Elections

Joe Sestak: The Most Interesting Democrat You Forgot Was Running

Then-Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in 2010. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
At this point he’s got nothing to lose, and that frees him to speak his mind and reach out to people all across the spectrum.

Joe Sestak already missed the first two nationally televised Democratic presidential-primary debates and appears to be a long way from the threshold to qualify for the third.

When the 67-year-old retired admiral and former congressman Sestak announced in May that he would be joining the already crowded Democratic field, there was little fanfare. He wasn’t the subject of a long cover profile in the New York Times Magazine or invited to hang out on the couch of Stephen Colbert before a national television audience. Nor did he boldly declare from the cover of Vanity Fair that he was “born to run.”

The odds are good that you haven’t seen Sestak on television at all this year. The candidate says he’s seen an email from a cable-news producer at one of the big three networks — that he doesn’t want to name — declaring that the channel simply isn’t interested in having him on at all, on any of its programs. To a lot of folks, the Democratic field is not just full, it’s overflowing, and there’s no need to pay much attention to the guy who entered the race on the astonishingly “late” date of June 23.

“I understand it, I don’t complain about it,” Sestak says in a phone interview. Instead, his plan is to doggedly outwork the rest of the field, particularly on the ground in Iowa — by campaigning, at one point, in the state for 36 straight days.

“I’m living in an Econo Lodge — great deal, group rate, it’s undergoing construction,” Sestak says with a chuckle. “We’ve been there more days in Iowa than any other person who’s running already. We’re working — not just grassroots as Jimmy Carter did, we go grass seeds. We are growing those seeds as rapidly as possible. . . . Amateurs do tactics, experts do logistics, as we learn in the military. Phase one was to come to people’s attention.”

Sestak is just starting to do that. The editorial board of the Des Moines Register wrote that he “impresses with experience, smarts and discipline.” The Iowa Starting Line blog called his campaign “peculiar” and “surprisingly effective.” Lots of candidates discuss the downtrodden; Sestak sees the downtrodden as a potential campaign work force and base of support. He’s recruiting for volunteers in homeless shelters and campaigning for votes at the bus station.

And while Sestak answers questions at length, with streams of consciousness that mix his personal history, tales from his Navy days, and John McCain–style invocations of country over party, he frequently wanders back to his fairly nonpartisan core message, that Americans are grappling with a crisis of unaccountability.

“I think what Americans want today, more than anything else, whether you’re Democrat or Republican, is somebody who they think is accountable to them,” Sestak tells me. “Above party, above ideology, above any special interest, above oneself. I think they need someone who has a breadth and depth of global experience in national security — and by that I mean from trade issues, economic issues, all the way over to military issues, understanding all the elements of our power, including the power from our ideals, and who has experience in that and has learned certain principles in how those are to be used. We need to restore U.S. leadership to a world order that is rules-based in order to protect our American dream here at home.”

“If you have a president who is really trusted, then you can move and advance those policies that actually make the American dream available to everyone. There are too many who have not shared in the benefits of this economy. We can be so much more productive, but how do you move them?”

In a Democratic field with seven senators, three governors, four mayors and four sitting congressman who can easily blur together, Sestak stands out for at least having done significant things in his life outside the realm of politics.

Following in the footsteps of his Slovakian immigrant father, Sestak was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated second in his class. He earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Harvard in 1980 and 1984. He rose through the naval ranks, serving on the U.S.S. Richard E. Byrd, the U.S.S. Hoel, and the U.S.S. Underwood. By 1991, he commanded the guided-missile frigate the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, and by November 1994 he was the director for defense policy on the National Security Council. Three years later, he was commanding the Navy’s Destroyer Squadron 14. (You can watch a snippet of younger Sestak discussing the history of his fleet and duties on the U.S.S. George Washington in this video from 1998.)

After 9/11, Sestak became the first director of the Navy Operations Group (Deep Blue), the Navy’s strategic anti-terrorism unit, and in 2002, Sestak assumed command of the George Washington Aircraft Carrier Battle Group — ten U.S. ships with 10,000 sailors, SEALs, Marines, and 100 aircraft. During a six-month deployment, the George Washington group launched approximately 10,000 sorties, including offensive strike missions, first against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, then enforcing the no-fly zone against Iraq.

In 2006, after his then five-year-old daughter overcame a malignant brain tumor that was expected to kill her, Sestak retired from the Navy after 31 years and contemplated his next move. His first success in politics came from a long-shot win, with little campaign spending on television advertisements. Rahm Emanuel wanted Sestak to run against Republican Curt Weldon in Pennsylvania’s seventh congressional district, which encompassed a stretch of Philadelphia’s western suburbs. An FBI search of Weldon’s daughter and a longtime political associate weeks before Election Day hurt the Republican, in an already brutal year for Republicans, and Sestak won with more than 56 percent of the vote. Two years later, with Barack Obama winning the district handily atop the ticket, Sestak won with more than 59 percent.

In 2009, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter switched parties from Republican to Democrat for a variety of reasons: He had barely survived a primary challenge from Pat Toomey, who was gearing up to run again; he had always had some pushback in the GOP for his pro-choice views, and he was getting along with the new Obama administration. But mostly Specter changed parties out of principle — the principle that he liked being a senator and didn’t want to leave.

But unlike most of the rest of the state’s Democratic officials, Sestak wasn’t fine with just letting Specter change his affiliation and be the voice of Pennsylvania Democrats, because Specter had been a Republican since being elected as Philadelphia’s district attorney in 1965. Sestak threw his hat in the ring, much to the irritation of the state and national parties; Specter’s flip was warmly embraced by Barack Obama and Joe Biden, as well as Governor Ed Rendell and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Sestak said that White House officials were so eager to muscle him from the race that they offered him a job if he would drop out. The AFL-CIO and Pennsylvania Democratic Committee endorsed Specter.

Sestak ignored them all and focused his primary ads on a simple, basic message: Arlen Specter is not a Democrat. Sestak went on to beat Specter in the primary by almost eight points. Knocking off Pennsylvania’s longest-serving lawmaker was the highlight of Sestak’s year. The lowlight was losing to Toomey in November, as the GOP enjoyed big wins in the 2010 midterms.

In light of the unexpected victories against Weldon and Specter, perhaps it’s understandable that Sestak has been conditioned to ignore warnings like “You can’t win.”

Many presidential candidates in past cycles have decided to effectively move to Iowa and attempt to build support in the early caucuses there. In 2007, Connecticut Democratic senator Chris Dodd pulled his older daughter out of kindergarten in Washington, D.C., and moved his family to Iowa. But caucus-goers were unimpressed — Dodd finished with zero delegates in 2008.

Sestak plans on winning over Iowans with his relentlessness and determination.

“We didn’t just go to every county, we plan to go two or three times to each county, before we move on, to make sure that we lay the seed and keep the seeds growing. We are now on people’s radar. We passed out 60,000 brochures — hand-held to the people. As one gentleman said, ‘I came to your event, I saw this on my windshield, I removed it, came back an hour later, and it was there again.’” Sestak laughs. “Anybody who’s got a group of people who can do that, I’m going to have it! We just work it.”

He’s a happy warrior, but one with a long way to go: He’s dead last at 1 percent in a survey of all of the early battleground states done by CBS. The Sestak campaign is in a position where it needs all of the attention it can get. (Exhibit A: He’s giving an interview to National Review.) But perhaps desperation breeds creativity. In an era when the DNC refuses to hold a debate on Fox News Channel, it’s refreshing that Sestak has appeared on Sean Hannity’s program seven times over the year, and even recently did an interview with Breitbart Radio, telling the hosts that we should secure the border but that the country needs undocumented immigrants:

We just need to get them in line, the back of the line, fingerprinted, paying a fine, because every study from the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Office has showed they are really — when they can pay the taxes up-front — they are really going to help our economy a lot more.

One can fairly wonder how many Iowa caucusgoers listen to Breitbart radio or read the site. But this is the photo negative of a cautious candidacy like that of Joe Biden, who is mostly sticking to prepared speeches and off-camera chats at donors’ houses. Is speaking his mind to Breitbart hosts about immigration, and offering them a viewpoint they’re likely to oppose, going to tank the chances of Sestak 2020? Or will some Democrats notice that Sestak is willing to talk to anyone in the hopes of winning people over?

There’s a joyful fearlessness in a candidate with nothing to lose.

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