While the top 20 Democratic presidential contenders prepared for last week’s debates, retired Navy admiral and former two-term Pennsylvania congressman Joe Sestak traveled the road less taken as a long-shot presidential hopeful.
This time, it was a series of meet-and-greet events in Iowa.
It’s not the first time the maverick that Democrat party leaders love to hate has done the unexpected.
Sestak, 67, of Alexandria, Va., said his last-minute entry into the crowded Democratic race began percolating last fall when the brain cancer his 12-year-old daughter Alex had beat eight years earlier came crashing back into their lives.
The former congressman was set to take a new post at a nonprofit. Instead, he opted to stay by his daughter’s bed. Long days there translated into a series of papers he penned about issues that concerned him.
“I thought maybe I’d go around and speak to Rotary clubs about what America needs today,” Sestak said.
Then, as Alex began to pull out of the fog and appeared headed toward a recovery, Sestak decided to take another stab at elected office — the nation’s highest-elected position.
It was too late to think about qualifying for the debates. So, Sestak posted a 16-minute video announcement, published a raft of detailed policy positions and headed to Iowa.
“I honestly believe America is at a strategic moment in its life. I do think there is a lot of great candidates. But they need someone this nation has invested in and someone people of both parties would trust because he has demonstrated he is willing to be accountable to people,” Sestak told the Tribune-Review of his choice to become the 24th candidate in an already crowded field.
“I wore the cloth of the nation for over 31 years in peace and war, from the Vietnam and Cold war eras … to Afghanistan and Iraq … and the emergence of China. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I grew up in this global canvas of service in the United States Navy,” the retired three star admiral said in his video announcement.
Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia media consultant, said it’s hard to pin down just what drives Sestak.
“I don’t know what motivated him to get into this. But Joe’s always been a worker. When he used to run in Pennsylvania, he’d brag about how he never took a day off. For him to get in a car and drive to Iowa is nothing. …. Maybe he woke up one day and said, ‘Why not me?’ Here’s a guy whose came close a few times. He barely lost to (U.S. Sen. Pat) Toomey. He didn’t lose it by much to (Katie) McGinty. He’s not a guy who minds going into the face of the wind,” Ceisler said.
After he left Congress, Sestak taught as a visiting professor at a half dozen colleges, including Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and worked in the nonprofit sector.
He said he turned down six-figure offers to become a lobbyist, decrying the revolving door in Washington, D.C., where many former members of Congress work as lobbyists.
Sestak is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy who earned a doctorate in political economy and government at Harvard University. He served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration, before making his first foray into politics in 2006. Running on a platform of improved access to health care and women’s rights, among other issues, he beat a 10-term Republican congressman in a heavily Republican suburban Philadelphia district and easily slid to a second term.
Anne Vaughn, an early Sestak supporter and retired legal aid lawyer, came out of retirement to volunteer on his first campaign. She then worked on his district staff.
Retired again and now living in Maine, Vaughn heard about his latest campaign on the news and quickly sat down to pen an eight page letter, recalling their work together.
Sestak had a reputation as a harsh task master, but Vaughn said that wasn’t the congressman she knew.
“He was very kind to me. Yes, he worked hard and, yes, he expected us to work hard. Yes, we often stayed late on evenings and, yes, we often went in on weekends. It was just part of what we did. We followed his lead,” Vaughn said.
She detailed the work his district staff performed, assisting families in sorting through issues with food stamps, health care, Social Security, immigration, veterans’ benefits and staving off foreclosure during the economic crisis.
“People were very committed to the work. There was sense of energy that emanated from it,” Vaughn said.
Sestak said his young staff helped 800 families avoid foreclosure in the hectic days following the crash of the housing bubble.
His political career stalled in 2010 after he announced a U.S. Senate bid, only to be urged to step aside by party leaders eager to support Sen. Arlen Specter. The five-term Republican Senator flipped parties when it appeared he would not be able to win the GOP nomination and party leaders from the Obama White House on down embraced Specter.
Sestak won the primary and then narrowly lost the general election to Toomey. Five years later, he re-emerged in the Democratic Senate primary, gaining headlines with a 422-mile walk across the state. Again, party leaders looked elsewhere. This time Sestak lost to McGinty.
Now he’s bucking the Pennsylvania party again. Party leaders, including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, former Gov. Ed Rendell and several members of the state’s congressional delegation, were quick to endorse Scranton-native Joe Biden.
Sestak has no love for Biden. He ticked off his grievances against the former vice president. Among issues Sestak cited: Biden endorsed Sestak’s Senate opponents, voted for the “Iraq war, that reckless war” and oversaw the Clarence Thomas hearings during which Specter excoriated Anita Hill.
But it’s not Biden’s record so much as his own that Sestak is focusing on.
“I love town halls. I need to get on a national stage,” he said.
In five days crisscrossing Iowa, Sestak boasted he’d made more than two dozen campaign stops and had just done 11 interviews the prior day.
“We’ll stay here through next week because I want to run in the Fourth of July parades. I love to run in parades. Then we’ll head to New Hampshire,” he said. After that, his plans call for stops in South Carolina and Nevada.
He frequently talks of “healing the soul of the nation” and returning the U.S. to its place on the global stage. America, he said, broke its word when the Trump administration abandoned the Iran nuclear agreement. Restoring the world order the U.S. helped build after World War II is critical for both domestic and international affairs, Sestak said.
“Militaries can stop a problem, but we never fix a problem. We got rid of Saddem Hussein, but we didn’t fix Iraq,” the retired military man cautioned.
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