Weldon challenger goes from defense to offense

Mar 6th, 2006

Born in Secane and raised in Springfield, Joseph Sestak Jr. has been out of town for the past 35 years, commanding ships in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea and crafting defense policy in the West Wing.  
 
Now he's back, but the son of a Slovakian immigrant wants to return to Washington, D.C. - this time as a Congressman instead of a Navy vice admiral. 
 
"My time in public service is something I so enjoyed that I want to continue to do it," Sestak said. "I cannot imagine doing anything else." 
 
Sestak, 54, attended St. Kevin's and St. Francis' elementary schools, then Cardinal O'Hara High School. As a teenager, he delivered the Philadelphia Bulletin, riding down the middle of the street on his bicycle, winging 146 copies in each direction. He applied for a college scholarship through the newspaper, but ended up not needing it. 
 
Sestak graduated from O'Hara in 1970 as class valedictorian and headed off to Annapolis, Md., to attend the Naval Academy on a full government scholarship. He graduated second in his class and began the five-year Navy commitment required of all academy graduates. 
 
"Those five years quickly turned into 31," Sestak said. He took command of the USS Samuel B. Roberts after the first Gulf War, enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq by interdicting ships in the Persian Gulf. He returned home and was named director for defense policy on President Clinton's National Security Council, then was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to oversee Reliant Mermaid, the first joint military exercise between the Turkish, Israeli and American navies. 
 
Sestak later took control of the George Washington Battle Group, conducting air-combat operations over Afghanistan. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the group participated in Operation Southern Watch, monitoring the no-fly zone. 
 
Sestak married his wife, Susan, eight years ago. His daughter, Alex was born four years later. 
While rising through the ranks of the Navy to the three-star position of vice admiral, Sestak earned two degrees from Harvard University: a master's in public administration and a doctorate in political economy and government. 
 
When Sestak retired from the Navy in January, his rank dropped to rear admiral - a two-star position - because he did not remain vice admiral long enough to retire with the higher rank. 
 
"What you have here is a 30-year life experience that really identifies the man as a leader," said Cliff Wilson, chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Party. 
 
To convert his Navy experience into political success, Sestak will have to do what six previous Democrats have been unable to do in the 7th Congressional District: get some of the same people who voted for John Kerry, Al Gore and Bill Clinton for president to vote against U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon. 
 
The last three Democratic presidential candidates have carried Weldon's district, but Weldon has won every election since 1986 by large margins. 
 
Wilson and other Democratic leaders think Sestak has the résumé - particularly his national security credentials - to make that happen. 
 
"I believe this is the best chance the Democratic Party has had to win this seat, including '86," Wilson said, referring to the 1986 race when Democrat Bob Edgar stepped down as the district's congressman. 
 
"Goodbye, Curt. It's been 20 years," Wilson said. "Joe Sestak is going to Washington. You can feel it all over the district." 
 
Weldon, of Thornbury, said he can feel the crosshairs of the national Democratic Party on him this election. He said he has angered the party through his criticism of the Clinton administration and frustrated them through his grip on the seat. Now, the Democrats want to take him out, he said. 
 
"When they have a district where Kerry wins, Gore wins, Rendell wins and everyone else wins, they don't like the fact that a Republican is in there who gets 60 percent of the vote," Weldon said. 
 
Sestak announced last week that he has already raised more than $150,000 since announcing his candidacy Feb. 2. His communications director, Bryan Bennett, said most of the money came from people within the district, but Weldon questioned how much local financial support the Democrat will receive between now and November. 
 
"The money won't come from within Delaware County. It will come from all over America, from people who support Kerry who want to come in and steal this seat," Weldon said. Candidates are not required to file their quarterly campaign finance reports until next month. 
 
Sestak said some of his early contributions were raised through Kerry's political action committee, Keeping America's Promise. In fact, a Thursday morning telephone interview with Sestak was interrupted by a call from the senator, who sent out an email last week supporting Sestak. Kerry carried Delaware County with 57 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election. 
 
Weldon is taking this election seriously - for a change - and is planning to run an "aggressive" campaign, including TV ads, a major fund-raising operation and a Democrats for Weldon committee "that will blow your socks off."  
 
Weldon, vice-chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees, said he would even debate Sestak, something the congressman hasn't done in over a decade. 
 
"Let's go at it," Weldon said. "I'm prepared." The voters of the 7th District, which includes most of Delaware County and portions of Chester and Montgomery counties, are 57 percent Republican, 31 percent Democratic and 11 percent non-partisan. 
Sestak said he planned to tour the district extensively, particularly to round up support among Republicans and independents. 
 
"There is a reason the people in the district voted for a Democratic president," Sestak said, "and I'm going to give them a reason to vote for me." 
 
By William Bender 
Delaware County Times

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