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
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.

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