In an era when partisan politics are getting stronger, Pennsylvania’s 37th Senate District in the suburbs of Pittsburgh is an anomaly, and it’s unclear whether any politician or party has figured out how to keep it in their grasp.
That is the task ahead for newly elected state Sen. Pam Iovino (D-Mount Lebanon). In April, she won a special election to replace former Republican state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, defeating candidate D. Raja (R-Mount Lebanon) and flipping the district for the third time since 2012. But Iovino is up for re-election again in 2020, meaning she has just over a year to convince voters she should keep the seat.
And it goes beyond preserving her job. Keeping SD-37 in Democratic control is pivotal for Senate Democrats to have a chance at flipping the state Senate, something they haven’t done in more than two decades. If Democrats hold onto SD-37 and flip three other very competitive districts, they will hold a razor-thin tie-breaker majority in the chamber.
Iovino is new to elected office, but she thinks a strong focus on constituent services, serving veterans, and backing public schools can help her maintain support. But Republicans are likely to target this seat aggressively and for good reason: President Donald Trump won this district by six points in 2016, and he is on the ballot again in 2020. Even so, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills) is confident Iovino can maintain the seat, citing her impressive knowledge of state government and her willingness to vote for her constituents’ preferences, but stand united with Democrats when she is needed most.
Iovino’s foray into politics started long before she became a state senator. She says her family was always active in politics, including her parents serving as Democratic committee chairs in Whitehall borough.
“My parents showed me [public service] wasn’t just a right, it was a responsibility,” says Iovino.
Eventually, she became a congressional liaison for the Navy, where she would educate representatives on Navy issues. Iovino says the skills she learned there are helpful for her new job as a legislator, especially one servicing in the minority party, and especially in a district with constituents who herald bipartisanship.
“I understand the process from the collaborating with stakeholders to the writing of the bills.” says Iovino. “It is exactly those skills that I use in Harrisburg today.”
President George W. Bush appointed Iovino as Assistant Secretary in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in 2004. Despite Republican attack ads during her special election for SD-37 that attempted to frame her as a radical aligned with some federal Democrats, Iovino says here the actual history of bipartisanship has boosted her profile with voters.
“I was hired by a Republican administration,” says Iovino of her time in the Bush administration. “I don’t think [the attack ad] was specific about me or what I have done.”
Iovino says she plans to focus her term on providing constituent services like helping seniors procure discounted ConnectCards for public transit, and she wants to work in Harrisburg to streamline support services for veterans.
She says 70 percent of the bills she has sponsored are bipartisan. She plans to co-introduce legislation that will establish a copay cap for prescription insulin drugs at $100 per one-month supply of insulin, and she is working on a bill to strengthen the recruitment and retention policies of career and volunteer fire departments.
Iovino hopes her focus on these issues will showcase to voters they were right to pick her in the special election and will do so again come November 2020.
“I think the first thing you have to nail is the right candidate to fit a district,” says Iovino of convincing SD-37 voters to back her. “A lot of split-ticket voters, it is not just [that] people are changing allegiance.”
Regardless of policies, Iovino’s 2020 race will undoubtedly be close, even if it’s different from the recent special election. In April, she won by four points in a district that mostly covers Allegheny County’s southern and western suburbs. But the general election in a presidential year will bring in tens of thousands more voters.
And former state Sen. Reschenthaler won by 20 points when Trump was on the ballot in 2020, hinting that a down ballot Republican should have an edge.
Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant, isn’t sure what will happen in this senate race come 2020, but he says Trump’s unpopularity statewide could leave an opening for Democrats. He says that down ballot races like in SD-37 are mostly about the popularity of the presidential candidates.
Nicholas says Trump’s approval rating in Pennsylvania has plateaued around 44 percent. And while this bodes well for Iovino, Nicholas says how she spends her time in Harrisburg will be crucial too, including her votes for important legislation like the state budget.
Iovino voted in favor of the state budget, joining all 28 Republicans and 14 Democrats in passing the bill. In a statement, she said she approved the bill because it “makes vital investments” in public education, career and technical training, senior health, and workforce development. However she voted against several code bills that were attached to the budget, including the elimination of the state’s General Assistance program (GA), which supplies funds for low-income people waiting on federal assistance like social security payments.
The GA vote became the most contentious issue of the state’s budget battle, which included a viral video of a shouting match on the Senate floor. Iovnio stood with all 22 senate Democrats in voting against the removal of the GA, which was eventually eliminated with Republican support.
This is the kind of high-profile battle that could prove precarious to Iovino’s push to remain bipartisan. But Iovino says she will back legislation on its merits, not on how bipartisanship it appears.
“If it is good legislation, then it is the right thing to do,” says Iovino. “I did not hear anything negative [about the GA vote]. I would characterize as people acting on their convictions and SD- 37 doesn’t have a problem with that.”
And even if it eventually does tie her to more progressive members in her party, Iovino says that showcases a virtue of the Democratic party and its diversity.
“I don't have a problem with a caucus that is diverse enough to have people with different priorities,” says Iovino.
State Sen. Jay Costa, who leads the Senate Democrats, agrees and that is why he believes Iovino is an ideal candidate for SD-37.
“She is somebody that understands both parties,” says Costa. “She is thoughtful. I think she symbolizes the benefits of having a diverse understanding of what happens across the state and the diverse nature of our districts.”