So, here is the world we live in right now. When you saw the name “Joe Sestak,” you likely said to yourself, “who?” Sestak is a retired three-star Admiral and a former two-term U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania. But, you are not alone in not knowing that. I had to look that information up on Wikipedia. Now, maybe some of this is Joe Sestak’s fault. He entered the race late, and he has a history of pissing off party officials (more on that later), so perhaps he isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt. But Joe Sestak is running for President and is as qualified, if not more qualified, than many others in the race. That said, he has never cracked the top 20 to make the debate stage, and he is unlikely to meet stricter requirements for future debates. Yet, still, he runs.
Joe Sestak was scheduled to appear at a meeting of our county’s Democratic central committee. A warm, late-August Sunday night would seem about the worst time to get people together to see a candidate, so I wondered what the turnout would be like. The party headquarters is just what you’d expect: a repurposed downtown building littered with candidate information and folding chairs. Campaign posters are randomly taped to the wall with the apparent purpose of sending Marie Kondo into a seizure. On a good day, someone brings cookies. If you’re a risk taker, you can get a cup of coffee from an urn. This is a place where people do work that has to be done, and it ain’t pretty.
This was also probably the only place where fifty dedicated politicos and activists (along with the organizers from every Presidential campaign with a local presence) could be found on a Sunday night. And there they were, usual suspects I had seen at many other events, the same people who can be counted on to come out to fundraisers, protests, and issue-related events. These were people you want on your side.
As a Presidential candidate, Joe Sestak got to jump the queue and address the crowd at the beginning of the meeting. He was casually dressed so as not to stand out in the come-as-you-are state, and I noticed that like several other candidates (Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren), he was rail thin, which apparently works for you on television.
When Sestak was introduced, he hopped right up and began pacing the front of the room delivering his stump speech. I often try to post live video of part of a candidate’s talk, and usually that’s no big deal. But this time, I was sitting in the front row, and it seemed rude to stare at my phone when the candidate was standing directly in front of me. I tried to be polite and watch the candidate rather than my phone, which resulted in some lesser quality footage.
Sestak began with personal detail, speaking of his daughter’s battle with brain cancer. She had a rare form of cancer with a low chance of survival, but she did survive. Sestak acknowledged that experience, both the quality of the medical care she received and the challenges the family faced in making sure she received it, as driving his entry into politics. He spoke about running and winning his House seat in a majority Republican district. While he supported a leadership-by-consensus model, opposing “a President who can only do executive orders,” his policy proposals were more progressive than those from many candidates seeking some kind of middle ground. He also mentioned bucking the establishment to mount a primary challenge in 2010 to the Republican-turned-Democratic Senator Arlen Spector. Sestak described Spector as “the individual who had been permitted to try to humiliate Anita Hill.” Sestak won that primary but lost in the general election to Republican Pat Toomey, who still holds that seat.
On day one of a Sestak presidency, he said he would close the gun show loophole, and he noted his past support of the assault weapons ban. He also supported a path to Medicare For All, but one that allowed for a slow process rather than a rapid transition. Overall, he demonstrated an impressive grasp of details, and he needed to because when he opened up the floor to questions, it was like a Presidential speed dating event. This audience knew issues and had likely seen more Presidential candidates than they could remember. They were not messing around. Gun control! Health care! Police brutality! Education! Answer fast! You’ve only got three minutes!
Sestak celebrated his experience in the Navy as a model for what could happen with different leadership in this country. His most animated anecdotes were drawn directly from his military experience, as when he discussed confronting racist graffiti within his ranks. The one disappointing thing was that, unlike Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard, the other veterans in the race, Sestak never spoke about defense spending. That is unfortunate because veterans have a unique ability to raise questions about the military-industrial complex. At a time when the deficit is exploding due to the Trump tax cuts, 54% of all federal discretionary spending goes to the military. Both Buttigieg and Gabbard were able to trumpet their military experience while arguing for reforms in defense spending, but Sestak didn’t go there, and that was a missed opportunity.
Who knows? Maybe if he had had more time, that issue would have come up, and he was an engaging speaker and thinker, so I would have been glad to hear more. But this was an atypical type of event, and Sestak was just the opening act. Normally, I would have tried to get a picture with a candidate, but after he answered a few questions, there was still a meeting that had to happen. Sestak shouted out his email address and made his way out the door. The meeting came to order, and we got down to business.