Raja Wins in the Republican Primary

Uphill contest in November against Rich Fitzgerald (D)

By Kollengode S. Venkataraman

D. Raja, the president of Mount Lebanon city council and known to many readers, won the Republican nomination for the office of Allegheny County’s chief executive in the May 16 primary election. He easily defeated the old-time Republican pol Chuck McCullough. 

Raja, a relatively unknown figure in the county’s electoral politics, will face his Democratic opponent Rich Fitzgerald, another entrepreneur, a very native son of the county. Fitzgerald is also a 11-year veteran in the Allegheny County Council, with seven years as the council president.

Raja, born in Bangalore and raised in Bangalore and Chennai, came to the University of Pittsburgh in 1986 with his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering to earn his MS in computer science. He started his own IT consulting company, now known as CEI America founded in 1992 that employs around 300 in the US and another 100 in India. CEI  now has many Fortune-500 companies as clients. Along the way, he also earned an MBA from CMU. In 2007, Raja was elected the commissioner from Ward 1 in Mt. Lebanon. He became the president of the council in 2010, which he resigned to contest the fall election.  

For the successful and first Indian-American entrepreneur with ambition to become Allegheny County’s chief executive, getting the Republican nomination was the easy part. After all, Raja had the endorsement of the party’s heavyweights here — Governor Tom Corbett; US Senator Pat Toomey; Congressmen Tim Murphy and Mike Doyle; state house majority leader Mike Turzai; and Jim Roddey, the first chief executive of Allegheny County; among others. 

Chuck McCullough’s legal problems and that McCullough’s previous boss Jim Roddey himself endorsed Raja only made it easy for Raja in the primary. McCullough, a known figure in county electoral politics, is facing criminal charges of taking money from his elderly woman client and donating the moolah without her approval. His cash-strapped campaign and rains on the election day pretty much sealed McCullough’s defeat.

The job is cut out for Raja between now and November when he faces Rich Fitzgerald, his Democratic opponent. Governor Corbett’s endorsement, which helped Raja win the Republican primary, could become the liability in November, given the unpopularity of the Governor just months after taking office. Pennsylvania’s ultraconservative US Sen. Pat Toomey’s endorsement too is a problem for Raja among the middle-of-the-road voters, not to speak of liberals. Besides, in Allegheny County, among registered voters, for every two registered Republicans, we have five registered Democrats. That is perhaps why no credible “mainstream”  Republican even sought the nomination. 

After the primary elections, Marty Griffin, the host of the morning talk show on KDKA Radio, interviewed Raja giving him opportunities to introduce himself to his listeners. Griffin was candid: Running an IT business as its Founding CEO is one thing, he said, where you are free to make all the decisions and even change the decisions. But in municipal government there are many deeply entrenched competing interests. And the Chief Executive’s writ will not go far if he cannot carry with him the majority of the county’s cantankerous council members.

Besides, running a financially strapped county that encompasses over 120 municipalities including the “Most Livable” City of Pittsburgh, many of them in deep financial hole, offers a list of challenges. After all, these municipalities fight among themselves like the petty City States in ancient Greece.

Raja (as of June 15, 2010) was yet to come with the specifics on what he sees as the challenges, and how he is going to address them.

Listening to Griffin’s talk show was “educational.” His “birther” listeners were wondering if Raja was born in the US to be eligible to contest the election. So, Raja will have to start at the very beginning in educating voters without appearing preachy that one does not have to be a natural citizen to contest the election even for the US Senate. Given that our region is very parochial — this is Post-Gazette’s veteran columnist Reg Henry’s assessment*, not mine — it was not surprising.

Griffin’s listeners were also uncomfortable with Raja’s simple two-consonant two-syllable name containing only one vowel. And his accent. And his faith as well, even before they even cared to know what his faith was.

 This is nothing new in the US. Ask President Obama. Or ask Republican Mitt Romney.  Many Republicans are uncomfortable with Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith.

Obviously, our voters have lot of room to grow. And as Indian-Americans, we too need to come out of our suburban enclaves, and niches in universities, hospitals, corporate world, and other  organizations and make average voters accept us as one of them. 

For winning, Raja has to succeed in persuading a large number of liberal Democrats to defect and social conservatives among voters to vote for him. One wonders which is more difficult. He has a steep hill to climb between now and November. Mercifully, he will be unencumbered with the biennial Congressional elections and the quadrennial presidential elections. In this election, he is flying solo with no Republican coattail effect. Nor will he have a strong Democratic headwind. But the 5-to-2 margin of registered Democrats over GOP in the county, and Fitzgerald’s home-grown background are formidable enough.

The contest will be between the Republican Raja and his Democratic opponent Rich Fitzgerald on their own individual strengths and weaknesses. We wish Raja all the best in the fall election and even beyond.

 * This is how Reg Henry, a 30-year veteran columnist in the Post Gazette characterizes our citizens’ parochialism: “This is one of the most parochial towns I have ever lived in… … We encountered several candidates who did not just live in the same neighborhood they grew up in, they lived in the same house.”

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