Joseph Sestak Biography

U.S. Representative, Military Leader (1951–)
Joseph Sestak was Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, overseeing the Navy's warfare budget. He became the highest-ranking officer ever elected to Congress.


Joseph Sestak was born December 12, 1951 in Secane, Pennsylvania. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Sestak to serve as the Director of Defense Policy for the National Security Council. He then became the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Navy selected him to head Deep Blue. He won 2006 election, and 2008 re-election, to Congress.

Early Life

Politician. Born Joseph Sestak, Jr. on December 12, 1951. Sestak grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs of Delaware County as one of eight siblings in a close-knit Catholic family. His mother, Kathleen Sestak, was a high school math teacher. His father, Joseph Sestak, Sr., was an engineering officer at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

Sestak drew great inspiration from his father. A first-generation American born in Czechoslovakia, Joseph Sestak, Sr. graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served on destroyers during World War II. After the war, he earned graduate degrees from George Washington University and MIT, and continued his U.S. Navy career as an engineering officer. When Sestak speaks about his father's character, he recalls the time Joseph Sr. spent five hours fixing the family car in the freezing cold of a Philadelphia winter: "I remember going to the window and watching him. And the admiration that I had—just that strong determination of his. Never give in."

Military Career

Sestak inherited his parents' penchant for academics. A high school valedictorian, Sestak followed in his father's footsteps to the United States Naval Academy, where he graduated second in a class of more than 900 midshipmen. After graduating from the Naval Academy, Sestak entered the Navy as a surface warfare officer and deployed seven times in Europe, the Persian Gulf and the Pacific. Between tours of duty, Sestak earned a master's degree in public affairs and a PhD in political economy from Harvard University. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Sestak to serve as the Director of Defense Policy for the National Security Council. Sestak then became the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, overseeing the Navy's $70 billion warfare budget. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Navy selected Sestak to head Deep Blue, the service's think tank for developing a new counterterrorism strategy. Sestak also commanded the USS George Washington Aircraft Carrier Battle Group (comprising 30 ships, 100 aircraft and 15,000 sailors, Marines, and SEALs) during combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sestak rose to the rank of three-star admiral, but he did not remain in that position long enough to retire as such. Instead, Sestak retired from the Navy in 2005 as a two-star rear admiral.

Sestak's retirement from the service came amidst controversy over his leadership style. Before Sestak retired, a naval report claimed that he had created "a poor command climate." The report was fueled by numerous complaints from Sestak's staff that he demanded an unreasonable workload. Shortly after the report was released, Admiral Mike Mullen took over as Chief of Naval Operations and immediately dismissed Sestak from his position as Deputy Chief. Sestak has responded to criticisms of his leadership by arguing that he was assigned the tough job of recommending cutbacks within the Navy—a task sure to engender resentment among his subordinates. Furthermore, Sestak says that he was already planning to retire from the Navy due to a family crisis. In the summer of 2005, his 3-year-old daughter Alex was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Entry into Politics

After his daughter's cancer went into remission, Sestak decided to enter politics. He threw himself into the 2006 race for Pennsylvania's 7th district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, facing off against 20-year incumbent Republican Curt Weldon. Running a campaign staffed largely by his siblings (Richard, a successful trial lawer; Elizabeth, an American Express executive; and Meg, a Penn Law graduate) Sestak proved an adept fundraiser and grassroots organizer. He secured the Democratic nomination and steadily gained on Weldon in the polls. However, Sestak caught a big break three weeks before the election when the FBI raided Weldon's home in a corruption probe. Sestak won the 2006 election handily, becoming the highest-ranking military officer ever elected to Congress. Sestak went on to win his 2008 reelection campaign over Republican challenger Wendell Craig Williams in a landslide.

Sestak became a mover and shaker immediately upon joining the House of Representatives. Sestak wrote four amendments and pieces of legislation that gained passage during his first year in office, prompting House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to name him the most productive of the 42 freshman Democratic congressmen. Sestak has had a consistently liberal voting record, siding with the majority of House Democrats on 97.9 percent of votes. His signature issues include a staunchly pro-choice stance on abortion and improved care for veterans and military families.

2010 Senate Race Race

In August 2009, Sestak announced that he would challenge Senator Arlen Specter for the 2010 Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania's Senate seat. Sestak charged that Specter—a longtime Republican Senator who flipped to the Democratic Party in 2009—only switched parties to save his political career. Sestak's primary campaign achieved national attention as the subject of a short-lived Obama White House scandal. The White House, which had already thrown its support behind Specter, enlisted former President Bill Clinton to offer Sestak an appointment to a high-level White House advisory board if he dropped out of the Senate race. Critics charged that the proposed deal bordered on the line between normal political dealing and criminal tampering with an election, although the charges ultimately seemed to have little substance. Sestak managed to stay above the controversy by rejecting the White House's offer. "I'm honest," Sestak said. "I'll never do a deal." Sestak defeated Specter by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin in the May 2010 primary to become the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania's Senate seat in the November 2010 elections.

Sestak lost inthe general election to Republican opponent Pat Toomey, though not for a lack of determination and effort. Atop a bookcase in his Senate campaign office, Sestak keeps a framed photograph of President John F. Kennedy. Beneath the picture is a JFK quotation that sums up Sestak's life philosophy: "The hour is late, but the agenda is long."

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