Before U.S. Rep. John “Jack” Murtha ever entered politics — and well before he became the longest serving Pennsylvania member of Congress — he was a Johnstown native operating a carwash.
And without one of Murtha’s Jewish friends, he may never have taken that jump into lawmaking.
Martin Goldhaber, 95, a career Pepsi man and forner owner of the local bottling plant in Johnstown, watched Murtha grow up and launch a four-decade political career, beginning in 1969, representing the 72nd State Legislative District. Though modesty keeps him from taking too much credit, there’s a hint of pride when he says, “I told [Murtha] to get out of the carwash and run and become a congressman. I said, ‘Everyone knows you and likes you; you’ll make a terrific congressman in every way.’ I really encouraged him.”
Murtha, it seems, spent much of his career repaying the favor.
“He was a friend to Israel, absolutely,” said William Glosser, 80, a Johnstown attorney who also grew up around Murtha. “Where the U.S. and Israel would cooperate militarily, Jack had a role in all that. He wanted joint exercises when certain weapons were needed, and when Israel had a weapon we needed it worked the same way.”
Murtha passed away on Monday afternoon at a Virginia hospital due to complications from gallbladder surgery. He was 77.
Glosser also shares fond memories of Murtha’s carwash, where political discussion was often tossed about.
Murtha often faced criticism for his pork-barrel tactics, as he had an uncanny ability to land federal funding for his projects. In April 2009, The Washington Post reported that Murtha had secured $800,000 of stimulus package funding to repave a backup runway at Johnstown’s John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, an airport that only runs three flights a day during the week, all of them flying to Washington, D.C.
“The town of Johnstown ran because of things that Murtha brought,” said Goldhaber’s nephew, also named Martin, a Pittsburgh resident who grew up in Johnstown.
While critics tore into Murtha’s earmarks, the congressman staunchly defended his actions. “If I’m corrupt,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year, “it’s because I take care of my district.”
Murtha’s support for Israel and the Jewish community was steadfast.
Within the past several years, his votes benefited Israel multiple times. In 2007, he supported the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which expressed Congress’ distress over the Arab League’s boycott of Israel and pushing the League’s countries to “normalize relations with Israel.”
That same year, Murtha also supported a bill determining that Iranian President Ahmadinejad was “violating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by his denials of the Holocaust and calls to have Israel ‘wiped off the map.’ ”
David A. Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, believes Murtha was “a master legislator, with a brilliant mind for defense appropriations, and that’s something that all Americans, Jews or not, Democrat or Republican, will miss deeply.”
Still, “Murtha’s support of Israel is going to be one of his greatest legacies to American Jews. I’m guessing he wasn’t doing it because of the Jewish constituency in his region,” said Harris, citing Johnstown’s small, and shrinking Jewish population. “We know he was doing this for the right reasons. He believed in Israel’s defense needs.”
Harris is hopeful that someone similarly supportive of Jewish interests will soon occupy Murtha’s seat in the House. Gov. Ed Rendell is expected to schedule a special election shortly.
“Congress is full of folks from both parties who have strong support for Israel,” Harris said. “But what we lose in Murtha is the opportunity over decades to act on those beliefs, to hone his understanding of the legislative process.”
Though Murtha was a Roman Catholic, Johnstown native Robert Mendelson, 53, believes he held some Jewish qualities.
“He was always one to speak his mind; a very hawkish politician, speaking against the war in Iraq,” said Mendelson, a Squirrel Hill resident. “That took a lot of guts and courage, something the Jewish people can certainly relate to — being able to stand and voice an opinion even when those around you might ridicule you.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)