Joe Sestak Profile: Run, Joe, Run

He was forced out of a Navy post. A dozen of his Congressional staffers have quit. And now, Newtown Square’s Joe Sestak is defying Barack Obama and Ed Rendell in taking on Arlen Specter in the country’s most important Senate race. But is he exactly the sort of scorched-earth guy we need in Washington?

In August, Sestak was down by 13 points in the Rasmussen poll. By October, he had closed to within four points. More crucially, only 31 percent of Pennsylvanians, of all political stripes, now believed that Arlen Specter deserved to be reelected. Since then, the Specter people have grown increasingly antsy over next May’s Democratic primary. Sestak, they argue, is no pure being of light. In fact, he’s a dangerous loose cannon who will risk his entire future on a long-shot campaign, who will napalm every political bridge because he’s arrogant enough to think he can go it completely alone.

Maybe. But maybe Joe Sestak is just articulating a different idea of power.

Here in Philadelphia, we love our cynical political operators. We’re used to thinking of power in terms of seniority and relationships and pork and Getting Shit Done, which is to say we’re used to thinking of power in Specter’s own terms: A senator who has many friends, and who parks himself in the middle of an issue and attains lush concession after lush concession for shifting his weight ever so slightly in either direction, is big and powerful. Joe Sestak is saying no, a senator like that is actually quite small. "Who was the last great titan we had for Pennsylvania?" Sestak asked me on the day of the Pulaski Day Parade, still juiced on adrenaline from his sustained sprint. "You know, you can agree or disagree with Ted Kennedy. He drove policy. I mean, he didn’t wait until the deal was almost done and then be the last vote. He carved out health care. … We need a titan to lead this state. Tell me the last one we had."

HE WAS A TITAN IN THE NAVY. It was always the Navy or nothing else for Joe Sestak. He decided in the third grade that he would join. His father was a Navy captain — a first-generation Slovakian immigrant, the son of a Coatesville steel worker. "I wanted to be just like him," Sestak says. "I never deviated."

Sestak’s penchant for precision, combined with his work ethic, earned him a reputation as a particular type of hard-ass boss — a hummingbird, not a gorilla. The anti-George Patton. He’d wear you down, not with physical threats, but with endless requests for research. Retired Navy lieutenant Ken Lynch served with Sestak on the USS George Washington in the late 1990s. Lynch remembers that during military exercises, Sestak never seemed to sleep, and neither did anyone else; Sestak used to eat with the crew on the tactical deck, spraying them with "drive-by" demands to ensure rigid accuracy. ("We thought his intrusive leadership made Custer look like Mother Teresa," Lynch later wrote in the Navy Times.) To those who thrived under his leadership, Sestak was an inspiration. "We worked our butts off," says Glen Cain, who served under Sestak in the early ’90s on the frigate Samuel B. Roberts, which won a top award in the Navy’s prestigious Battenberg Cup competition under Sestak’s command, "but we got a lot of recognition. … I followed him into harm’s way, and I’d do it again and again."