Democrat Pam Iovino, Republican D. Raja vie for 37th state Senate seat |

Democrat Pam Iovino, Republican D. Raja vie for 37th state Senate seat

Natasha Lindstrom
Pam Iovino and D. Raja

Voters in the South Hills and part of Washington County will decide Tuesday who fills the Pennsylvania Senate seat left vacant by Republican U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler with a special election garnering national attention.

Democrat Pam Iovino is vying for the 37th District seat against Republican D. Raja.

Iovino, 62, is a Navy veteran appointed to a top U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs post by former Republican President George W. Bush.

Raja, 53, is the chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Committee and chief executive of an IT consulting firm based in Robinson.

Both live in Mt. Lebanon.

Observers have suggested the race could be an early test of President Donald Trump’s strength ahead of his 2020 reelection bid in a critical battleground state. The open seat is in territory historically influenced by Republican-leaning neighborhoods but is viewed as increasingly friendly to Democrats.

“The district is being watched because it voted overwhelmingly for the President in 2016, so we’ll see how strong that foothold is,” Iovino said.

Democrat Matt Smith beat Raja in 2012 to pick up the seat prior to Reschenthaler, but it’s been controlled mostly by Republicans over the past 50 years.

“What I hear are the local policies that people care about,” Raja said. “It’s all about their individual jobs.”

The 37th District includes much of Allegheny County’s southern and western and suburbs, among them Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon, Bridgeville, Moon Township, Upper St. Clair, Sewickley, Jefferson Hills, and Peters Township in Washington County.

If Iovino prevails, Democrats would secure 22 seats on the 50-seat state Senate, the most since 2014 and a boon for Democrats seeking to close in on the GOP’s majority control of the chamber in 2020.

The polls open 7 a.m. Tuesday and close at 8 p.m.

Here’s a quick look at the candidates and their campaign platforms:

D. Raja, R-Mt. Lebanon

Raja describes himself as a “pro-job, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment” candidate who will look for ways to market and grow the region’s economy and eliminate government waste in the state budget.

“When you look at my background, 32 years in Pittsburgh, public service, evaluating budgets, cutting taxes, it gives me the right profile and the best profile to serve the residents as state senator and I humbly ask for their vote,” Raja said.

Background: A first-generation immigrant from India, Raja moved to Western Pennsylvania 32 years ago to complete his graduate studies. After working for Lockheed, Raja co-founded the software company CEI, or Computer Enterprises Inc., out of a spare bedroom in his South Hills apartment 25 years ago, and since has grown the company to more than 500 employees nationwide.

Raja sits on the board of directors for the Port Authority of Allegheny County and is a former Mt. Lebanon commissioner.

In 2012, Raja lost a bid for the 37th District seat to Democrat Matt Smith.

From 2013 to 2016, Raja served on the board of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency and hosted his own show on KDKA.

Education: Raja earned a master’s of science in computer science from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s of business administration from Carnegie Mellon University.

Top priorities: Job creation; finding ways to reduce the property tax burden on seniors; increasing education funding; and working with the business community to preserve access to health care options.

Raja says he will aim to find revenue to increase education spending and reduce taxes by growing the economy and convincing more companies to open business in the state. He wants to attract more major projects like the Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County and help residents get trained for high-demand jobs, particularly in the manufacturing and energy sectors.

“Education is really important, I want to make sure there’s increased funding for education,” Raja said. “I don’t think that all post-secondary education needs to be four years, particularly with energy and manufacturing, but can be two-year programs and vocational programs, all of that.”

Supporters: U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, state Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, the NRA, Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation and the Making America Great PAC. He also secured an endorsement from Reschenthaler, who says he believes Raja will continue “to cut wasteful spending, lower taxes, improve our schools and eliminate job-killing regulations to put local families first.”

Other stances:

• Raja opposes a gas and oil severance tax, citing the state’s existing development impact fees that pump millions of dollars into municipalities statewide as sufficient.

• He supported a ban on bump stocks. He’d like background checks to be enforced more thoroughly and efforts to keep guns away from convicted criminals and people who are mentally unstable or may be a harm to themselves or others.

• He’s opposed to raising the minimum wage to $15, but would consider looking at slight increases akin to rates in neighboring states.

Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon

Iovino is a former Navy captain and union-backed candidate who says she brings “a unique set of skills and experience to be able to go up to Harrisburg and represent the people of the 37th District.”

Background: Iovino grew up in White Hall and served in the Navy for 23 years. She served tours as a missile maintenance officer, manpower analyst, network warfare program manager and commanding officer.

When she retired as a captain, she was appointed by Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the post of assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she says she gained experience in working on bipartisan and bicameral legislative issues.

Most recently, Iovino served as director of veterans services for Allegheny County.

She sought the Democratic nomination for Congress but was defeated in 2017 by U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, who went on to win the election against Rick Saccone.

Education: Iovino has a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from Naval War College and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Gettysburg College.

Top priorities: Preserving access to health care; increasing the state’s share of education spending for local school districts; enacting a severance tax on natural gas drillers; and raising the minimum wage.

She says that she “will stand up in Harrisburg to make sure women have access to comprehensive health care.”

With the potential revenue from a severance tax, she’d like to see the state pitch in closer to 50 percent of the amount it costs school districts to educate students, whereas current amounts vary and can be as low as 10 percent. She says that the location of a school shouldn’t dictate how much resource it gets.

“We have to see what we can do to alleviate the burden on real estate property taxes, and also do something about how zip codes are a function of the quality of our schools,” Iovino said.

Supporters: Gov. Tom Wolf, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, state House Democrats, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, Allegheny County Controller Mike Lamb. Iovino has the backing of more than a dozen union groups, including the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, United Steelworkers, United Mine Workers of America, Pennsylvania State Education Association and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

Other stances:

• Iovino supports investing more state money on infrastructure and job training.

• She supports legalizing marijuana.

• She supports “common-sense gun reforms,” including universal background checks and preventing people who have been convicted of domestic abuse from owning guns.

“I’ve sworn many times to support and defend, and I took that oath very seriously to include the Second Amendment, and none of the things that I put in that category interfere with the Second Amendment,” Iovino said.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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