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?

In August, Sestak was down by 13 points in the Rasmussen poll. By October, he had closed to within four points. More crucially, only 31 percent of Pennsylvanians, of all political stripes, now believed that Arlen Specter deserved to be reelected. Since then, the Specter people have grown increasingly antsy over next May’s Democratic primary. Sestak, they argue, is no pure being of light. In fact, he’s a dangerous loose cannon who will risk his entire future on a long-shot campaign, who will napalm every political bridge because he’s arrogant enough to think he can go it completely alone.

Maybe. But maybe Joe Sestak is just articulating a different idea of power.

Here in Philadelphia, we love our cynical political operators. We’re used to thinking of power in terms of seniority and relationships and pork and Getting Shit Done, which is to say we’re used to thinking of power in Specter’s own terms: A senator who has many friends, and who parks himself in the middle of an issue and attains lush concession after lush concession for shifting his weight ever so slightly in either direction, is big and powerful. Joe Sestak is saying no, a senator like that is actually quite small. "Who was the last great titan we had for Pennsylvania?" Sestak asked me on the day of the Pulaski Day Parade, still juiced on adrenaline from his sustained sprint. "You know, you can agree or disagree with Ted Kennedy. He drove policy. I mean, he didn’t wait until the deal was almost done and then be the last vote. He carved out health care. … We need a titan to lead this state. Tell me the last one we had."

HE WAS A TITAN IN THE NAVY. It was always the Navy or nothing else for Joe Sestak. He decided in the third grade that he would join. His father was a Navy captain — a first-generation Slovakian immigrant, the son of a Coatesville steel worker. "I wanted to be just like him," Sestak says. "I never deviated."

Sestak’s penchant for precision, combined with his work ethic, earned him a reputation as a particular type of hard-ass boss — a hummingbird, not a gorilla. The anti-George Patton. He’d wear you down, not with physical threats, but with endless requests for research. Retired Navy lieutenant Ken Lynch served with Sestak on the USS George Washington in the late 1990s. Lynch remembers that during military exercises, Sestak never seemed to sleep, and neither did anyone else; Sestak used to eat with the crew on the tactical deck, spraying them with "drive-by" demands to ensure rigid accuracy. ("We thought his intrusive leadership made Custer look like Mother Teresa," Lynch later wrote in the Navy Times.) To those who thrived under his leadership, Sestak was an inspiration. "We worked our butts off," says Glen Cain, who served under Sestak in the early ’90s on the frigate Samuel B. Roberts, which won a top award in the Navy’s prestigious Battenberg Cup competition under Sestak’s command, "but we got a lot of recognition. … I followed him into harm’s way, and I’d do it again and again."

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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.
    http://www.craigwilliamsforcongress.com/news.php?news_id=127

  • 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?