Sestak
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Meet Joe Sestak, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate who can’t catch a break from his party

Joe Sestak journeyed up a Central Pennsylvania mountain by himself at 3 a.m. in roaring winds, removed from cell phone service. It was one of the many routes he traveled during a 422-mile walk across the state last year. He wanted to “walk in other people’s shoes.” Along the way he says he was struck by the friendliness of Pennsylvanians, having been offered rides from on a SEPTA bus, an 18-wheeler and everything in between. As much as anything, though, he remembers the Republican.

“A Republican came out,” Sestak said, “and says hey Admiral Sestak, I’m a Republican.. .but I love what you’re doing.

“I said everywhere I walk, ‘It’s not about party. It’s not about type. It’s about people.’”

Plenty of candidates have made similar comments. Sestak is one who probably means it, partially by his own choice and partially by default. He has to accept that he’s the last guy leaders of the Pennsylvania and national Democratic Party want to see win the primary next month.

The slight from party brass has cost him endorsements and financial backing given to his opponent Katie McGinty, but many of his supporters believe the lack of love gives him the greatest chance to win. This has been an election season in which Bernie Sanders has raised eyebrows as he raises surprising amounts of money, and Donald Trump confounds his party’s elite by dominating polls in the Republican race.

“A few members of the leadership just don’t want him to be a Senator,” said David Landau, chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Party. “Really, in my view, it is kind of a shameful display of Washington inside politics. Fortunately for Joe this is not an election year where that’s going to play very well.”

The ‘unproductive candidate’

Sestak’s problems with the establishment are well known. He became an enemy in 2010 when party leaders — all the way up to Barack Obama — tried to persuade him not to run in the Democratic primary against the late Arlen Specter, the longtime U.S. Senator who had just switched from the Republican side.

Sestak ran, defeated Specter and lost to Toomey by two percentage points in the general election. He gained more votes, 1.9 million, than Democratic governor candidate Dan Onorato. Despite the narrow loss at a time when the country was tilting right, little has changed six years later. As soon as Sestak made it clear he would seek the Senate seat again, the party separated itself from him, seeking someone they believed would better cooperate. Senators Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid and Jon Tester asked Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, who declined. Then, last fall, McGinty quit her job as Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff and declared her candidacy for the seat Sestak sought. national and state leaders quickly coalesced behind her — and slammed Sestak along the way.

“Sestak has been an unproductive candidate for us,” Reid told CQ Roll Call.       

Landau is on an email list of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and said he’s been getting messages asking for donations to McGinty. He considers these actions to be less pro-McGinty than anti-Sestak, and a break from the DSCC’s general protocol of holding back involvement until the general election.  

“This is about an anti-Joe Sestak feeling among party leadership in Washington,” Landau said. “They’re trying to impose that on Pennsylvania Democrats, and it’s wrong. It’s just wrong. It’s not about issues, not about ideology, it’s about personality.”

The background in the Penn classroom where Joe Sestak spoke about foreign policy last week.

The background in the Penn classroom where Joe Sestak spoke about foreign policy last week.

Mark Dent/Billy Penn

The ‘long view’ on foreign policy

Sestak was on another journey last week. This time he traversed Pennsylvania in a car, with a focus was on spreading his foreign policy views. He spoke before about 25 people in a classroom at the University of Pennsylvania.

Things got wonky, as you might expect from a man who spent 31 years in Navy, rising to a three-star admiral. Sestak talked missile defense systems, the South China Sea crisis, the conflict that could arise and China’s rare earth minerals monopoly (those minerals are apparently used in our cell phones). Asked about Syria and Westphalian borders (good luck trying to understand this concept) by an audience member who works for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Sestak quickly said he wanted a “Sunnistan” and “Kurdistan” and any deal would need the backing of Iran, Turkey and Russia.   

Bill Walsh, who served for Sestak in the Navy and worked as his district manager, said the foreign policy expertise comes from experience — and not just from the Navy. When Sestak was a congressman, Walsh recalled that Sestak wrote letters to the athletes in his district who were competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, asking them to visit when they returned. He wanted to know if they thought China did anything better than the United States.

“As a naval officer you have a long view,” Walsh said. “You have to look at Pennsylvania and say, ‘How are we competing against Singapore and the great cities of Europe?’”

Sestak got his start in politics as the 7th District Congressman, representing his home county of Delaware, as well as parts of Chester and Montgomery counties. He said he wanted to become a Democratic politician when his daughter, Alex, was diagnosed with cancer and realized the health care she could receive because of his Naval background differed greatly from the rest of America. He wanted to push for universal health care.

“I thought it was the best way to pay back the country,” he said.  

Sestak became known for his hardworking style, in ways good and bad. His local office was open all the time, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and for reduced hours on the weekends. Steny Hoyer, then the House Majority Leader, called him the most productive new congressman. But in 2010, Specter also claimed the majority of Sestak’s campaign staffers made less than minimum wage, and turnover from workers in Sestak’s office was well above the average for Capitol Hill. In 2007, 13 staffers reportedly quit.    

“The hours were really hard,” said Walsh.

He added that when the office interviewed interns many of them would say they heard Sestak was a difficult boss.

“We’d say, ‘That’s a fact,” he said. “‘Wrap your head around friends who work in med school and friends in law school and military and peace corp and friends starting to business and ask them how hard they’re working and we won’t ask you to do anymore than that.’”

The long hours that put his staff in flux endeared him to his district. Constituents respected Sestak for his consistently Democratic voting record and the open door policy. The Delaware County Democratic Committee recently held a meeting in which committee people unanimously endorsed Sestak. McGinty and John Fetterman weren’t even suggested.   

“Somebody said at this meeting, ‘This is Sestak country here,’” recalled John Rooney, the chairman of the Upper Darby Democratic Committee. “‘If you’re looking to endorse another candidate you’re in the wrong place.’”

Can he get the state endorsement?

The three-way contest for the Democratic primary poses a problem for Democrats. Sestak, McGinty and Fetterman will have to spend money facing each other this spring while Toomey can save his considerable war chest ($9.5 million at the end of 2015) for the general election.

Sestak was criticized for walking across Pennsylvania when he should have been raising funds in a more traditional manner (he had about $2.5 million in cash on hand at the end of the year, more than McGinty, $1.1 million). The people who support Sestak saw the walk as a smart strategy to increase his name recognition.

“At the rank and file level across the state,” Landau said of Sestak, “he enjoys tremendous support.”

The chances that he’ll get any of that from the highest levels of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania or in Washington, however, remain unlikely. Governor Tom Wolf and former Governor Ed Rendell are both supporting McGinty.

This weekend, the state Democrats are scheduled to have their winter meeting. The voting process for endorsing a U.S. Senate candidate is on the agenda. Sestak said he’s never asked for an endorsement and used a Navy analogy to illustrate why.   

“I didn’t worry about whether the admirals loved me,” he said. “I worried about my crew.”

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