Sestak: Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead?

Sestak: Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead?

By Louis Jacobson - June 9, 2009

WASHINGTON - As Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) moves ever closer to challenging five-term Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary, he is already being arm-twisted by outsiders. But whether those efforts will carry any weight is not at all clear.

The public mulling of a Senate bid by Sestak - a retired admiral who's just begun his second term in the House - is giving heartburn to many influential Democrats in Washington and in the Keystone State. Democratic leaders painstakingly worked to recruit Specter, potentially the Democrats' filibuster-breaking 60th vote in the Senate, under the assumption that the former Republican would be able to coast through his adopted party's primary on his way to another term.

But Sestak, 57, had been thinking about challenging Specter before the incumbent switched parties, and didn't go quietly into the night. During a media blitz last week, Sestak repeatedly sent signals that he's planning a run. Though he said he won't make his candidacy official until he discusses the bid with his wife and daughter, Sestak told CNN that "I personally have made a decision that I intend to get in this race."

On Friday, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) offered especially blunt words against a Sestak candidacy, telling MSNBC that "Joe should not run for the Senate in the Democratic primary. He would get killed. ... [If] Joe Sestak runs against Arlen Specter, he is out of the Congress after just two short terms. We will lose a terrific Congressman and when he loses to Arlen, he fades into political obscurity."

In wide-ranging interviews with PoliticsPA on Sunday and Tuesday, Sestak said he had "great respect for Gov. Rendell" but added that they simply have fundamental differences over how candidates should be chosen. "I and many people in Pennsylvania I've talked to in the past few weeks want a say in choosing our nominee," Sestak said. "The people I meet don't care about endorsements. They're independent-minded and care about values and where someone stands on the issues."

Sestak said he's running because, once the election is over, he'll be a better Senator than Specter. "The question is what kind of Democratic Senator do we want shaping the future, on education, health care, the environment, national security," he said. "For better or for worse, over the next four to six years, the federal government will have a major role in undertaking a massive retooling of these areas. The question became whether we want a candidate anointed by others in Washington and in my party. It bothered me that the decision didn't appear to be based on the future. ... It's easy to select someone to win the election. It's the next four to six years when all the hard work will be done."

Marcel Groen, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee and a member of the Democratic National Committee, agrees with Rendell that Sestak should stay where he is. "At the end of the day, I don't see how you win a Democratic primary without Montgomery County, and I don't see Specter losing Montgomery County," he said.

However, growing numbers of political observers are coming to the conclusion that convincing Sestak to skip a 2010 candidacy may be impossible.

People who know Sestak in both Pennsylvania and Washington expressed no surprise that the former admiral is thumbing his nose at his own party's establishment. Sestak, they say, is a lone wolf whose closest advisers are family members and who has never been chummy with other members of the Pennsylvania delegation.

While Sestak is considered loyal to the Clintons - he worked in the Clinton White House, received significant support from Clintonites during his initial 2006 victory against then-Rep. Curt Weldon (R), and backed Hillary Clinton's 2008 primary campaign over the eventual winner, Barack Obama - he has fewer IOUs to pay to the party establishment than most politicians do, thanks to his late turn to electoral politics after three decades in the Navy.

"It's not like Sestak was a guy who came up the political ranks for 20 years and owes a lot of people," said Cliff Wilson, who chairs the Delaware County Democratic Party and who is supportive of Sestak running in the primary.

In The New York Times on Friday, Sestak fired across the bows not only of Rendell but also President Obama, dubbing them part of a Democratic establishment that is trying to act as a kingmaker in the race. Such comments are a daring move for a junior House Member with aspirations for higher office. "He could give a flying flip what [party leaders] are saying," said a former aide.

Sestak is considered smart - but also intense and stubborn. He graduated from Annapolis and earned two advanced degrees from Harvard. He served in the Navy for 31 years, including as the first director of "Deep Blue," an anti-terrorism think tank within the service; as commander of an aircraft carrier battle group during operations in Afghanistan; and as director for defense policy on the National Security Council. (Sestak was promoted to three-star admiral, but was relieved of command and left the Navy before he had held that rank long enough to be able to retire as a three-star. He actually retired at the lower rank of a two-star Rear Admiral, Upper Half. His official bio finesses it this way: "Born and raised in Delaware County, Joe Sestak spent 31 years serving our nation in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of three-star Admiral.")

Members of Congress and defense experts alike say they have enormous respect for Sestak's knowledge of military matters, which he exercises from a perch on the House Armed Services Committee.

"He has one of the most impressive resumes, kindest hearts and smallest egos of anyone I've met in Congress or Washington," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense and foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution, a centrist-to-liberal think tank. "He's exactly the kind of person the Democratic Party should be delighted and proud to have running for Senate."

Norm Ornstein, a close observer of Congress at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, concurred that "there is no doubt Sestak is respected for his intellect, articulateness, and knowledge of defense and military matters."

On the Armed Services panel, Sestak's background gives him more weight than his seniority would suggest. "He has a hard-charging, very aggressive style of questioning," said one Congressional aide who has seen him in action. "Whenever he speaks on a military issue, especially a Navy issue, he really has a command of the facts."

In the interview, Sestak offered a long list of legislative accomplishments that went far beyond military matters. They include bills or provisions on veterans affairs, autism, education and small business. In fact, Sestak said he opted out of joining the Intelligence Committee in order to join the Education and Labor and Small Business panels, arguing that they were more relevant to his constituents.

However, Sestak's Navy career ended in a less-than-ideal fashion. In July 2005 - within a week of Adm. Michael Mullen's swearing-in as chief of naval operations - Sestak was dismissed as deputy chief of naval operations due to a "poor command climate," according to the Navy Times. (Mullen was later named chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, meaning that the two men now periodically face off in Congressional hearing rooms.)

The ouster represented a stunning (albeit temporary) reversal of fortune for Sestak. But for the most part, Washington players today don't hold the ouster against him - if they even know about it in the first place.

"Once your title is ‘the Honorable,' it's left at the water's edge," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former Congressional aide. The ouster "really only comes up in defense circles."

Sestak said he harbors no bitterness about his separation from the Navy. "I loved every minute of the Navy," he said. He said that he had been asked by then-Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark to rethink how the service needed to change, a task that ruffled feathers. "The change of CNOs meant a change in priorities," Sestak said. "He picked his own team, and I very much respect that."

However, Sestak's subsequent management of his Congressional office has only solidified the perception that he is a taskmaster with a prickly streak.

According to Legistorm, a website that tracks Congressional staff salaries, Sestak has run through 61 staffers since he was sworn in. By comparison, three other Pennsylvania Democrats elected to the House in the same year - Reps. Chris Carney, Patrick Murphy and Jason Altmire - got by with just 25, 26 and 28 staffers, respectively, over that same period.

In a widely read 2007 article in The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, several former staffers said that aides to Sestak "are expected to work seven days a week, including holidays, often 14 hours each day, going for months without a day off. These are very long hours even by Capitol Hill standards."

"There is a revolving door in his office, not just because of the long hours, but also because he is not particularly nice or supportive of his staff," said Capitol Hill veteran. "I am sure he would say he is demanding, just as he was in the military on both the giving and receiving end. To staffers on the Hill, though, he is a guy to avoid unless you are desperate for a job."

The positive spin is that Sestak works hard. Most sources concur that Sestak only pushes his staff as hard as he pushes himself - which is to say very hard. "He has a work ethic unlike anyone else I have ever come across," said one former aide. "He does not stop."

The former aide added that Sestak's staff turnover is not as much of a drawback as one might expect. "Other Members rely on their staff to keep themselves informed, but with him, it's top-down," the former aide said. "He knows what he wants to accomplish, so in a sense, he just needs people to dictate to."

Asked about the high turnover on his staff, Sestak acknowledged that his aides spend long hours on duty and that the work is "pretty demanding." He added that the staff is becoming more stable as time goes on. Six interns "who knew what they were stepping into" have been hired permanently, he said.

Sestak also expressed pride in the constituent services his office has provided, handling over 10,000 cases since he was elected. "Every person who has worked for me has been tremendous," he said.

In any case, Specter would be hard pressed to use Sestak's management skills against him as a campaign issue. "I don't think voters would care," said Muhlenberg College political scientist Christopher Borick. "There have been lots of Senators who had that reputation, including Specter, who's been near the top of the list [of tough Congressional bosses] nearly every year."

Still, some do perceive problems in Sestak's seeming indifference to keeping staff and colleagues happy.

"Personally, I think being a lone wolf is his biggest weakness," said one former aide. "The good thing is that it shows he has the strength to be independent, which registers with voters in his district. But when it comes to playing the political game in Washington, it's definitely a weakness."

Some find Sestak's argument against party kingmakers ironic, given what happened in his 2006 race, when another Democratic hopeful, Bryan Lentz, bowed out of the race after key Democratic Party officials had urged him to do so.

Lentz - who later ran successfully for the state House and is considered a strong prospect to capture Sestak's U.S. House seat if it goes vacant - had been eyeing Weldon's House seat for a year and raising money in the six figures. Then Sestak came on the scene. Sources said that officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee - then led by Rahm Emanuel, now the White House chief of staff - began quietly questioning Lentz's credentials while officially remaining neutral in the primary. Later, the sources said, Lentz received a call from Rendell asking him to step aside and seek the state House seat instead. Local Democratic leaders also began shifting their allegiances to Sestak. While Lentz has disputed that he was pushed out of the race, insiders say he was persuaded that playing the good soldier might eventually benefit him.

Sestak frames the story somewhat differently, and his version in some ways mirrors what's happened in the Senate race. When Sestak first began to run, local political leaders urged him to call the DCCC. After asking what the DCCC was, Sestak contacted the organization and was told that they did not want him in the race because they already had a candidate. "I called back and said I called to inform you, not to ask permission," Sestak recalled Tuesday.

Then, about three or four weeks into his race, Sestak said, Lentz called him to ask if they could talk about the possibility of Lentz leaving the race. Sestak says it's certainly possible that party leaders made moves to shift the momentum in his direction and away from Lentz, but if so, he wasn't involved in it. His camp was never part of "any effort to clear the field." (He added that he's since worked constructively on a veterans' policy summit with Lentz, who himself is a veteran.)

In what would surely be a hard-fought primary, Sestak will also need to avoid some pitfalls of past statewide candidates. Residency became an issue in the failed 2006 reelection bid by then-U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, when it became known that Santorum had a small house in western Pennsylvania but a much larger one in the Washington suburbs. Sestak owns a home in the D.C. area, as well as one in the district, in Edgemont. However, he said he maintains the Washington-area residence in part to make it easier for his eight-year-old daughter to get specialized treatments in her recovery from a brain tumor.

Sestak will also need to hustle to visit all parts of the state; his long Navy career gives Specter a massive head start in knowledge about, and visibility in, Pennsylvania's 67 counties. Sestak acknowledges this. Still, he said, "I may not know where every WaWa or hoagie shop is from being at sea for so long, but the challenges that are common in my district are common throughout Pennsylvania. I know the general issues that truly are affecting Pennsylvanians."

Specter is comfortably ahead in recent polls, though that could change as Sestak becomes better known statewide - a task he has a year and a half to attend to.

A Quinnipiac University poll shows Specter leading Sestak, 50 percent to 21 percent, while a poll by the Democratic firm Garin-Hart-Yang found Specter leading, 56 percent to 16 percent. Sestak's best showing came in a poll by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, in which Specter led 55 percent to 34 percent.

Sestak should have the money to make it a competitive race. He began April with more than $3 million in his campaign account, and "he's a very aggressive fundraiser - so much so he wants you to max out immediately," said one defense lobbyist." His brother, Richard, is a key fundraiser for the Congressman. Sestak has also managed to tap into the ranks of liberal, anti-war donors who give relatively small amounts online, sources said.

In laying out policy differences with Specter, Sestak does not go into great detail, instead citing a handful of topics on which he expects to draw contrasts: health care, economic policy (charging that Specter supported a flat tax), foreign policy (knocking the incumbent for authorizing the use of force in Iraq), and education and energy (saying Specter has an absence of fresh ideas).

Even if he does lose the primary to Specter, Sestak would be the Democratic heir apparent to fill the seat whenever it comes open. Indeed, Pennsylvania is a state where losing a major race sometimes seems like a requirement for winning higher office.

Sestak said that he would like to make his decision official "before the end of the summer, at least by mid-summer." He said he has begun the process of discussing a bid with his family, "but I want to do it deliberately. ... They are supportive but I want to walk it through with them."

Meanwhile, many observers say they're impressed with how Sestak has polished his political skills. "It's interesting to watch him speak at a hearing and see him visibly get upset, trying to control himself," said one Congressional aide. "To me, that's a sign of a maturing politician. He knows he can't do certain things if there's a camera on."

Sestak also wins kudos for connecting well with constituents in the district. "He has picked up on how to be the ballplayer playing to the crowd in the stadium," said Wilson, the Delaware County chairman. But Wilson added, "I don't know that he's picked up how to be the guy on the team that all the other guys love."

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