Why is Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi backing the ethically challenged John Murtha for House majority leader? For background on Murtha's ethics record, see these tough columns by the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus, the Wall Street Journal's John Fund, and Ralph Kinney Bennett in Tech Central Station Daily. For background on Pelosi's longstanding alliance with Murtha, see my blog post from November 2005. My understanding is that Pelosi's closeness to Murtha goes back to her early years in the House. She won a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Sala Burton, the widow of Phil Burton, who held the seat until his death in 1983. One of Phil Burton's legacies was a provision that when the military base at San Francisco's Presidio was closed, it would become part of the national park system. But this required hefty funding. From my Almanac of American Politics 1998:
Another Pelosi cause was the Presidio. Years ago Burton got a law turning over the Presidio to the Interior Department if it was abandoned by the military; it was on the 1993 base closing list and was transferred to the National Park Service in 1995. There is no more stunning piece of urban property in America, but it is the most expensive Park Service property to maintain ($5 million more than Yosemite), and to restore its dilapidated buildings could absorb most of the Park Service budget when it is cutting elsewhere. Pelosi spent four years trying to devise a private-public trust fund for the Presidio. Her bill passed the House in 1994 but was killed by Senate Republicans. In 1995 and 1996 she worked hard to get Republican support for a trust that would lease out the buildings to provide enough revenue to pay the National Park Service for maintaining the open spaces and renovating the old buildings, with the proviso, insisted on by Republicans, that it be self-supporting in 12 years. The Presidio trust got into the 1996 parks bill, support for which kept falling apart; Pelosi and Bay Area neighbors Barbara Boxer and George Miller worked to get the White House and Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski to compromise on the Tongass National Forest, and the bill passed.
I suspect that over the years Pelosi got some help on this from Murtha, who was well positioned with his seat on the defense appropriations subcommittee. Pelosi herself got a seat on Appropriations in December 1990.
Pelosi's letter endorsing Murtha made it plain that he has asked for her public endorsement and praised his outspoken calls for withdrawal from Iraq. Pelosi is undoubtedly sincere in her opposition to the Iraq war and in her gratitude to Murtha. But she has taken some serious political risks by supporting a man with Murtha's record. House Democrats are backing some serious changes in ethics rules, but Murtha's election would cast a pall over them. The word from Capitol Hill has been that Steny Hoyer, the current minority whip who ran against Pelosi for that job in 2001, has the votes. Hoyer is an experienced and competent politician who is respected and well liked on both sides of the aisle, and I suspect that many House Democrats are miffed that Pelosi is opposing him.