His official campaign for U.S. Senate was barely two days old, and already Joe Sestak was working on a big bipartisan project.
On March 6, he was walking west through Bucks County as part of a 422-mile trek across the state to "walk a mile in the shoes of Pennsylvanians."
"I came across a car that got stuck in the snow while trying to get out of the driveway and I had a tracker with the [Republican U.S. Sen. Pat] Toomey campaign following me and I said, ‘Come on, we're going to get them out,'" Sestak told City Paper minutes after the event. "It took us 25 minutes, but we did it. I high-fived him and yelled, ‘Bi-partisanship!'"
Sestak doesn't just want to practice this spirit of cooperation on a snow-covered highway; he wants to take his act to Washington, D.C.
In 2010, after defeating 30-year incumbent Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary, Sestak came within two points of beating Toomey, the fiscally conservative Republican favored by the tea party, that November.
Now Sestak wants to take another run at Toomey, but the path to November's general election might not be an easy one. Last month, National Journal ran an article detailing the state Democratic Party's efforts to find a different candidate.
"If Joe Sestak is the nominee in 2016 for U.S. Senate, we will once again lose to Pat Toomey," former state party chairman T.J. Rooney told the Journal. But running without the support of his party is nothing new for Sestak, the progressive Dem, former Navy admiral and U.S. Congressman.
The party was firmly opposed to him running against Specter in 2010, after the 30-year incumbent switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat to avoid a primary battle with Toomey. Specter was miles ahead of Sestak just a month before the election. But Sestak ran a solid grassroots campaign, closed the gap and defeated Specter.
It's still unclear whether Sestak will have a primary challenger in May 2016. But right now, he's not concerned about that. Right now, he's walking across the state to meet voters, hear their concerns and rebuild that grassroots support that served him in 2010.
Sestak talked with City Paper about his campaign, Toomey's record and his relationship with the state party while walking through Bucks County on March 6.
What gave you the idea to kick off your campaign with a cross-state walk?
As I've traveled across Pennsylvania in recent years and talked to people, I realized that the biggest deficit that we have is a trust deficit. I thought, "How can I demonstrate that Pennsylvanians can trust me in terms of my accountability; trust me for my deeds, not for my words? Years ago, my daughter drew a picture that I had hanging in my office and it said, "Joe Sestak is walking in your shoes." ... So when I started this, I thought, "I can do this literally." It started [March 5] walking in veterans' shoes. Today I walked figuratively in the shoes of victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. I'm walking 26 miles today because people don't trust their leaders anymore. They say one thing in Pennsylvania and do another when they get to D.C. And that's what this is about.
Is that why you decided to take another run at Toomey?
I've done more than 400 events in the past two years, and the one question that kept coming up was, "Who can you really believe anymore? Who can you trust?" So remembering how close I came with the biggest funding gap of any Senate race ... that year and knowing that we came that close because of the grassroots support, we thought, "Heck, winning this race is about getting out there and gaining trust," like the captain of a ship. You get out there and you gain trust, and hopefully respect, and then you complete the mission together. That made the difference in 2010. I didn't and won't shy away from who I am and what I stand for. And that's what this race is going to be about.
You're aware of the National Journal article and the state party's efforts to recruit someone else to run against Toomey. Some insiders say it's because you're running this campaign your way and not the party's. Is that, at least in part, where this rift comes from?
I don't pay much attention to it, to be honest. I spend a lot of time, even with the state party, sponsoring all of these events for Democrats. When [Democratic State Chair] Jim Burn asked me to speak to the state committee, I was humbled that I got a standing ovation from 350 committeemen and -women before I even said a word. I had earned, I felt, their support. So I haven't paid much attention to all of this stuff going around by all the party establishment. I like the party establishment. I sat down with members of the party a year ago and let them know that I was going to run. I do have respect for them. But for me at the end of the day, this isn't about the party, it's about the people. I'm here to take care of them.
Do you think that people sometimes confuse the wishes of the party leadership with the wishes of the actual party?
John F. Kennedy once said, "Sometimes the party asks too much." And I also believe that sometimes the party — Democrats and Republicans can lose their way. They forget the party is about the people. I think when people become more concerned with whether it's his turn or her turn [to run for a seat], the party is lost. I am an independent Democrat and I like being in the party but that comes second to serving "We the People."
That was the case in 2010, right? The party leadership wanted Arlen Specter and the party members went another way, and you won with 54 percent of the vote over a 30-year incumbent.
I couldn't agree more. The party can become too interested in themselves rather than those they serve. But look, when you go home at night, is it more important that you rose up in the party, or that you were a public servant who actually worked to improve the lives of the people you represent?
You've long championed social issues, usually from a progressive posture. What are the main social issues that you intend to highlight in this campaign?
We need to focus on issues facing women. First, women will be the largest portion of our workforce by 2018, yet they earn on average 77 cents to 92 cents on the dollar of what a man makes. We have to get the Paycheck Fairness Act approved, a measure that Pat Toomey filibustered three times, saying it's an unfair burden. Secondly, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act needs to be fixed. The law has a loophole that employers can bypass. In the minimum-wage area ... there are so many jobs that if you're pregnant you can't get leave, and you can lose your job. That has to be taken care of.
Many feel that Pat Toomey went into office as a tea-party favorite, as an ultra-conservative. Since then he has done some work with Democrats on a gun-control measure, and some people say he's becoming more of a moderate. Do you see that?
I don't believe in types — moderate or conservative — I believe in people. I judge people by what they say and then by what they do. So let's walk through his record. OK, he did something on a single background check [for firearm purchases]. Afterward, he said, "We've had our vote and this is over." But [former Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia] said, "It's not over, we're going to continue." But Sen. Toomey was done. What kind of fair-weather friend is that? Well, he's refused to give up his fight on the Affordable Care Act, and he's voted against that more than 30 times. OK, so why is it over on gun control, but not the ACA? Is it because the NRA put up a bunch of money against Manchin? Where's the political courage? Do you want a guy who's in for one shot and who has said, "My idea of gun control is steady aim?"
He has voted to shut down the government twice. Pat Toomey says he supports veterans, but has voted against 12 straight Senate appropriations bills for the Veterans Administration. ... He was opposed three times to the minimum wage after saying that we need to lift people up. He has said we need to help the poor ... but he has voted against the SNAP program, he voted against the HUD housing transition bill and blocked unemployment-relief efforts. So it's hard for me to find an instance that doesn't cast him in the light that: "I'll say one thing in Pennsylvania and vote a totally different way in Washington, D.C."