Pennsylvania Senate candidates knock on doors, each other

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In the race for the state Senate seat in the 37th District, there has been quite a lot of walking -- and lots of door-knocking.

Republican D. Raja and Democrat Matt Smith, both of Mt. Lebanon, are seeking to fill the seat vacated in June by John Pippy, a Moon Republican who represented the district for nine years and stepped down to head the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, a newly created industry group.

Both men have spent the past few months crisscrossing a district that covers parts of Allegheny County, including communities in the South Hills, along the Ohio River and around Pittsburgh International Airport, as well as Peters in Washington County.

Mr. Raja said he knocked on 10,000 doors before winning the Republican primary in May, and that he has knocked on 12,000 doors since then.

Mr. Smith said he has knocked on 7,500 doors since he joined the race in July.

Already, the two men have broad name recognition.

Mr. Raja is a businessman, a former Mt. Lebanon commissioner and was the Republican candidate for Allegheny County executive. He wants to take his business acumen to the statehouse to create jobs and replace politicians he characterizes as gross overspenders.

Mr. Smith is the sitting state representative in the 42nd District and a Bethel Park native, who believes a Senate seat would give him a better platform to achieve goals -- like reducing the size of General Assembly and passing education programs -- he has been pursuing since he was first elected in 2006.

Seven days a week, Mr. Raja knocks on doors in his district. He door-knocked when he ran successfully for Mt. Lebanon commissioner in 2008 and when he ran unsuccessfully for Allegheny County executive in 2011.

In this race, he said it has helped him to learn what issues are important to constituents in his wide-ranging district, whether they are infrastructure concerns in Sewickley or Marcellus Shale interests in South Fayette.

It's also a way to introduce himself to voters, he said.

"Having been born in India, I think sometimes people wonder, 'How does this guy think?' Does he have the same beliefs?' " Mr. Raja said. "That's the best way to address it, when I talk to them face to face."

Mr. Raja, 47, came to the U.S. for graduate school in 1986, attending University of Pittsburgh and later Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned a master's degree in business administration.

CEI, the custom software development company he started in the spare bedroom of his South Hills townhouse in the early 1990s, has grown to include 300 employees, with offices in Pittsburgh and other sites in the United States and in India. He is currently chairman of the company.

He lives in Mt. Lebanon with his wife, Neeta, a doctor of internal medicine, and their two young daughters.

It's the same community where Mr. Smith lives and has served three terms as state representative.

Mr. Smith graduated from Bethel Park High School, Rollins College in Florida and the Duquesne University School of Law. He and his wife, Eileen, have two children.

During a recent rainy trip to Upper St. Clair, Mr. Raja, clad in a yellow Pirates cap, a jacket and comfortable shoes, walked up to the houses indicated by his campaign adviser. If no one was home, he left a flier.

The top point on his flier -- and what he focuses on in his campaign -- is creating an improved environment for job growth, a goal he says he would accomplish by lowering corporate tax rates and streamlining regulations.

Mr. Raja said he would not be in favor of statewide cuts to education because he believes cuts in Harrisburg result in increased taxes at the local level. He said he would find other ways to balance a state budget. He repeated his promise that he would not take a pension or daily per diem because he wants to "lead by example."

Mr. Smith knocked on doors on a cool, sunny Thursday afternoon in Mt. Lebanon, some on a street where he jogs regularly. He wore comfortable shoes, slacks and a Steelers pullover, and was accompanied by a campaign manager.

Usually he knocks solo for about three hours at a time and uses an iPhone application to organize his route -- no papers, no clipboard. If a resident pledges support for Mr. Smith, he'll mark it in the app. If that person requests a yard sign, there's an option for that, too.

Mr. Smith, too, left fliers if no one was home and wrote "Sorry I missed you" on each one before sticking it in the door.

"I like to be bipartisan and work across the aisle," he told one resident, who described himself as a independent but had Tom Smith and Mitt Romney signs in his yard.

Mr. Smith would not approach homes with Raja signs in the yard, but knocked when Republican support in other races was apparent.

Negative advertising -- both by and against him -- has played a role in Mr. Raja's last two elections, and this campaign is no different. In one ad, he accuses Mr. Smith of backtracking on a promise not to accept a taxpayer-funded state pension, but his latest ads offer a less inimical tone and feature his wife and two children.

Mr. Smith said he pledged to forgo the pension only in his first term. As for the cost of living adjustment, in 2009, he said he gave back four months' worth to the state treasury. He said he gave the remaining eight months -- and the first six months of this year -- to Outreach Teen and Family Services Inc. in Mt. Lebanon.

After several ads featuring his family and highlighting his record in Harrisburg, Mr. Smith's latest ad turned negative, questioning Mr. Raja's business practices.

Mr. Smith defeated Mark Harris, Mr. Raja's lead political consultant, in his first run for his House seat in 2006. Mr. Raja said that aspect of the race is not as interesting as people think it is, since Mr. Harris is coordinating several races.

"But I'm pretty sure he'd like to see me win," Mr. Raja said.

When it comes to the issues, Marcellus Shale is top of mind for residents of Collier, Findlay, parts of Washington County and other areas where these candidates are also knocking on doors.

"They care about Act 13 and the kind of control their communities have," said Mr. Smith, who voted against Act 13 -- which created a per-well annual fee, changed regulations and outlined which parts of the drilling industry can and cannot be regulated by municipalities -- calling it "100 percent the wrong approach."

Mr. Raja is in favor of local control of regulations, but said fees can be set at the state level.

Both candidates agreed Gov. Tom Corbett's cuts to education went too far. Mr. Raja said he breaks with his party on this issue, further citing how Pittsburgh schools fostered his own educational pursuits.

As for the liquor control business, Mr. Smith does not support House Majority Leader Mike Turzai's proposal, which would replace the more than 600 state wine and spirit stores with 1,600 retail licenses that would be offered first for sale to beer distributors and then auctioned to the highest bidder. Mr. Smith expressed concern about how that would affect small business owners and their staffs.

Mr. Raja supports total privatization. That bill is stalled in the House.

state

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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