The race in state Senate District 37 wasn’t always so contentious. This past summer, Republican Devlin Robinson got some positive press after his campaign found and returned the wallet of his rival, Democratic state Senator Pam Iovino. But at this point, it’s a miracle someone hasn’t been mugged.
On the airwaves, Robinson ads blast Iovino as hopelessly liberal, and a supporter of taxpayer-funded abortions — something the law doesn’t permit. Iovino spots tag Robinson as a crony of former Congressman Tim Murphy, who resigned amid scandal.
The ads suggest the stakes in the 37th District, which includes airport-area suburbs and much of the South Hills, and is seen as a critical battleground for control of the state Senate. Democrats must defend Iovino’s seat and flip four others to gain an advantage in the upper house of the legsialture.
“We can’t lose the 37th,” said Iovino, who says that since winning her seat in April 2019, she’s come to think of being a senator as “the best job I’ve ever had.”
Iovino, a Mt. Lebanon resident who served more than two decades in the Navy, has sought to focus on veteran’s issues in the Senate, with efforts to better coordinate work by service providers seeking to help vets. But more broadly, she said, “There’s a lot at stake for the state,” in this race.
“We have legislation sitting on a shelf — raising the minimum wage, protecting workers’ rights, paid sick leave, paid family leave. “They’re not the priority of the [Republican] majority, and so they don’t see the light of day.”
Bridgeville resident Robinson, though, says the state “needs somebody that's more business-minded” and “willing to be a partner with the business community.” A Marine veteran who now runs his own medical-supply business, Robinson says his skills will be especially useful contending with the budgetary fallout from the coronavirus. And he says that Iovino has supported coronavirus shutdowns and regulations that have punished business needlessly.
“Pam Iovino has backed [Gov. Tom Wolf] every step of the way,” Robinson said. “She has practically put a stranglehold on the hospitality industry, auto sales, construction and real estate. And they would be able to make their own decisions to operate safely.”
Iovino did join with other Democrats to criticize aspects of Wolf’s approach to the restaurant industry, but she characterized the administration’s performance on the virus as “overall very, very good. It has not been without controversy, I have not been in lockstep with him at every turn. But it is science driven, it is data driven as he has made these decisions.”
The two have a number of familiar policy differences: Iovino supports abortion rights, a severance tax on fracking for natural gas, and marijuana legalization, as Colorado has done: “When you criminalize marijuana, it disproportionately hurts communities of color,” she said, noting that legalization could produce tax revenue to solve the state’s budget problems.
“This might be exactly the time when we get serious,” she said.
Robinson is much warier of legalization, and like most Republicans, opposes abortion rights and a severance tax. “The world has energy needs, and being that I’ve been in the Middle East and seen the unrest over there, I don’t want to see the United States become a net importer,” he said.
Both candidates are area natives who served in the military, but had very different experiences. As a self-described “grunt” in the Marines, Robinson saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and says the experience brought him into contact with “people from a vast array of backgrounds from all over the country and the world. We worked together to complete a common mission, and that’s the type of attitude I’ll bring to Harrisburg.”
Iovino served in the Navy for over two decades in a number of capacities, including as liaison to Congress. She later worked with Congress as an assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Robinson, she said “absolutely has a record of service that he should be proud of,” Iovino said. But she said her experience included work “at the federal level and the executive branch,” and that she’d been appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican.
The seat has been a top target for Republicans ever since Iovino won it: In recent decades Republicans have dominated the district, and Iovino’s 2019 victory means the GOP now has no state senators from Allegheny County. (Robinson says if he wins, it will give the area a voice with the current majority party that the county now lacks.)
But Democrats privately seem confident about their prospects there, in part because the 37th includes college-educated suburbs where voters have been turning against President Trump.
That can make the territory tricky for a Republican. Asked about how he felt about Trump’s performance, Robinson lapsed into near silence for a full minute. “I’m just here to run my race,” he said at one point, and “be an independent voice in Harrisburg.”