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Talking to Joe Sestak: Progressive Fighter Who Took out Arlen Specter, and Won't Stop 'Til He Wins the Senate Race

31-year military veteran Sestak: 'I learned that militaries may make you safe, but they don't make you strong.'
 
 
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On May 27, 2009 Joe Sestak announced his intent to challenge Arlen Specter for his Senate seat. Specter had recently switched parties, from Republican to Democrat, ostensibly because he no longer identified with the GOP, but his party jump was best explained by polls which showed he wouldn't sustain a Republican primary challenge. When Sestak, a congressman representing Pennsylvania's seventh district since 2007, declared his senate candidacy, he took the wind out of Specter's opportunistic Democratic sails.

Except the Democratic establishment didn't really take heed. Up until voters cast their ballots on May 18, Democratic big-wigs like Vice-President Biden were out gunning for Specter's campaign, which had turned to low-shot ads that questioned Sestak's 31-year military career. (A three-star admiral in the Navy, Sestak is the highest-ranking military veteran to ever serve in Congress.) On the inside, however, it's clear Democrats were worried. Rahm Emanuel -- with Bill Clinton's help -- even offered Sestak a position in the administration if he dropped his challenge to Specter. Sestak stayed in the race.

Beating Specter, though, is even better than miscalculating Emanuel could have imagined. In Sestak, Democrats have a candidate who can ride the wave of anti-incumbent fervor which ultimately brought Specter down. And matching up against the Republican candidate in November will be much easier for Sestak than it would have been for Specter. Former congressman Pat Toomey is an ex-derivatives trader who voted to deregulate Wall Street. How can he stand up to the image of a three-star admiral who wants to put Main Street over Wall Street?

Sestak will very likely help Democrats keep their slim majority in the Senate, and progressives can take heart, too. He wants to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, was against Iraq from the start (though he supports Afghanistan, albeit cautiously), and -- believe it! -- wants to cut down on military spending. I caught up with him recently, fresh from his primary win.

Daniela Perdomo: During your 31-year military career I've read that you were publicly non-partisan. You're now a Democrat. But you were somewhat written off by the Democratic establishment in your race against Arlen Specter. Were you surprised at the outpouring of support from progressives who clearly had a big impact on your primary win?

Rep. Joe Sestak:
No, I wasn't. And I think that the strength of my beliefs and convictions in democratic principles, which land me on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party -- I think they felt a kindred soul in that. But I often tell people, that you know, really, if you look at how I ended up where I am it's because of a very pragmatic approach. Think about my 31 years in the military -- everybody has health care. The dividends that accrue to the nation from healthy, productive service-members whose families are also all covered are incredible. And then when you join the military today, we don't even promote you above a certain level unless you've earned at least an associate's degree. We want educated, knowledgeable service-members -- learn a skill. And then we give everyone economic security with a pension afterwards. I say that everybody in the military is a Democrat, they just don't realize it..

Now that I've come back [from the military] I feel the same way about a workforce. Invest in your people. And hold our investments accountable. You'll really have the working families as the engine for the economy, not Wall Street. Because I learned that militaries may make you safe, but they don't make you strong. What makes you strong is investment in health care, education, and economic security with an accountable approach to that.

DP: I do want to ask you about jobs, but before we go there, I wanted to ask you what you're hoping for now as you go into your race against Republican Pat Toomey, in terms of grassroots support. Where do you expect most of that support to come from?

JS: Oh, I'd like to come from all across the spectrum. But I hope to build upon the support I got in the progressive movement because there are many, many across Pennsylvania that are strong supporters of President Obama and, you know, the President had to make a decision and I don't begrudge him [endorsing Specter], but some people were nevertheless for me. And they weren't for me so much as they were for what I stood for -- for my principles which are about standing up for American families. I think that's going to help us in the long-term running against Congressman Toomey.

As John F. Kennedy said, sometimes a party asks too much and when it does, I'll stand up for the good of the working families.

DP: Speaking of Toomey, what are the best issues to run on against him?

JS: Well, I think it's accountability. Accountability for one's actions, which I learned in the military. Look, Congressman Toomey, who was a congressman for much longer than I [have been], actually voted to deregulate Wall Street, where he had once worked as a derivatives trader. He voted to effectively remove the referee from the football field. The gambling that was done up there was not gambling with anything really other than what's most precious -- the savings of young couples so their children can go to college, and the homes of seniors where they're ready to retire.

The lack of accountability for [Toomey's] extreme views, where he still believes today there should be no regulation of Wall Street or a flat tax where we would all pay a $3,000 increase in taxes to pay for a tax cut for all the multi-millionaires because he believes in trickle-down economics -- in fact, he believes in privatizing Social Security. That's an ideology.

A very pragmatic approach, centered on job creation, education, help for small businesses, and health care is where we need to go. So that's the difference. He'll stand with Wall Street, I'll stand with the working families of Pennsylvania.

DP: That's a fantastic segue to my next question. What will you do about the jobs crisis?

JS: Well, we need to make sure we get out of this recession -- and we are out of it, but we haven't recovered from it yet -- as rapidly as possible. And I think the government should focus its policies upon small businesses. 'Business' isn't a bad word particularly with 'small' in front of it. And so if you actually gave a 15 percent tax credit for every new payroll job that a small business creates, you would soak up 5 million of the 8.5 million unemployed within two years. Because small businesses create 80 percent of all the jobs. That's what tax incentives need to do.

Second, access to capital for small businesses. We literally have our community banks not lending today to small businesses -- it's pretty tough, they're risk-averse. If we guarantee those loans to credit-worthy small businesses and create job creation tax incentives -- just doing those two alone, after having watched the Bush administration with Congressman Toomey supporting it slash the Small Business Administration in half, you would start to get the generator of 80 percent of all new jobs going again.

That's where the focus needs to be.

DP: Let's talk a little bit about government spending. You support the war in Afghanistan. How would you define success there? And how can we get out?

JS: Great question, that's what I wrote to the President about. I said, I can support this for one reason -- Pakistan. Not Afghanistan, which is too far downward to salvage, and I wouldn't rely on Karzai. For me it's merely the extra troops there and Secretary Gates said in a closed hearing that it would be about sealing the border with Pakistan, so that Pakistan -- as they go against the Taliban in Pakistan, to go against Al-Qaeda that are protected by the Taliban -- will not see these enemies flow across the border into Afghanistan. If we can convince Pakistan we're a partner, we need them to go against the Al-Qaeda safe-haven that literally can plan against us.

How do you measure it? I asked the President, in a letter, which did get responded to, for an exit strategy, which are benchmarks that measure success and failure. And if the benchmarks aren't being met, and the failure is too costly, you then exit to an alternative strategy. The response was, quite frankly, not adequate.

And unless I get that, I cannot commit to continue to support an open-ended commitment. So the benchmarks should be, I think, issues that the public can understand like how well are we decimating the Al-Qaeda safe-haven? Without benchmarks, I don't think you can ask [that of a] public that's already poured so much national treasure into Iraq -- that dismal failure that I absolutely opposed -- and is also continuing to support Afghanistan. And so I think the benchmarks are about Pakistan and the effort there to eradicate the safe-haven.

I would then depart because the cost to resurrect Afghanistan is too great unfortunately, due to the tragedy in Iraq.

DP: What do you make of the huge amount of money we spend in Afghanistan and on the military? Over here at AlterNet, we've been pretty excited about Alan Grayson's "The War is Making Us Poor" bill. Would you support that?

JS: I haven't been through the bill yet. But I do support this -- and frankly, it's part of what I did as a three-star admiral, where I said the Navy does not need nor can it afford 315 ships which was its goal. I said, about 250 are correct. And if you go to my years of three-star admiral in charge of the warfare development program, you'll see that we submitted that as a budget alternative to Congress. The next year, after I departed, it was changed to 315.

So my take is we're still measuring our military in quantity rather than capability. Imagine if we knew where Bin-Laden was. Imagine if we'd known when Saddam might have been going into Kuwait in the early 90s. Knowledge is what it's most about in the future, not how many -- you need enough! We just can't afford what people thought would be a continuing increase. We would have a more efficient, effective military. I advocated for this in Congress and supported Secretary Gates -- probably the only congressman who stood up -- and said his proposal to shut the F-22 down was correct because even though two plants in my district build parts for them it's the right thing to do because we are building something that's not needed and second, taking away money from other higher priorities.

DP: Speaking of priorities and spending, it seems like we're gearing up for a fight over Social Security this year. Would you support cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit?

JS:
No, I would not support changing the benefits because 22 percent of all seniors -- and this was before the recession -- who are non-institutionalized live in poverty. That would be 44 percent, and I believe now over 50 percent. So I think you can fix this without impacting benefits.

Look, let me give you one example. If the top one-percenters, basically the millionaires, were to pay the same tax rate that they did during the Clinton years when 22 million jobs were created -- but then during the Bush years we created zero jobs and lowered their tax rate -- if you just went back to that rate, that's the exact amount of money needed to keep Social Security completely solvent for 77 years.

So we can do this without cutting benefits. I also think we have to change the basket of goods by which we measure the cost of living for seniors. Right now it's based upon an urban family's basket of goods, instead of the major things seniors spend on which are energy, housing, food, and health care. We need to change that and I have a bill to do that.

DP: All of America's attention is captured right now by the BP oil spill. What can we do about corporations like BP? How do we stop these kinds of disasters which are rooted in both corporate malfeasance and neglect as well as regulatory capture?

JS: Well, I think a lot of it goes to the executive branch, the lack of oversight. As you have been reading, in the [Interior Department] there have been scientists, and scientists from other offices, saying don't be comfortable with it, slow down. But we had in that office an office that was getting royalties as well as bonuses for giving more leases. About a year or two ago you had lavish parties being thrown by the oil companies. You had lack of accountability. It was set up wrong.

It's quite frankly why I didn't support the additional drilling that you know, I said, look they already have thousands of acres that they have leased and they're not using even using those! So let's make sure we do this right before we go off on it.

I see the same thing in Pennsylvania today. The Marcellus Shale will fuel the energy needs of America for the next 15 years according to one study. And it's going to cut the carbon emissions in half but because of a loophole, called the Halliburton Loophole, the EPA has no oversight at the federal level over the drilling, called fracking, done for natural gas. It's even forbidden for them to know what chemicals are being put in the ground! We've had seven counties contaminated for natural gas -- we're at the beginning of another natural disaster.

My voting, as you probably know, environmentally, is 100 percent. My thinking is you can have the right balance between business and the environment, particularly as we go to alternative energies, so hold on and slow down. We have $80 billion of loopholes for oil companies when they're making record profits, but only $13 billion for alternative energy outside of corn ethanol. Do you know what I mean? And so something is wrong and that's the kind of lack of accountability we've had in the Senate.

I think people have to stand up to these special interests even at the cost of contributions, and say, this is wrong.

DP: Back to the race against Toomey. Will you be asking Obama, who had been a big Specter supporter, to come to Pennsylvania to campaign for you?

JS: I'd be honored, and we talked about it when he called me to congratulate me. We've already put in a request. He's the President of the United States, I'd like to be his strongest ally when I agree with his policies. I won't be a yes-man obviously but I think John F. Kennedy's wonderful saying, where he said one man can make a difference but every man should try, isn't 100 percent right. Wait a minute, in Washington, D.C. it takes a number of men and women to try and I want to be one of those who helps turn things around, in an accountable way.

I'll stand up to the party when it's wrong for Pennsylvania's people, but I think we have to grab these issues, like immigration and cap-and-trade early before they become crises like it did on this immigration issue when you have Arizona passing a bad law because the Senate and the House don't grab these issues. They need to do this even at the risk of losing their jobs -- need to solve it for America so we don't have a crisis occur.

DP: What do you foresee being the challenges in moving from the House to the Senate?

JS: I think there's going to be an even greater depth of responsibility because one vote out of 100 means a lot more than one out of 435. But I'll have an expanded staff to help me and I have a wonderful staff. And I think that if you understand that, look, we're in a war here at home -- this economic crisis -- and two overseas, and this is the moment in time to be in public office, to be in public service.

And it's also a moment when the gravest ill, I would argue, isn't just the two wars and the war at home, it's literally regaining the trust of Americans. They've really lost it. It's why I didn't run simultaneously for my congressional seat. This isn't about my job -- it's about yours. And I really hope that the legacy I'd like to be a part of, is to regain the trust and the faith of people in the institutions. I don't think people expect to always agree with me -- but they expect that I'll tell them where I am, and that the next day I'll be there, and I won't be changing because my finger's in the wind over a poll.

That kind of courage and conviction is what we need today because there is no room for error with India and China.

DP: What would you say is the most unique perspective you'll bring to the Senate?

JS: I think it's a sense of accountability. I mean, that's what I learned in the military -- that you're accountable for your actions. Who's standing up and saying, I was accountable for deregulating Wall Street and the chickens came to roost many years later? Where's the accountability for what one does and works towards? That is what I want to bring most to the Senate. That's what I think people see has been missing.

In the military, I was accountable for lives and now I want to be accountable for livelihoods.

DP: The military is a very different place from the Senate, will it be an uphill climb?

JS: No. People are people and people look at the military as black and white. Look, whether you're the captain of a ship or a congressman or senator, you have to say where you stand, what you're going to do, how you're going to fight for it. You have to work with others in a principled, compromised way. We did it in the military all the time -- we didn't just say yes sir, no sir. We came together with a shared sense of mission -- but not a compromise of principle.

What's missing in the Senate is accountability -- and I want to bring that back.