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?
By Jason Fagone
So here's Joe Sestak, age 57, running his skinny butt off — I mean sprinting, literally booking it down the Ben Franklin Parkway, me and a campaign aide trailing behind him. The aide, Julian, a baby-faced kid less than half Sestak's age, is scooting and huffing along as best he can, overburdened with all the stuff Sestak's got him carrying: the clipboard, the stack of Sestak brochures ("JOE SESTAK/Democrat for Senate/Accountable Leadership"), the campaign BlackBerry, and especially the two digital cameras, crucial for grip-and-grins, that are swinging madly and wildly from Julian's wrist and neck as he runs. Sestak thinks his name is Justin.
Sestak suddenly skids to a halt at the sidewalk, in front of an older woman with a flowery blouse:
"Joe Sestak, that's me in the brochure. I'm running for Senate against Arlen Specter."
The woman looks down at the brochure, then back up at Rear Admiral Joseph Ambrose Sestak, USN, Ret.: a wiry, leather-skinned man of Slovakian extraction. Dark gray hair, dark bushy eyebrows, a blue shirt with its top button undone, a forehead that ought to be dewy with sweat, but isn't. He smiles at her, clasps her hand. His narrow, hooded eyes arc downward at the sides, spawning armadas of wrinkles. She has clearly never seen this man before.
"You're running against Arlen?" she says.
She shakes her head. "Oh-kay ... "
A man in a faded baseball cap approaches Sestak, shakes his hand vigorously. "We need new people in Congress," the man says.
Sestak thanks the man, pats Julian on the back warmly, chuckles, notices that I'm struggling to keep up, and exclaims, "It's so spread out today!"
This is the Pulaski Day Parade, an annual October celebration of Philadelphia's Polish heritage. Sestak loves parades. Usually, "People are more closely packed together" on the parade route, he says, "so you can go back and forth and-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta!" He makes a machine-gun noise and a motion like he's shaking 20 hands per second. Then he turns and lunges, and BOOM, he's off again, weaving through the parade's horses and string bands and ROTC formations under a crisp blue sky —
— "Joe Sestak, running for Senate, read this and give me a call" — BOOM — "Would you mind"— BOOM —"You got to when you're fighting the establishment!"
— BOOM — to an eight-year-old black kid — "Come intern for me when you're in high school. ... "
— BOOM — to two female college students from Saudi Arabia, wearing headscarves, carrying BlackBerries, who have asked Sestak if they can interview him for a school project about American politics — "Yeah! I've been to Saudi Arabia. I was in the Navy. You want to do it here? Yeah. Well, I tell ya what. I'll do that if you volunteer for me. How's that? Yeah. Sure. We can get your e-mail. You're here studying, right? ... You guys are the best barterers in the world. I thought I'd show you what I learned in the souks over there. The souks, is that what they're called? [blank looks] You know, where you trade, the bazaar? [more blank looks] Anyway, what's your question?" — 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. And now this. What Sestak's trying to pull off is both crazy and brave, and the Democrats have miscalculated – none more hugely than Ed Rendell, who went on MSNBC in May, two months before Sestak officially entered the race, and snarled that if Sestak were to throw his hat in, "He'd get killed. ... When he loses to Arlen, he fades into political obscurity." Rendell's statement was awkward for a couple of reasons: 1) Rendell had played a key role in getting Sestak into Congress in the first place; and 2) Sestak had hardly come up with the idea to run for Senate out of the blue; earlier in the year, before Specter switched parties, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had approached him to get into the race.
According to Sestak's brother, Rich, the day that Rendell went on TV was the day Rich knew for certain that his brother had a real shot at winning. "'Cause you know why?" says Rich. "You brought the big dog out. And they did it to scare Joe out of the race? I mean, how are you gonna scare a guy who's been in the military?" David Landau, a party leader in Delaware County, remembers thinking the same thing; Landau was an early supporter of Sestak, and after Sestak was first elected in 2006, he'd call up Landau and recount his battles with Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel. The Dems wanted to withdraw the troops from Iraq faster than Sestak believed was feasible or safe. It took six months just to get the trucks out. It would take 18 months, at least, to pull the troops out — safely — and Sestak could explain it in rigorous detail, downloading facts from the meticulously organized data vault that is his brain. ("Amateurs do tactics," Sestak likes to say. "Experts do logistics.")
Beyond the simple idiocy of Rendell and Specter thinking they could bully a three-star admiral — it was a display of weakness, not strength — they were also playing right into Sestak's hands, rhetorically. By pointing out that Sestak should look out for his own interests by keeping his House seat, Rendell was only calling attention to the fact that one guy was willing to lose his job for his principles, and one guy wasn't. The most pragmatic politician of our era was being challenged by an unapologetic idealist.
The more the Democrats spoke of harsh political realities, the more Sestak spoke of eternal truths; the more that Arlen Specter got up before Democratic audiences and read off Obama's endorsement of him, word for word, the more Sestak told inspirational stories from his days captaining the USS George Washington, a $4.5 billion aircraft carrier. He even told stories from the Bible. He particularly loved the one about Moses descending from the mountain and placing the broken tablets of the Law into the Ark: "It is the time for leadership," Sestak would say, in a hushed, awestruck voice just above a whisper, "remembering that there are many broken pieces that have to be brought together to repair this world." 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." It was the same balls-to-the-wall story at the Pentagon, where Sestak was assigned as a two-star admiral in 2001, "to try to change the Navy," in Sestak's words. Sestak and his mentor, Vernon Clark, the Navy's top official at the time, both felt that the Navy needed to be more nimble to fight global terrorism. To get the job done, Clark asked Sestak to serve as his "black-hat analyst" — a sort of bureaucratic warrior charged with scouring the budgets of three- and four-star admirals (i.e., Sestak's superior officers) and producing an "alternative" analysis for Clark of what could be cut. Sestak crunched the data, then proposed deep cuts: 12 aircraft carriers should become nine or 10, 55 submarines should become 33, an almost-300-ship Navy should become a 260-ship Navy.
Sestak soon became one of the most controversial men in the E Ring, partly because he was revving a fearsome chain saw, but also because in a building where people routinely worked 12-hour days, he often expected his 100 employees to work even longer. "Very, very long hours," according to one person who worked for Sestak and remembers him arriving at four in the morning and leaving around nine or 10 at night. "I'll just tell ya this: Hours, days, time means nothing to Joe Sestak. He is completely driven to get done whatever he thinks he's tasked with getting done." To retired Vice Admiral Dan McCarthy, an expert in naval logistics, Sestak was "one of the most brilliant officers I ever served with"; even Sestak's detractors respected his intellectual chops. But in July 2005, Admiral Mike Mullen took over at the top of the Navy, and on his very first day, Mullen, who is now Obama's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "reassigned" Joe Sestak. The reason? "Poor command climate," according to a Navy Times article published the following month, which quoted multiple anonymous Navy and Pentagon sources and referred to Mullen's move as a "firing" and a "swift sacking."
Today, Sestak insists that the article, which has formed the basis of campaign attacks against him, is wrong. He wasn't fired. He resigned voluntarily, because Mullen wanted to bring in his own team, and because Sestak had just learned that his daughter had brain cancer and wanted to be with her. (The Navy Times says it stands by its story.)
Anyway, Sestak had found a new cause, a new outlet for his prodigious energy — and a new fuel to propel him. Sestak is the third oldest of eight siblings, a tight-knit Catholic crew that grew up in Springfield, part of Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, which includes most of Delaware County and had been dominated for 20 years by Curt Weldon, a conservative Republican. There were 30,000 more Republicans in the district than Democrats. 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?" 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? THE SESTAK PEOPLE ARE TOUCHY about the lone-wolf thing. "Loner?" Sestak knits his hands. "I'm very interested in results. And, you know, we had the most pieces of legislation passed for any freshman. You know that, right?" (His main accomplishments were an autism-care bill and an elder-abuse bill.) "I think we get along pretty well for what we do substantively."
In other words: Arlen Specter's right. Relationships do matter. They probably matter more than we like to think. And core beliefs matter less. How do you know what's in a politician's heart? You don't. All you can do is look at the votes, the record.
And what does Sestak's record say? He supported the continued funding of the Iraq war. He opposed, with passion and eloquence, the Iraq surge, on the grounds that it "doubles down on a bad military bet." He voted against his party on a few fiscal issues, such as limits on executive pay. He was a faithful progressive on social issues. He voted for a 2008 national-security bill that gave immunity to telecom companies that had illegally wiretapped Americans; Sestak didn't like the provision, but he told his brother he voted for the bill because it was the best deal on the table. Sestak's first policy instinct isn't to lob bombs; his instinct on many issues tends to be Specter-like, which is to analyze the angles and ... cut a deal.
He only seems like a bomb-thrower because of the way he talks about his ambitions. In early October, Sestak was chatting with a woman, 40ish and curly-haired, about health care. The woman was applying makeup to his face at the time, in the green room of the local Fox News uplink studio, on 17th Street, prior to Sestak going on the air. She was telling Sestak a horror story about fighting her insurance company. Sestak frowned. "Insurance companies are actually rationing care," he said. "People think the government is doing it, but they're doing it." Then he brightened, brandished his mug of green-room coffee like a torch: "We need titans over there in the Senate to get [reform] through! And let the chips fall where they may!"
This is Joe Sestak in microcosm: a sharp, humane observation that takes a deep and bitter truth (our health-care system discriminates based on income) and reframes it in a sensible language that even Fox News viewers would have trouble disputing, followed by an incongruous leap into superhero land. Sestak solves an algebra equation and applies to be Batman.
Titan rhetoric aside, Sestak's history doesn't suggest a clean break from the Specter era. It suggests a continuation, an extension. Over the years, Specter managed to spin his cunning as an operator into a positive brand attribute. Now that that's become a caricature, an absurdity, Sestak can step in and infuse the appealing parts of the brand — respected broker, bipartisan deal-maker, wise hand — with the force of his own biography, his energy, and, yes, his principles. Sestak can continue to be a cautious progressive while filling the air with fireworks. This is good politics. Sestak's aura, all scorched-earth and speaking truth to power, is perfectly tuned to this moment of looming populist rage. The 2010 election will be a change election, and Sestak has positioned himself as the change agent, much like another obscure politician who ran, with much success, one year ago. "We're now Obama," Rich Sestak told me at the end of a long phone call late one November evening. Then he hung up, so he could make 50 more calls for his brother before the sun set in California.
Jason Fagone last wrote for the magazine on the Republican Party. E-MAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org