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Taking it to Hart

A political race that's going to get personal

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Welcome to an ugly, nasty, down-and-dirty political contest. Pardon my glee, but I love a good campaign scrap.

This one has been a bit under the radar, but the 4th Congressional District race between Democrat Jason Altmire and Congresswoman Melissa Hart is coming out of the closet.

Jason has known Missy Hart for years. He's a family friend. Jason's kids play with Missy's brother's kids, who live across the street. Jason says Missy is under the mistaken impression that Jason once pledged never to run against her. Jason says that never happened. But he says she's on a personal vendetta to run a campaign that will "make me sorry I ever ran. I'll see her across the street and she doesn't look or wave, so this is personal," says Altmire.

Altmire is aware that Missy has enlisted the services of John Brabender, the evil Republican genius who's very good at negative ads, and who also works for Tricky Ricky Santorum. Altmire expects a "scorched earth" campaign.

"She's holding the job," he says. "She's viewing this as me trying to take her job away from her. I view it as every two years there's an application process, and I've put my application in. For a sports analogy, if you're battling for the quarterback position, there's only one starter."

Altmire played wide receiver for Bobby Bowden at Florida State University, after leaving his hometown of Lower Burrell. After graduation, he became a top aide to conservative Florida Democratic Congressman Pete Peterson. From there it was back to Western PA, where he became an executive for UPMC.

He expects Missy to paint him as if he's in UPMC's hip pocket, but will counter that she gets tons of money from the all-powerful health conglomerate. So powerful is Missy, Jason believes, that were he to lose, she'd make sure he didn't get his job back at UPMC. Why? Because it's personal.

I've witnessed Missy in a major-league snit. When I moderated a TV debate between Missy and Congressman Mike Doyle before we invaded Iraq, her panties were definitely in a bunch. "Don't you go to the same briefings I do?" she snipped at Doyle off-camera. These were briefings in which dire warnings of Saddam's drone airplanes dropping bombs on our coasts were put forth. Missy bought it, hook, line and sinker. She voted for the Iraq war. Mike was skeptical. He voted against it.

Jason is familiar with Missy's certitude, the my-way-or-the-highway imperiousness. "She's unyielding," he contends, with an attitude that says, "Well, I'm in these secret briefings, you don't know what you're talking about."

Jason says he likes to think he would have voted against the war, but feels it's unfair to state it flatly since he'd have to have been in Congress at the time to assess it fully. But he's behind Rep. Jack Murtha's let's-get-the-hell-out-in-six-months policy. Murtha is Jason's honorary campaign chairman.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the previous Democrats recruited to run against Missy were not the sharpest knives on the tree. They never had a chance. Missy can talk; they could not.

"She's never had an opponent who knew as much about public policy as me," says Jason. "I know what her voting record is, I know the legislation that has been offered They've never had someone oppose her who could offer a vision of their own."

Jason is critical of the national Democratic Party for failing to offer alternative visions. He wants to repeal Bush's tax cuts and pass an energy bill that isn't cobbled together by energy executives. He also wants to shore up Social Security by eliminating the $92,000 salary cap on Social Security tax collection. (Right now, if you earn a million a year, you pay the same Social Security tax as if you earned $92,000.)

By being candid, he'll undoubtedly be portrayed as a tax-and-spend Democrat. He's going to fire back at Missy for allegedly being an elitist friend of the corporate fat cats, not a friend of the worker bees — and for being someone who's voted with Dubya and her party 96 percent of the time.

Yes sir, the fur's gonna fly. When it's campaign time, Missy doesn't horse around. Politics is a dirty business.

But this isn't business. It's personal.

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