Meet the Senate Democratic Candidate Who’s Running Against His Own Party

Joe Sestak is running as a Democrat, but he’s publicly bucking the national party in his campaign.

Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
March 4, 2015, 11:01 a.m.

PHIL­ADELPHIA—Joe Ses­tak is an un­con­ven­tion­al Sen­ate can­did­ate, and his cam­paign is off to an un­con­ven­tion­al start.

The former con­gress­man and dec­or­ated former Navy ad­mir­al kicked off his Sen­ate cam­paign in Phil­adelphia on Wed­nes­day, but he didn’t tell any­one at the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee about his plans. He blames the lead­er­ship of both parties for dys­func­tion and grid­lock in Wash­ing­ton, even though his cam­paign against Sen. Pat Toomey could de­term­ine which party con­trols the Sen­ate in 2016. And after an­noun­cing his cam­paign, he launched a 422-mile walk­ing tour across the state that took just him, two staffers, and this re­port­er in­to one of the most crime-rid­den neigh­bor­hoods in the city.

“We didn’t tell any­body what we were do­ing in Wash­ing­ton about the event today. Why? It’s not about them. It’s about people,” Ses­tak said in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al while walk­ing through the aban­doned streets of Kens­ing­ton, sev­er­al miles from Cen­ter City. “It’s simple. What people in Wash­ing­ton worry about—they for­get about the people. They for­get the mis­sion. The Demo­crat­ic Party isn’t any good un­less they know it’s about people!”

Dur­ing an hour­long in­ter­view walk­ing across Phil­adelphia, Ses­tak un­der­scored how im­port­ant it was that he didn’t hire any pro­fes­sion­al op­er­at­ives from Wash­ing­ton to staff his cam­paign. Pi­sey Tan, his mas­ter of ce­re­mon­ies at the kick­off event, was a ser­geant who lost both his legs in Ir­aq and has nev­er worked on a polit­ic­al cam­paign. His spokes­per­son, Dani­elle Lynch, was a re­port­er for the loc­al Delaware County Daily Times. Op­er­a­tions man­ager Rain­ie Wil­li­ams, who ac­com­pan­ied us through the city, was an ac­com­plished former stu­dent of Ses­tak’s at Cheyney Uni­versity who spent time in pris­on for deal­ing drugs in the very neigh­bor­hoods we were walk­ing through. (“We’re now of­fi­cially in north Phil­adelphia,” Wil­li­ams told us dur­ing the halfway point of the hike. “When we get to Kens­ing­ton—my ad­vice is to stay on the right be­cause the dope is sold un­der the train tracks.”)

“People in Wash­ing­ton say: You don’t have this, you don’t have that guy, they tell you how it’s done. From a tem­plate from Wash­ing­ton? Come on! This is Pennsylvania!” Ses­tak ex­claimed, point­ing to the gritty streets and aban­doned build­ings.

Ses­tak is prid­ing him­self of run­ning a cam­paign free from Wash­ing­ton in­ter­fer­ence, but it’s that very in­de­pend­ence that’s wor­ry­ing Demo­crat­ic party op­er­at­ives. As Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted last month, the DSCC is quietly talk­ing to oth­er can­did­ates to run against Ses­tak in the primary—with lim­ited suc­cess—even though he’s the best-known and best-fin­anced can­did­ate in the run­ning.

He’s in­tent on run­ning against Wash­ing­ton politi­cians to the point where he didn’t even men­tion Toomey’s name in his kick­off speech. (Later in our in­ter­view, he harshly cri­ti­cized the fresh­man sen­at­or—who won his seat by beat­ing Ses­tak in 2010—for vot­ing against fund­ing for vet­er­ans’ care.) When he made his kick­off an­nounce­ment, only the people in at­tend­ance were able to watch it. His cam­paign’s web­site was down along with the video stream. “Am­a­teurs do tac­tics, ex­perts do lo­gist­ics,” Ses­tak quipped.

Des­pite the hic­cups and cri­ti­cism from lead­ing party of­fi­cials, he’s a strong fron­trun­ner to win the nom­in­a­tion. Mont­gomery County com­mis­sion­er Josh Sha­piro, a ser­i­ous po­ten­tial chal­lenger from the Phil­adelphia sub­urbs, is now un­likely to mount a primary cam­paign. Demo­crats have reached out to oth­ers, in­clud­ing Al­legheny County ex­ec­ut­ive Rich Fitzger­ald and Al­lentown may­or Ed Pawlowski, but both have res­isted re­cruit­ment ef­forts.

Ses­tak has ex­per­i­ence beat­ing more ac­com­plished chal­lengers: Against all odds, he de­feated former Sen. Ar­len Specter in a heated 2010 Demo­crat­ic primary when nearly every Demo­crat, from Pres­id­ent Obama to Gov. Ed Rendell, backed the former GOP sen­at­or.

At times, he sounds a bit like a mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an him­self. He sharply cri­ti­cized Pres­id­ent Obama sev­er­al months ago for his fail­ure in an­ti­cip­at­ing the rise of the Is­lam­ic State, though he said Wed­nes­day that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was do­ing a bet­ter job ad­just­ing to the situ­ation. He praised George W. Bush as the “best pres­id­ent” in U.S. his­tory on deal­ing with re­cidiv­ism.

When I asked him about the Demo­crat de­bate between the Hil­lary Clin­ton and Eliza­beth War­ren wings of the party, he broke from the tra­di­tion­al pop­u­list mold—even as he’s run­ning a pop­u­list cam­paign against Demo­crat­ic party lead­ers. “You have to talk about eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity. It’s small busi­nesses cre­at­ing jobs, so lift the bur­den off of them “… Eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity will fix in­come in­equal­ity.” Ses­tak said.

For all the hype about as­cend­ant pop­u­lism with­in the Demo­crat­ic party, Ses­tak is one of its few politi­cians who’s walk­ing the walk—quite lit­er­ally. He pledged to walk across the en­tire state in a pair of old Army boots that he wore when serving in Afgh­anistan—a sym­bol, he said, of walk­ing in av­er­age Pennsylvani­ans’ shoes. He ar­rived to the event with his wife and daugh­ter look­ing noth­ing like a Sen­ate can­did­ate—a bit disheveled, wear­ing jeans, sneak­ers and an un­buttoned polo shirt. He is crash­ing overnight at churches and sup­port­ers’ homes dur­ing the hike, fo­cus­ing on draw­ing at­ten­tion to the most dis­ad­vant­aged and neg­lected ele­ments of the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion—wounded mil­it­ary vet­er­ans, home­less, vic­tims of do­mest­ic ab­use, among them.

“It’s not about party. It’s about people,” Ses­tak said, pre­view­ing his cam­paign theme. “People don’t trust party lead­ers. Party lead­ers have lost the trust. It’s not about the type of party, it’s about people.”

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