GOP high-tech entrepreneur casts himself as fresh-faced outsider
Five minutes into his pitch, something went awry.
More than 200 potential supporters sat in chairs in oval-shaped rows in a hotel banquet room. D. Raja, the Republican nominee for Allegheny County executive, stood in the open space in the middle. Large screens showed the first public preview of the commercial that Raja will begin airing this week. But the sound had cut out.
Raja, 45, dressed in a dark suit, light blue shirt and red tie, spoke into the wireless microphone in his hand, offering guidance to the campaign aide who struggled out of sight with obstinate pieces of technology. His smile remained in place. His voice stayed even.
"Hold on," he said, and strode behind the screen to the aide and the laptop controlling the projectors. The crowd chuckled as Raja, who founded a high-tech startup and grew it into a multinational company, quickly tapped through the computer programs and reset the presentation. The commercial began to play, with sound.
This is the Raja his business associates know -- a problem solver who acts quickly and produces results. It's the former Mt. Lebanon commissioner his constituents remember -- one who articulated firm goals but often couldn't lead others to reach them.
"He thinks outside the box. That's good. Things that people say (are) not possible, he's willing to say, 'Let's try,' " said Bill Lewis, 75, a Mt. Lebanon Republican. But after Raja's three years as a commissioner, "I'm concerned that he just hasn't delivered."
Raja immigrated to Pittsburgh from India in 1987 with a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. He earned a master's degree in computer science and found a job with the tech firm Formtek. By his mid-20s, he was supervising multimillion-dollar projects for Formtek and the company that bought it, aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
When Lockheed moved Formtek's top executives to Northern California, Raja was among them. But he soon decided he missed Western Pennsylvania.
Ask him why, and he tells the story of his first Christmas in the United States. A college buddy, Todd Scheck, invited him to his mother's house. Relatives there welcomed him to their table, included him in conversation and made sure he had a present under the Christmas tree -- a CD of the Steve Miller Band's greatest hits.
"That is Todd. That is you. That is Allegheny County," Raja tells people at the 45 town hall meetings he's hosting around the county.
In 1992, he started a business in the spare bedroom of a townhouse he bought in Scott.
Ken Smith, then a partner in the consulting firm H.B. Maynard, gave Raja his first contract at 27. Smith cut Raja a $2 million check and told him to create a workflow system for Navistar's International Truck production line in Indiana.
"He did just a fabulous job," said Smith, who became Raja's friend. Smith offered Raja a partnership in the firm, but Raja declined, choosing the higher risk of self-employment for the potential of a bigger payday. "What I've seen over the years is he's a very determined guy. He gets his head around things very quickly, and he's almost relentless in taking things on."
Nearly 20 years later, Computer Engineering Inc., still based in Scott, employs about 300 people and has annual revenue of $30 million to $40 million. Raja serves on several advisory boards and as a mentor for entrepreneurs. The business owned by his Democratic rival, former County Councilman Rich Fitzgerald of Squirrel Hill, has about $1 million in annual revenue.
Fitzgerald criticized CEI for its outsourcing division. CEI employs software developers in India, where low wages allow Raja and his clients to cut costs.
A client of Raja's says outsourcing helped add jobs in Pittsburgh. Justin McElhattan, president of the manufacturing company Industrial Scientific, said he used CEI's India operation to expand the software-based part of his business faster than he could have with domestic programmers. That enabled him to add 40 manufacturing jobs in Pittsburgh last year.
"We're making a Pittsburgh-based company more cost-effective. In the course of doing that, we've added jobs to Pittsburgh," McElhattan said. "This is a great service, and it does not kill Pittsburgh jobs."
Raja won election to the Mt. Lebanon Board of Commissioners in 2008, promising a 20 percent tax cut, a technology corridor in the town and public-private collaboration in the form of entrepreneur mentoring and economic development councils. Residents say he fell short on those promises.
The tax cut became about 4 percent. Some locals call it the "two-latte tax cut" because it adds up to about $15 a year per person, Lewis said. Rather than cut services or streamline government, the commissioners dip into the municipality's savings account yearly to cover the tax cut.
Raja noted the savings account increases each year, so the money could go toward the tax cut or "just sit there" in the bank.
In 2009, Raja supported borrowing more than $2 million for road and sidewalk repairs rather than paying for the work up front.
"Too many times, elected officials took the easy way out," said Commissioner Dan Miller, a Democrat elected the same year as Raja. "We're going to be paying interest on that long after I've left the building."
Raja said Mt. Lebanon requires its roads be built to such a high standard that they'll last 20 years -- the life of the bond. This way, those who use the roads pay for them, he said.
A central claim of Raja's campaign is that he's the fresh-faced outsider, the person who won't conduct "business as usual." But government leadership requires a political touch different than corporate leadership, Miller said. He called the promises from Raja's commission campaign "either a complete work of fiction or the best intentions of somebody who had no idea what they were doing."
Raja's proposals for the county include installing software to measure county workers' productivity; turning land around Pittsburgh International Airport into a high-tech corridor, paid for by gas-drilling leases; and moving new Port Authority hires from a pension plan to a defined-contribution plan. On property assessments, he wants the state to implement a system for all 67 counties.
"Some of what he promised for the commission he's promising for the county," Lewis said. If he couldn't do it in Mt. Lebanon, Lewis said, "I'm not sure how he's going to pull this off."
Raja says he has learned to do things differently.
"There is a learning curve. ... Things operate at a very different pace in the public sector than the private sector," Raja said. "You need to be persistent. Sometimes I would ask for something and I wouldn't get an answer, so I learned to stay on it, to (ask) the question four or five times until I got the answer."
Editor's note: The Tuesday Tribune-Review will profile Rich Fitzgerald, the Democratic candidate for Allegheny County executive.Additional Information:
Party : Republican
Age : 45
Residence : Mt. Lebanon
Occupation : President of Computer Engineering Inc.
Education : Master's degree in computer science from the University of Pittsburgh; MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.
Family : Wife, Neeta; two children
Political experience : Mt. Lebanon commissioner, 2008-11; commission president, 2010.