Joe Sestak, a liberal Democrat with a commitment to social and economic justice, is a slow learner.
It’s isn’t because he’s dumb—he graduated second in his class of 900 midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, one of the most rigorous colleges in the country; a decade later, he earned a Ph.D. in political economics from Harvard.
It isn’t because he doesn’t have reasoning ability—as a Naval captain, he was director of defense on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton; as a rear admiral, he commanded a carrier battle group; as vice-admiral, he was the deputy chief of naval operations, with a specialty in warfare strategy.
No, Joe Sestak certainly isn’t a slow learner when it comes to knowledge, reasoning ability, fighting for social justice, and helping people.
The reason Joe Sestak is a slow learner is because he hasn’t learned to accept the floating rules of the political machine. He believes people in power should be able to justify their decisions, and he has a healthy attitude that dictates he should question authority when necessary. As a three-star flag officer, he listened to his staff and supported the thousands of enlisted personnel under his command, but he challenged those entombed within their own tunnel vision. Adm. Mike Mullen, the new chief of naval operations (CNO), with deep allegiance to defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush, didn’t like his deputy chief suggesting that it was possible to tighten the budget without affecting naval efficiency and preparedness. Adm. Vern Clark, the previous CNO, explained why Sestak was quickly reassigned: “[He] challenged people who did not want to be challenged. The guy is courageous, a patriot’s patriot.” When Sestak’s daughter developed a brain tumor, he retired from the Navy to help care for her—and to fight for better health care for all people, not just those privileged to have as good a health plan as he did.
When Sestak first decided to run for Congress in 2006, hoping to give better representation than the 10-term incumbent Republican to a Philadelphia suburban district, the Democratic party establishment said he needed the approval of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), a group he didn’t even know existed. Rahn Emmanuel, the head of the DCCC, who would become Barack Obama’s chief of staff, explained that the retired vice-admiral with a Ph.D. wasn’t ready for such a run, and that he had no chance to win in a heavily conservative suburban district. Sestak didn’t listen, infuriated the establishment, and won the election with a 56 percent majority against an incumbent. Two years later, he won re-election with 59.6 percent of the vote.
In the first of his two terms as a congressman from a Philadelphia suburb, Sestak sponsored more significant legislation than any other member. Unlike many members of Congress, Sestak read and responded to all communications from his constituents, dealing with more than 10,000 items, about four times more than the average member of Congress.
While in Congress, he burnished his concern for social justice and liberal issues. He was a strong supporter of health care reform, the environment, and labor. He pushed for a better tax code that would help the middle class and close holes that benefitted corporations and the wealthy. He spoke out for improvements in public education, preservation of the environment, and reasonable gun control. A Catholic, Sestak spoke against evangelical and Catholic dogma by defending a woman’s right to choose, and for the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders. He opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, and had previously upset many in the military by opposing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that modified but still extended the ban on gays and lesbians from openly acknowledging and practicing their sexual preferences. He was also at the forefront of an investigation of anti-gay hazing within the military. He had a higher-than-average staff turnover because he pushed them hard and gave them little free time. But, he pushed himself even harder, not because of political ambition but because he wanted to help his constituents.
Near the end of his first term in Congress, Sestak appeared on “The Colbert Report,” infuriating the party’s leaders who had decreed that no freshmen Democrats in Congress should appear on the late-night satire.
In 2009, Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican who had served 30 years in the Senate, frustrated at the takeover of the party by right-wing extremists, and the probability he would lose to the far-right conservative Pat Toomey in the Republican primary, became a Democrat. The Democratic establishment embraced the popular senator. Joe Sestak didn’t listen to the party elders and entered the primary. The establishment, represented by Gov. Ed Rendell, President Obama, and the Democratic National Committee, raised money for Specter and tried to lure Sestak from running by extending alternative possibilities. Sestak didn’t listen, won the primary, and alienated the party’s political leaders, many of whom did little to help him in the general election. Corporations and PACs gave Toomey a 3-to-1 spending edge over Sestak, who lost by only 80,000 votes out of about four million cast.
Less than six years later, the slow-learning Sestak thought he had a chance to take the Democratic nomination and defeat Toomey in the general election. For more than a year, Sestak maintained an all-out campaign for the nomination. As in his previous Senatorial race, he went to every one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, spoke to Democratic clubs, visited political gatherings, and filled most of his days listening to the people and discussing the critical issues that affected them. When it appeared that Sestak could again become the party’s nominee, the establishment panicked, and desperately tried to find someone—anyone—who could defeat the man who wouldn’t play the game by the rules the “good ole boys” wanted.
The machine selected Katie McGinty, who had run for—and lost—the election for governor in 2014, and then became the new governor’s chief of staff. Her beliefs and views were not as liberal as Sestak’s but, more important, she was loyal to the party’s functionaries, especially Ed Rendell, for whom she had been secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. Unlike Sestak who opposed fracking, McGinty, who was now working with energy companies, didn’t want a moratorium on a practice that had been proven to cause health and environmental problems.
The establishment put its support and its money behind McGinty, and the Sestak campaign began to falter in the last two months of the race, unable to compete against a candidate endorsed by Tom Wolfe, the state’s popular new governor; Rendell, the former governor who now represented oil and gas companies; numerous Democratic politicians; Vice-President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama. McGinty, in her eight-month campaign, had received more than $4 million in campaign contributions, about $1 million more than Sestak’s two year campaign receipts. In addition, The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee spent about $2.5 million, most of it in the month before the election, April 26, in support of McGinty. However, the most damage to Sestak’s campaign was by Women Vote, a political action committee of Emily’s List, which spent about $815,000 for a TV ad that falsely claimed Sestak wanted to cut Social Security funds, increase out-of-pocket costs for those on Medicare, and raise the retirement age. Sestak contacted Pennsylvania TV stations, advising them the ad had numerous false statements; the stations refused to pull the ad or to run corrections. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires stations to run ads provided by candidates, even those with false information. However, the FCC also requires radio and TV stations to suspend or refuse to air commercial ads from PACs and other outside groups if the stations are aware those ads contain deceptive or false information. The Washington Post, the day after the election, fact-checked the ad and declared it to be full of lies, half-truths, and distortions, declaring it to be a “depressing example of how random statements can be twisted into sharp-edged attacks [and] a sleazy way to win a campaign.” Women Vote also spent almost $200,000 for a TV ad that specifically promoted McGinty’s candidacy.
McGinty, who had trailed Sestak most of the campaign, won the primary, defeating not just Sestak but also Braddock, Pa., Mayor John Fetterman, a liberal and community activist who, like Sestak, was unafraid to speak out for social justice and protection of the environment.
McGinty, who will receive massive financial and staff support from the Democratic National Committee, may not be able to defeat Toomey in the general election. However, one reality emerged from this primary race: Joe Sestak, the retired admiral with a Ph.D. and a strong social conscience, is a slow learner. Once again, he didn’t do what the political machine said he should do and, once again, he lost.
Maybe, it’s time for more politicians to be “slow learners” and not bow to the dictates of a machine greased by money from special interests.
[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, multi-media writer-producer, and professor emeritus of mass communications from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. His latest book is Fracking America: Sacrificing Health and the Environment for Short-Term Economic Benefit.]