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'I Don’t Want To Sit On The Sidelines': D. Raja Talks About His State Senate Campaign

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
D. Raja is the Republican candidate in the special election for the 37th state Senate district

D. Raja runs a successful technology firm, has been the chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County since 2016, and run for prominent public office twice before. But some of his neighbors, at least, are still getting to know the Republican nominee to replace Guy Reschenthaler in the 37th state Senate district. 

When the Mt. Lebanon resident was chosen as the party’s nominee for the April 2 special election, for example, “One of the TV channels there said, ‘Raja wins the nomination.’ But it wasn’t a photo of me” that the station put up – but rather a photo of a public official in India.

Raja’s ethnicity figured in his 2012 run for the same Senate seat. That year he faced a bruising primary that featured ethnically charged attacks by Republican state Rep. Mark Mustio; Raja won that fight, but lost the election to Democrat Matt Smith.

Raja has put his identity as a first-generation immigrant at the center of his campaign this year, a special election contest that will be held April 2.

“Having grown up in India, you could work hard, you could work smart, you could pick yourself up every time you were knocked down and still never succeed,” he told 90.5 WESA. He came to Pittsburgh and earned degrees at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, then founded computer-consulting firm CEI.

“Having been given the opportunity to succeed, I don’t want to sit on the sidelines,” he said.

Raja faces Democrat Pam Iovino in the 37th district, which covers an area from the airport-area suburbs to the South Hills and into Washington County’s Peters Township. Democrats and Republicans alike see the race as an early battleground for a Democratic bid to retake control of the state Senate. The area includes communities where Conor Lamb was able to defeat two Republican challengers in Congressional races last year, but Republicans held their own in a number of state legislative seats last year.

Raja spoke with WESA about his campaign priorities, his differences with Iovino, and concerns that he hasn’t shown he can win a marquee race like this one.

On his central campaign issue:

“My top priority is really to create jobs. And I think there’s something unique in our region. We’re sitting on some of the richest deposits of natural gas that’s out there. But really, it’s not just the gas where the potential is – it’s the downstream industries that come from the gas: The petrochemicals, the pellets, the plastics the advanced manufacturing. We have one cracker plant here, with potential to add three, four, five more to create a cluster and create these kind of jobs."

On his campaign’s new ad targeting Pam Iovino, linking her energy policy to national Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

“I think we both probably agree that we’re sitting on some of the richest deposits of natural gas in the world. I think it needs to be fostered. She is in favor of a severance tax. … That’s sort of what I see as the big difference between me and Ms. Iovino.”

On whether favoring a tax on gas puts one in the same category as Ocasio-Cortez, whose “Green New Deal” favors transcending fossil fuels entirely:

“In terms of the Marcellus, I think certainly Pam and Alexandria would be lockstep with it.”

On discussions about raising the state minimum wage:

“Philosophically, I think the minimum wage is for teenagers and those who are getting jobs for the first time – internships in summer and things like that. The way the economy is doing, a lot of folks are making far above the minimum wage. So philosophically, I am for keeping the minimum wage as low as possible just for the teenagers. … That said, and I always look at it from a comparative perspective, and Ohio and West Virginia both have [higher wages]. Certainly, I’d entertain [Republican state Majority Leader Jake] Corman’s proposal to take a look at that.”

On Pittsburgh’s efforts to pass local gun-control ordinances, despite state laws reserving that power to the legislature:

“I think not only state law is in effect, but federal laws are in effect too. And I think Mayor [Bill] Peduto is in violation of those by trying to propose his own laws in this regard. I go back to look at this and say, ‘What are some of the reasons why these things happen?’ A lot of it is mental illness, possibly. We’ve got to address that.

“I don’t know the specifics as to what exactly could be done, but that would certainly be a task force that, if it hasn’t already been done, I would look at it to say, hey that is something we need to put in place right now.”

On efforts to head off the end of a consent decree between UPMC and Highmark, under which UPMC has accepted some patients with Highmark insurance for certain kinds of care:

"The first thing I want to say is that the consumers can’t be in a position that’s detrimental to them. As a community, we are here to take care of each other.

"I’m a big believer in competition, so right now part of the issue we have is we have a duopoly here. Maybe what this prompts is it allows us to bring in a plethora of other providers here that makes this not as critical an issue going forward. That’s sort of the philosophical way that I look at this. … And I think that will happen."

On what he would tell Republicans who worry that he can’t win, because he lost both the 2012 race for the 37th Senate seat and a 2011 county-executive campaign against Democrat Rich Fitzgerald:

"They haven’t been entrepreneurs. They’ve never gone through failure in their life. They’re living in a bubble is what I would say.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know if the county executive position is winnable for a Republican, at least easily. So look at this logically – I’m not sure you could say that’s a race you could count.

"With regard to the state Senate race, I had a bruising primary [and then in November faced] another state Rep. who didn’t have to go through a primary. There was smooth sailing there. It was too much of a headwind there to overcome in that case.

"But here’s what I say: I lost the race seven years ago, but I didn’t leave. Most people would quit and go back and do whatever else. I’ve stayed in. … I did not disengage, and I think what people have seen is who the real Raja is. The character, the integrity, the willingness to pick yourself up when you’re knocked down."

On what he wants voters to know about the negative attacks from those earlier runs, which featured accusations that he hired workers from India and sued some employees who left the company before their consulting jobs were up.

"What I want people to know is we have placed 10,000 contract employees with Fortune 50, Fortune 500 clients. So when you talk about this, I think it’s a very, very small percentage [of workers who were sued.] This is a standard practice. What happens is we have people who are placed at our clients, and when these individuals leave with no notice, the client is in a jam. So a lot of times we enforced some of the contracts in the past. Again, you’re going back 10, 20 years ago.

"And at the same time, during the dotcom days, there was a shortage of talent here. We just could not find the right talent in Pittsburgh. So at that point, we brought a few people over who had the technology. Certainly with our schools here, us graduating all this great talent, we just hire pretty much locally all the time now."

On running as a first-generation immigrant in the current political climate:

"I think there’s a greater visibility to the issue right now. That said, I think I’m the most qualified person for this job. Most first-generation immigrants don’t run for positions like this. So when people do ask you to run twice, yes it takes time for people to get to know [you]. It takes time for people to understand – maybe there’s a certain stereotype. But having lost this race seven years ago, having been in the community for so long, people have gotten to see me. So whatever stereotype they may have, I think they’re past it now."

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.