Cross-country: Western Pennsylvania politics

Campaign 2010

In a thinly veiled effort to escape the humidity that drapes the nation's capital every August, I have launched a cross-country road trip from Washington, D.C., to Washington state. So far I'm finding out that it is just as hot every place else this summer. And I'm not just talking about the weather. People are red-faced over the nation's political climate.

What better place to start a "Washington-to-Washington" trip than Washington, Pa. That is where I headed Monday in my rented red Toyota Camry. It's a journey that will hopefully take me to Walla Walla, Wash, in seven days.

Residents in Washington, Pa., are celebrating the city's bicentennial. I just missed the city's Washington Idol contest; the Whiskey Rebellion Dinner; the History, Heritage and Heroes' Parade; and the obligatory fireworks. But evidence of the revelry remains: Red, white, and blue bunting and banners cover buildings and street signs along the city center leading up the grand county courthouse. Recently renovated, the courthouse features a dome that seems too large for this town of about 15,000 just outside of Pittsburgh. A statue of George Washington perches on top of the dome, overlooking the city. Inside, the building features courthouse rooms that could have been sets for the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

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But just down Main Street from the bicentennial festivities different signs point to continued tough times: Three of four buildings on the corner of Main and Chestnut are empty except for the "for sale" postings in the windows.

This town, described to me by one resident as "educated blue collar," historically leans Democratic. But residents are nervous over what awaits them in the aftermath of Rep. John Murtha's death. Murtha, a Democrat, served in the House for 36 years. His longevity could be attributed to how he brought home the bacon (especially as chairman of the powerful House Defense Appropriations subcommittee).

The jockeying to take over Murtha's seat on an interim basis after his February death included a barrage of attack ads and campaign jabs that left many voters here frustrated.

"You start to wonder if this is ever going to change? Are we going to get beyond this?" asked one local, David Scofield, 47. "Their guiding principles as they tackle issues are more important than if they could have a side career as a stand-up comedian."

Democrat Mark Critz, a former Murtha staffer, won the special election with 53 percent of the vote. But the seat is up for grabs this fall.

Traditional Democrats here are wary of the party's aggressive direction under its current congressional leadership. Don't expect to see House Speaker Nancy Pelosi campaign here for Critz.

That is why, in order to win the special election, Critz campaigned as a moderate, using Republican talking points in painting his GOP opponent Tim Burns as pro-tax.

But Burns is back. Pro-life and pro-Tea Party, Burns hopes to pull off a victory this November in a district that has not gone Republican since 1973.

Politics aside, residents here told me there was one thing I had to do before leaving town: Grab a hot dog at Shorty's Lunch.

For nearly 80 years this sliver of a diner in downtown has been doling out dogs with tier-preferred toppings of mustard, onions, and chili. Three generations of the Alexas family work at Shorty's, selling about 1,200 hot dogs daily. Three hot dogs cost me $4.93. They lasted less then five minutes---that gave me plenty of time to head to my next stop: Ohio. Day one mileage: 416. Miles to go: roughly 3,219 (keeping my fingers crossed that we don't get lost).

Follow Lee's reports as he travels from Washington, D.C., to Washington state.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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