The New York Times
May 19, 2010
White House Embraces Upstart Who Beat Specter
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE, JIM RUTENBERG and JEFF ZELENY
Shortly after Representative Joe Sestak won an improbable victory Tuesday over Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, President Obama called Mr. Sestak to congratulate him. The president pledged his full support, aides said later, and offered to campaign for him in the fall " if Mr. Sestak believes it will help.
Nothing makes friends like winning. It was not long ago, Mr. Sestak said Wednesday in an interview, that White House officials were so eager to muscle him from the race that they offered him a job if he would drop out.
Mr. Sestak remains mum on the details, except to say that it was a high-ranking post " secretary of the Navy has been mentioned as a possibility " and that it happened last summer. The White House, which had backed Mr. Specter, has denied the assertion.
What is clear is that Mr. Sestak, 58, a former Navy admiral with a reputation as a hard-charging and demanding taskmaster, has no hesitation about defying the White House or other powerful interests.
His seemingly quixotic yearlong quest to win the Democratic Senate nomination pitted Mr. Sestak against an array of Democratic power brokers, from the White House to the governor to organized labor to the party apparatus to Democratic donors.
“You have the whole world telling him he’s crazy to do this,” said Neil Oxman, a founder of the Campaign Group, the media firm in Philadelphia that made Mr. Sestak’s much-heralded television commercials. “It’s pretty remarkable when you can stand up against those odds and take on the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history.”
Now Mr. Sestak " despite an initially rambling and occasionally bewildering speaking style " appears to be one of the Democrats’ best hopes for keeping control of the Senate. How a relatively obscure member of Congress, with a consistently liberal voting record, made it this far says a great deal about who he is.
Mr. Sestak was born in Delaware County, the suburban Philadelphia area he represents now in Congress, and grew up as one of eight children in a closely knit Catholic family.
His mother, Kathleen, who has retired as a high school math teacher, worked on his campaign. His father, Joseph Sestak Sr., who died last year, had emigrated from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and was a particular inspiration. The son, who was valedictorian of his high school class, followed in his father’s footsteps to the Naval Academy. He graduated in 1974, second in his class.
He went on to earn his Ph.D. in political economy from Harvard in 1984 and rose in the Navy to become a three-star admiral and the highest-ranking military officer ever elected to Congress.
Mr. Sestak demonstrated his perseverance when he met his future wife on a trip to the Soviet Union in 1990.
“We knew each other for two days, and he asked me to marry him and I said no,” Susan Clark-Sestak, 50, an environmental analyst at a national security research group, said Wednesday. “He said, ‘I’ve never felt like this before, but I know it’s right.’ ” They married eight years later.
During his Navy career, he commanded the George Washington aircraft carrier battle group during combat operations in Afghanistan. He also served in administrative roles, as a defense adviser for the National Security Council during President Bill Clinton’s administration and as a senior official in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon during George W. Bush’s administration.
Mr. Sestak’s superior, Adm. Vernon E. Clark, had assigned him to find ways to make the Navy meaner and leaner for the 21st century, a project that fell squarely into line with Mr. Rumsfeld’s early attempts to “transform” the armed forces for what he called “the threats and challenges of this new century.”
The task took on added importance after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Mr. Sestak was assigned as director of Deep Blue, the Navy program tasked with devising new strategies to combat terrorism in the post-9/11 era.
In an interview, Admiral Clark said he regularly encouraged Mr. Sestak to produce proposals that went against the grain of formal plans submitted by other officers " and, as often as not, he said, “he did.”
Mr. Sestak developed a reputation, which still stands, for work night and day.
“He’s a hard worker and expects the same of his staff,” said Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., a superior who oversaw some of his work analyzing fleet strategies, and who went on to be a vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2005 to 2007. “He was very capable. He put together an incredibly capable staff.”
But in interviews, current and former Pentagon officials and associates also said his staff frequently complained of a punishing work load that at times bordered on unreasonable " a complaint that followed him to Congress. Mr. Sestak dismissed such complaints as often anonymous carping.
When Admiral Clark was succeeded as chief of naval operations by Adm. Mike Mullen " now chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff " Mr. Sestak’s naval career hit a wall.
Mr. Mullen reassigned him almost immediately upon taking Mr. Clark’s post, and a report in The Navy Times at the time paraphrased an anonymous source as saying that the change was being made because of a “poor command climate” in his division.
Admiral Clark, in an interview on Wednesday, took responsibility. “I put him in that environment where he was in a position to create enemies,” he said, adding, “I should have given him better top cover.”
Mr. Sestak said Wednesday that it was only natural that Mr. Mullen would want a new team for his new command. Sestak aides said that he was ready to resign to help care for his daughter, Alex, who had brain cancer.
Regardless, the “poor command climate” line made its way into an advertisement of Mr. Specter’s. But it did not appear to gain much traction; Mr. Sestak countered with a rally at which fellow veterans accused Mr. Specter of Swift Boat tactics and being disrespectful to those who served.
Mr. Sestak’s Republican opponent in November, former Representative Pat Toomey, said he did not foresee making a similar issue of his service. “I’m much more interested in focusing on our policy differences,” Mr. Toomey said. “Joe and I have very, very different views on what the federal government ought to be doing and how.”
Mr. Sestak entered politics in 2006, when he challenged Representative Curt Weldon, a Republican who was first elected in 1986. Mr. Sestak beat him and then handily dispatched a Republican challenger in 2008.
He was mulling a run for the Senate when Mr. Specter dropped a political bombshell. On April 28, 2009, he announced he was switching to the Democratic Party because he could not win re-election in a Republican primary. The move would give the Democrats a 60th vote in Congress, and President Obama agreed to endorse Mr. Specter and welcomed him in a ceremony at the White House.
“We are thrilled to have you,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Specter during a private telephone conversation, aides to both men said at the time. And the president promised to campaign for him.
Initially, few party strategists paid attention to Mr. Sestak’s shoestring campaign. His brother and sister helped him with logistics, and even as he declared victory on Tuesday, he still had no campaign manager and was calling most of the shots himself.
One powerful ally for Mr. Sestak was Mr. Clinton, his former boss. Last spring, Mr. Sestak was visiting his house in Washington to ask his advice about running for the Senate; it turned out to be the day Mr. Specter announced he was switching parties.
Mr. Specter, 80, took the classic approach in his campaign. He tried to define Mr. Sestak early, chastising him for missing votes in Congress and raising questions about his Navy record.
Mr. Sestak was making little headway, but he was an energetic and indefatigable campaigner. He routinely drove the six-hour trip from one end of the state and back again in a 24-hour turnaround just to keep himself in the state’s two major media markets.
“We were trying to squeeze every minute we could out of a workday,” Mr. Sestak said. “We would leave Philadelphia at 10 p.m., get to Pittsburgh at 3 or 4 in the morning, grab sleep for two hours, have our first meeting at 7:30 in the morning, then go all the way back to Philadelphia.”
He had told Mr. Oxman that he had just $4 million to spend on television commercials, and they decided to spend $1 million a week for the last four weeks of the campaign. Mr. Oxman said that the first commercial, a 60-second biographical spot introducing Mr. Sestak, started to close the gap in the polls.
“That ad said there’s a real alternative to Arlen Specter and he’s not a kook,” Mr. Oxman said.
Then, 12 days before the election, they started running a commercial linking Mr. Specter to former President Bush, and replaying Mr. Specter’s admission that he changed parties so he could get re-elected. Gov. Edward G. Rendell, who backed Mr. Specter, said the commercial was “brilliant and devastating.”
In addition, Mr. Sestak hammered a consistent message throughout the campaign: that Mr. Specter’s party switch showed him to be an opportunist.
By the last week of the campaign, the landscape had shifted drastically from a year before, when the White House had first embraced Mr. Specter. The race was dead even, and Mr. Sestak had the momentum.
Mr. Specter requested a last-minute presidential visit " a trip that would have filled local television with images of Air Force One flying into Pennsylvania with Mr. Obama standing at Mr. Specter’s side " but strategists said that every analysis of the race suggested it was futile.
At the same time, the White House came to see Mr. Sestak as a more disciplined candidate " resolving one of the early questions about him " and decided he would be stronger in November against Mr. Toomey in a year of deep incumbent resentment.
“There were a lot of Democrats who had a hard time getting their arms around Specter as the Democratic nominee, since they had voted against him for three decades,” David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Obama, said in an interview Wednesday.
Mr. Obama still taped a radio advertisement and appeared in a much-seen commercial with Mr. Specter. But at the end of the campaign, he stayed away.
“It’s a tough time to be a long-term incumbent of either party, and switching parties exacerbated that,” Mr. Axelrod said.
“It was a hard case to make.”