For Sestak, the path to Senate runs 422 miles

Joe Sestak says he is walking not for party leaders in Washington but Pennsylvania voters. "I want them to know they can trust me to be held accountable," he says. "It isn't just a walk, it's a walk to begin to earn their trust." (Jonathan Tamari/Inquirer Staff)

LIGONIER, Pa. - It's 20 degrees out - and feels much colder - when Joe Sestak heads out of the Ramada Inn into the darkness just after 6 a.m.

He chews on a spongy hotel bagel, plain and dry, and treks through a sleeping downtown. Turning onto Route 30, he walks uphill against traffic on the highway shoulder, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh.

The 63-year-old Senate candidate wears jeans, his signature olive flight jacket, and a yellow safety vest. Save for a reporter, he is alone, and he carries only what fits in his pockets. Semis thunder by, kicking up wind and dirt.

For someone with his resumé - three-star admiral, defense policy director on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council, two-term U.S. representative, and 2010 Senate nominee - it seems an unconventional way to launch another campaign, especially in a state that is a priority for Democrats.

But the man who once commanded aircraft carriers relishes defying the normal order. He says his monthlong, 422-mile hike across the state shows that he is "walking in the shoes of Pennsylvanians."

It's a gesture that embodies everything his supporters love about Sestak - relentless, manic, unrestrained - and everything that makes some Democrats queasy.

So far, he is the party's only contender in a race critical to its chances of reclaiming the Senate next year. Democrats are desperate to oust Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.).

Sestak says he is walking not for party leaders in Washington but for Pennsylvania voters. "I want them to know they can trust me to be held accountable," he says. "It isn't just a walk, it's a walk to begin to earn their trust."

Some supporters have joined him for stretches, but on this day, his 20th, he'll walk much of the 12 miles in virtual solitude, having little contact with everyday citizens.

He carries with him reminders of his family. He has two bracelets his 13-year-old daughter, Alex, gave him. One is a multicolored mishmash from years ago, just before her first treatment for brain cancer. In his pocket is a black athletic sock that belonged to his brother, who died of cancer complications last year.

The hike, though, proves to be a great way to win free press for a man trying to reintroduce himself. Sestak has been out of office since 2010, when he defied the Democratic establishment to beat the late Sen. Arlen Specter in a Senate primary, then narrowly lost to Toomey.

Sestak boasts that his walk has put him on the front page of local papers five straight days. On this day, he'll have six local radio interviews, telling listeners each time he is trekking through their area.

As he walks, the shoulder narrows. Some drivers come so close you can see the phones pressed up against their ears.

Near the top of a mountain, Sestak stops, motions to the bare trees all around and abandons the campaign talk. "This is cool, isn't it?" he says.

Several times over the day, he'll say how much he'll miss it when it's over.

 

Losing track

Sestak takes a radio interview over his cellphone as he enters Latrobe, where fast-food restaurants and big-box stores line the highway. He talks as he crosses exit ramps and busy intersections, ignoring the signals telling him not to walk.

About 10 a.m., four hours into the day, one interviewer wishes Sestak a good week. He looks confused, and asks: "Is today Monday?"

It is. Days have blended together since he started walking March 4, sometimes covering as many as 30 miles in a day.

Around 10:20, on the side of Route 30, Sestak spots a lanky young man pointing a video camera. It's Oliver Kline, a tracker hired by the conservative group America Rising.

"Ollie!" Sestak calls. "Come over here. You should have a jacket on!"

Kline, a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, sheepishly accepts Sestak's greeting.

A few weeks back in Bucks County, the candidate and his paid political stalker worked together to push a pickup truck out of the snow. Sestak's team posted the video on YouTube. It ends with the Democrat slapping a high-five with the Republican hired to record damaging video.

To Sestak, it's an honor that the GOP is after him.

"He's a good kid," Sestak says. "He's just got a job to do."

 

Grueling pace

After about nine miles, a Toyota RAV-4 pulls up to ferry him to a lunch event. (First, though, Sestak stops at an Eat'n Park and buys a coffee so he can use the men's room.)

The driver, Jack Zandi, a nephew of Moody's analyst and Sestak advisor Mark Zandi, has followed the former admiral on his journey. When Sestak has a fund-raiser, television interview, or campaign event off the trail - as he often has - Zandi drives him to the function, and then returns Sestak to the spot where he left off, so he can say he truly walked every foot across the state.

Today, Zandi drives Sestak back to Ligonier, his starting point, for a luncheon with 19 Democrats.

The candidate's face is lined, and his gray and black mop of hair has been blown wild in the wind. (Sestak says he doesn't like to wear hats.)

Still, Sestak commands the back room at Carol & Dave's Roadhouse, his voice booming then dropping to a whisper.

As usual, he peppers his talk with Navy metaphors. On equality for women, he says: "I want all hands on deck." Though in his supercharged talk he sometimes gets ahead of himself, mangling lines - calling the 1996 Olympics the "Atlantic Olympics," for instance - or doubling back to correct a misstatement.

Sestak is known for his grueling pace, not just for himself but also his staff. As a congressman, he used a rotation of interns to staff his offices seven days a week, he says. Everyone at this event, Sestak promises, will get a follow-up call.

He concludes his speech with a story about accountability on an aircraft carrier. Everyone in the room applauds. Even Ollie.

As the crowd breaks up, one Democrat says Sestak is the kind of "independent thinker" her party needs in a GOP-dominated place like Westmoreland County. "He's really popular here," says Lorraine Petrosky, vice chair of the Latrobe Democrats.

 

Home-bred

En route to the next event - a meeting with editors of the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat - Zandi drives past the John Murtha Regional Cancer Center, named for the late U.S. representative, one of the last of the "blue dogs" of the Democratic Party. It's a reminder that Democrats once won these conservative precincts.

Heading into 2016, national party leaders want their top political professionals involved in such a key race.

Sestak insists on having people he knows and whose loyalty he can count on. His press officer was a local reporter he got to know. His brother was his top fund-raiser. A sister gave legal advice, and a Naval Academy classmate ran his district office.

"I didn't inherit them from Washington," Sestak says. "But, they are home-bred, and they've been with me. They. Know. This. State."

He credits grassroots support in Pennsylvania - he had 18,000 volunteers - for helping him win the 2010 primary, even as party leaders from President Obama on down backed Specter.

Asked if he's bothered that the party seems to again want an alternative candidate, Sestak, for once, is short on words. He shakes his head, and shrugs. "A D.C. candidate," he says later, "is not going to play well in Pennsylvania."

 

An oasis

After the lunch event and meeting with editors, it's 4 p.m. by the time Zandi brings Sestak back to resume the walk.

It's warmer now, and as Sestak strolls along the road into downtown Latrobe, he points ahead, like a man who has seen an oasis: a sidewalk!

There are still few pedestrians out, and Sestak is back on the phone, speaking to another radio show.

Zandi zips by in the RAV-4, jabbing his thumb to the right: Take the next turn, he signals.

The walk ends on a quiet corner, amid modest homes built close together with small porches. On one end of the street is a high school football field. On the other is a rusting, former steel plant with shattered windows.

It's just past 5 p.m. Sestak has been at it for 11 hours, but he's still going, sitting on a low wall as he expounds to a reporter on foreign policy.

At the end of Monday, he had covered 330 miles.

He expects to complete his hike Saturday. The campaign is just starting.

 


jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

 

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