting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) after campaigning for Democrats in Connecticut and New York, said he is confident the public is with him.

“The average person goes out of their way to tell me they want change.... What am I supposed to do? Say everything is all right?” Murtha asked before flying to Tennessee to attend a dinner for former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.

“I’m not going to say everything is all right if everything isn’t all right.”