Wednesday night’s debate between the candidates running for the state’s 37th Senate district was less contentious than the TV ads might lead you to expect.
In fact, the TV ads were the only point of friction between Democrat Pam Iovino and Republican D. Raja in the only scheduled debate prior to the April 2 special election.
During the League of Women Voters forum at Robert Morris University, Iovino took aim at TV ads in which Raja tried to link her to national Democrats – and to late-term abortion bills in other states. She called the ads “really disgraceful.” While she said she supported abortion rights and that “keeping these procedures legal and medically safe is very important,” she said the ads “do not reflect my position.”
Raja asserted his staunch opposition to abortion rights. And for his part, he blasted Iovino’s campaign as “pure character assassination. There’s been nothing of substance from my opponent.” One mailing, he said, faulted him for a vote during his stint as a Mt. Lebanon Township commissioner – a vote he said he wasn’t even present for.
But neither candidate engaged the other directly over the ads, and the debate sketched out themes that have become familiar in their race to replace Guy Reschenthaler, who was elected to Congress last year.
The two Mt. Lebanon residents stressed their bipartisan appeal. Iovino talked up her service in the Navy and the Department of Veterans Affairs, as an appointee of George W. Bush.
“I never would have gotten that job if I didn’t have the ability to work in a bipartisan manner,” she said.
Raja touted his work as a board member for the Port Authority of Allegheny County as proof he offered a “new kind of leadership [in which] you can be honest and really get great results.”
Still, many of their areas of disagreement fell along familiar partisan lines.
Economy and taxes
Iovino continued to support a severance tax on natural gas, which she said could help ease rates for property and other taxes on residents and businesses. Raja, whose upbeat perspective on fracking for natural gas has been a signature campaign issue, said that a severance tax would cripple the industry.
When Iovino said she favored cutting a corporate income tax, Raja called the position “ironic” given her support of the severance tax.
“You have two very radically different visions,” he said. “One that fosters industry, and the other that taxes and kills it.”
Marijuana and Alcohol
Iovino took a more liberal stance on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, hailing the tax revenue – for which she cited estimates of $500 million – it would produce. She added that there was, “a lot of medical evidence” that the drug could affect brain development by the age of 25 and said she would “probably hold firm” on such an age limit.
Raja, for his part, said, “I have two teenage daughters, and I think you know what my answer is: No, I am not in favor of legalizing medical marijuana.”
The two candidates took opposite stances on another brain-altering substance. Raja said privatizing the sale of liquor was “way overdue,” while Ioivno said the state store system “is something that isn’t broken. It does not need to be fixed.”
Iovino was more supportive of gun-control regulations than her opponent. Raja preferred addressing the “root cause” of gun violence, especially mental health concerns. But both candidates agreed that a House bill requiring annual registration of firearms went too far.
When the candidates were asked how they would seek to resolve a long-running health care dispute between Highmark and UPMC, Raja said he would “bring both UPMC and Highmark to the table and work up a solution that would be a win-win” – but in a manner that “facilitates competition."
Iovino, meanwhile, said she would back a bill proposed by Democratic Senator Jay Costa, which would require providers like UPMC to accept the insurance of any willing provider. “One of the reasons I’d like to get to Harrisburg is that, given the climate now in Harrisburg, it will be a challenge … to put something like that through,” she added.
Raja also hedged to some extent on whether he’d support a bill that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity.
“I am not for discrimination against anybody,” he said. But he begged off saying he backed bill to ban such discrimination proposed by Squirrel Hill state Rep. Dan Frankel. "I don’t know the specifics of this particular state bill.”
Iovino, by contrast, said she would “absolutely” back a measure to ban such discrimination. “We have to come out of the Dark Ages,” she said.
Raja said he’d like to see multiple “cracker” plants that use the gas for manufacturing plastics and other goods. As for how to address the region’s already-poor air quality, he said, “We have some phenomenal innovation that is coming out of our schools … We’ve got to apply that technology.”
Iovino espoused a statewide energy plan that set a goal of having 30 percent of the state’s power coming from renewable resources – over four times the current rate. She did not discuss specifics, though previous plans have involved the use of incentives to encourage wind and solar generation.
Wednesday night's debate is the only one scheduled between the two candidates.