Freshmen 42: Joe Sestak 'Meets' the National Spotlight
House freshmen don't usually get invited by Tim Russert to appear on "Meet the Press". But yesterday, barely two months on the job, Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) went toe-to-toe with Russert and a trio of other guests -- including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who repeatedly needled Sestak -- debating the next steps of the Iraq war.
"A date certain, then, gives the leverage, the catalyst for [Iraqis] to understand they must step up to the plate, don't have a culture of dependency," Sestak, a former admiral who led a carrier battle group, said of his bill to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq war by the end of the year.
It was a watershed moment for the Freshmen 42, that group of Democratic lawmakers that handed Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the speaker's gavel. Until Sestak, no members of the House Democratic class of 2006 had appeared on the venerable "Meet", the gold-standard of Sunday talk shows.
[According to Roll Call's "Face Time" analysis of those shows, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) was the only other freshman to appear on a Sunday show, earlier this year on FOX News Sunday. Click here to view yesterday's "Meet the Press."
A 31-year veteran of the Navy, Sestak has emerged as an early favorite of his party's leadership to speak on military matters. Hoping to focus more on domestic issues, Sestak told Capitol Briefing last month that he had to be coaxed onto the House Armed Services Committee. But he's also someone Democratic leaders are trying to bolster for re-election in a district that had previously been represented for 20 years by Republican Curt Weldon.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was in the Philadelphia area Friday to help raise money for Sestak as well as his legislative neighbor, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.). And during the recess week in February, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, went into Sestak's district for an education summit he hosted with local principals and teachers' unions.
While getting favorable attention nationally over the weekend, Sestak spent some time last week defending himself in the local media over his decision to speak at a banquet April 7 for a local chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations and hiring a former CAIR staffer to work in his district office. A former prosecutor is organizing rabbis in Delaware County against the event, citing alleged ties to terrorist organizations.
So far, he hasn't backed down, telling the Delaware County Daily Times: "It even says in the Torah, understand the other side before you make a judgment. Once you make your judgment, you should speak the truth. And the truth here -- and I looked into CAIR during the campaign -- is that they do some good."
Whether the CAIR incident is a minor flare-up or the early signs of a political novice mishandling message issues remains to be seen. His first bill calls for an end to combat in Iraq by Dec. 31, 2007, an approach more aggressive than the current Democratic leadership proposals in the House and Senate.
"There will be no more funds by the end of 2007. Without a date certain we have no leverage over the Iraqis," Sestak told Capitol Briefing last month in a brief interview during the debate on the non-binding resolution opposing President Bush's troop surge.
Sestak, 54, has a more mature presence than some of the younger members of the Democratic freshmen class, particularly Murphy, 33, a former JAG officer who served with the 82nd Airborne in Baghdad whose floor debate performances are more passionate and, sometimes, uneven.
Sestak is analytical, and not much of a political bomb thrower. He broke down his race against Weldon like a football coach analyzing a tight game that broke open late in the 4th quarter. Sestak was slightly ahead of Weldon in the polls in early October -- about 4 percent, he said -- and then the FBI raided Weldon's daughter's home as well as the offices of his top political ally.
The raids were part of an investigation into whether Weldon had done favors for his daughter, Karen Weldon, allowing Sestak to coast to a 56-44 win. His early opposition to the Iraq war made him a favorite of the liberal netroots crowd, helping him raise $3.3 million last year in his first campaign ever.
Tim Pulte, scion of the Pulte Homes realty dynasty, has been met with House Republican strategists about the race, and if he enters, Sestak may need even more money next time around.
Still, the freshman lawmaker expects Iraq to be key to his own political future, judging from the reception he has received at events he's attended back in his district so far. "No matter what event I was at, Iraq came up," he said.
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