Iovino, Raja will be candidates in 37th District special election

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Dems pick Iovino for 37th special election

Barbara S. Miller/Observer-Reporter

Pam Iovino surveys a crowd of Democratic delegates at Library fire hall Sunday when she was chosen as their special election candidate in the 37th State Senatorial District.

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Barbara S. Miller/Observer-Reporter

Greg Smith of Pleasant Hills, left, congratulates candidate D. Raja after his selection as the Republican candidate for the special election in the 37th Senatorial District.

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Signs that will soon begin sprouting in the area in advance of the April 2 special election were in evidence Sunday at the Library fire hall, South Park Township.

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Barbara S. Miller/Observer-Reporter

Democrat Pam Iovino is surrounded by supporters on stage at the Library fire hall in South Park Township after her selection as the party’s candidate for the special election in the 37th Senatorial District.

Snow on Sunday morning heralded a flurry of political activity in the 37th Senatorial District, which includes Pittsburgh’s South Hills and western suburbs, plus Peters Township in Washington County.

And before the sun set in fiery hues and blues, Democrats had chosen Pam Iovino and Republicans gave their nod to D. Raja, both residents of Mt. Lebanon, whose names will appear on the shortest of ballots in a special election scheduled for Tuesday, April 2, a mere 10 weeks away.

The Democrats opened their proceedings to the public while the Republicans met for more than two hours in a closed session. Each candidate was chosen on the first ballot, with the runner-up pledging support to the first-place finisher in gestures of party unity.

Democrats abuzz as candidate drops out

The earlier of the two mini-conventions began at 11 a.m. at the Library fire hall in South Park Township, where Democrats chose Pam Iovino, a U.S. Navy veteran and former Veterans Affairs presidential appointee, as their candidate.

The vote was 137 for Iovino, to Dr. Bob Solomon’s 115, who then pledged his support to the nominee.

“We’re not starting tomorrow, we started three months ago,” she said after being declared the victor, “making sure we had the field organization and relationships, the fundraising started and (making) labor aware.”

Olivia Benson, who stunned those gathered by announcing she was dropping out of the senatorial race, received two votes. In front of 200-plus credentialed delegates, she declared her candidacy for state auditor general in 2020. Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is term-limited.

State Sen. Jay Costa of Allegheny County, minority leader, said he, too, was taken by surprise that the field of candidates narrowed to two shortly after the meeting was convened.

“I think Ms. Benson is an outstanding candidate, whether it be for the state Senate or the auditor general position,” Costa said as balloting was under way. “This is the first hat in the ring.”

He also called the 37th special election “the first race in the country we have the opportunity to flip.”

Iovino, 62, was a congressional liaison before she retired from the Navy as a captain to assume the Senate-confirmed appointment by President George W. Bush as assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She was later director of veterans’ services for Allegheny County.

Carole Ortenzo, Democratic Committee member for Peters Township’s A-3 precinct and a retired Army colonel, said, “I know what it takes to attain an (officer’s) rank. Another strength of hers is that she truly knows how to work across the aisle to find common ground and solutions.”

The 37th District has gone back and forth between Democrats and Republicans since the 1980s.

Both Iovino and Solomon were also-rans in November 2017 in the nominating round for the March 2018 special election that paved the way to Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory over Rick Saccone to succeed disgraced Congressman Tim Murphy in the 18th District, which then included parts of Washington, Greene, Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. Murphy resigned in October 2017 after an adultery scandal.

Iovino alluded to the special election last March when “all eyes were on us a year ago to see if we could flip a congressional seat” and called on members of her party “to keep this momentum going.

“We need to send Gov. (Tom) Wolf an ally in the Senate. We need someone who is going to fight for quality, accessible health care, protect seniors, support our public schools, give us property tax relief and start making the corporations pay their fair share.”

She pledged to fight for working families, raise the minimum wage and job opportunities with family-sustaining salaries while protecting the environment.

“Just by geography, there’s a lot of overlap,” Iovino said as supporters congratulated her nomination.

Six candidates in the GOP field

A second set of delegates met later in the afternoon at the Crowne Plaza Hotel to choose the candidate they hope will succeed Republican Guy Reschenthaler, who was elected to Congress Nov. 6 from the 14th District, which, due to redistricting ordered last year by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and now includes all of Washington, Greene and Fayette counties and part of Westmoreland County.

Before taking the oath of federal office earlier this month, Reschenthaler had to resign his 37th District Senatorial seat, triggering a special election on a date selected by then-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack.

Addressing Republican delegates, along with Raja, hopefuls were Bob Dodato of North Fayette Township, George Karpacs of South Park Township, Jeff Neff of Sewickley, Demetrios Pantzoulas of Oakdale and Devlin Robinson of Bridgeville.

Washington & Jefferson College political science department Chairman Joseph DiSarro, a Green Tree resident, was not alone in expecting the convention to go to a second ballot, but that did not prove to be necessary.

After the results of the balloting were announced, runner-up Robinson threw his 27 votes to Raja, who had garnered 41, as part of a call for unanimity.

Raja, a former Mt. Lebanon commissioner and current member of the Allegheny County Port Authority board, also chairs the Republican Committee of Allegheny County. He ran for the 37th Senatorial seat in 2012 but was defeated by Democratic state Rep. Matt Smith.

Smith’s resignation paved the way for Reschenthaler’s eventual win in 2015.

Greg Smith, Republican vice chairman of Pleasant Hills, where he is a borough councilman, gave Raja a congratulatory embrace.

“I thought it might go three rounds,” Smith said as he prepared to exit the hotel. “I think it’s a good outcome. It’s time people in Southwestern Pennsylvania get beyond their discriminatory thinking and elect an Asian-American.”

Raja, 53, who was born in India and educated in Pittsburgh, hopes to benefit this time from what GOP state Chairman Val DiGiorgio called during a post-convention press conference the Republican National Committee’s “$250 million investment in data to make sure we hit the right voters with the right message at the right time.”

Campaign materials show Raja has the support of both U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and Reschenthaler, both of whom the candidate said he hopes will assist him in fundraising.

DiGiorgio called Raja the embodiment of the American dream who became a technology entrepreneur and hopes to go “to Harrisburg to be a check on this governor’s attempt to continue to raise taxes and hurt Pennsylvania’s business climate” as part of a GOP majority.

Raja said, “I’m a first-generation immigrant, and like many of the conferees’ grandparents and great-grandparents, I’ve lived the same values – honesty and hard work, having compassion and picking yourself up….

“We represent the working people of the people. Anyone who works in any job, that’s who we represent. Lower taxes, education, it’s all of those.”


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