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?

— BOOM — to me, explaining why he’s been sprinting through parades since his first run for Congress, in 2006: "I think people like things that are different. … Out on the ship, I used to keep little ducks, and the crew loved it."


"Yeah, ducks." He spots a pocket of voters up ahead — "I’ll tell ya about it" — and then, BOOM, bolts. …

Julian and I stand there for a second, catch our breath, watch the Congressman recede.

"This is insane," I say.

"It is insane." A pause. "Welcome to my world."

HE’S SOMETHING ELSE, JOE SESTAK. A virtual unknown, running for a swing seat in a swing state. Who is this guy? What is he still doing here? His party wants him out of the race. His governor wants him out of the race. His president claims to want his opponent to win. And yet Joe Sestak is not only still in the race but running hard, and making his doubters look a little bit dumber and a little bit slower with each passing day.

The party is backing Arlen Specter. Specter is a deal-maker. He began his political life as a Democrat, then tried the Republican Party on for size for about, oh, 40 years, then decided, in April, to switch back to the Democrats after viewing a "bleak" poll that showed he couldn’t win as a Republican anymore. He cut a deal. The Democrats gained a 60th vote in the Senate, enough to pummel their agenda past a Republican filibuster. They also sent a signal to other Republican moderates, who are being squeezed by an increasingly hard-core GOP base, that they would be welcome across the aisle.

"I understand [the party’s] decision," Sestak told me. "I respect it. But it doesn’t mean we have to live with it." In my conversations with Sestak — "Please," he insisted, "call me Joe" — he used the word "principle" so often, I started counting. Sestak says he got into politics because of his only child, a daughter named Alex. Four years ago, when Alex was four, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Doctors gave her three to nine months to live. Sestak consulted the great children’s hospitals of the East Coast, eventually putting Alex in the care of pediatric cancer experts at the Children’s National Medical Center in D.C., paid for by his military TRICARE health plan. Her prognosis improved. But on one of those visits to the hospital, he met a poor couple who were battling their child’s cancer, same as Sestak. The couple didn’t have insurance. They couldn’t pay for her care. Sestak thought that was wrong. Retired from the Navy, he hung a shingle on Baltimore Pike, in Media: SESTAK FOR CONGRESS. Blue with white lettering. He slid a candy-colored bracelet onto his left wrist. It said A-L-E-X. He started making calls, letting his breathless biography say it all: former three-star admiral, commanded an aircraft carrier battle group during operations in Afghanistan, served as Bill Clinton’s Director of Defense Policy on the National Security Council, ran anti-terrorism operations for the Navy after 9-11, oversaw a $70 billion warfare budget, second in his class at the Naval Academy, master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard. It was classic stuff, God and guns and apple pie: Here was a child of the American meritocracy, an ethnic Catholic kid who made good, coming home to serve his country in a new way.

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  • Ursula

    Congressman Sestak seems to be marching to the beat of his own drum, but its working. He believes in the issues and hes got the work ethic to supplement the causes. Fagone does a great job of highlighting Sestak for being human, but also for his confident demeanor in representing issues that he believes in and believes are right for his constituents. Great profile. Very illuminating.

  • Kevin

    It looks like the Navy taught Joe Sestak how to run a clean, efficient ship. This was a great look into an interesting man. His story is very compelling and he’s obviously a tireless worker. I think I will be voting for him next May.

  • Pete

    How can a detailed profile like this make no mention of Sestak’s abuse of taxpayer money?

    Through October of last year, Sestak spent $632,502.51 on taxpayer funded mailings — a quarter million dollars more than the 2nd highest Congressman in the PA and 371 percent more than the state average of $171,000. Spending that amount on self-promotional literature is not very much in keeping with his projected persona of being either efficient or cost-cutting, eh? Sestak is a phony.

    In contrast, Bob Brady spent just $1,642 in the same time period and Patrick Murphy spent just $89,000.

  • Lauren

    Here in the West,we don’t ever see Mr. Sestak, let alone know anything about him.

  • Lana

    There is nothing real about this man except he is looking for a new job. He didn’t do his first job right and does not represent the people’s will but what he says. As the stale went for Obama, the sleezy guy went for Hillary as the Clinton’s made him. We live in the 7th CD and he has done nothing for the district and now he has the balls to run for the Senate. The little admiral needs an atitude adjustment

  • David

    That’s some serious abuse. Weldon used to abuse his privileges too. Do you have a link documenting the $632,502.51 ?

  • David

    Pete appears to be Pete Peterson, from the Craig Williams 2008 Campaign. This figures above are directly from a 10/20/08 press statement issued by the campaign and issued by Peterson himself.

  • Frank

    Your article caught the essence of this tireless, energetic man. I volunteered with his first campaign to help a group of amateurs tilt at windmills. However Joe’s organizational skills and knowledge of technology soon turned the campaign into a fully professional venture.
    Once elected he kept up the pace with summits on education, veterans, seniors, etc. held in the district. As you pointed out in the article, Joe’s district office handles far more constituent concerns and problems than the next best office. Someone who complains about lack of constituent service for the district apparently lives in a cacoon. It took me a while to understand that Joe looked at the problems which surround us and took them as a personal challenge. He was constantly attacking on multiple fronts and was getting results on many. I personally don’t know how he does it, and do not have the least desire to find out so I too can accomplish so much.
    Recently I watched Joe at his campaign office handling

  • Letitia

    Joe has a beneficial genetic mutation; he and his siblings can remain extremely high functioning individuals on very little sleep and the lousy diet of American political campaigns. Simply put Joe Sestak has a high resistance to the effects of sleep deprivation, enabling him to get a massive number of tasks accomplished. Right now there so many problems that need tackling, so this ability is quite an asset.

  • Gail

    Inspiring story, finally a true Democrat to vote for in May-I am impressed with Joe’s devotion, command of the issues, and of course, his stamina!! A wonderful opportunity to vote for a real democrat.

  • Tim

    I’m excited to get a chance to vote Sestak into the Senate and Specter out! Sestak seems to really stand up for what he cares about, and, as the article noted, really pushes himself and his staff to get things done. I’m happy that I’ll have the chance to vote a real Democrat into that 60th seat – I think Sestak is fighting for issues I care about, while Specter is fighting for an office.

  • Lee

    We need more guys like Sestak in the U.S. Senate. As you’ve pointed out, he’s a fighter, but more importantly, he’s an idealist with the political skills to see that those ideals influence public policy. After so many years of politics for politics sake, give me someone with some ideals any day.

  • Jean

    I was volunteering at Joe Sestak’s campaign office one day in the spring of 08 with the make-or-break PA primary looming. The Clinton campaign was headquartered upstairs and Joe was working for Hillary full tilt: It was said they were friends from his days working in the White House. Now, as a sitting Congressman it would be fair to say Joe holds some measure of power. So I was taken aback when he bounded up, trained that Admirals eye on me and asked who I was voting for. I must have stammered and then said I couldnt vote for Clinton despite his support for her and the fact that I thought it would help him — I was going to vote for Obama. He looked at me sharply and said “You can’t vote for anyone because of me you have to vote for the candidate you think is best for the country.” When your article called him an unabashed idealist you hit the nail right on the head. You might have added patriot.

  • Bill

    Joe Sestak is made out in this article to be the ultimate outsider. In fact, he is an outsider – persona non grata in the Navy due to his abusive management style. Those that worked for him quite in droves, which is why he was fired – yes, fired – from the Navy. It wasn’t his tough cuts, it was mistreatment of subordinates and peers. He continues to do this, having full staff turnover twice a year in the House because he drives them into the ground. He will make Pennsylvania irrelevant as a Senator because he will alienate his fellow Senators. This was a nice puff piece, but it is inaccurate.

  • Anonymous

    Note also his literature says “Rear Admiral”. That means 2 stars. He had 3 stars at the Pentagon, which means he was retired at a lower rank because he didn’t successfully comlete that one.

  • Ken

    I have volunteered at Joe’s campaign office in Media on several occasions. I have also attended several fundraisers. I have heard him speak numerous times and even had a few one-on-one conversations with him. I agree with his position on most issues. I marvel at his energy and determination. We need him fighting for our state and country.

  • Albert

    Joe Sestak is a retired admiral, I’m an ex-Merchant Mariner. We have that attitude – things have to be shipshape and Bristol fashion. Country needs more sea-trained persons on its quarterdeck.

  • James

    Say, are you still working for Rep. Sestak? Does he know your name yet?