Pennsylvania Democratic Senate hopeful Sestak goes against the grain

Democratic voters in Pennsylvania have picked U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak as the party's nominee and rejected 80-year-old Arlen Specter in his first Democratic campaign since his GOP defection. (May 18)
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Joe Sestak can be a difficult guy: notoriously demanding of his staff, stubbornly sure of his views, and roundly dismissive of playing ball with the Democratic Party establishment and Pennsylvania congressional delegation.

A hail fellow well met he is not. And it has served him well.

Despite the best efforts of his party to drive him from the Senate race in Pennsylvania nine months ago, the two-term congressman dug in, and on Tuesday he knocked off Sen. Arlen Specter (D), a lion of Congress, in a remarkable upset.

On Wednesday, attention quickly shifted to the November general election, when Sestak will face Republican former congressman Pat Toomey in what both sides say will be an expensive, issue-driven battle between ideological opposites. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows the men in a dead heat. An estimated $20 million is expected to be spent on the race.

"Joe Sestak and I have major differences on important issues like job creation, taxes, spending, bailouts and health care," Toomey said Wednesday in a video address on his Web site Wednesday.

Republican insiders said the party will paint Sestak, 58, as a tax-and-spend liberal who is out of touch with the economically strapped state. Sestak voted for President Obama's climate-change bill, which is wildly unpopular in the coal-producing Keystone State. He also supported the president's health-care overhaul, and he backs abortion rights and gun control.

Sestak said he intends to link Toomey to the economic policy failures of George W. Bush's administration. Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said: "Joe won as a shake-up-Washington persona and he is now running against someone who spent 10 years on Wall Street as a derivatives trader and then six in Congress helping Wall Street. I'll take that matchup any time."

Menendez and the Democratic establishment were singing a different tune last year. After courting Sestak to run for the Senate, Democrats did an about-face when Specter defected from the Republican Party because he didn't think he could survive a GOP primary after voting for Obama's economic stimulus package. Democratic leaders tried to shoo Sestak out of the way. Obama supported Specter, as did Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), who predicted that Sestak would get "killed" in the primary.

Sestak refused to bow out. "There's no kings, certainly, in America. But there's no kingmakers, either," he said at the time.

Sestak grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and graduated second in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy. He served on the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, and became a three-star admiral. After retiring from the Navy, he challenged popular Republican Rep. Curt Weldon in 2006, trouncing him with 56 percent of the vote.

Sestak's military background has produced mixed results on Capitol Hill. As the highest-ranking former military officer ever elected to Congress, he is a respected voice on military issues. But his colleagues have come to regard him as inflexible at times. Once, when party leaders asked him to give the radio response to an address by then-President Bush, Sestak insisted on crafting his own personal message. He drove aides crazy arguing over every point in his response.

One Democratic leadership aide described him as a "typical military guy who is extremely confident" on any position he takes. "You can only approach him on the substance of an issue, never on the politics. He doesn't care that it might hurt him," the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk openly.

Early on, Sestak also had trouble keeping staff because of his temperament and his demands on their time. Nine months into his first term, the Hill newspaper reported that 13 staff members had left his office.

"He's a demanding guy. I'm certainly not going to shy away from that. And that's why a lot of people like him," said campaign spokesman Jonathon Dworkin, who has worked for Sestak for more than two years. "He asks a lot of people, but he doesn't ask any more than he asks of himself."

Sestak's military precision may have served him better on the campaign trail. When he arrived 30 minutes late to an event at a Johnstown community college, he apologized profusely to the small crowd, as if embarrassed by what other candidates might dismiss as a routine occurrence.

Sestak vowed to seek a spot on the Senate's public works committee so he could "fix up" the region's roads so fewer people would get stuck in traffic.

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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