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Republicans fight odds to get votes for Pa. Senate

| Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, 12:05 a.m.
Kimberly Villella, 49, who is seeking election in the 47th District that includes parts of Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.
state Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., 56, who is seeking re-election in the 47th District that includes parts of Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.
state Rep. Matt Smith, 40, who is seeking the state Senate seat in the 37th District that includes parts of Allegheny and Washington counties.
D. Raja, Chairman and CEO of Computer Enterprises Inc., ran for Allegheny County Executive, state Senate
state Sen. Kim Ward, 56, who is seeking re-election in the 39th District that includes part of Westmoreland County.

Republicans are looking to hold on to seats in three state Senate districts in Western Pennsylvania where Democrats have a decided edge in registered voters.

Republican D. Raja, a Mt. Lebanon businessman, faces state Rep. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, in what has been a contentious race to fill a seat vacated by former Republican Sen. John Pippy. The district includes suburbs in the South Hills and west of Pittsburgh and is the most balanced in terms of registered voters, with 47 percent registered as Democrats and 41 percent as Republicans.

Republican incumbents are seeking second terms in the other races. Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, faces independent candidate Ron Gazze, a Greensburg dentist; and Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., R-New Sewickley, is being challenged by Baden Councilwoman Kimberly Villella in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1.

Raja and Smith both say their top priorities are creating jobs, increasing education funding and improving Pennsylvania's crumbling infrastructure, but policy talk has given way to attack ads.

Most recently, Raja accused Smith of reneging on a promise to forgo state pension benefits and supporting measures that resulted in new taxes totaling $1 million for every day he has spent in office. The latter claim figures in local taxes imposed after legislators including Smith passed laws allowing local governing bodies to levy them, such as Allegheny County's drink and car rental tax.

Smith said he upheld a campaign promise not to participate in the state pension system during his first two years of office — though in 2009, at the start of his second term, he enrolled in the pension system and bought two years worth of service time, enabling him to become vested to receive a pension as of late last year.

As for the tax ad: “That is just totally not accurate,” said Smith, who sits on four House committees, serving as minority vice chairman of the Finance Committee and minority chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee on economic impact and infrastructure.

Smith said Raja outsourced jobs to India.

“Outsourcing is an emotional word. The fact that I'm Indian makes the connection so much easier to make, but this is a long-standing issue, and I've addressed it,” said Raja, 46, noting opponents raised similar claims in his unsuccessful campaign for Allegheny County Executive last year and in this spring's GOP primary.

Raja, a naturalized U.S. citizen, co-founded a custom software firm that is based in Scott and has more than 300 employees. It has eight offices in the United States and one in India.

“About 94 percent of our global spending is here and we are hiring here,” he said.

In the other races, the incumbent Ward, a former Westmoreland County commissioner and Hempfield Township supervisor, is being challenged by Gazze, who told the Trib he wanted to give voters a choice but vowed to spend no more than $2,000 on his campaign.

Gazze previously ran unsuccessfully for state House and Westmoreland County commmissioner. Ward sits on five Senate committees, serving as chairwoman of the Aging and Youth Committee and vice chairwoman of the Banking and Insurance Committee.

Vogel won his seat in a heavily Democratic district after his original opponent, former Rep. Sean Ramaley, dropped out of the race when then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, now governor, charged him in the Bonusgate scandal four months before the election. A jury later acquitted Ramaley. Vogel easily beat the Democratic replacement.

Vogel sits on six Senate committees, serving as chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee and vice chairman of the Local Government Committee. Senate leaders appointed him to the Appropriations Committee last month.

Villella has campaigned aggressively, with recent ads calling Vogel a “Republican Party Puppet” who votes with the GOP 98 percent of the time.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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