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'My Experience In Government Has Always Been Bipartisan': Pam Iovino On Her State Senate Bid

Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Pam Iovino (right) shortly after winning the Democratic nomination in the 37th state Senate race

Pam Iovino and D. Raja, who are running in a special election for the 37th state Senate district, are both Mt. Lebanon residents. And both have run for office in the area before. Iovino sought to be the Democratic nominee for a Congressional race in the area last year, but was supplanted by eventual winner Conor Lamb. Raja himself, meanwhile, had an unsuccessful bid for the 37th state Senate seat several years ago. 

But that may be where the similarities end. While Raja touts his own story as a successful first-generation immigrant, Iovino points to her status as a South Hills native.

“One of the reasons that I decided to run for elected office is that I am living in a place that I grew up in that does not look the same in terms of providing the same opportunities that I felt that I had,” she said. “And I see that being eroded.”

And while Raja has long been active in politics — he’s the chair of the GOP’s county committee — Iovino is a relative newcomer who boasts of having worked pragmatically with members of both parties. A veteran of the US Navy, Iovino served as a Congressional liaison for the military and, later, the Department of Veterans Affairs. “My experience in legislative government has always been bipartisan,” she said. “It’s about getting work accomplished and done.”

The two candidates are squaring off to replace former state Senator Guy Reschenthaler after the Republican won election to Congress last year. The battleground is the largely prosperous 37th district, which sprawls from the airport-area suburbs through the South Hills of Pittsburgh and into Peters Township. Already the race has become charged, with each campaign moving briskly from airing positive ads about themselves to putting out negative spots about each other.

Iovino spoke with 90.5 WESA about those ads, and about her own vision for the district and what a Democratic state Senate could look like.

The election is April 2.

On what is eroding the sense of opportunity she grew up with

Students coming out of Pennsylvania have the second-highest college debt in the country. We have a mismatch between the workforce and the jobs that are here. It’s about the future and optimism. We don’t want our kids and grandkids to leave the region in order to have a future.

As far as the economy and jobs, it’s about ensuring that we are preparing the workforce for the jobs of today and the jobs of the future. And that the jobs are for sustainable family wages that come with benefits and protections in the workplace. It has to do with funding – whether for trade schools or the unions that are trying to do this. It’s also for career-training education programs in our high schools.

We could make our own colleges and universities more affordable. When a student from Pennsylvania can go to out-of-state public universities cheaper than they can go to one of our universities, I’d say there is work to be done there.

If we take advantage of every revenue stream that is available to us, we look at finding better ways to fund better things that we want.

On how to reconcile Democrats’ desire for a “fair funding” formula that reduces disparities in education spending with the fact that the district includes schools that are very well-funded and successful under the status quo

I think part of the fair funding issue revolves around [the fact that] an inordinate amount of the formula comes from real-estate property taxes. So that’s where we’re talking about fairness. I think I’m most aligned with [Gov. Tom Wolf] on this one in terms of where it comes from, and that it could come from a reasonable severance tax on the gas and oil industry.

On Raja’s claims that a severance tax would drive energy jobs from the state

This natural resources that is below our feet and here in this region – the gas and oil industry should not be scared away and would not be scared away. I do not believe that would happen. So I don’t think the promise of the scare is accurate. We need revenue streams to pay for all of the things that our state government provides for us. So to leave this [tax] on the table does not make sense to me.

On her reaction to an attack ad by the Raja campaign, which links her with national Democrats including Nancy Pelosi and Democratic socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

It probably will come as no surprise to you that I do not know any of those individuals. Nor are they supporting me nor have I sought their support. I don’t know what to make of the ad. It is not conveying anything that is accurate about myself, other than that I’m a Democrat.

On her own campaign ad attacking Raja for business practices -- including a failure to pay overtime to some workers -- that took place over 15 years ago.

They’re facts, they’re examples of business practices of my opponent. I don’t know that a timeline or a distance from instances matters one way or another. I think they point to one’s integrity in business.

It’s also important because I feel so proud to have gained the endorsement of the Allegheny County Labor Council and the AFL-CIO and more than a dozen individual unions under that. Because they know I have their back.  Those endorsements do not come lightly. They know that I am one who will fight for [causes like] raising the minimum wage and paying it. So we can have family-sustaining wages.

I’m in concurrence that a $15 minimum wage is what it should be, and I agree with the governor in trying to do that, and getting Pennsylvania caught up. We have the lowest minimum age of the states surrounding us. We are lagging behind in that area.

On whether municipalities like Pittsburgh should have the right to pass their own gun-control initiatives, despite legal arguments that only the state has that power.

I think a municipality’s safety is very much resident in whoever their executive is. Especially when it’s an issue of safety. They may know better than someone above could ever weigh in on. What I’d really like to see happen on this issue, though, is we are in need of sensible gun safety reform and legislation. We could do something statewide and there would not be a necessity for city-by-city to do something like this.  

[A sensible reform] calls for universal background checks – and those background checks must happen whether the sale is at a gun show or whether it’s private owner to private owner. It’s the banning of the bump stocks that are currently turning a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic weapon. It would revolve around – people who suffer from mental illness may not own guns. Someone who has been convicted of domestic abuse may not own a gun.

On how to resolve a dispute between UPMC and Highmark, in which UPMC will cease to recognize Highmark insurance this summer.

I would support Senator [Jay] Costa’s bill [to require healthcare networks like UPMC to accept payment from any eligible insurance plan]. In the absence of insisting that these two players negotiate with each other, the individual that is going to have to pay is the one who is insured, the one in need of healthcare. They should not be the victim in this. That’s wrong.  When they can’t come to an agreement on their own – I think it is a smart move that they are forced into negotiation. And I would like to see the acceptance of health insurance from whoever your insurance is.

On what’s at stake in this election.

I think one of the things at stake is flipping the seat, and maybe even ultimately having the opportunity to flip the state Senate in 2020. [That] would give the governor another branch of government to work with him, and not oppose him. I think that distinguishes the two candidates very starkly.

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.