A year ago, Kimberly Pazzanita Villella had no intention of running for the Pennsylvania state Senate. But after a year of attacks on women's health, the passage of a voter-ID law, and the pledge of huge tax breaks for the natural-gas industry amid cuts to education and social-service budgets, she says she really didn't have a choice.
"Running for the state Senate was not in my plan," says Villella. "But Pennsylvania is at a pivotal moment in time between two futures, and we need strong leadership." And that, she says, is what Republican incumbent Elder Vogel has failed to supply.
The race for the 47th state Senate district might seem of remote interest to voters in Allegheny County. The district encompasses most of Beaver and Lawrence Counties and part of Butler County northwest of Pittsburgh. Villella herself is a borough councilor for the Ohio River town of Baden, in Beaver County.
Vogel did not respond to a request for an interview or a list of questions emailed to his office. But if Villella wins, it could be a pivotal victory for Democrats. Keegan Gibson, the managing editor of political website politicspa.com, says the 47th is one of 25 seats the Democrats could take. The GOP currently has a 30-to-20 margin in the Senate, but Gibson says Democrats have "an embarrassment of riches this election cycle." He says there are four seats targeted, including District 47, with Villella the only candidate facing a Republican incumbent and the only woman running.
Her candidacy itself is intriguing. Along with citing her political expertise, her early campaign mailers have put women's health issues front and center: "Kimberly will work to remove politics from decisions that should be made between a woman and her doctor." That's notable in a landscape dotted mostly by rural areas and small towns — a landscape where, at least in recent Congressional races, contests have largely been fought between men who, whether Democrat or Republican, oppose abortion rights.
Democrats have a registration edge of 27 points, according to PolitcsPa, and until recently, the seat was traditionally held by a Democrat. But Villella must still walk a treacherous tightrope.
"In Western Pennsylvania, voter-registration numbers are 30 years behind the way people actually vote," says Gibson. "You can't be a liberal culture-warrior in Western Pennsylvania and expect to get elected."
That fact isn't lost on Villella. "My allegiance is with the people, not a party," says Villella, who points out that she won her Baden council seat on both party tickets, as a write-in on the Republican side. "People know that I'm about balance."
After graduating from Ambridge High School, Villella attended school to become a licensed hair stylist. With a little help from her parents, she opened her own salon at age 19. (She and her husband, Chris, also own S&S Fasteners of Ambridge, which makes industrial nuts and bolts. They previously owned and operated a 50-bed assisted-living center.)
If that work experience taught her about splitting hairs, it will serve her well in this campaign.
On women's health, for example, she indignantly opposes proposed legislation that would require a woman go through a mandatory ultrasound before having an abortion. "To try and force someone to go through that in such an emotional time is so wrong," she says. But on abortion itself, she is less categorical.
"That issue is an individual choice, although not one I would choose," she says. "But, no one knows what anybody will do unless you're put in that situation."
While Villella is endorsed by Planned Parenthood's political arm — the group lauded her for her "commitment to protecting reproductive health and access to family planning services" — she has largely been ignored by pro-life and pro-choice groups alike. And while she opposes mandatory ultrasounds, she's a supporter of requiring parental consent before a minor can have an abortion: "My child couldn't get a broken arm fixed without consent," she says.
Such distinctions may not appeal to pro-choice voters, says Georgia Berner, but they might be crucial in this part of the state, where even those who support abortion rights often "want to know that for you, personally, that's not a decision that you would make."
Berner learned about the politics of abortion the hard way. The Lawrence County businesswoman ran for Congress in 2006, campaigning as a progressive Democrat in the 4th Congressional District, which overlays much of the territory Villella is seeking to represent. Berner lost in the primary to Jason Altmire, a much more conservative, anti-choice Democrat.
"It's difficult because conservative groups try to identify women's health and reproductive-rights issues as strictly abortion, and it's not," Berner says. "It's about education and contraception, but it's hard for people to see that because conservatives keep fogging up the dots to try and connect them with abortion."
Villella strikes a similarly balanced tone on another hot-button issue: drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, which could have a huge economic impact on the district.
Industry supporters say the industry is bringing jobs and economic development, promises Villella says she too found compelling. "Most of my adult life I'd seen nothing but decline in this region, and I really thought this would be our way back," Villella says. But Gov. Tom Corbett, she says, "basically gave our store away," with a low tax rate on natural gas, and a $1.7 billion package of tax incentives to locate a new Shell "cracker plant" inside her district. The plant will convert ethane into a range of chemicals with industrial uses.
For a long-suffering district, opposing a potentially huge industry – Shell projects 400 to 600 jobs at the plant — is a risky political proposition. But "I'm a businessperson: I know when incentives need to be given to attract business," Villella says. "In this case, I just couldn't understand why we were giving it all away to an industry that had to come here if they wanted to get at those resources."
Villella says the state should tax gas production, not the number of wells, and direct proceeds to education funding, abolishing school property taxes for homeowners. And if Shell does get tax breaks, she adds, they should be paid out per permanent job.
Villella's opposition to the state's new Voter ID bill similarly complains about its "opportunity cost" — the things the state could be doing with the money instead.
"My main problem is this has to do with an agenda, it has nothing to do with IDs," Villella says of the photo-ID requirement, which polls suggest remains broadly popular. "It has to do with cutting education at the same time that we're funding this piece of junk legislation."
Can Villella win a rural district where the incumbent won his last election with nearly 57 percent of the vote?
"Kim Villella is a great candidate," says Gibson, of politicspa.com. "She's a prominent local businesswoman with a great story to tell and huge family network." Still, he says, "that may still not be enough to win her that seat."
One problem facing Villella, says Berner, is the memory of the Bonusgate scandal. She says that the conviction of former state Rep. Mike Veon, once a leading House Democrat, has soured a lot of Beaver County voters on the Democratic Party.
"When you think about it, that's the only reason Elder Vogel was able to get elected," Berner says. Vogel won the seat in a race to replace Sen. Gerald LaValle against Jason Petrella who stepped in for original candidate state Rep. Sean Ramaley, a former Veon aide who dropped out of the race after he was charged with campaigning for office while being paid by Veon. (Ramaley was later acquitted on all charges).
"I think what Kim is doing is going out saying, ‘Not all [Democrats] are tarred with the same brush,'" says Berner. "She's an excellent candidate, but it will be a tough race."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story indicated that state Sen. Elder Vogel defeated Sean Ramaley. That information has been corrected