PITTSBURGH — To explain why he was walking alone for 25 days and 422 miles across Pennsylvania, U.S. Senate hopeful Joe Sestak recalled a bit of advice he got six years ago.
It was the day that Sen. Arlen Specter became a Democrat, a move that thrilled the party but complicated Sestak’s plans to run for the seat. That afternoon, Sestak had lunch with his old boss, Bill Clinton. The former president, Sestak says, jabbed a finger in his gut — and told him to follow it.
On a gray, chilly weekday afternoon six years later, his gut was leading him up a steep hill in a working-class Steel City neighborhood, 12 or so miles and 12 or so hours into Day 23 of his journey. Near the top, he spotted a potential voter, a man in baggy gray sweatpants and a black zippered hoodie stepping out of a black SUV, cigarette and Monster energy drink in hand.
Sestak beelined for him. He showed the man a sheet of paper — a printed Google map. Was he headed in the right direction?
Sestak vaguely explained that he was a former congressman who “beat someone but then lost to someone else” and was now walking — yes, walking — the Keystone State. He got the man to pose with him for a selfie, handed him a business card with his personal e-mail address (“just say you’re the guy who gave me directions to Steuben Street”) — and then he was off again, a solitary figure hustling forth on a vision quest of his own.
The journey could be a metaphor for his politics — a go-it-alone strategy that challenges norms and only occasionally pays off. Take that follow-your-gut moment of his from six years ago: Sestak forged ahead and challenged Specter in Pennsylvania’s 2010 Democratic primary for Senate — but in the process alienated Democratic leaders who coalesced behind Specter. (Clinton himself was deputized to call Sestak and ask him to drop out.) Sestak won the primary, only to lose narrowly in the general election to Republican Patrick J. Toomey.
Now he is embarking on another maverick campaign to challenge Toomey in 2016. But while he is the unofficial front-runner on the Democratic side, he is carrying the baggage of 2010. National and state Democrats remain uneasy about a guy who they feel bucked their authority the last time and whose initial campaign strategy is to walk alone for a month — so much so that they are practically begging other Democrats to run against him.
On a windswept bridge over the Monongahela River, Sestak paused for a moment to reflect on his strained relations with his party. He insists he is untroubled by it. When he faced tea party opposition in 2010, he still made a point of getting to town halls early to shake protesters’ hands, he said.
“So how could I not go down and shake the hands of the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] and say, ‘Can we work together?’ ”
“But if not,” he added, “I understand if they have a better choice.”
His day started at 6 a.m. with a drop-off at an empty parking lot across from a Dollar General. Exactly where he was picked up at the end of the previous day. In darkness, with a backpack slung over his right shoulder, Sestak began to walk.
Over the next 19 hours, he would walk 18 miles, with breaks for a campaign event, four media interviews and a visit with college students.
Sestak, 63, began walking in early March at Independence Hall in Philadelphia — near Delaware County, where he grew up and now lives with his wife and teenage daughter. He had averaged about 20 miles a day across Amish farmland, up icy mountains and along the shoulders of narrow thoroughfares on his journey to the Ohio border.
On this late March Thursday in Pittsburgh, he crossed into an upper-middle-class neighborhood dotted with churches and old mansions, the sidewalks vacant except for a few early morning joggers. He turned onto Fifth Avenue and went through the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus. Students hustled past, not seeming to notice the slender, gray-haired man in an olive Navy flight jacket. They would have had no idea he is a retired three-star admiral and former member of Congress with his sights on a return to Capitol Hill, and he did not stop to tell them.
This journey, it sometimes seemed, was as much about solitude and self-reflection as retail politics or media outreach. He rarely slowed to shake hands. When he talked to strangers it was because he needed directions, sometimes darting into traffic to knock on a car window.
For better or worse, he was always a different kind of politician.
“As a veteran, his service is respected in the state — and I think, more to the point, voters see in Joe a ‘what you see is what you get’ mentality,” said J.B. Poersch, who was the executive director of the DSCC in 2010. “They see him as maybe anti-Washington. If you look at people’s view of Congress, that’s an asset.”
But can he win — his way? Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell says some party leaders are worried that the race — which could determine the balance of power in the Senate — is too important to leave in Sestak’s hands.
Rendell has his own reservations about Sestak: “He doesn’t fit the modern-day view of a candidate.” But he also thinks that forcing Sestak into a primary just because some party mandarins are uneasy with him isn’t smart politics, either.
“Can he be more cooperative, can he listen more? Yes, I told him that,” Rendell said. “Joe Sestak will be Joe Sestak and there’s some downside to that. . . . But people like the folksy Joe Sestak. He didn’t wave a magic wand and do as well as he did [in the last election]. . . . That was not an accident. Someone must have liked him. Someone must have voted for him.”
After eight miles on foot, Sestak was picked up just past 9 a.m. and driven to a small coffee shop to greet supporters.
It turned out to be a narrow, cramped space, and his lone staffer on this journey, 23-year-old Jack Zandi, was puzzling over where Sestak should stand to speak. A barista grinding coffee said she hadn’t known they were coming. It was classic Sestak style: Logistics second.
More than two dozen people showed up, and he held forth for an hour, talking mostly about foreign policy — a sweet spot for Sestak, who trumpeted his military experience while getting in a few digs at both the GOP and the Obama administration.
If official Democrats weren’t taking him seriously, the other side was: Sestak was stalked at this stop, as on many others, by a camcorder-wielding guy named Ollie, a gaffe-hunting “tracker” hired by the conservative super PAC America Rising. Sestak introduced him to the crowd like an old friend, and Ollie saluted him with a thumbs-up.
Sestak is working on being more succinct. John McCain once called him after a TV appearance and told him he’d talked for too long. He still uses a lot of awkward phrases, such as how he wants to right “this U.S. ship of state of trust” — a classic Sestakian Navy-tinged mixed metaphor.
“You really upped your game from last time,” a 2010 supporter said approvingly on his way out of the coffee shop.
Yet in his next stop for a public-radio interview, Sestak stumbled.
He was caught short when the host asked about a just-breaking story that criticized him for not using “former” before every reference to his “admiral” title (a possible violation of military ethics, the story implied). He misunderstood a listener’s question. He referred to being in Westmoreland County that day; he was actually in Allegheny.
Around 2 p.m., Sestak had his first meal of the day. At his second radio station visit, there was a spread of sandwich fixings and other snacks, so he indulged in two celery sticks and a black coffee. Eating, he said, slows him down. His snack there would sustain him until midnight.
“I want to do what is required,” he said. “I really do this time.”
Sestak, who commanded an aircraft carrier group after serving on Clinton’s National Security Council, has an intensity that is impossible to match, which may have contributed to his reputation as a demanding boss. Just before he retired from the Navy in 2005, he was shifted away from one high-ranking Pentagon post because of what top brass referred to as a problematic “command climate,” Navy Times reported at the time. Turnover was unusually brisk among his staffers during his first term in Congress, the Hill newspaper reported in 2007.
Zandi, who had been Sestak’s gofer for the past month, acknowledged that the pace had been crazy. He had never worked harder.
Sestak continued walking in the early evening, picking up exactly where he left off before his stops: He would let no one accuse him of not walking the entire way. It was considerably colder, with a gloomy sky and constant mist, as he began another six or so miles through a hilly, hardscrabble neighborhood.
On this day, a new public poll was released showing that 63 percent of Pennsylvania voters don’t know enough about Sestak to have an opinion. Yet he trailed Toomey by only five points, with more than a third of the electorate undecided.
Sestak doesn’t seem motivated by the kind of campaign strategizing that energizes many politicians. He gives lofty, often meandering soliloquies about restoring accountability in politics. His goal in the Senate? To be a “titan,” someone allies will want “to go into battle with.” His issues include health-care reform — he’s a stalwart cheerleader for the Affordable Care Act. He mentions autism research a lot. He favors gun control and scoffs at Toomey’s bipartisan effort on gun legislation, calling him a “fair-weather friend” who gave up fighting after one failed vote.
“You don’t run to win, you run to fix the biggest ill that you see, the biggest challenge out there,” he says. He’s says the biggest deficit the country faces is a lack of trust.
After spending an hour talking to a dozen University of Pittsburgh undergrads, Sestak was once again dropped off on the unlit shoulder of the road at almost 11 p.m. Ahead of him was a 3
Still, not nearly as dangerous as the time he walked up a mountain, alone, in freezing temperatures with no cell service. Or as miserable as the Harrisburg bridge where he felt like the wind was slicing him in two.
Close to midnight, Sestak met his day’s goal, and Zandi picked him up. A large pepperoni pizza was waiting, and he quickly ate three slices — his only meal since the celery and coffee — and passed out, head slumped forward. He woke up as the car pulled into the hotel parking garage.
“It was a good day,” he murmured, like a self-affirmation.
In less than six hours he would start walking again. On Saturday he would reach the Ohio state line. And then, he said, he would start to run.