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Sestak's tough fight for Senate seat

WASHINGTON - The young aide tasked with scheduling Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania pokes her head into his inner office on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Joe Sestak in Philadelphia in August. He is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter, now a Democrat. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Rep. Joe Sestak in Philadelphia in August. He is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter, now a Democrat. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)Read more

WASHINGTON - The young aide tasked with scheduling Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania pokes her head into his inner office on Capitol Hill.

"Caroline, give me two minutes," Sestak says. He's multitasking. As Caroline Troein shuts the door, he adds, "You're great." Sestak resumes talking with Kurt Zwikl of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, which needs money.

"We'll watch this and get back to you," Sestak says, standing to end the meeting.

A live radio interview is next. "What's the hit?" Sestak asks as Troein enters. "On the half," she replies. The congressman picks up the black binder containing his life and begins flipping pages. "Purple tabs," Troein says, helpfully. He scans the page, which tells him that host Anne Holliday of WESB-AM in McKean County is on deck for an 8:30 a.m. interview. She wants to press Sestak on his view that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should be tried in civilian court.

Sestak has 48 hours of things he needs to do in each 24-hour period as he tends to his job in the U.S. House while running for the U.S. Senate against the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania's history.

Sestak never stops thinking, never stops working, and never stops talking. He'll accept any interview request, from anywhere in the world. He'll drive from Washington to Pittsburgh overnight to squeeze in another campaign event, and then turn around to go back.

He's trying so hard, and yet his Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter so far has all the traction of a car with four bald tires traversing an icy mountain road.

Sestak, 58, a retired Navy admiral who won the congressional seat in his boyhood home of Delaware County in 2006 after 31 years at sea, remains undeterred. After all, he still hasn't spent $5 million in TV money.

Along the way, Sestak has said the White House tried to offer him a job to keep him out of the race. He continues to savage Specter, a Republican until last year, as a "flight risk." Sestak is battling President Obama and most of the Democratic Party. He's way down in the polls, but experts know anything can happen in a weird political year like this.

The core message

Hardly anybody outside his Seventh District in Delaware and Chester Counties had ever heard of Sestak when he began, and because he hasn't been on TV yet, polls show that number hasn't grown much.

His core message: I'm a real Democrat; Specter is not. You can't trust him.

With five weeks left to go, the question is whether he has enough time to make the case. Specter had a commanding lead of 53 percent to 32 percent Thursday in a Quinnipiac University poll of registered Democrats who say they will vote May 18.

Sestak still has enough money for a carpet-bombing TV ad campaign that could turn the tables. As far as the admiral is concerned, Specter's support is soft. "We're going to win this," he says.

Last spring, Sestak was a sought-after Senate recruit himself rather than a party irritant. Then, in April 2009, Specter suddenly became a Democrat, giving the party (temporarily, it turned out) a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority. The White House, Gov. Rendell, and other leaders embraced Specter as their guy. Thanks for playing, Joe! But Sestak wouldn't drop the idea.

In fact, the episode provided rocket fuel for his determination.

Military leadership

Sestak is an Alpha-Dog Democrat, a warrior-leader breed who virtually disappeared from the party after Vietnam. One of eight siblings in a tight Catholic family; son of a Navy captain; Harvard doctorate; outstanding career in the upper echelons of the military. He is an advertisement for meritocracy.

Sestak was director of defense policy for President Bill Clinton's National Security Council. He headed the Navy's Deep Blue think tank, developing an antiterrorism strategy after the 9/11 attacks, and he commanded the USS George Washington carrier battle group, an armada of 30 ships and 15,000 combatants, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, he was the Pentagon's chief Navy planner.

Growing up in Springfield, Sestak graduated as valedictorian in 1970 at Cardinal O'Hara High School. He went on to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he finished second in a class of more than 900 midshipmen.

Sestak uses the word principle perhaps more than any other in his speeches. He disdains politics, and derides grubby "deals."

"I'm honest," he says. "I'll never do a deal."

The House Democratic Caucus "is the most undemocratic place there is," Sestak says. "There are times I can't find out what's going on, and that doesn't bode well for transparency for the public."

Sestak says he got his drive from his father, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s, graduated from the Naval Academy, and served on destroyers in World War II. Afterward, Joseph A. Sestak Sr. earned degrees from George Washington University and MIT, becoming an engineering officer at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

The son remembers his dad working on the family car in 15-degree weather.

"My father stayed out there working on that battery for about four to five hours," Sestak says. "I remember going to the window and watching him. And the admiration that I had - just that strong determination of his. Never give in."

Capt. Joseph Sestak Sr. died last year. The congressman's mother, Kathleen, is a retired high school math teacher. Several days a week, she still volunteers at her son's campaign headquarters.

Talking to the people

On paper, Sestak shines. Yet on the campaign trail, he could use a GPS device to sync his mouth with his racing brain. His stream-of-consciousness style can make it hard to connect with people.

He can also fall into wonk language. There should be a "longitudinal model, a value-added model" that would measure students' individual progress, he recently told students visiting his Washington office from Chichester High School. The kids seemed lost.

When he gets going, Sestak will sometimes pause and ask, "Am I boring you?" or "I'm boring you, right?"

But when he's on, his voice rising and falling dramatically, audiences can find him inspiring.

"Heaven forbid that we have United States senators who would actually be accountable . . . willing to lose their job over what's needed to turn the focus of Washington to you, the working people," Sestak said Jan. 29, as an audience of bricklayers in a Northeast union hall cheered and whistled.

Sestak paced, rattling off the ways the working class has been betrayed: loopholes that let U.S. companies avoid taxes on operations overseas; hedge-fund managers who pay a lower capital-gains rate on their massive earnings.

A burly man in a flannel shirt liked what he heard. "Keep on going, man!" he yelled.

House work

Sestak brags that ever since he took office in 2007, he has kept his district headquarters open seven days a week to handle constituents' problems. He also boasts that Majority Leader Steny Hoyer named him the most productive member of the class of 43 Democrats elected in 2006. That first term, Sestak had three bills and 16 amendments pass the House - among them, $29 million in the defense budget to treat autism in military families.

Yet Sestak does not spend much time wooing congressional colleagues. He's all business.

After a vote one day, Sestak is striding toward the House office buildings, when a booming voice stops him. "Joe! Joe!" It's Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.), also leader of the Philadelphia party. Sestak waits and Brady catches up, throwing a meaty arm around his shoulders.

"I want to thank you for last night. I couldn't sleep, and then you started talking," Brady says, referring to a Sestak campaign appearance on the Pennsylvania Cable Network. "By the second chart, boom, I'm asleep," Brady says, chortling.

Sestak smiles through gritted teeth. "It was good," Brady says. "There were not a lot of people there, but at least you were on TV."

As they cross Pennsylvania Avenue together, Brady continues the trash talk. "All those statistics you got, how do you keep them straight?" Brady says. "They make me sleepy."

"I know," Sestak retorts. "I've seen you asleep in all those committee meetings."

'Above and beyond'

Sestak's intensity propelled his rise in the Navy and may also have contributed to his career's end.

Shipmates remember him as a demanding boss, a micromanager who demanded precision. That meant drill after drill, with Sestak eating his meals on the tactical deck and badgering his junior officers with questions and demands for backup research.

"Joe never did the minimum requirement - he always wanted to go above and beyond," said Glen Cain, a petty officer under Sestak on the USS Samuel B. Roberts. "Overachieving doesn't sit well with a lot of people, but his attitude was that it's not good enough to get across the finish line, you've got to sprint across it. He used to say, 'There are a lot of ways to die out there, so let's make sure we're as good as we can be.' "

Sestak's ship earned its coveted "E" designation for being in combat in the 1991 Gulf War. "Everybody came back," Cain said. He remembers Sestak urging him to attend the academy and become an officer. "He cared about his people and their careers."

Ultimately, Cain decided he would rather return to civilian life, but of Sestak, he said, "I'd go back to war with him in a second."

Later, Sestak stormed the Pentagon.

In 2001, as a two-star admiral, he was assigned by his mentor Adm. Vern Clark, the top officer in the Navy at the time, to revamp the Navy for the future. Clark and Sestak believed in a more nimble, sleeker Navy to fight terrorism. Sestak scoured the budgets and proposed deep cuts to the fleet, using computer technology to link fewer ships more effectively.

The plans struck fear around the E-Ring, where Sestak was also earning a reputation for driving his 100-member planning staff hard. He would show up sometimes at 4 a.m. and stay until 9 or 10 p.m. He was infamous for calling staff meetings at 9 p.m. on Friday and demanding that everyone return by 10 a.m. Saturday.

In July 2005, Adm. Mike Mullen, now Obama's Joint Chiefs chairman, took over as the chief of naval operations and, on his first day, relieved Sestak of his post, citing "poor command climate."

Clark, in an interview, said he now worries he did not do enough to protect his protege.

"He did what I asked him to do; I wanted straight talk, and this put him in the crosshairs," Clark said. "People are going to say what they want to say, but he challenged people who did not want to be challenged. The guy is courageous, a patriot's patriot."

Indeed, the Navy is slowly moving toward a smaller fleet, as Clark and Sestak envisioned.

The family focus

It turned out retirement from active duty was providential for Sestak and his wife, Susan, a defense analyst. The headaches their daughter, Alex, suffered turned out to be glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. In the summer of 2005, she was given a few months to live, but she's now 8 and healthy, "going on 22," Sestak says.

After his daughter's cancer went into remission, Sestak threw himself into the 2006 campaign for the Seventh District congressional seat, challenging 20-year Republican Rep. Curt Weldon.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wanted somebody else but came aboard after Sestak and his brother Richard, a California trial lawyer, raised a quick $1.2 million. Sisters Elizabeth, who had been an American Express executive, and Meg, a Penn Law graduate working for a Quaker school in Media, joined the campaign.

Democratic insiders thought it was a little cultish, but it worked.

Campaign volunteers knocked on 130,000 doors over two weeks that September, dropping a newspaper on door stoops with Sestak's picture, biography, and issues.

The polls tightened, and three weeks before the election, the FBI raided Weldon's home amid a corruption probe. Weldon was never charged with a crime, but Sestak won by 12 percentage points.

While most of Sestak's Senate campaign staff are paid less than the minimum wage, his siblings have prominent roles and work for up to $4,000 a month. The congressman is unapologetic. "Nobody in politics would have anything to do with me," Sestak said in a March interview on WSBA-AM in York. "My family stood by me. Let me tell you, my family? I would live and die by them."

Much yet to do

Most who have worked for Sestak will say he places even harder demands on himself.

During the recent day on the Hill, Sestak held meetings on funding for behavioral and mental-health services; women in sports; long-term trends in the federal budget; and streamlining. He questioned Pentagon brass at an Armed Services Committee hearing, pushing for a faster repeal of the ban on openly gay troops. All that, and eight interviews.

After 9 p.m., Sestak's staff is preparing his binder for the next day. To Sestak's right, a framed photo of JFK stands atop a bookcase. A caption reads, "The hour is late, but the agenda is long."

Not that he needs reminding.

A recent profile

of Sen. Arlen Specter, Rep. Joe Sestak's primary rival, is at