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?

That first year, Sestak would get to his office in the Longworth Building at 8 a.m. (sometimes 6) and demand a rundown of the day’s schedule. He’d shotgun 20 meetings in a row, five minutes each, to fit everyone in. He was famous for answering his constituent mail personally. Say you hate the Iraq war for reason X, and you send your Congressperson a letter; usually, a staffer will modify a form letter so it’s responsive to reason X. Sestak would write an entire multi-page letter from scratch — "Not even a letter, an essay," says one former staffer. "He frankly just didn’t trust anybody to do anything right."

As tough as the Capitol Hill office was, it wasn’t even the most hard-core sector of the USS Sestak. That distinction went to the district office, back in Media, run by Bill Walsh. The district office stayed open seven days a week. There are stories about the lights being on at 10 p.m., 11 p.m., midnight. According to a 2007 investigation by The Hill, 13 of Sestak’s employees quit their jobs in the first eight months after he was sworn in. They cited 14-hour days, being forced to work on holidays, and Sestak’s temper. I visited the district office on a recent Saturday, and there were 11 people hard at work, typing away; three of them leaped from their seats and addressed me as "Sir," and one of them pressed a sheet into my hand quantifying the number of constituent cases the office has handled to date — 3,431 veterans cases, 461 health-care cases, 799 benefits cases, 537 foreclosure cases. 

To people on the outside — people who are peering in through the fogged-up portholes of the USS Sestak — the whole operation seems highly confusing. By churning through so much staff, Sestak is failing to build institutional knowledge, and institutional knowledge is how you traditionally amass power on the Hill; you find people who know how to work process, to interact with the think tanks and the committees and the consultants and, yes, the lobbyists (they’re not all evil!), and nurture and reward them so they’ll help you construct a little empire. If you’re not doing that, you’re not elevating service, and you’re isolating yourself. As if Sestak wasn’t already isolated enough, with his continued reliance on Richard and Elizabeth, and his weird refusal to hang out in the "Pennsylvania Corner," the spot at the back of the House of Representatives where all the Pennsylvania reps gather and shoot the shit and tell their best jokes to big John Murtha of Johnstown, the Corner’s resident King.

So Sestak’s a "lone wolf," insiders say, a "very odd duck." He does his own thing, and prospers. He doesn’t play nice with others. It’s an interesting question: What kind of senator would a guy like that be?