JOHNSTOWN - For former congressman Mark Critz - running for Pennsylvania's No. 2 job as the only confirmed candidate from its western half of the state - the past two weeks' headlines have brought the good, the bad and an ample helping of the ugly.
As he travels the state and prepares to announce a series of hoped-for endorsements in the lieutenant gubernatorial primary, Critz, the onetime Democratic U.S. representative from Johnstown, has had to fight off year-old allegations about questionable comments and business connections.
"I just keep working," Critz said Friday in an interview. "From my perspective, the lieutenant governor candidate has one job in a campaign: to get the governor elected."
With recent polls showing Republican Gov. Tom Corbett with overwhelmingly low support, at least eight Democratic candidates have emerged hoping to unseat him. So far, however, only four have come forward for the second-in-command job.
Critz, who announced his candidacy last month, has already made his name known, marching in the Pittsburgh Labor Day parade and putting 5,000 miles on his car in less than a month of stumping. But his campaign hit a bump Sept. 28, when an attendee at a state Democratic Committee gathering called him out for an offensive joke he'd made a year earlier.
In 2012, addressing members of the Pennsylvania Federation of Democratic Women during his third congressional campaign, Critz made a joke involving a home invasion and rape, witness Missa Eaton of Sharon said.
The joke didn't get media attention at the time, but at the Sept. 28 state committee meeting in Valley Forge, someone who had witnessed the comment reminded Critz of it publicly, attendees said.
"She basically said, 'If you want to do this [run for office], why did you make such a misogynistic joke?'" said Carl Feldman of Harrisburg, who attended the meeting. "He was definitely caught off guard by it."
Critz hurriedly apologized, thanked the crowd and left, Feldman said.
Supporters of Harrisburg-based lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Brad Koplinski seized on the offensive joke, while news websites publicized the awkward Valley Forge exchange, Feldman said.
"The Koplinski supporters obviously immediately picked up on this," Feldman said.
Critz has since acknowledged the joke and admitted his guilt but said opponents have refused to let it go some 16 months after the fact.
"People see: Obviously, I'm human. I make mistakes. I put my foot in my mouth sometimes," he said Friday. "They've brought it up again and turned it into a political football."
Others have criticized Critz, a socially conservative Democrat, for his comments and past votes on gay marriage.
Critz's publicity concerns have extended beyond social issues, however. In a Sept. 25 article, Bloomberg News noted that Critz in 2012 added praise for a major employer of campaign donors, Johnstown-based Concurrent Technologies Corp., to the Congressional Record.
A search of the record shows that Critz made note of the technology contractor's 25th anniversary, praising the company for its work with the military. Concurrent Technologies Corp. employees donated tens of thousands of dollars to his congressional campaigns in 2010 and 2012.
"It's disappointing because I truly believe that was a hit piece," Critz said of the Bloomberg article, which noted that federal investigators searched the company's Cambria County offices last month. "Yeah, they're a Johnstown company, and they're my friends."
Critz could dampen some of the recent bad press as he reveals more endorsements, likely including some from local and national labor unions, he said. On Thursday, he announced an endorsement from the United Steelworkers, who in a press release called him a "reliable ally" of the middle class.
As the only lieutenant gubernatorial candidate so far who hails from west of Harrisburg, Critz said he could provide needed balance on a ticket with an eastern governor. His three House campaigns in western Pennsylvania garnered regional name recognition, despite a loss last year to Republican Keith Rothfus.
"It's all about having a voice at the table," he said.
Geography plays a substantial role in state elections, and it's common for governors from one half to choose running mates from the other, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Center for Politics and Public Affairs in Lancaster.
More than seven months remain until the primary, and candidates still have time to join in, but for now, Critz is by far the most recognizable of the Democratic choices, Madonna said. And with candidates' home counties listed on primary ballots, western voters might prefer Critz over competitors from Harrisburg or the Northern Tier.
Critz is connected through advisers to gubernatorial candidates Rob McCord and Kathleen McGinty, but no one has publicly discussed a shared ticket.
Whether Critz's recent negative attention will affect his campaign in the long term is up for debate, Madonna said. While the governor's election could become bitter, he said, the race for the No. 2 job will likely be less negative.
"It depends on what his opponents do with it," Madonna said.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.