Where Joe the Plumber is an inspiration


AMERICA:IN THE late 1700s, George Washington, struggling to pay for the costs of the American Revolution, sought to impose taxes on whiskey on farmers in Pennsylvania and was forced to don his military uniform for the first time since the British were ejected to quell the disturbance.

Today, the people of the 18th congressional district of the western part of the state, which lies outside Pittsburgh and is represented by Republican congressman Tim Murphy, have not changed their thoughts much about taxation.

Canvassing for support among farmers in Avella yesterday, the congressman, hopeful of holding on to his seat in an election that is proving difficult for Republicans, says: "This is a pro-life, God and country sort of place.

"For many here, Joe 'the plumber' Wurzelbacher is an inspiration to people, and all they saw was that he was mocked by liberals and they didn't like it. They know that he doesn't make $250,000 a year, but he wants to. And why shouldn't he?"

Although Pennsylvania's 18th is a district where there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, Murphy believes the majority will vote for John McCain in Tuesday's presidential election.

"People are mad about the bailout that was given to the banks, about losing money on their pension funds, and they are mad that bankers walked away with tens of millions of dollars even though they bankrupted their stockholders," he says.

His next-door congressional neighbour, Democrat Jack Murtha, a 28-year veteran on Capitol Hill one who normally gets re-elected on the nod, is facing a mighty battle this year after he said some of his constituents opposed Barack Obama because he is black.

With no desire to pick a fight with Murtha, Murphy disagrees. "I was in a factory the other day and the guys there said they wouldn't vote for Obama, and it had nothing to do with race. They don't like his tax policies.

"Their view is that they work hard for their money and yet they believe [that] with Obama . . . if others don't work they will still get paid. That to them is not fair."

Driving around the district, one sees numerous signs in yards and gardens urging support for Murphy and nearly as many declaring proudly, "Redneck Democrat, Voting Republican". There are far fewer calling for support for his Democrat opponent.

Here, too, McCain's vice- presidential running mate, Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, is more popular than the Arizona senator.

"She is very attractive to people here. People like the way that she stood up to special interests in her home state," Murphy adds.

"People here feel that the treatment that she has got has not been balanced. People looked into her record, but they don't seem to have been prepared to do the same for Obama, and they don't like that. That doesn't seem fair to them."

A former child psychologist, Murphy, a regular visitor to Ireland as part of congressional delegations, is finishing his third term in Congress, partly because he has successfully built up relations with trade unions, farmers and other power blocs in his district.

On Orrin Smith's Oak Hill farm yesterday, just yards away from grazing Angus cows, Murphy was given a certificate acknowledging his "outstanding contribution" to farmers in his district and in the state over the last two years.

Nationally, Republicans are facing an uphill battle not to fall further behind the Democrats in the House of Representatives, and, even worse, to concede a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority to their opponents in the Senate.

"The experience of single-party government has not been good here," Murphy adds. "Normally, there is a backlash two years later. Americans like checks and balances."

The congressman has a conservative record in line with the views of his constituents.

For years farmers such as Orrin Smith, and countless others, have endured tough times, coping with everything from poor weather to higher feed costs caused by federal subsidies to mid-western farmers for turning corn into ethanol.

In the past, Pennsylvania was the centre of the US coal industry and with it, the steel industry. However, steel plants have closed down by the score over recent decades, devastating much of the economic heart of the region.

Today, the future is gas.

Pennsylvania has lots of gas 5,000 feet under the earth, because of the Marcellus shale that spreads out underneath the western part of the state into Ohio and other neighbouring states.

The gas is held in pockets inside the shale and explorers have to drill down and then horizontally to get it out. It is worth the attempt, though.

So far, research has shown that the region is a store for 500 trillion cubic feet of supplies, enough to keep wells running for 40 years, perhaps far longer.

It is proving to be a mother lode for farmers, who can earn up to $300,000 a year from exploration companies who are drilling hundreds of small wells in the area, linked by a high-pressure pipeline that is currently being laid through farm after farm.

"A lot of these people have struggled to meet next year's payments. Some years they have not made any money at all but they don't complain. They just get on with it, but this gives them a whole new chance," Murphy says.

Murphy has been to the fore in encouraging the exploration and in proposing the creation of a new energy economy around Pittsburgh, which would see the city become a world leader in clean-coal technology - despite the opposition to clean coal that exists in Washington.

"Look, I am sure that their intentions are noble, but I think it would be better to use the coal reserves that are still here in abundance and clean it up. People understand coal here. When I was a state senator coal was worth $14 a tonne. Today, it is worth $145," he says.

The first plants will be incredibly expensive to build, but costs will drop in time.

"China is going to produce in a couple of years, and they are building a dirty coal plant every week at the moment. The question is, 'Do you want your lights on?' If you do, a solution will have to be found."

Looking around Oak Hill farm, equipped with a new tractor bought off the proceeds of the first payments from the gas companies, he says: "A lot of these people will make a lot more than $250,000 from the gas rights."

He then asks with a laugh: "Are there any Obama supporters out there?"