Meet the Senate Democratic Candidate Who's Running Against His Own Party

Joe Sestak is running as a Democrat, but he's publicly bucking the national party in his campaign.

PHILADELPHIA—Joe Sestak is an unconventional Senate candidate, and his campaign is off to an unconventional start.

The former congressman and decorated former Navy admiral kicked off his Senate campaign in Philadelphia on Wednesday, but he didn't tell anyone at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee about his plans. He blames the leadership of both parties for dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, even though his campaign against Sen. Pat Toomey could determine which party controls the Senate in 2016. And after announcing his campaign, he launched a 422-mile walking tour across the state that took just him, two staffers, and this reporter into one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the city.

"We didn't tell anybody what we were doing in Washington about the event today. Why? It's not about them. It's about people," Sestak said in an interview with National Journal while walking through the abandoned streets of Kensington, several miles from Center City. "It's simple. What people in Washington worry about—they forget about the people. They forget the mission. The Democratic Party isn't any good unless they know it's about people!"

During an hourlong interview walking across Philadelphia, Sestak underscored how important it was that he didn't hire any professional operatives from Washington to staff his campaign. Pisey Tan, his master of ceremonies at the kickoff event, was a sergeant who lost both his legs in Iraq and has never worked on a political campaign. His spokesperson, Danielle Lynch, was a reporter for the local Delaware County Daily Times. Operations manager Rainie Williams, who accompanied us through the city, was an accomplished former student of Sestak's at Cheyney University who spent time in prison for dealing drugs in the very neighborhoods we were walking through. ("We're now officially in north Philadelphia," Williams told us during the halfway point of the hike. "When we get to Kensington—my advice is to stay on the right because the dope is sold under the train tracks.")

"People in Washington say: You don't have this, you don't have that guy, they tell you how it's done. From a template from Washington? Come on! This is Pennsylvania!" Sestak exclaimed, pointing to the gritty streets and abandoned buildings.

Sestak is priding himself of running a campaign free from Washington interference, but it's that very independence that's worrying Democratic party operatives. As National Journal reported last month, the DSCC is quietly talking to other candidates to run against Sestak in the primary—with limited success—even though he's the best-known and best-financed candidate in the running.

He's intent on running against Washington politicians to the point where he didn't even mention Toomey's name in his kickoff speech. (Later in our interview, he harshly criticized the freshman senator—who won his seat by beating Sestak in 2010—for voting against funding for veterans' care.) When he made his kickoff announcement, only the people in attendance were able to watch it. His campaign's website was down along with the video stream. "Amateurs do tactics, experts do logistics," Sestak quipped.

Despite the hiccups and criticism from leading party officials, he's a strong frontrunner to win the nomination. Montgomery County commissioner Josh Shapiro, a serious potential challenger from the Philadelphia suburbs, is now unlikely to mount a primary campaign. Democrats have reached out to others, including Allegheny County executive Rich Fitzgerald and Allentown mayor Ed Pawlowski, but both have resisted recruitment efforts.

Sestak has experience beating more accomplished challengers: Against all odds, he defeated former Sen. Arlen Specter in a heated 2010 Democratic primary when nearly every Democrat, from President Obama to Gov. Ed Rendell, backed the former GOP senator.

At times, he sounds a bit like a moderate Republican himself. He sharply criticized President Obama several months ago for his failure in anticipating the rise of the Islamic State, though he said Wednesday that the administration was doing a better job adjusting to the situation. He praised George W. Bush as the "best president" in U.S. history on dealing with recidivism.

When I asked him about the Democrat debate between the Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren wings of the party, he broke from the traditional populist mold—even as he's running a populist campaign against Democratic party leaders. "You have to talk about economic mobility. It's small businesses creating jobs, so lift the burden off of them "... Economic mobility will fix income inequality." Sestak said.

For all the hype about ascendant populism within the Democratic party, Sestak is one of its few politicians who's walking the walk—quite literally. He pledged to walk across the entire state in a pair of old Army boots that he wore when serving in Afghanistan—a symbol, he said, of walking in average Pennsylvanians' shoes. He arrived to the event with his wife and daughter looking nothing like a Senate candidate—a bit disheveled, wearing jeans, sneakers and an unbuttoned polo shirt. He is crashing overnight at churches and supporters' homes during the hike, focusing on drawing attention to the most disadvantaged and neglected elements of the Democratic coalition—wounded military veterans, homeless, victims of domestic abuse, among them.

"It's not about party. It's about people," Sestak said, previewing his campaign theme. "People don't trust party leaders. Party leaders have lost the trust. It's not about the type of party, it's about people."