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?

Because the Democrats had lost for so long, they didn’t have any kind of machine. So Sestak built his own. From scratch. In eight months. And he did it in an unusual way that set the mold for a lot of what would come. Growing up, Sestak’s family used to play five-on-five football out on the lawn, with Dad quarterbacking one team and Mom filling out the squad. Very Kennedy-esque, a bunch of earnest Catholics living in close quarters and overachieving like hell, spurred by parents who scrimped and saved to send them all to top schools. So it was natural for three of Joe’s siblings to drop everything, quit their jobs, and work full-time to get their brother elected.

Elizabeth Sestak had been an executive at American Express with an MBA; Rich had been a trial lawyer on the West Coast; sister Meg had a degree from Penn Law and was communications director at a Quaker school in Media. Rounding out the team was Bill Walsh, Sestak’s closest confidant from the Navy. None of them knew the first thing about how to run a political campaign. But they weren’t afraid. How hard could it be? It just takes work.

The first thing was money. If you don’t have money, nobody in politics takes you seriously as a candidate. So Joe and Rich worked the phones. They’d meet at 7 a.m., call East Coast lawyers and other professional types from 8 to 9, then shift to Chicago, then California, following the setting sun. Late at night, they’d follow up by e-mail. Joe and Rich raised $1.2 million in just three months.

They counted everything. Amateurs do tactics; experts do logistics. They were fanatical about metrics. How many calls in an hour, in a day? How many volunteers, how many mail drops? Did the Dunkin’ Donuts 20 yards down know about Joe? What about the clerk at the Wawa 300 yards away?

Democratic consultants peeked in and thought the Sestaks were crazy: "It was a very, very naive campaign early on," in the words of one insider. But as weird as it was, it was working. In September, the Sestaks’ "field" team knocked on 130,000 doors in two weeks, dropping an old-fashioned newspaper on doorsteps, with Joe’s picture on it. The race with Weldon was suddenly neck-and-neck. It didn’t hurt that three weeks before the election, the FBI raided the homes of Weldon’s cronies, looking for evidence in a corruption investigation. But what sealed it was the Sestak clan’s formidable get-out-the-vote operation; 2,000 volunteers flooded every neighborhood. Joe beat Weldon by 12 points. Two years later, he won again, by 20 points.

What Joe’s family did for him is what massive personal fortunes do for politicians like Jon Corzine and Michael Bloomberg: They gave him independence. He could run his own operation his own way. And this trend continued when Joe went to D.C. in 2007 to be sworn in as a U.S. Congressman.

"I went down saying I didn’t think Washington was doing it right," Sestak admitted to me. He believed he could infuse his staff with a military ethos of total commitment. As Bill Walsh told me, "The country’s at war. If government can’t work harder in a time of war, what’s the point of government?"