By Lee Cary –
Pennsylvania State Republican Party (PSRP) officials did not want William “Bill” Russell running for the 12th Congressional District after Democrat Congressman John Murtha died on February 8, 2010, after serving 34 years in the House.
Beyond general anecdotal comments to the effect that Russell was “too conservative,” party officials never said why they didn’t want him. Here are highlights from the story of how they obstructed Russell’s candidacy from 2008 to 2010.
Russell decides to run against Democrat Congressman Murtha
Late in 2005, in an episode that made national news, Murtha accused U.S. Marines of having murdered innocent civilians in Haditha, Iraq. At the time, Russell was a career, fulltime Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve with a fine record that included service in the Middle East. Both he and his wife – she was pregnant at the time – were in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. After finding that she had escaped safely, he re-entered the burning building to help evacuate survivors.
According to Peg Luksik, who eventually became Russell’s campaign manager, Russell was “incensed” that Murtha’s attack on the Marines came while an investigation was still underway. So incensed, in fact, that he retired two years before his full, active duty retirement date and moved to Pennsylvania to run for Congress against Murtha.
It was a path that would put him under friendly fire from those who should have been his political allies.
Round 1: The 2008 election for the 12th Pennsylvania Congressional District
Initially, Pennsylvania’s G.O.P. officialdom was, according to Luksik, “unenthusiastic” about Russell’s candidacy, and, from the beginning, were “almost actively undermining of his efforts.” Until Russell entered the race, the G.O.P. had not planned to contest Murtha’s re-election.
Russell submitted slightly more than the required 1,000 signatures to be listed on the primary election ballot. The petition signatures were challenged, as is common. It was odd, though, that two of the challengers were local Republican Party officials.
A judge ruled that Russell’s petition had only 993 valid signatures. Russell’s only remaining path to getting on the November election ballot was through a primary election write-in effort. He needed 1,000 write-in votes in the Republican primary – where there were no names listed for the Republican Party – to face Murtha in the fall election. He received 4,000 votes. The November battle against Murtha was on.
But PSRP officials, unenthusiastic about his candidacy from the beginning, turned obstructive once Russell was the Party’s challenger to Murtha.
On October 11, 2008, Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin came to Johnstown, PA for a rally. The video below chronicles the event, and (at the 2.53 min. mark) features Russell being interviewed.
Luksik was surprised when a senior PSRP official denied Russell, the district’s Republican candidate for Congress, a place on the podium. The decision was made more surprising because Russell was running a strong, well-financed campaign, and had even given money (about $20K total) to several G.O.P. county committees. According to Luksik, when she mentioned Russell campaign donations to other Republican candidates to the party official he was “furious” and said, “You should give us more money.”
Russell had shown he was “by any definition a team player” for the G.O.P., but to no avail.
According to Luksik, the PSRP official said, “The Presidential [McCain] campaign doesn’t want him” on the Palin podium. When Luksik queried the McCain campaign, they denied knowing about the matter. The McCain campaign told the PSRP to “put him on the podium.”
On Election Day, the PSRP routinely hands out “slates” to indicate the candidates the Party supports. On the G.O.P. slate distributed at the polls for the November 2008 general election, all the Republican candidates were listed – all except Bill Russell, that is.
Luksik explains it this way: “They [PSRP] didn’t want him elected. He was not a party regular. Not a part of the Republican establishment.”
PSRP opposition to Russell remains a mystery. Congressman Murtha was a legendary procurer of Congressional pork projects for his district. Any thorough investigation, like the one conducted on the Haditha Marines, into what was behind the friendly-fire opposition to Russell would need to audit the allocation of expenditures that accompanied Murtha’s pork projects and ask the question: Who benefited? Besides Pennsylvania tax-payers, of course.
To be continued… Part 2 of “How the G.O.P. establishment blocked a conservative candidate it didn’t want”