Pennsylvania’s 37th Senate District has had a Democrat representing it in Harrisburg for just five of the last 50 years—Michael Shaefer from 1977 to 1980 and Matt Smith from 2013 to 2015. When Sen. Guy Reschenthaler resigned earlier this year, following his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats saw a chance to continue the trend from the 2018 elections, when they gained five senate seats.
The 37th District’s southern border is Peters Township. From there it sweeps west, encompassing North Fayette and Findlay townships, hooks north as far as Bell Acres, with an eastern border stretching from Robinson and Collier townships to Mt. Lebanon, Whitehall, Pleasant Hills and Jefferson Hills, with a total population of 252,115.
“The key to flipping the district was finding a candidate who was a good fit. The right candidate and the right message,” says Pam Iovino, who in April won the seat in a special election against former Mt. Lebanon Commissioner D. Raja. Her term ends in 2020.
Her campaign message was one of bipartisanship and of keeping young people in the district with the assistance of workforce development to meet the needs of the growing Pittsburgh tech industry.
“Baby Boomers are hitting a peak phase of retiring,” she says. “We will need tens of thousands of skilled workers in the coming years, in tech, in oil and gas, and right now we don’t have the skill set to deal with that issue.”
Retraining a workforce will require cooperation across all levels: universities, technical schools, government incentive programs for startups and minority-owned small businesses. “Fortunately, the people who need to be thinking about this are thinking about it.”
Iovino was born and raised in Whitehall. She received a B.A. in political science from Gettysburg College in 1978 and in 1980 she was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, something she intended to do for “just four years,” but which stretched into a 23-year career.
“The Navy was a good fit for me,” she says. Her career included a stint as a missile maintenance officer, a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and a tour at the Pentagon, in the Secretary of the Navy Office of Legislative Affairs. She has commanded Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Centers in Toledo, Ohio; Ebensburg, Pennsylvania; Moundsville, West Virginia and in Pittsburgh; and capped off her career with the Naval Network Warfare Command, which is responsible for security of all Navy communications systems. She retired as a captain, with a Legion of Merit, three Meritorious Service Medals, a Navy Commendation Medal and a Navy Achievement Medal.
“I worked with such a vast array of talented, smart people, from diverse backgrounds,” she says.
“I learned leadership from some of the very best. There’s a reason we’re called the best military in the world.”
Iovino was in Pittsburgh on 9/11, just finishing up her tour here and preparing to move to Norfolk, Virginia. That Tuesday morning, she was at the 911th Air Wing at the Pittsburgh International Airport, making arrangements to ship her household goods, when the news of the first plane crash broke.
“After the second plane hit and everyone realized it was no accident, I said ‘You have to get me out of here in one minute. We are under attack.’” By the time she returned to her post at the reserve center, Marine Security Force troops had secured the perimeter.
“After the plane went down in Shanksville, we didn’t know if we were a target.” The plane that hit the Pentagon crashed into the space where Iovino’s old office was located. Fortunately, it was under renovation at the time and unoccupied.
After her 2003 retirement, Iovino was appointed Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs in the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she was responsible for administering health care, disability, education and other benefits to veterans.
“I’ve always been geared toward public service, and I had the required background and skills for the job, but I had never done anything to support any one candidate, and most of the other applicants came from a political background.” The position required Senate confirmation, and many of the applicants were enmeshed in the political process.
“But the more I learned about the job, the more I wanted it—I thought I should not miss out on the opportunity, so I really prepared for the confirmation process.”
She served as Assistant Secretary for three years. Following that appointment, she served as Director of Veterans Services for Allegheny County before making the decision to run for state senate. “Elected office was not my first choice,” she says. “I had lots of opportunities I could have pursued, but with the dynamics of 2017, the vacant Senate seat, it worked out.”
Iovino serves on four senate committees: Communications and Technology, Community, Economic and Recreational Development, Labor and Industry and Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness, of which she is the minority chair.
She is co-sponsoring the re-introduction of a bill which was co-sponsored by Reschenthaler and several other senators, proposing a freeze on property tax for seniors who have lived in their homes for more than five years and whose income is under $65,000.
“Property tax touches everyone,” she says. “Families with kids in school, others who have raised their families and now want to stay in their homes—I have lots of empathy, but we have to look at this holistically,” she says. “It’s our responsibility to fund our schools.”
The current school funding structure relies heavily on property tax. For the 2019-2020 school year, Mt. Lebanon School District is budgeted to receive $64,986,120 in real estate tax, which comprises 64 percent of its budget. Earned income tax and other local taxes account for $9,916,114, 10 percent of the budget. State funding, $21,956,929, represents 22 percent. Another $1,708,020, 2 percent of the budget, comes from the state Gaming Fund and the federal contribution is roughly the same, $1,550,120, another 2 percent.
“The ideal balance would be a 50-50 split between local municipalities and the state and federal government for funding,” Iovino says. “Lately the balance has shifted and it’s more like a 70-30, which puts the greater burden on the homeowner.”
Another bill she is co-sponsoring with Democrat Sen. Lisa Boscola and Republican Sen. Mike Fulmer is one that will establish an independent, bipartisan committee responsible for drawing election maps. The 11-member committee would consist of four Democrats, four Republicans and three Independents, appointed by the governor. The commission would have a year to draw the maps, which must be approved by a supermajority of seven members.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that partisan redistricting is a state issue, not reviewable by federal courts.
“The closer we get to the 2020 census, the more important this issue becomes.”
Iovino says she has gotten a positive reception here in the district and from her colleagues in Harrisburg. “I campaigned on bipartisanship,” she says. “There may be some gridlock, but we’re all rowing in the same direction. We want to serve our districts, and also make the best policy we can.”