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?"

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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?