Sestak refuses to back down in race for Specter's seat
April 5, 2010 4:00 AM
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak
By Daniel Malloy Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Joe Sestak defines himself by quantifiable results.
In the data-driven environment of the Navy, where he rose to be a three-star admiral, Mr. Sestak excelled at keeping his ships in top shape and preparing complex projects on deadline.
In his two terms in Congress, representing a suburban Philadelphia district, Mr. Sestak boasts of being named the most productive legislator in his freshman class and handling more than four times the average number of constituent cases last year.
In his Senate campaign -- running against Arlen Specter, conventional wisdom and Pennsylvania's Democratic machine -- Mr. Sestak paces his run by how many American Legion halls and living rooms he can visit in every corner of the state, as well as his robust campaign bank account. Ask him about polls showing him trailing by 30 and he'll point out Mr. Specter's high negatives and assure that he will gain ground in the final weeks before the May 18 primary -- once he puts those funds to use with television airtime.
The 58-year-old Mr. Sestak is often up before dawn, driving himself across the state to a campaign event, calculating how to turn The Admiral into The Senator. For now, though, there's more of the commanding officer than the glad-handing pol in him.
Navy colleagues recalled Mr. Sestak as brilliant but a terror, at times, to subordinates in the name of accomplishing the mission -- a reputation that led to his career's abrupt end. His congressional office and campaign have seen a flood of departures because of long hours and incredibly low pay.
Even Mr. Sestak's detractors say he never demands more than he gives of himself, and he's viciously committed to breaking through in a long-shot primary race against the longest-serving senator in the state's history.
On a visit to Pittsburgh in January he compared his campaign to floodwaters rising in a basement.
"I've got to seep in through the cracks," Mr. Sestak said.
In the Navy
Mr. Sestak was born and raised in Delaware County, in the congressional district he now represents, the son of a Slovakian immigrant and Naval officer. All young Joe wanted to do was be like his father, also named Joseph Sestak, who died last year. He enrolled at the Naval Academy after graduating high school in 1970.
"He was a rocket from the get-go," said Bill Walsh, an academy classmate and longtime friend of Mr. Sestak who now runs his district office.
Mr. Sestak was a standout academically and in the grueling physical standards on which midshipmen are graded. He graduated No. 2 in his class. He later went back to school, earning a master's and Ph.D. from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
His smarts and intensity propelled him through the Navy's ranks to achieve his life's goal, as he puts it now, by 1991: He commanded a ship, the USS Samuel B. Roberts.
In so doing, he developed a reputation as a tireless worker and a taskmaster to his subordinates.
"He was demanding, and he sometimes came across as a martinet," said retired Lt. Ken Lynch, who served on the USS George Washington while then-Capt. Sestak had command of the ship's battle group.
But Mr. Lynch, who now lives in the Philadelphia area, added that Mr. Sestak often ate meals at his desk in the command center, rare for a top officer. "He may work people till they were near exhausted, but he was willing to do that, too," Mr. Lynch said.
His star continued to rise, and Mr. Sestak did a two-year stint in Bill Clinton's White House on the National Security Council staff -- during which colleagues said he was similarly tireless.
In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Sestak was named the head of Deep Blue, the Navy's counterterrorism unit. In early 2002, he prepared ships to deploy to the Persian Gulf.
In those tense times, when more terror attacks were expected, Mr. Walsh said Mr. Sestak shone -- and a few ruffled feathers were a necessary side effect.
In the halls of the Pentagon, though, popularity can help one's career. And Mr. Sestak, by then an admiral, did not earn many friends in high places during his stints on staff of the Chief of Naval Operations, where he was tasked with coming up with alternatives to plans proposed by higher ranking three- and four-star admirals.
Mr. Sestak proposed cutting the Navy's fleet from 316 ships to 250-260 and shifting the savings into intelligence-based fields. A few years later, Mr. Sestak was promoted to three-star admiral and told to begin implementing his plan.
But a current admiral, who asked not to be identified speaking out against a former colleague, said Mr. Sestak wasn't unpopular for his desire to reduce the fleet size -- a view held by many over the years -- but rather for his "tyrannical" leadership style.
The admiral said Mr. Sestak was notorious for holding meetings at 10 p.m. on Friday nights, then ordering his staff back at 7 the next morning.
Though Mr. Sestak was "brilliant" and capable of delivering results on a timely basis for any project, the admiral said, he did not allow his subordinates a proper work-life balance. The style, a relic of an earlier time, ended up backfiring on Mr. Sestak.
"He would command by intimidation and fear," the admiral said. "In today's Navy there's no way a guy like Joe Sestak would be able to have been as quote-unquote successful rising through the ranks."
In July 2005, Adm. Michael Mullen took over as CNO and immediately forced Mr. Sestak out.
Mr. Sestak said Adm. Mullen, now chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, "wanted a new team, and it was right. He should." Mr. Sestak, his Naval career essentially over, spent the rest of 2005 in the office of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations and officially retired Jan 1, 2006.
A career change, though, was not his primary concern.
8 going on 22
A typical Congress member's office is filled with photos and mementos from the member's career: handshakes with presidents and world leaders, perhaps some sports memorabilia. Mr. Sestak's Capitol Hill office is lined with drawings by his daughter, Alex.
A couple weeks ago, Mr. Sestak showed a visitor a photograph of Alex in a pink tutu, with half of her head shaved revealing an arcing scar where doctors opened up her skull for brain cancer treatments.
Alex, now 8, was diagnosed with brain cancer in the summer of 2005 and went through three brain operations as well as aggressive chemotherapy. He describes her as "8 going on 22."
Alex was at first given only months to live, but then received chemotherapy that was still in clinical trials in the time. Though she remains under close observation, Mr. Sestak said she is doing well.
Once her condition stabilized, Mr. Sestak began to contemplate a run for Congress. He said he rejected consulting work that would have earned him much more money in the interest of giving back, and chose public office over an international relief agency.
Seeing a child in an adjacent hospital bed to his daughter nearly denied care for cost reasons, Mr. Sestak said, motivated him to make health care a priority. When House Democrats passed their health reform bill, Mr. Sestak was going to have Alex cast the vote but it was past her bedtime, so he wrote her a note instead, telling her it was her bravery that led him to get into Congress.
Mr. Sestak unseated 10-term Republican Curt Weldon in 2006 in the suburban Philadelphia 7th District on the strength of impressive fundraising and a compelling personal story, but also the nationwide Democratic tide that year and an FBI investigation into Mr. Weldon. Mr. Sestak won re-election easily in 2008, sitting on most of his campaign war chest -- which he has carried over to this year's Senate race.
Mr. Sestak runs his campaign and congressional offices like he ran his ships. Scoring well in readiness and war games has given way to being named the most productive member of the 2007 freshman class by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and handling about four times as many constituent cases as an average office. Mr. Sestak on the campaign trail boasts that you can call his district office on nights and weekends and talk to a live person.
But in the Navy, a sailor is bound to the commanding officer. In the civilian world, people quit.
Mr. Sestak's rate of staff turnover is extraordinarily high, even by the itinerant standards of Capitol Hill. From the time he took office in January 2007 to this past September, Mr. Sestak has had 59 full-time employees, according to data from the website LegiStorm, which compiles congressional staff data.
His campaign staff has been through upheaval as well. Jason Henry, 31, of Bloomfield, then Mr. Sestak's only full-time employee in Western Pennsylvania, left the campaign in January to work for Auditor General Jack Wagner's gubernatorial campaign.
The reason: low pay.
Mr. Specter's campaign recently delved through Mr. Sestak's campaign spending disclosures and calculated that, in the final three months of 2009, he paid 10 staffers less than minimum wage -- six of those well under $4 an hour. Also, the highest-paid members of his campaign staff, according to federal spending disclosures, are Mr. Sestak's own relatives.
Other former staffers told of long hours and absurdly low pay that went beyond the norm in politics, though they acknowledged that no one worked harder than Mr. Sestak himself.
Against the 'old guard'
Early last year, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, approached Mr. Sestak and asked him to run for Senate against Mr. Specter, then a Republican. Mr. Sestak balked at first, amid continued worries for his daughter's health, but came around to the idea.
Then in April, in the wake of his vote for President Barack Obama's stimulus package and polls showing him trailing Pat Toomey badly in the Republican primary, Mr. Specter became a Democrat. The DSCC wanted Mr. Sestak out. He wouldn't budge.
Mr. Sestak spent the summer touring through each of the state's 67 counties and formally announced his run in August.
In July, Mr. Sestak said, someone approached him with a job offer in the Obama administration -- widely speculated to be secretary of the Navy -- if he were to abandon his Senate run. Mr. Sestak said he turned the person down, but he refused to elaborate on the job or who offered it.
Mr. Specter's campaign has not pressed the issue in the same way it pushed Mr. Sestak's staff wages or his record of missing votes in the House. The campaign even coined a pair of nicknames: No Dough Joe and No Show Joe.
"I haven't had any campaign attacks," Mr. Specter said. He added that the three main criticisms "are facts. This is not saying he has a bad judgment on a certain issue or matter."
Mr. Sestak doesn't dispute the facts, though he said several of his more than 100 missed votes -- 15 to 20, he estimates -- have come when he took Alex for medical treatment. He also missed a few, he said, when his father was on his deathbed last year, but Mr. Sestak did admit that many of the missed votes came during his tour of the state before announcing his run.
His relentless campaign has yet to pay dividends in the polls, as he still suffers from low name recognition, and has kept him from his family.
He's not running for re-election to his congressional seat, and Mr. Sestak almost smiles at the thought of losing and leaving public life for good to spend more time with his wife and daughter.
It's a fleeting moment. Stubborn Joe Sestak has a point to make.
"We can let the chips fall as they might much more readily than someone who's even willing to switch their party to keep their job," Mr. Sestak said. "I know I'm a Democrat. I know the principles I believe in. I know what I stand for. And I'm willing as I did before in the Navy to risk my job over doing what's right."