For nearly five years Joe Sestak has worn the same bracelet on his arm; it's a colorful string of plastic beads that hangs slack around his left wrist, standing out against the subdued shirts and conservative ties he's otherwise partial to. But for the two-term congressman -- who on May 18 faces Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate -- the bracelet may as well be the most important piece of his wardrobe.
It was given to him in 2005 by his daughter, Alex, who fashioned it just before undergoing diagnostic surgery on a tumor that had developed in her brain. Hours later, the prognosis wasn't good; diagnosed with cancer, the four-year-old was given just three to nine months to live.
Three surgeries and a regimen of chemotherapy later, Alex is today a healthy eight-year-old in remission. Sestak, a retired Vice Admiral in the U.S. Navy, credits the top-notch medical care she received under the military's TRICARE health plan with saving her life. And he credits the experience with where he is today.
“That's what got me into politics,” Sestak is fond of sharing. “When my daughter got brain cancer, she got the best health care possible under my military benefits. I want to see all Americans be able to have that quality of health care.”
In a month Pennsylvania Democrats will decide if Sestak gets the chance to face off against Republican Pat Toomey (who has no significant GOP challenger) for the Senate seat long held by Specter.
The choice between Sestak and Specter pits a dedicated progressive with little Washington experience against a five-term incumbent whose tenure as a centrist Republican ended barely a year ago when he switched parties in a politically motivated move to keep his Senate seat.
Sestak holds the distinction of being the highest-ranking military veteran ever elected to Congress. He’s also a favorite among progressives and in the current Congress voted with his party 98.3 percent of the time. His loyalty notwithstanding, in his run for Senate, Sestak has been all but abandoned by the Democrats.
Despite his serving decades in the GOP, after switching parties in April 2009, Specter has -- in a very short time -- managed to ingratiate himself with the Democratic establishment. He’s got the support of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and most of the Senate Democrats, not to mention the state party leadership in Pennsylvania.
At 58, Sestak has never been one to shy away from uphill battles, and he's not about to start now. It doesn't matter that polls show him trailing Specter by 20 points, because, Sestak will tell you, he has faith in Pennsylvania voters. “We’re an independent bunch,” he likes to say.
“Voters want some they can trust, maybe not always agree with, but someone who is there for core beliefs, conviction, not just to keep their job,” Sestak said. “We’re not Rendell-ites, we’re not Biden-ites, we’re Democrats who believe in core principals and [Specter] doesn’t have that belief in core principals.”
Sestak's brother and campaign manager Rich says the campaign is preparing for a last minute push that he is confident will pay off. “Once people get to know who Joe is, we know they'll vote for him," he said.
And that's the key right there, because among Democratic voters who know both candidates, Sestak consistently polls equal to or better than Specter. That’s little consolation for a candidate that polls show is known to less than 40 percent of his party’s electorate.
But Sestak is nothing if not tireless. Last Sunday (4/18), he officially launched his endgame, rallying hundreds of supporters across Pennsylvania who spent the day making phone calls and canvassing registered Democrats. While he’s elicited strong grassroots support on the state level, political analyst Terry Madonna, of Franklin & Marshall College, would like to know what happened to the progressive message machine that was so instrumental in getting Obama elected.
“The question is what happened to MoveOn, what happened to DailyKOS, what happened to all the liberals? They’ve taken a hike on this election; you’re not hearing a thing from them,” Madonna said. “They’re not raising money, so where are they? What happened to the liberals?”
Sestak has spent considerable time on the road in Pennsylvania and has done, by his count, over 425 events since early January. At this writing he was preparing to launch his television game. Pollsters, meanwhile, have been painting a bleak picture of Sestak’s odds.
“Not only would Sestak have to win every undecided vote, he also would have to take away some who say they are for Specter,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “While that is certainly possible, it is a steep hill for Sestak to climb because Specter is such a known quantity to Pennsylvania Democrats, who generally like him.”
That doesn't seem to intimidate Sestak, who knows from experience the swiftness with which tides can change. Back in 2006, when he went up against ten-term Republican congressman Curt Weldon for the congressional seat in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, he was trailing by more than 20 points, a gap that remained unclosed for months.
Then, in a classic October surprise, a month before the election a story broke implicating Weldon's daughter in a foreign lobbying scandal. Weldon himself soon came under scrutiny, and Sestak prevailed, winning the election by a wide margin.
But miracles rarely happen twice, and Sestak knows that to win this time he'll have to do two things, neither of them implausible: get voters to know he exists, and make sure they know why Arlen Specter is not the right candidate for the job.
“The last gasp is to make a persuasive case that Specter should not have a sixth term,” said political analyst Terry Madonna, of Franklin & Marshall College. “It is far more about Specter, 90 percent about Specter and he's got to make Specter unacceptable to Democratic primary voters.”
The third oldest of eight kids, six of them girls, Sestak was raised in the Delaware County district he now represents. After high school he followed the footsteps of his father – a decorated World War II veteran – and entered the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating second in a class of more than 900. Later he earned a master's degree in public administration and a Ph.D in political economy and government from Harvard University, all while rising to the second-highest rank in the U.S. Navy.
Sestak brought his tenacious work ethic into Congress. In two terms he's been twice named the most productive legislator in his freshman class and is known for the unprecedented practice of keeping his District office open seven days a week. He's also been accused of pushing his staffers to the breaking point -- a charge he hasn't found it necessary to deny.
Friend and staffer Connie McGuiness-Myers, who has known Sestak since grade school, says he keeps photos of his two role models on a wall in his office: President John F. Kennedy, and his father – Joe Sr. An entire other wall is reserved for his daughter's artwork.
“He told me once that he just gets frustrated that there’s not enough time to get done everything that needs to be done,” McGuiness-Myers said.
Others who know him emphasize his independence and pragmatism – a trait, it’s been reported, that wasn’t always appreciated by his Navy superiors.
“Joe will always stand up for what he thinks is right and he'll stand up for the people he represents and he won't be beholden to special interests or anybody else who's trying to push him into office,” said Admiral Charles Larson, a two-time superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy who once ran for state office in Maryland. “I think he's a good, honest independent vote. He's his own person. That's the kind of person I'd like to have represent me.”
Once upon a time, the Pennsylvania Democratic establishment felt the same way. When in early spring 2009 party leaders asked Sestak to run on their ticket against Specter, then a Republican, he says he was reticent at first.
“I never intended to run a year ago. I was asked by the Democratic establishment, by [Senate campaign chairman] Bob Menendez, and after about two months, I demurred, I decided to run,” he recalls. “And then Arlen Specter became a Democrat in name [and] I was told to sit down... Bob Menendez called back and said Joe, Arlen's our guy now.”
Sestak refused to back out, and for his defiance he was virtually isolated by the Democratic machine. He’s picked up a smattering of endorsements, from liberal members of Congress, some unions, and the National Organization for Women. But official party support has fallen to Specter.
A month after Specter's party switch, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell famously said Sestak would get “killed” if he ran in the primary. And the candidate allegedly faced pressure from further up the party chain. Earlier this year Sestak revealed to the Philadelphia Inquirer that the Obama administration offered him a high-ranking job if he would drop his primary bid. The White House has strongly denied the allegation.
“Principle Over Politics”
On Sunday April 11, Sestak turned up at LaSalle University in Philadelphia to debate his would-be Republican opponent Pat Toomey, who is running on a conservative platform that favors a “flat tax” and the repeal of recently passed health-care reform legislation.
In a room sharply divided by partisan loyalties, about the only thing that received applause from both sides was the occasional jibe at Specter, who had turned down an invitation to appear (Sestak meets Specter to debate just once, on Saturday, May 1).
Speaking to the crowd Sestak said that if elected his first legislative priority would be bringing jobs to the state. He has issued what he calls his “Plan for Pennsylvania Families,” which includes a host of progressive initiatives such as providing a 15% jobs tax credit to small businesses, raising Small Business Administration lending limits and increasing funding for education.
Soft-spoken to the point being sometimes barely audible, Sestak makes his case in a soothing tone that says, “You can trust me.”
As a lifelong Navy man, he knows that one of his biggest assets is his ability to evoke an image of military honor wrapped up in his status as a beltway outsider. He's made “principle” a key campaign slogan, one he repeats every chance he gets.
"I think the lack of trust that people have in [Specter] is immense when you see how many undecideds there are,” he said. “This is a race where principle matters, people want to believe that someone will do what's right for them not just to keep their job.
We’ve got to bring back trust in government. That's what this election is about."
Timothy Shaun Brown contributed to the reporting of this article.