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?

It was the same balls-to-the-wall story at the Pentagon, where Sestak was assigned as a two-star admiral in 2001, "to try to change the Navy," in Sestak’s words. Sestak and his mentor, Vernon Clark, the Navy’s top official at the time, both felt that the Navy needed to be more nimble to fight global terrorism. To get the job done, Clark asked Sestak to serve as his "black-hat analyst" — a sort of bureaucratic warrior charged with scouring the budgets of three- and four-star admirals (i.e., Sestak’s superior officers) and producing an "alternative" analysis for Clark of what could be cut. Sestak crunched the data, then proposed deep cuts: 12 aircraft carriers should become nine or 10, 55 submarines should become 33, an almost-300-ship Navy should become a 260-ship Navy.

Sestak soon became one of the most controversial men in the E Ring, partly because he was revving a fearsome chain saw, but also because in a building where people routinely worked 12-hour days, he often expected his 100 employees to work even longer. "Very, very long hours," according to one person who worked for Sestak and remembers him arriving at four in the morning and leaving around nine or 10 at night. "I’ll just tell ya this: Hours, days, time means nothing to Joe Sestak. He is completely driven to get done whatever he thinks he’s tasked with getting done." To retired Vice Admiral Dan McCarthy, an expert in naval logistics, Sestak was "one of the most brilliant officers I ever served with"; even Sestak’s detractors respected his intellectual chops. But in July 2005, Admiral Mike Mullen took over at the top of the Navy, and on his very first day, Mullen, who is now Obama’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "reassigned" Joe Sestak. The reason? "Poor command climate," according to a Navy Times article published the  following month, which quoted multiple anonymous Navy and Pentagon sources and referred to Mullen’s move as a "firing" and a "swift sacking."

Today, Sestak insists that the article, which has formed the basis of campaign attacks against him, is wrong. He wasn’t fired. He resigned voluntarily, because Mullen wanted to bring in his own team, and because Sestak had just learned that his daughter had brain cancer and wanted to be with her. (The Navy Times says it stands by its story.)

Anyway, Sestak had found a new cause, a new outlet for his prodigious energy — and a new fuel to propel him. Sestak is the third oldest of eight siblings, a tight-knit Catholic crew that grew up in Springfield, part of Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, which includes most of Delaware County and had been dominated for 20 years by Curt Weldon, a conservative Republican. There were 30,000 more Republicans in the district than Democrats.