In Their Own Words: An interview with Congressman Joe Sestak

U.S. Congressman Joe Sestak (D) represents Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, which includes most of Delaware County, southwestern Montgomery County and eastern Chester County. In May of this year, Sestak defeated Sen. Arlen Specter in the U.S. Senate primary and will
face former congressman Pat Toomey (R PA-15) this November in the general election. The following are
excerpts from an interview by Charlie Smolover with Rep. Sestak held on July 19, 2009.

PJV: You’ve been criticized in ads recently about your position on Israel and Gaza, and about a talk you gave to the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Council on American Pennsylvania Islamic Relations in 2007. What is your response?

I have had the honor of visiting Israel many times. I’ve toured the country. Israel is a vital ally of the United States and when I was in the navy I would have gladly laid down my own life to
defend her. That’s how important she is to the security of our own country. When my carrier
battle group was ordered to the Persian Gulf from the Mediterranean, I left behind an Aegis
cruiser tied into Israel’s missile defense system to help defend her. When Israel was being
denied our new littoral combat ships, I met with Israel’s ambassador and her chief of naval
operations and then worked to get her those ships. When the Defense Department wanted to
cancel Israel’s Arrow missile defense system, I was able to delay that long enough to prove that
Israel’s missile was superior to what the U.S. was recommending. I still have my Never Again
Masada shirt that I got in Israel, and no candidate is more committed to her survival than I am.

As far as Gaza is concerned, I made a point of asserting that it is Hamas, not Israel, that is
oppressing the people of Gaza. But I did recommend that Israel ease its blockade of Gaza.
didn’t think it was helping make Israel more secure and it appears the Netanyahu government has
reached the same conclusion.

This issue with the CAIR speech is indicative, unfortunately, of how low the political debate as
become. I appeared at their dinner with other politicians, including Governor Rendell (D PA) and State
Senator Andy Dinniman (D-West Chester), both firm supporters of Israel. But before I agreed to speak, I consulted
a mentor of mine, Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) for his advice. He gave me a copy of the
speech Elie Wiesel made to President Reagan in 1985 when Reagan agreed to visit the German
military cemetery at Bitburg. Wiesel did not mince words. He spoke truth to power and told
Reagan it was wrong to lay a wreath at that cemetery where SS troops were buried. I used that
speech as a model for my own speech to CAIR. And I told CAIR that if they had any hope of
improving relations between America and the Muslim world, they must clearly condemn, by
name, those Muslim organizations engaged in terror. That was my message to CAIR and I am
glad I had the opportunity to make it.

Democratic Party power brokers both nationally and in Pennsylvania appeared certain they
had all their ducks in row with respect to supporting Arlen Specter in the primary, yet your
victory over Specter was decisive. What does that say about the leadership of the party,
especially here in Pennsylvania?

What it says is that they were not listening. When I toured Pennsylvania during the campaign,
I could tell people were concerned, even scared. They were being devastated by the recession
and were also unclear about how healthcare reform was going to benefit them. They had no
idea what government meant any longer, what its role could be in their life. Public officials not
only failed to listen, they failed to explain how the stimulus bill and healthcare reform could
benefit them. They were too caught up in their own political calculations. Look, Pennsylvanians
have a lot of common sense. They can tell when something is broken and they want it fixed.
No politician should have been surprised at those town halls where people could barely contain
their frustration. They wanted to hear clear, pragmatic information about how we can move our
country forward. And that is the message I stuck to throughout the campaign, talking in pragmatic
terms about what was broken and how it could be fixed.

Many political observers cited one particular TV spot, the one showing Specter taking
about wanting to keep his job, as instrumental to your victory.

It was not a decisive as some would like to believe. I was closing the polling gap between us
before that ad ran. It was actually an earlier ad, a biographical ad designed to introduce me to
voters, that started the trend. A poll taken right after the Specter ad ran showed us in a statistical
dead heat. We continued to build on that trend, making appearances everywhere we could,
making 14,000 calls a day. It’s that kind of hard work that really wins campaigns.

If most of the money made available to banks through the TARP program has been
paid back, and if most economists are right in saying the law helped prevent a complete
breakdown of our financial system, why are so many politicians running for office loathe to
even mention it, let alone defend it?

I’m not backing away from my support of that legislation. I would do it again if necessary. I didn’t
vote for it because it was liberal or conservative. I vote for it because it was needed. You have
to remember that no one was lending any money. The LIBOR rate shot up seven percent. We
were facing an economic meltdown. Again, it’s about responding pragmatically to the state of our
economy and doing what we need to do to fix it.

Your opponent in November, Pat Toomey, is likely to accuse you of supporting “bank
bailouts.” How will you respond?

Pat Toomey left Wall Street, where he made a fortune, for Capitol Hill. There he wrote the
legislation to repeal Glass-Steagall Act and voted for other legislation that effectively removed
the rules governing Wall Street. So after helping to triple our national debt he leaves Congress
to lead the Club For Growth, which continues to fight against the kind of regulations we need to
reign in Wall Street excesses, leaving us to caulk the leaks to keep our economy from sinking.
Having torpedoed our economy, Congressman Toomey has no right to criticize those who tried
to prevent the economic disaster he and his GOP colleagues enabled through eight years of fiscal
irresponsibility. And the lack of accountability for the damage that was done is inexcusable. But
criticize is all he can do because he has no record to stand on.

President Obama appointed a deficit reduction commission that is scheduled to make
its recommendations later this year. In the meantime, Congressmen Barney Frank
and Ron Paul have been arguing that deficit reduction must include cuts in defense
spending. As a retired admiral, do you think we need eleven carrier battles groups? Do
we still need troops in Europe to defend against a Warsaw Pact that no longer exists?

We don’t. And the answer is improving our ability to interconnect our military assets. That
has not been pursued as vigorously as it should be. Our common link isn’t the sea anymore, it’s
cyberspace. I’m talking about scenarios where a soldier or sailor looks through binoculars
to identify a target and then blinks his eye to send the coordinates to a satellite. That data is
instantly relayed to missile which is launched to destroy the target. Make no mistake, we live in a
dangerous world and we need a military that is capable of defending us. My point is that we can
have a military which is more effective and efficient if we make investments in the technologies
that we need to fight in the 21st century.

It’s been said that the passing of Senators Byrd and Kennedy marks the end of an era of
civility in the senate. Why have politics become so toxic?

Party leaders need to recognize that the “I win, you lose” way of doing business in Washington
today is sapping our government of its integrity. A key moment may well have been the way
Newt Gingrich (R-GA) went after Jim Wright (D-TX) in 1989. The book, The Ambition and the Power: The
Fall of Jim Wright
is worth reading. The issue is not whether (former Speaker of the House)
Wright was guilty of ethics violations, but how he was vilified in such a personal and partisan
way. I talked to people who appear in that book. They said that before the Wright episode there
were certainly fierce battles in congress, but they didn’t have the caustic, Hatfield vs. McCoys
animosity that you see today. As a result, the American people have become cynical and the
politicians, in turn, have become even more cynical. Instead of creating pragmatic solutions to
problems that we all recognize, we just try to make the other guy wrong. I think the Tea Party is
partly a reaction to that, and that’s why I don’t put don’t put them down. They’re just people who
want to be heard.


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