Sestak hears Pennsylvania voters' message— a pox on both your parties

Rep. Joe Sestak wants to be President Barack Obama’s biggest ally in the Senate — but first, he wants to campaign against him and the entire Democratic establishment.

“Maybe we should try to have the congregation pray together before you have a schism,” Sestak said. “It’s what I did in the Navy. We had disagreements, but you walk in together with comity and try to achieve the mission at hand.”

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The Pennsylvania Democrat has had plenty of disagreements with how things are done within the Democratic leadership, beginning with his first campaign for Congress in 2006. But his public campaign against it started when Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) switched parties in April and gave Democrats what was effectively a 60th vote in the Senate.

Almost immediately, Sestak lined up a challenge to Specter that threatened Dem hopes of a lasting filibuster-proof majority. Now that 60 is gone, thanks to a massive upset in Massachusetts, he’s banking on the same brand of enthusiasm that stripped his party of its most treasured vote in Congress.

In an interview with The Hill, Sestak, 58, said the result in Massachusetts blazed “in neon lights” what he has been seeing since shortly after Specter switched parties. He said the message is that voters want a change in how politics are done, not just which policies are pursued.

“If the Democratic establishment had been listening, they would have heard it, which is: ‘A pox on both your houses in Washington,’ ” Sestak said.

The two-term lawmaker says he holds no grudges over the establishment’s efforts to get him out of the race. He said recently that the White House tried to get him to step aside by offering him a job, but he has declined to elaborate.

He said the details aren’t important, but his campaign is willing to make hay of the situation. Shortly after the job offer revelation, it launched a hard-hitting Web video featuring Obama supporters pleading with the president to back Sestak.

Sestak says he’s not going to be a yes-man for the president and he’s willing to hold him and the Democratic establishment accountable. He even took the chance to needle a potential future colleague in Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), over the “Cornhusker kickback.”

“Someone made a deal in Washington for a 60th vote, and Democrats were euphoric, initially, about it,” Sestak said. “But that’s where the wheels started going off the track, and the train got completely off the track when Ben Nelson and the other senators, almost through extortion, gave their votes up for their special interests.”

For someone running against a party-switching longtime former Republican, Sestak spends remarkably little time talking about his opponent or even ideology. Much of his rancor is directed toward the politics that put Specter in the position to make the switch in the first place.

But he does make room for a few shots at the incumbent he is trying to take down, calling into question Specter’s true convictions.

Sestak mentioned an interview The Hill conducted with Specter shortly before he switched parties. In the interview, Specter said unequivocally that he would not switch parties.

He also noted that Specter has switched positions on the public option for healthcare, card-check and the Defense of Marriage Act. He said Specter refuses to debate him.

What has resulted is an interesting setup wherein Sestak and GOP front-runner Pat Toomey will do battle in a debate without Specter — though he will be very much a topic of interest.

“I’ll debate Pat Toomey because it’s the same as debating Arlen Specter,” Sestak said. “They both voted to deregulate Wall Street to gamble with our savings. They both voted for the disastrous Bush tax policies that benefited the wealthy. … So I will be debating Arlen Specter under a different name.”

Specter has participated in one televised debate, and his campaign notes that it has agreed to another shortly before the May 18 primary.
Sestak said he will support Specter over Toomey if Specter wins the primary; Specter’s campaign is not prepared to say the same of Sestak, saying the issue “hasn’t come up yet.”

Specter’s campaign appears to have landed its first major punch in the primary, when it accused Sestak last week of paying his employees less than the minimum wage, backing it up with research disseminated to the media.

Sestak has long been known as a tough boss — a reputation Specter shares — but Specter’s campaign said the difference is that Sestak isn’t paying his staff a livable wage.

“Sestak has not disputed this but so far has refused calls from leading Democrats and labor leaders to explain why he is in compliance with such laws, or report himself,” Specter campaign manager Chris Nicholas said.

Sestak is certainly a different kind of politician. The highest-ranking military officer elected to Congress, the retired Navy rear admiral keeps his office open on weekends and requires long hours.

He refuses to compare his to other offices.

“We do what we have to do,” he said. “Winston Churchill once said, ‘Sometimes it is not enough to do your best; sometimes you have to do what is required.’ ”

Sestak is also notable in that he refuses to hire staff from Washington. He also rarely turns down an interview, and is one of relatively few frequent Democratic guests on Fox News. He’s working on his loquaciousness, but his thoughts tend to meander as he answers questions.

What’s not clear is whether that attitude is going to be an asset or a liability in his Senate campaign, where the next two and a half months will put him smack-dab in the spotlight against one of the most well-known brawlers in politics.

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Specter is hovering right around 50 percent in the primary, while Sestak has yet to build his name recognition. He will be outspent, but he has a $5 million war chest to get his message out.

The money and polls aside, Sestak insists this campaign is different, because the times are different.

“All the other traditional questions are irrelevant,” he said. “Massachusetts showed that.”