Former Congressman Joe Sestak during his walk across Pennsylvania.

Three Pennsylvania Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. This is the second of three profiles of the challengers, who include Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, former Congressman Joe Sestak and former Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Katie McGinty. Check out the profile on Fetterman here: Braddock Mayor John Fetterman keeps on truckin’ in his quest for the Senate.

Joe Sestak got ready for this year’s Senate race by walking 422 miles across Pennsylvania. He says it was an attempt to connect with voters by symbolically walking in their shoes. “We have a real failure among our leaders to be held accountable to people,” Sestak says. “People feel like their government is looking down upon them.”

It was during that trek, which led through Pittsburgh last spring, that Sestak says he heard two major concerns from voters that are part of the same issue.

“They’re really two issues: not just jobs, but wages. People need quality jobs,” Sestak says. “People in Pennsylvania really do believe that education and job training have to be accessible and affordable.”

Joe Sestak visited Zeke's Coffee in East Liberty last April. Courtesy Joe Sestak.
Joe Sestak visited Zeke’s Coffee in East Liberty last April. Courtesy Joe Sestak.
Joe Sestak visited Zeke’s Coffee in East Liberty last April. Courtesy Joe Sestak.

Sestak is a retired three-star Navy admiral and former U.S. Congressman and was director for defense policy on the White House National Security Council in President Clinton’s administration. On paper, he seems like a strong candidate for Senate.

He supports green energy because he says it creates jobs and supports raising the minimum wage to $10.12 an hour. And he spoke in support of last year’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

But Sestak’s resume also includes a failed 2010 bid against current officeholder Pat Toomey, in which he “bucked the entire Democratic Party leadership” according to his website. Before losing to Toomey, Sestak beat Arlen Specter, to the consternation of many in the party, who tried to persuade Sestak to step aside.

However, the latest Mercyhurst University poll suggests that Sestak could be Democrats’ best shot at defeating Toomey in November. He remains five points behind the incumbent in the poll of 421 likely Pennsylvania voters, with 43 percent favoring Toomey and 38 percent favoring Sestak. That compares to McGinty’s 34 percent and Fetterman’s 31 percent.

While he hasn’t endorsed anyone in the Democratic race for president, Sestak says he admires both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. “Secretary Clinton has the character and temperament to be an excellent president. Senator Sanders has really raised the issue of income inequality into the public arena.”

Sestak says much of his inspiration comes from his daughter Alex, who drew the picture of a pair of shoes that became his campaign symbol and inspired the statewide walk. Alex was diagnosed with brain cancer as a young child, and Sestak maintains that the medical treatment she received while on his military health care plan was key in saving her life. Everyone should have access to that kind of care, he says.

“My daugher was given an eight percent chance to live after being diagnosed with cancer at age 4,” Sestak says. “But I met too many families who didn’t have the same kind of care we had. No family should have to worry for their child’s life because they can’t afford health insurance.”

For Sestak, the biggest struggle for candidates in the 2016 elections is regaining voters’ confidence, something he says has been lost in the current political climate.

“We have to earn their trust,” he says of voters. “And we have to be accountable for our deeds. Like a crew on a Navy ship, if you can’t trust each other, things disintegrate into chaos.”

Kim Lyons is an award-winning writer and editor always on the lookout for a great story. Her experience includes writing about business, politics, and local news, and she has a huge crush on Pittsburgh.