Long before he became a national figure for his zealous opposition to the Iraq war, Rep. John P. Murtha was known to every research lab, military base and Defense Department bureaucrat as the go-to man if they needed taxpayer funding.
The congressman, who died Monday after 36 years in Congress, was the Democrats’ top link to the Pentagon and the web of defense contractors that surround it, and, as his party’s top man on the House defense spending subcommittee, he was the gatekeeper for an outsized chunk of the entire federal budget.
A Marine who earned two Purple Hearts and won the Bronze Star in Vietnam, in 1974 he became the first veteran from that war elected to Congress.
His ability to steer money back to his district in southwestern Pennsylvania made Mr. Murtha the king of pork-barrel spending, and earned him scrutiny of ethics officials, but also the appreciation of constituents who benefited from the John Murtha airport, pain institute, homeland security think tank and wellness center that were all named after their benefactor.
“Jack Murtha was a giant,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who counted him among her friends and advisers and even backed him in his ill-fated 2006 bid against her own longtime rival, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, for the House majority leader’s post.
Mr. Murtha died at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, where he was hospitalized a week ago with complications stemming from gallbladder surgery. He was 77.
Mrs. Pelosi praised Mr. Murtha for “his courage writ large” in opposing the Iraq war — a conflict he voted to authorize but on which he later soured. He made headlines in May 2004 when he joined her for a press conference and called the war “unwinnable,” blaming the Pentagon for fighting on the cheap and saying more troops and equipment should to be sent.
His battle with the George W. Bush administration escalated and he earned the praise of war foes, and the wrath of veterans and military families, when in 2006 he accused Marines of having executed four Iraqi civilians “in cold blood” in Haditha the previous year. The Marines were cleared of the charges and praised by the general in charge of U.S. Central Command Marines for making tough decisions under difficult circumstances.
But others saw Mr. Murtha’s Iraq opposition as the incongruous blip on a record that otherwise established him as Democrats’ top congressional defense hawk, including his shepherding through budgets that made President Reagan’s military buildup possible.
“The Iraq chapter was one chapter in John Murtha’s long political career, and the other chapters, he was strongly supportive of Republican presidents who initiated military operations, whether it was Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush, and was strongly supportive of the rebuilding of America’s defenses in the 1980s that ultimately helped to bring down the Berlin Wall and dissolve the Warsaw Pact,” said former Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and fellow Vietnam War veteran who served with Mr. Murtha for 28 years.
He said a number of other Democrats supported a strong defense policy and Mr. Reagan’s budgets based heavily on Mr. Murtha’s influence in the 1980s.
As the top Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, serving as either chairman or ranking member depending on whether his party or Republicans were in control, Mr. Murtha was popular among Defense Department employees who wanted money for a project.
He used that power to bargain for his own causes — foremost among them to bring federal money back home to prop up southwestern Pennsylvania, particularly with earmarks.
One famous set of earmarks sent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, which lists only three daily flights to and from Washington Dulles International Airport.
An effort by Senate Republicans last year to stop federal funding failed.
But the congressman’s control of spending drew scrutiny as federal investigators looked into the PMA Group, a since-closed Virginia-based lobbying firm with ties to the congressman. News reports also said investigators were looking into firms with ties to Mr. Murtha in his district.
He was unrepentant.
“If I’m corrupt, it is because I take care of my district,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The voters appreciated him for it, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
“Murtha is beloved by his constituents,” Mr. Madonna said, pointing to his repeated easy re-elections, including most recently in 2008 over a well-funded Republican challenger.
Mr. Madonna said Mr. Murtha was “pro-life and pro-gun,” and even comments such as saying southwestern Pennsylvania had “racist” tendencies didn’t rattle the district’s voters.
“He was gruff and tough, but he comes from a rough-and-tumble part of Pennsylvania where the people work hard,” Mr. Madonna said.
Mr. Murtha also was targeted in the 1980 Abscam corruption sting. He turned down a bribe but seemed to leave open the possibility of taking money in the future.
He was not charged, but prosecutors named him as an unindicted co-conspirator and he testified against members of Congress who were put on trial.
Mr. Murtha’s seat will be fiercely contested in upcoming elections, particularly with Democrats on the defensive nationwide.