Meet the intriguing presidential candidate you haven’t seen on the debate stage

The admiral is a maverick, which is cool but potentially problematic.
The admiral is a maverick, which is cool but potentially problematic.
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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You may not know Joe Sestak, though he is running for president of the United States. But wherever you’re from in the world, the Democratic candidate has likely been to, or at least seriously considered, your region of the globe. And he’d love to chat about it.

Sestak—call him Joe though, he insists—has been a congressman, a 3-star admiral in the Navy, a military adviser to former US president Bill Clinton, a college professor, a PhD student in political economy and government, a husband, a father, a wanderer, a global backpacker, and a long walker who crossed 422 miles of Pennsylvania by foot to meet with his constituents. He’s a progressive moderate who wants the US to resume its role as a global leader advancing “the values-based world order from which we have retreated,” and a military man more inclined to diplomacy than warfare.  

In a crowded Democratic race, with lawmakers, mayors, spiritual gurus, entrepreneurs, and a former punk rocker vying for the presidency, Sestak stands out for his experience and attention to foreign policy issues. Given his qualifications and inclinations, you’d think we’d be hearing more about him. If former vice president Joe Biden is considered promising because he is a moderate alternative to the Democratic Party’s progressive candidates and seems “electable,” then the other Joe should theoretically be among the top Democratic contenders.

But he’s not among the top, or anywhere near it. Certainly, Sestak is trying to become better known, joking on the phone that, while campaigning in Iowa, he’s practically taken to shaking the hooves of cows in his efforts to make the rounds. 

Sestak announced his candidacy relatively late, in June. He hasn’t yet made the debate stage and is barely recognized by voters, though in Iowa he was heartened by the fact that South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg—a better-known presidential candidate despite his youth and newness on the national scene—did recognize him and say hello.

Still, Sestak insists that this is what he wants to do: woo voters, talk across political ideologies, and “disagree well.” So he’s having a good time handing out flyers and talking at rotary clubs and shaking hands, despite the fact that no one in his party is clamoring for yet another Democratic candidate.

He’s meeting folks and discovering new things, like the popular millennial political podcast Chapo Trap House, where he recently did an interview that made him feel “cool.” But perhaps what’s coolest about him is that he’ll speak to the right-wing Breitbart News, too, and genuinely wants to share his views on issues, for example, explaining why the US actually needs undocumented immigrants. He’s not squeamish about disagreement, defying his own political party at times, yet he’s not looking for a fight.

“I don’t want to be president if I have to win by outrage,” he explained. “I don’t want to just win. I want to govern, and not just by executive order. I understand the outrage people feel right now. But real leadership is taking two different needs and elevating them to one single want.”

Arguably, Sestak knows a thing or two about this topic. He commanded an aircraft carrier battle group conducting combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq with 30 US and allied ships and more than 15,000 sailors and 100 aircraft. He’s also considered the qualities of a good leader while teaching ethical leadership courses at the historically black college Cheyney University and at Carnegie Mellon.

Sestak says he’s spent much time “shooting the breeze” with enlisted service members, visiting veterans in prisons and hospitals, going to churches, synagogues, and mosques, and meeting people all over the US whose many different needs can be elevated into a single desire that only he, the little-known candidate, can satisfy.

Why this guy?

What Sestak thinks is the coolest thing about him and his candidacy is his “accountability” to the American people. “I’m not beholden to one party or any special interests,” he said. His campaign website notes that he’s not taking donations from corporations. While he understands that isn’t what people typically think of as hip, he argues that change is imperative now and that there is one kind of transformation everyone can believe in, whatever their political affiliations—going from leadership that’s not accountable to the public and can’t be trusted to leadership that is responsible and trustworthy.

Americans distrust government today because they don’t feel politicians are working in the public interest, Sestak says. He wants to restore faith in American government at home and abroad. And that’s the change he says he can provide.

He’s the man for the job, Sestak argues, because he’s proven himself before. As a Pennsylvania congressman, he held Saturday morning office hours for constituents to discuss issues. The timing, 8am, was intentionally inconvenient for him and his visitors. He wanted people to share concerns, Sestak explains, but to show commitment, too. Then he’d spend all morning listening and attempting to reach agreement, even if it was only agreeing to disagree.

That willingness to communicate mitigates frustrations about differing political positions, Sestak contends. In other words, even if you oppose abortion, student loan reform, a higher minimum wage, a public health care option, training programs for workers in changing industries, decreasing military spending, the Paris Accord on climate change—all things that Sestak supports—you won’t feel ignored or angry when your concerns are acknowledged, he says.

He plans to hold a town hall on the very first day he’s in office if elected president. Then, he’ll turn stated concerns into legislation that actually gets passed because his track record shows he can do that, Sestak argues. As a freshman congressman in 2007, he had 19 pieces of bipartisan legislation passed in the House during his first term, and was named the most productive member of his congressional class by the Majority Leader’s office. He tells his staff to “think the unthinkable but pay cash,” which is Sestak’s way of saying that actions speak louder than words.

Paying cash

Still, Sestak’s actions haven’t always impressed voters or Democratic Party bigwigs.

He was elected to Congress in a traditionally Republican Pennsylvania district in 2006 and 2008. That was the last time he won public office.

In 2010, Sestak ran for the US Senate. Republican-turned-Democrat, incumbent Arlen Specter, had the Democratic Party leaders’ backing in the Pennsylvania primary race. Yet Sestak won. The win seemed to justify his prior decision to decline a possible post in president Barack Obama’s administration, which was apparently floated to keep him out of the senate race. Success also confirmed Sestak’s sense that he should just do what he thinks is right. Obama embraced the candidate after the primary win.

Sestak also flouted party orthodoxy by being among the first politicians to support J Street, a Jewish Middle East policy group that favors the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The concept of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not that radical now (nor was it then really, depending who you asked). Democratic presidential candidates, including Biden, Buttigieg, senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand, spiritual guru Marianne Williamson, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, among others, all now support this kind of resolution.

Two states have long been contemplated as the likely ultimate outcome of a negotiated peace deal. Indeed, when the British mandate in Palestine ended in 1947, the United Nations passed UN Resolution 181, a partition plan that would divide the disputed territory into a state for Jews and another for Arabs. Palestinians rejected the plan. Conflict and talk of a two-state solution have ensued ever since.

But conservative pro-Israel lobbyists opposed Sestak’s senate run. They cited his support for J Street as one reason. In 2010, the Emergency Committee for Israel blasted Sestak in an ad campaign.

He decried the ads and defended his record, saying he’d long supported Israel. Still, Sestak also told the Orthodox Union, a Jewish group, that he regretted signing a J Street letter—joined by 54 politicians—urging Obama to condemn an Israeli blockade in the Gaza Strip (which is either a sign of thoughtfulness or a flip-flopper, depending on whether or not you think a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds). Though Sestak didn’t back off his underlying policy position—support for a two-state solution—Politico wrote that his expressed regret was “a win for the hawks and a blow to J Street’s attempt to create political space on a pro-Israel left.”

Then Sestak lost the election to Republican Pat Toomey. The loss turned Sestak into a party outcast.

In 2016, he paid the price for his previous defiance when he again ran for senator. The party put its money and endorsements behind Katie McGinty. Sestak was reportedly shunned for not being a “team player.” Unsurprisingly, McGinty beat Sestak in the Democratic primary.

Now, he’s running for the ultimate position, president. It’s fair to question, given his losses, just how realistic the candidate is being about both his prospects and his ability to unite people. The admiral is a maverick, which can be cool… but also potentially problematic. He wants to govern, not rule by decree. However, his record indicates that Sestak sometimes simply decides what’s right without regard for others.

He is thinking the unthinkable, just as he advises staff members to do. However, he may not be able to “pay cash” as he puts it.

The view from the oval office

Slim chances don’t deter Sestak. He has plans. If, against all the current odds, Sestak is elected president, that first day in office will be very busy.

He also intends to fly to France after his national town hall is over to renew US commitment to the Paris Accord, which Trump has refused to sign, addressing what Sestak considers the number one concern in the world—climate change. While he certainly supports efforts to address the environment at home, he’s also adamant about the fact that global cooperation is the only viable approach to solving this problem because 85% of greenhouse gas emissions are produced outside the US.

“Let’s say we could achieve the lofty goals of the Green New Deal,” he says, referring to the extensive climate change legislation advanced by New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this year. “It doesn’t matter.” Americans in isolation can’t change the global environment. That requires cooperation, Sestak says, and only a leader with global experience, who respects and understands the nation’s allies and friends, and comprehends potential threats, can inspire the required united vision and action. He argues that no other Democratic candidate has the “length and breadth of experience” he has, making him best suited to this difficult task.

Still, Sestak admits he’d vote for any of them over Trump. When asked who, specifically, he’d choose among the current contenders if he wasn’t running, he hesitates. Finally, Sestak speaks of admiring Buttigieg’s speaking style (and reveals both ego and self-awareness when he admits to telling Mayor Pete that he’d probably already be president if he was as good as Buttigieg at expressing his ideas). He respects New York senator Gillibrand’s thoughtfulness. But Sestak seems especially impressed with Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren’s action-orientation, saying, “She’s someone who could execute and make things happen.”

Nonetheless, he insists no one’s better equipped than him to contend with threats to national security, which he defines as both a domestic and international issue. At home, Sestak believes, security is achieved through economic, health, and education policies that support Americans and recognize the contributions of immigrants.

Abroad, Sestak is most concerned about China. He’s worried about US reliance on critical Chinese military and business technology, which allow it to monitor and disrupt American commercial and security activities without even needing spies. This reliance on Chinese technology renders the US extremely vulnerable to an extent that isn’t widely acknowledged or understood, he says.

Yet, he’s also quick to note that he admires the Chinese people. Sestak traveled in China as soon as it was possible, going when foreigners were first permitted to visit in the 1970s, meeting villagers who’d never seen outsiders, seeing what few others had. Similarly, he took leave from the military to backpack through Eastern Europe under Communist rule.

His wife, Susan Clark-Sestak, works as an environmental analyst for a defense firm, contemplating issues faced in places from Kazakhstan to Mozambique. In conversation, the candidate refers to her international experience as well, making it evident that her job has informed his worldview, too.

It’s this curiosity about the world, openness and interest, and leadership experience, that makes him the best presidential candidate, Sestak contends. A global worldview, he argues, has always been of the utmost importance for a commander-in-chief. After all, the American Revolutionary War was won with help from the French, and a French general, Comte de Rochambeau, is memorialized in a statue visible from the oval office in the White House.

That, Sestak says, is not an accident. It should serve as a constant reminder to every sitting president that they cannot lead effectively alone, not even at home, without friends and allies worldwide.

However, Sestak won’t get a chance to gaze at Rochambeau from that perch if he can’t convince people to pay attention to his message now. And with nearly two dozen Democratic competitors, most of whom are better positioned to win the primary than him at this point, he’s facing an uphill battle. As things stand, he doesn’t even qualify to appear on the next debate stage.

Sestak isn’t daunted by the obvious obstacles, the hard slog and long odds. Paraphrasing president John F. Kennedy, who often cited Aristotle’s definition of happiness, to explain his persistence, he says, “If you find your enjoyment employing all your faculties for excellence, this is enjoyable.”