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."

"Ducks?"

"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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