Joe Sestak has no shortage of criticism for Sen. Arlen Specter:
• Specter, the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania who is up for re-election this year, “flipped” his position on a public option for health care support — from against to for — when Sestak decided to run against him;
• He endorsed the Bush administration’s security measures that Sestak maintains have made the country less secure;
• He opposed “pay as you go” rules to balance the federal budget by 2012 (Sestak supported them).
You may think that with so many disagreements Sestak, a U.S. congressman from suburban Philadelphia, wouldn’t like Specter, the five-term incumbent.
“I actually respect him,” Sestak told The Chronicle during a visit with the staff last week, “but frankly, I disagree with how he’s cast his votes.”
Sestak, 59, D-Newtown Square, is challenging Specter for the Democratic senatorial nomination. Specter, 79, a Republican since 1965, switched parties last year after polls indicated he would fail to win the GOP nomination in 2010.
Sestak enters this campaign the outsider in the Democratic primary. Both President Barack Obama and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell have declared their support for Specter, and members of the congressional delegation are reserved on Sestak candidacy as he travels around the state.
“They’re trying to stay agnostic,” he said. “That’s OK … I’m not seeking the endorsement of the establishment.”
He said Pennsylvanians have lost faith in the incumbents in Washington — a situation made only worse this past month when Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), threatened to kill the Health Care reform unless their particular demands were met.
For his part, Sestak, an outspoken supporter of the public option, which is contained in the House version of the Health Care bill, but not in the Senate version, refrained from declaring how he would vote if the final compromise version doesn’t have a public option.
“I’d have a hard time voting for it if it doesn’t have pricing reform,” he said.
On Israel, Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral, is a self-described “proponent of engagement backed by power.”
But he made Israel’s security a priority as well. “An unsecured Israel hurts our security,” he said, “immensely.”
He laid the blame for the lack of peace and an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty squarely in the lap of the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who did not accept Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s peace overtures at Camp David in 2000. “You know Arafat, he didn’t have the courage,” Sestak said. “They gave him a better deal than they should have, and he just wouldn’t do it.”
On Iran, Sestak favors sanctions, but of a more targeted nature. He co-sponsored the Iran sanctions Act, which included refined oil products. (Though a leading producer of crude oil, Iran has limited refinery capacity.) He also favors canceling plans for deployment of a defensive missile system in Eastern Europe — bitterly opposed by Russia — as an enticement to Moscow to support sanctions.
“That missile system would not have protected Israel,” Sestak said.
On other issues, Sestak is a supporter of Roe v. Wade and voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. An environmentalist, he has a 100 percent rating from the League of Conservation voters. A gun control advocate, he supports a federal ban on assault weapons and has an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association.
A 1974 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Sestak also has a master’s degree in public administration and a doctorate in political economy and government from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
During his career, Sestak served as director for defense policy in President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, commanded the USS George Washington Aircraft Carrier Battle Group and was head of “Deep Blue,” the Navy anti-terrorism unit formed in response to the 9/11 attacks. He retired from the Navy in 2005.
“I wanted to command a ship,” said Sestak, whose father was also a Navy officer. “That’s all I wanted to do.”
Sestak won his first term in Congress in 2006. He is married to Susan L. Clark. The couple has an 8-year-old daughter, Alexandra.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005.)