Meet The Democratic Senate Candidate Who Drives Democrats Crazy

With his impressive biography and political experience, Joe Sestak could be the party’s Senate majority-maker. So why doesn’t anyone want him to run?

Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Feb. 19, 2015, 9:41 a.m.

Anxious about a can­did­ate con­sidered to be an un­re­li­able mav­er­ick and a polit­ic­al li­ab­il­ity, Demo­crat­ic Party lead­ers have un­der­taken a quiet, in­tens­ive search in re­cent months to re­cruit a ser­i­ous primary chal­lenger to former Rep. Joe Ses­tak, the party’s Sen­ate nom­in­ee in 2010 who is again run­ning for Pennsylvania’s Sen­ate seat.

The ef­fort has in­volved former con­gress­men, state sen­at­ors, county lead­ers and, re­cently, even a prom­in­ent dis­trict at­tor­ney. Their anxi­et­ies are be­ing driv­en by party of­fi­cials, who are con­cerned that Ses­tak could cost Demo­crats a must-win state in 2016. They’ve yet to turn up a suc­cess­ful al­tern­at­ive, but in their telling, it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore a new chal­lenger—one with the back­ing of the party es­tab­lish­ment—enters the race.

“[Ses­tak’s] not scar­ing any­one,” said Bob Brady, a con­gress­man from Phil­adelphia and be­hind-the-scenes power play­er in Pennsylvania Demo­crat­ic polit­ics. “He’s not clear­ing the field be­cause he’s run­ning.”

The con­cern over Ses­tak is mul­ti­fa­ceted. Party in­siders fear he’s a loose can­non and doubt he will listen to the ad­vice of polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als. That’s a ne­ces­sity in what will be a hard-fought race against Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Pat Toomey, an out­spoken fisc­al con­ser­vat­ive who has ef­fect­ively shif­ted to the polit­ic­al cen­ter since tak­ing of­fice in 2011.

But there’s also a per­son­al an­im­us to­ward Ses­tak, known to party lead­ers as a polit­ic­al loner who de­fied the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment in 2010 when he ran against Ar­len Specter. That year, against the ad­vice of party lead­ers, he chal­lenged the party-switch­ing sen­at­or in the primary—and pre­vailed, even though Pres­id­ent Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell, and the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee were against him.

Ses­tak won the primary, but went on to lose nar­rowly to Toomey. It’s a scen­ario that Demo­crat­ic lead­ers worry will hap­pen again if he wins the nom­in­a­tion again next year.

“In my es­tim­a­tion, if Joe Ses­tak is the nom­in­ee in 2016 for U.S. Sen­ate, we will once again lose to Pat Toomey,” said T.J. Rooney, who was state Demo­crat­ic Party chair­man when Ses­tak ran in 2010.

Wheth­er brokers like Brady and Rooney will be suc­cess­ful—or even wheth­er their ef­forts are a good idea in the first place—is a heated top­ic of de­bate among many Pennsylvania Demo­crats. Already, a hand­ful of po­ten­tially strong can­did­ates have de­cided not to run, daun­ted at the dual chal­lenges of a bruis­ing primary against Ses­tak and an ex­pens­ive gen­er­al elec­tion against the well-fun­ded Toomey. Futher­more, some Demo­crat­ic strategists re­main con­vinced the former House mem­ber and Navy ad­mir­al is the party’s best bet to win next Novem­ber des­pite the an­im­os­ity between him and party lead­ers—es­pe­cially if he can avoid a costly primary.

That’s left the party in a vex­ing situ­ation, with some wor­ried that ef­forts to tor­pedo Ses­tak now will prove feck­less and only dam­age him for next fall.

“What this high­lights is there is al­ways a bit of dis­tance between what party lead­ers want and what voters want,” said Dan Fee, a Phil­adelphia-based Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant. “This is a guy who, in a ter­rible year, barely lost. At the very least, he starts ahead.”

Demo­crats have cast a wide net in their search for an al­tern­at­ive. Test­er, the newly min­ted chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, has called Al­legheny County ex­ec­ut­ive Rich Fitzger­ald to gauge his in­terest in run­ning, ac­cord­ing to sources fa­mil­i­ar with party re­cruit­ment. DSCC of­fi­cials have met with Ed Pawlowski, the may­or of Al­lentown who briefly ran for gov­ernor in 2014, about a cam­paign. In Pennsylvania, Demo­crats have en­cour­aged former Rep. Chris Car­ney and state Sen. Vin­cent Hughes to run.

All of these sales pitches came after most of the party es­tab­lish­ment was set to rally be­hind Mont­gomery County Com­mis­sion­er Josh Sha­piro, who rep­res­ents the wealthy Phil­adelphia sub­urbs. Sha­piro had in­dic­ated he was in­ter­ested in a cam­paign, but many in­siders no longer be­lieve Sha­piro will run.

Fitzger­ald, in an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, said he won’t run, either. And it’s un­clear if the oth­ers will ul­ti­mately launch a can­did­acy or if they would be a ser­i­ous chal­lenge to Ses­tak any­way. But in re­cent weeks, an­oth­er in­triguing name has sur­faced as a po­ten­tial can­did­ate, someone who un­til re­cently was on few people’s radars: Seth Wil­li­ams, the dis­trict at­tor­ney of Phil­adelphia.

The 48-year-old, Phil­adelphia’s first black dis­trict at­tor­ney, told Na­tion­al Journ­al he’s fo­cused on his cur­rent job. But he didn’t dis­count the pos­sib­il­ity that he might be in­ter­ested in seek­ing high­er of­fice.

“Who wouldn’t want to be a U.S. sen­at­or?” Wil­li­ams said. “I really be­lieve if we want to make the city safer, to pre­vent crime, we need to cre­ate more early-child edu­ca­tion op­por­tun­it­ies, and in­crease eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­it­ies for in­di­vidu­als and busi­nesses. And be­ing a sen­at­or would al­low me a great op­por­tun­ity to let me do all of those things.” He ad­ded: “I’m a mem­ber of the Pennsylvania Na­tion­al Guard, so I take or­ders well. If they give me a call, I’ll listen.”

Wil­li­ams has a pro­file that could ex­cite some Demo­crats: A former stu­dent lead­er at Penn State, he’s served in the mil­it­ary and tangled with em­battled state At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Kath­leen Kane over a pub­lic-cor­rup­tion in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to fel­low Demo­crats. Just this week, he’s blas­ted the state’s newly elec­ted Demo­crat­ic Gov. Tom Wolf for is­su­ing a morator­i­um on the death pen­alty in Pennsylvania.

But along with his cent­rist cre­den­tials, Wil­li­ams could be­come the first black sen­at­or in Pennsylvania’s his­tory—which could mo­tiv­ate lib­er­al and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters to turn out in a race many Demo­crats see as a base elec­tion any­way.

Brady, the long­time chair­man of the Phil­adelphia Demo­crat­ic Party, said Wil­li­ams has been a “great” dis­trict at­tor­ney. “I would like to see him to take a good look at it, and if he did, I cer­tainly would be will­ing to sup­port him,” he said.

At the mo­ment, DSCC of­fi­cials are still mulling over their op­tions. A spokes­man ac­know­ledged that Test­er called to in­quire about oth­er can­did­ates, but in­dic­ated that the com­mit­tee is still open to back­ing Ses­tak.

“Sen­at­or Test­er was simply do­ing his due di­li­gence in Pennsylvania as he is in all of our states by talk­ing to elec­ted of­fi­cials and com­munity lead­ers to so­li­cit ad­vice and get a sense of what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground,” said Justin Barasky, spokes­man for the group. “There are num­ber of great po­ten­tial can­did­ates in Pennsylvania who can beat Pat Toomey, and that in­cludes Joe Ses­tak.”

Some out­side ob­serv­ers coudl be con­fused as to why Demo­crats are so re­luct­ant to back Ses­tak. He won a swing-state sub­urb­an Phil­adelphia seat in 2006, and he de­fen­ded his sup­port for Obama­care in 2010 by ar­guing that he wanted every par­ent to have the same treat­ment for their chil­dren that his daugh­ter re­ceived when she battled brain can­cer as a tod­dler.

He lost to Toomey in an oth­er­wise hor­rif­ic year for Demo­crats by a mere 2 per­cent­age points, or 75,000 votes, in part be­cause his mil­it­ary ex­per­i­ence was a ma­jor polit­ic­al as­set with blue-col­lar voters in west­ern Pennsylvania. He ran well ahead of the Demo­crats’ gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee, who lost his race by 9 points.

By all ac­counts, he’s a tire­less work­er who won his un­der­dog cam­paign against Specter be­cause he re­lent­lessly cour­ted loc­al Demo­crats in even the smal­lest of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. As part of his ag­gress­ive out­reach, he’s already traveled to all of the state’s counties again since los­ing the last elec­tion. And his back­ground as an ad­mir­al—par­tic­u­larly one who has been crit­ic­al of Pres­id­ent Obama—could help at a time when for­eign policy might play a large role in the cam­paign.

“Joe has a lot of that in­de­pend­ent streak to him, and that doesn’t al­ways play well in party polit­ics,” said Kathy Dahlkem­per, who served with Ses­tak in the House and now is the chief ex­ec­ut­ive for Erie County. “But for the voters, it of­ten can play very well.” (Dahlkem­per, who oth­er Demo­crats have men­tioned would be a strong pos­sible Ses­tak al­tern­at­ive, said she likes her one­time col­league and won’t run for the Sen­ate.)

Demo­crats also say openly that they don’t think they need a top-tier can­did­ate to beat Toomey next year. The party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees have each won Pennsylvania since 1992—Pres­id­ent Obama won there in 2012 by more than 5 points. In an era in which Sen­ate can­did­ates are in­creas­ingly tied to the per­form­ance of their party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees, that might be enough to de­feat Toomey.

“We’re prob­ably go­ing to have Hil­lary Clin­ton on top of the tick­et,” said Fitzger­ald, the Al­legheny County ex­ec­ut­ive. “I just think bodes well for any Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee to win that seat.”

It’s also un­clear if the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment could de­feat Ses­tak even if they found a vi­able can­did­ate. He de­feated Specter in 2010 des­pite op­pos­i­tion from all corners of the party’s ap­par­at­us, and it’s un­likely any at­tempt to de­feat him in 2016 would in­clude such a com­pre­hens­ive ef­fort from party lead­ers.

But con­cerns run deep with­in Demo­crat­ic circles about Ses­tak’s polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion. He de­clined to work with the Pennsylvania Demo­crat­ic Party’s co­ordin­ated cam­paign in 2010, and many of the staff on his last Sen­ate cam­paign were mem­bers of his fam­ily.

“On pa­per, the guy has a great pro­file. How of­ten to do you get a re­tired ad­mir­al run­ning for of­fice?” said one Demo­crat­ic strategist, gran­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. “That’s the frus­trat­ing part. He’s got a great story to tell, a least on pa­per, but there are ser­i­ous con­cerns that he’s go­ing to blow a very good op­por­tun­ity here.”

And to some Demo­crats, it’s per­son­al. It’s not just that Ses­tak ran against Specter des­pite the party’s wishes. In 2012, he en­dorsed a primary chal­lenger to con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat­ic Rep. Tim Hold­en, help­ing now-Rep. Matt Cartwright de­feat the well-liked in­cum­bent. He also helped out a write-in chal­lenger to former Rep. Allyson Schwartz.

These have con­trib­uted to the im­pres­sion among some Demo­crats that Ses­tak isn’t a team play­er and is un­will­ing to listen to the ad­vice of oth­ers.

“He still thinks he’s an ad­mir­al. And he thinks every­one should stand up and sa­lute him,” said one Demo­crat­ic of­fice­hold­er.

What We're Following See More »
THE QUESTION
How Many People Protested in Philly Yesterday?
1 hours ago
THE ANSWER

About 5,500, according to official estimates. "The Monday figures marked a large increase from the protests at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where even the largest protests only drew a couple of hundred demonstrators. But it’s a far cry from the 35,000 to 50,000 that Philadelphia city officials initially expected."

Source:
NO BATTLEGROUND STATES LEAN TRUMP
NY Times’ Upshot Gives Clinton 68% Chance to Win
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

Only a day after FiveThirtyEight's Now Cast gave Donald Trump a 57% chance of winning, the New York Times' Upshot fires back with its own analysis that shows Hillary Clinton with a 68% chance to be the next president. Its model "calculates win probabilities for each state," which incorporate recent polls plus "a state's past election results and national polling." Notably, all of the battleground states that "vote like the country as a whole" either lean toward Clinton or are toss-ups. None lean toward Trump.

Source:
HOLCOMB IS A FORMER TOP AIDE
Indiana Lt. Gov. Tapped to Run for Pence’s Seat
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

On the second ballot, the Indiana Republican Party's Central Committee tapped Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb as their nominee to succeed Gov. Mike Pence this fall. "Holcomb was a top aide to former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Sen. Dan Coats and a former chairman of the state Republican Party."

Source:
AFTER ROLL CALL VOTE
Sanders May Officially Nominate Clinton
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Negotiations are underway to have Bernie Sanders officially nominate Hillary Clinton for president at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, a move that would further signal party unity. According to a source familiar with the talks, the Vermont senator would nominate the presumptive Democratic nominee after the roll call vote."

Source:
THE REVOLUTION CONTINUES
Sanders to Channel His Movement into Local Races
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Bernie Sanders said he'll begin pivoting his campaign to an organization designed to help candidates at the local level around the country. At a breakfast for the Wisconsin delegation to the DNC this morning, he said the new group will "bring people into the political process around a progressive agenda," as it supports candidates "running for school board, for city council, for state legislature."

Source:
×