The GOP Hits Back With Dems' Own Weapons
Son's death in Iraq a wake-up call, candidate says.
By Larry King
Last spring, as Tom Manion grieved the loss of his son in Iraq, he felt the warm embrace of the people of Bucks County.
Manion now hopes county voters will embrace him once again, this time as a Republican running for Congress.
The pharmaceutical executive yesterday announced his bid to oust U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, the freshman Democrat who served in Iraq, then built a winning campaign around getting the troops out.
Manion said he was inspired to run by the sacrifice of his son, Marine First Lt. Travis Manion, killed by a sniper April 29 near Fallujah.
"He believed in something bigger than himself, and he had a life's passion for making a difference in this world," Manion, 53, told a crush of family, friends and reporters in the kitchen of his Doylestown Township home. "Travis has given me a wake-up call that my service to this country is not over."
A race between Manion and Murphy could well be seen as a referendum on Iraq, although Manion yesterday did not cast it as such. Manion supports the current strategy in Iraq, including the surge in troops and the need to stay until Iraqis can peacefully assume control of their country. But Manion said he was frustrated with partisan gridlock over a host of issues, from health care and immigration to alternative energy and global warming.
"And, yes, I want to end the war in Iraq as soon as possible," he added. "No one is more committed to that goal than I - because I want no other parents to go through what Jannett [his wife] and I have. But in doing this, we must confront the threats to our nation's safety for this and future generations."
The death of Travis Manion, 26, a former three-sport standout at La Salle College High School, resonated in Bucks County as few losses have. Already, a local street has been named for him.
The community's reaction was heightened, in part, by the death four days later of another Doylestown son, Army First Lt. Colby Umbrell, 26.
Part of the reaction was due to the Manions' uncommon openness in sharing their loss with the public - even inviting the media to the arrival of their son's remains at Willow Grove Naval Air Station, an event that is normally cloistered. Throughout, Thomas Manion maintained an outspoken belief that his son had died for a worthy cause.
Trim and telegenic, the retired Marine Reserve colonel said he had conferred with Bucks County GOP chair Harry Fawkes and with former U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick - whom Murphy narrowly defeated - and was confident of the party's endorsement.
Fitzpatrick helped clear the way by announcing Monday that he would not try to reclaim the seat and would back Manion instead.
Still, the challenger's road will not be easy.
Murphy enjoys the advantage of incumbency in a congressional district where a once-pronounced Republican voter-registration advantage has eroded steadily since 1996. And Manion supports an unpopular stay-the-course strategy in Iraq that has helped push President Bush's approval ratings nationally to an all-time low.
Murphy, like Manion, remains identified with Iraq by many. But he, too, seeks to connect with voters on a wider range of issues.
"There will be plenty of time to talk about politics later on," Murphy's press secretary, Adam Abrams, said yesterday. "Right now we are focused on bringing people together for bipartisan solutions to problems such as flooding along the Delaware, veterans' benefits, and the state of our economy."
Murphy has yet to claim a mandate from voters in the Eighth Congressional District; he became the district's first Democratic congressman in 14 years by only about 1,500 votes. Fitzpatrick narrowly won in Bucks County, but Murphy prevailed in the Northeast Philadelphia and eastern Montgomery County portions of the district.
Manion, a vice president for information technology at Johnson & Johnson, is a Philadelphia native, one of 10 children born to a salesman and a homemaker. He graduated from Widener University, served 11 years of active duty in the Marines, and earned a master's degree from the Naval Postgraduate School.
He moved to Bucks County with his wife and two children in 1990, when he joined Johnson & Johnson.
In response to reporters' questions, he pronounced himself "pro-life" on abortion, but in favor of stem-cell research. Illegal immigrants, he said, should be deported until they can apply for citizenship or a work visa program.
A political novice, Manion said he wanted to change "the partisan culture" of Washington that he said had stymied the country.
"Even with the Iraqi situation, we need to work together," he said. "What I want to bring to the table is an ability to work with others toward solutions that are desperately needed by our country."
Wendell Craig Williams, 43, said a number of issues set him apart from Sestak. "Our positions on Iraq are very different," he said, adding that U.S. troops should stay until the job is done. Williams said that on illegal immigration, he is "far more stern and aggressive" than Sestak.
Referring to key party issues of winning the Iraq war, illegal immigration, and the mortgage crisis, Williams told those gathered at the Paxon Hollow Country Club: "We in the [Delaware County] Republican Party have lost our voice in Congress."
Andrew Reilly, former County Council chairman, said of Williams: "He has a pretty impressive resume."
While in the U.S. Attorney's Office, Williams prosecuted cases including child abuse, drugs, street crime and fraud. He resigned this week from the prosecutor's office to run for Sestak's seat, said Thomas J. Judge Sr., chairman of the county Republican Party.
Williams, a former Marine, was a decorated combat veteran in the Gulf War, flying 56 combat missions in an F-18, and graduated from Columbia Law School, according to Reilly. He and his wife, Jennifer Abittier Williams, and three children, two from her previous marriage, live in Glen Mills.
Democrat Sestak, a former Navy vice admiral, won the Seventh Congressional District seat in 2006 from longtime incumbent Republican Curt Weldon.
The district encompasses a majority of Delaware County, and smaller pieces of Chester and Montgomery Counties.
About 54 percent of the registered voters in the county are Republican. But the county recently has voted for Democrats in national elections.
Reilly said that Sestak has only put in "the appearance of working hard; there is nothing solid that he has accomplished."
"It is a competitive district," Reilly said, noting the district still leans Republican on voter registration. "It is not a walk for any candidate."
Sestak spokesman Clarence Tong said, "The election isn't for another 10 months, so Congressman Sestak is focused on changing Washington by ending the war in Iraq and helping more children in Pennsylvania get the health care they need."
About 70 percent of the municipal Republican leaders in Delaware County met for 10 minutes last night to make the selection. The vote for Williams was unanimous.
Michael Puppio, Springfield Township Republican leader, said Williams "will work extremely hard to bring his message of economic restraint and limited government to residents of the Seventh Congressional District."
A number of names of those interested in the race have surfaced over the last few months, including Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood; real estate developer Tom Pulte; and Stephen Elliott, a lawyer with the U.S. State Department.
As of last night, only one other candidate was still in contention, however.
Joe Breslin, a Haverford Township Republican committeeman who ran for the County Council last year, said he would seek the nomination independently from the county's Republican Party.
Breslin said the county Republicans have lost the faith of the voters. "I will be running as a Republican against the Republicans."