Raja posts big victory over Mustio in ugly GOP campaign

Mt. Lebanon business executive tops Rep. Mustio

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In what became an increasingly ugly -- and some felt, racially tinged -- Republican race for the soon-to-be-vacated state Senate 37th District, D. Raja appeared poised to easily slide to victory Tuesday.

Mr. Raja, 46, a business executive and former Mt. Lebanon commissioner, was running substantially ahead of challengers Sue Means, a nurse from Bethel Park, and Mark Mustio, a state representative from Moon. State Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, did not seek re-election.

Although he fell short last year in his bid for Allegheny County executive versus Rich Fitzgerald, Mr. Raja told dozens of supporters gathered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Bethel Park that Tuesday was his lucky night.

"This campaign was the toughest for me, because it was so negative," said Mr. Raja, who called the campaign "somewhat unpleasant at times.

"This feels like it's been a long time coming," said Mr. Raja, who promised to "lead by example" in the Senate by not accepting a taxpayer-funded pension.

In recent weeks, a bitter media campaign heightened public interest in the race, lodged mostly between Mr. Raja and Mr. Mustio, 54, of Moon, an insurance company president who faced no opposition to retain his seat in the 44th Legislative District for a sixth term.

David Taylor of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, who is a supporter of Mr. Raja, used the words "racist and scurrilous" to describe Mr. Mustio's TV ads, which accused Mr. Raja of outsourcing jobs to his native India.

In light of the nature of the ads, which included a photo of Mr. Raja superimposed over an image of the flag of India, Mr. Taylor and other prominent Republicans questioned Mr. Mustio's fitness for office and worried that the ads sent the wrong message to Indian-American voters.

When Mr. Mustio followed up the television ads with a mailer using Mr. Raja's full given name -- Mr. Raja has for years been known as simply Raja or D. Raja -- the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took the unusual step of withdrawing its previous endorsement of Mr. Mustio. The newspaper said he crossed the line with an "insidious mailing aimed at stirring up prejudices about Mr. Raja's foreign birth."

Mr. Raja said he came to America 25 years ago to attend the University of Pittsburgh and founded a successful software company in the spare bedroom of his Scott townhouse. Today, Mr. Raja said his company is based in Scott and employs 400, with 80 to 100 of those in India, and about 94 percent of the firm's money spent locally.

In his campaign ads, Mr. Raja slammed Mr. Mustio for voting in favor of the 2005 pay raise and for taking taxpayer-funded per diems and other perks as a legislator. Mr. Mustio said he regretted voting for the pay raise and said he returned the money.

Mr. Mustio, reached at his campaign headquarters at Montour Heights Country Club in Coraopolis, said he called Mr. Raja to congratulate him and said he would support him in the fall.

"I don't think anybody likes to lose," Mr. Mustio said. "I think we had three good candidates and we were close on most of the issues."

As far as the controversial ads, he said, "Politics isn't for sissies; you have to have a tough skin."

If Mr. Raja wins, it's unclear how long he will be able to fill the seat due to redistricting plans that call for his hometown of Mt. Lebanon to no longer be in the district and would change the district number so that there has to be another election in two years instead of four.

If a new reapportionment plan -- hashed out earlier this month by state legislators after the state Supreme Court rejected previous redistricting plans in January -- is approved, Mr. Raja would have to move to the redrawn district, forgo his seat, or run in the new Mt. Lebanon district that would become part of the seat held by Democratic Sen. Wayne Fontana of Brookline.

In the November general election, Mr. Raja could face Democrat Greg Parks, a write-in candidate who Senate Democrats said got enough votes to appear on the ballot.

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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