It was a rare opportunity I could hardly pass up: to meet Senatorial candidate Rep. Joe Sestak at a small gathering at the home of my high school friend Kevin Gates and his wife Julie.
Joe Sestak rose to national prominence as the insurgent who beat Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania: a shocker of an outcome -- the first of many in this rollercoaster of a midterm election. Many say Specter’s fatal flaw was switching from Republican to Democrat. Perhaps. What is abundantly clear is that Joe Sestak is a fighter who should not be underestimated.
This two-term Representative from Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District is the highest-ranking former military officer ever elected to Congress: a 3-star Admiral whose distinguished 31-year service in the Navy included both a position as Director for Defense Policy in the Clinton White House and leading counter-terrorist combat operations in Afghanistan after 9/11. And that’s in addition to a Ph.D. from Harvard in Political Economy and Government.
But for all his military and intellectual prowess, in person Joe Sestak comes across as deeply human, when he talks about the bond of trust that form on battlecruisers where young soldiers learn to be accountable for their actions on which the lives of their comrades depend, or when he talks about his young daughter’s battle with brain cancer that helped him understand the importance of health care reform for millions of Americans. Yes, standard fare for a politician, I know, but Sestak’s combination of poise and modesty is alluring nonetheless. There was not a single person there who did not leave with an extremely positive impression of him. But they are not the only ones.
In the Senate race, Sestak faces Rep. Pat Toomey, a Republican Tea Partier and career banker who is opposed to the stimulus package (now widely shown to have ameliorated and shortened the recession) and healthcare reform and is a climate change denier. In short, he’s a far-right conservative who had for some time tapped into American rage and frustration and had many millions of dollars poured into his coffers. But now the tide is turning against him.
Part of it is Sestak’s steadiness and resonance with the electorate that is increasingly hearing his message clearly, but part of it is fear: fear of the Tea Party.
Philadelphia, because of its proximity to Delaware, gets a lot of Delaware advertising, so many Pennsylvanians have seen Christine O’Donnell’s I-am-not-a-witch ad and some of her kookier statements screened across their televisions and realized that this is no joke; this is no protest vote, for some of these extreme positions could have very serious consequences. So they are increasingly turning away from fellow Tea Partier Pat Toomey and toward Joe Sestak as the dependable voice of reason. And in my opinion, they are right to do so.
Go, Joe, go!