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Crunching the Numbers

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It's barely 11 a.m. and this is Congressman Joe Sestak's seventh interview of the day. 

For a guy who's spent all morning on the phone, most likely answering the same questions, he's pretty upbeat about his candidacy for U.S. Senate.

"We're going to beat Arlen Specter," he declares. 

What makes his tone all the more notable is how difficult the campaign is proving to be:

  • Sestak trails Specter, the five-term Republican-turned-Democrat incumbent, by as much as 20 percentage points in recent polls.

  • He's been running this campaign since last year ... but is still fighting for name recognition against one of the most well-known faces on Capitol Hill. According to a March 2 poll, 75 percent of Democrats said they didn't know enough about Sestak to have an opinion about him.

  • He's facing controversy about the amount he pays campaign staffers and whether he was offered a job at the White House in exchange for dropping out of the senatorial race.

So why is Joe Sestak so optimistic? 

For one thing, it's because more than half of voters -- as many as 52 percent, according to recent polls -- still haven't made up their mind on who to back. And Sestak insists that his willingness to talk about substantive issues, his record and Specter's record, will eventually resonate enough with those voters for the election to swing his way.

"There are substantial differences between Arlen Specter and myself and the challenge has been relaying those differences to the public," says Sestak. "We have done countless interviews and since January, we have held more than 400 events statewide in an effort to let people know what we're about.

"Arlen Specter doesn't want to talk about his record and he doesn't want to work on and advance policies that will help this country move forward," Sestak adds. "His approach to government is to go along to get along as long as it protects his job. 

"That's just not good enough anymore."

 

Sestak, who represents a traditionally Republican district in the eastern part of the state, spent 31 years in the U.S. Navy, achieving the rank of admiral before running for Congress in 2006. Since then, he's quickly established himself as a bona fide progressive. The liberal organization Americans for Democratic Action says his liberal quotient -- the number of times he votes in line with the group's beliefs -- is 90 percent. He received a "100 percent pro-choice rating" from pro-choice group NARAL and, according to ProjectVoteSmart.com, Sestak received an F from the National Rifle Association and a rating of 100 percent from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. On the environment, Sestak received grades of 97 percent to 100 percent from groups such as Defenders of Wildlife Action and the League of Conservation Voters.

He has introduced a gender-equity bill in the house and he's endorsed by the National Organization of Women. Sestak has also been working toward expanding LGBT rights by trying to speed up the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. 

"I'm a big believer in equality whether it's on women's issues or issues facing the LGBT community," Sestak says. And "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which leaves homosexuality as a justification for being ousted from the military, even while it prevents commanders from asking soldiers about their orientation, is an issue he takes personally.

"We're asking these young men and women to serve their country and at the same time we're ordering them to live a lie. That besmirches our reputation as an institution," Sestak says. Sestak says repeal is likely on the way -- Pentagon officials have signaled as much in recent months -- but says the policy "only exists today because of a lack of courage. Why should we lose one more good soldier? That goes against the very principles, freedoms and ideals that we're asking them to fight for."

 Sestak has also recently introduced legislation to end housing discrimination against the LGBT community. The law currently precludes discrimination on the basis of race and other factors, but says nothing about sexual orientation. 

"Right now, today, there are documented cases of discrimination of people in the LGBT community when they attempt to get housing," says Sestak. "It's a shame that this goes on and that we need legislation, but we do."

 

Sestak's willingness to stick his neck out seems a sharp contrast to Specter, who only last year switched party allegiances because he knew he was likely to lose a Republican primary against presumptive GOP nominee Pat Toomey. (See "Changed Man," page 16.) But with much of the Democratic establishment lining up behind Specter, Sestak has little to lose.

So far, Specter has agreed to just one debate with Sestak -- to be held on Specter's home turf in downtown Philadelphia. Specter has even declined an offer to debate on NBC's Meet the Press. But while he won't debate Sestak, Specter hasn't refrained from attacking him. 

In February, Specter's campaign issued a release alleging that Sestak doesn't pay his campaign workers minimum wage while paying three of his siblings between $42,000 and $46,000 per year. According to the Specter campaign's analysis: "10 of the 16 Sestak campaign staffers not related to Sestak are paid less than the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. In fact, Sestak pays those staffers so little that they qualify for food stamps. It's fundamental that Congressman Sestak is not above the law. He needs to demonstrate compliance with the minimum wage law or report himself to the appropriate federal and state authorities." 

Sestak says that his campaign has had a lot of individuals who volunteer. The campaign has found those workers housing, pays them a stipend and provides them with health insurance. One worker, Sestak says, continued to receive pay while hospitalized. 

More recently, Specter -- and some Republicans -- have been trying to draw attention to a comment Sestak made about being offered a job by the Obama administration in exchange for dropping out of the primary. Sestak has not said who made the offer, but some, including Specter and Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, have intimated that if Sestak was offered a job for dropping out of the race, a crime could have been committed. 

And while Sestak has not talked much about it, both he and the Obama Administration have said that all talks were above board. On March 16, White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "I've talked to several people in the White House. I've talked to people that have talked to others in the White House. I'm told that whatever conversations have been had are not problematic. ... Whatever happened is in the past." 

But Issa has called for a special prosecutor to look into the allegations, and Specter isn't letting it go either.

"When I was district attorney, if somebody came and told me that, I would say, 'Well, name names, name dates, name places,'" Specter told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell March 9. "That's a very, very serious charge. ... [I]t is a federal crime, punishable by jail. And anybody who wants to say that ought to back it up."

But Sestak says Specter is using this instance, and the pay issue, to divert attention away from what the Senator has or hasn't been doing in Washington, even though the job for dropping out controversy was begun by Sestak's own comments. He said Specter's only move this campaign season was to cut a deal to switch his party affiliation and let the political machine take care of the rest. 

"I thought Arlen Specter was a Democrat now?" says Sestak. "But here we go with those good old Republican tactics. He doesn't want to talk about the issues, so he Swift Boats me ...

"He's the same old Arlen Specter."

 That may be. But that Arlen Specter has been winning elections for a long time. And while Sestak may be long on policy, he's running short on time. With the month and a half he has left, he's doing everything he can to put himself in the public eye. On April 11, for example, he's debating Toomey at La Salle University in Philadelphia -- or at least that's what it says on paper.

"I look at this as actually a debate against Arlen Specter," says Sestak. "I told Pat that he and Arlen voted identically with George Bush, so I'm going to call [him] 'Arlen' during the debate.

"What I'm hoping to get out of this is to show that Specter and Toomey are one and the same. If you like Pat Toomey, then vote for Arlen Specter. But if you want a real Democrat, you've got to vote for me."

Joe Sestak at a campaign event in Oakland earlier this year
  • Joe Sestak at a campaign event in Oakland earlier this year

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