In his relatively short political career, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak has worked overtime to reach out to local Jews.
Now, as the retired Navy admiral is set to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the Democratic Party's primary race for the U.S. Senate, Sestak acknowledges that he faces a tough task in broadening his support in the Jewish community.
But that's not going to stop him from trying, says Sestak, a Catholic who notes that in his car, he keeps a book of Midrash, Jewish stories of commentary on the Bible.
Before he switched parties earlier this year, Specter was one of the most prominent Jews in the GOP. He has spent decades forging relationships and building support among Jewish Democrats and Republicans, locally and nationally.
Still, Sestak's supporters predict that their candidate could pose a challenge for Specter in the competition for Jewish votes and dollars, especially among those who wonder whether they can count on the former Republican to back President Barack Obama's agenda on health care reform and other domestic issues.
He also has backers among some pro-Israel activists.
"Joe Sestak is tough as nails when it comes to issues of national security. He's been to Israel a half-dozen times. I think you have a man who almost has a unique understanding of the issues," said Steven Grossman, a Boston-based supporter who carries weight in the Jewish world as a former chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and former chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Sestak, who has just completed a tour of all 67 of Pennsylvania's counties, said that he expects to officially announce his candidacy in about a month.
'The Best Warrior'?
In a lengthy telephone interview last week, Sestak said that while Specter has garnered the support of Democratic leaders — from Obama to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell — rank-and-file voters have plenty of doubts.
"I understand conversions; all faiths have conversions. But the reason he did it he said was for political calculation, not principle, not because he believed in the Democratic Party," said the Delaware County lawmaker. "I respect Arlen and his history, but I disagree with his vote, and I disagree that he is the best warrior for us and the future."
Specifically, Sestak asserted that Specter has consistently worked against efforts to create universal health care going back to the late 1990s.
Specter, for his part, said that he had opposed the health plan under the Clinton administration because it was too unwieldy. He noted that he has long supported health care reform and fought to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health; this year, he helped push through a 34 percent increase in the agency's funding, from $29 billion to $39 billion.
Specter added that he was invited to Obama's recent White House summit on health care reform, while Sestak was not.
Specter said that he has been voting like a Democrat for years, but his vote for the stimulus package — he was one of only three Republican senators to support it — changed everything.
"After I voted for the stimulus package, I not only had a lot of Democrats urging me to become a Democrat, I had a lot of Republicans urging me to become a Democrat," said Specter, pointing out that Sestak only registered as a Democrat in 2006. Sestak has said that he registered as an independent while in the Navy because officers should remain nonpartisan.
Specter pointed to his record on Israel as an important factor for voters: "There hasn't been a stronger supporter in the Congress than I have been, which I think is a very weighty factor in the Jewish community."
State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153), who had considered jumping into the Senate race himself but decided not to once Specter switched parties, agreed that Specter's Jewish support was both wide and deep.
"I would expect Sestak to face significant obstacles," said Shapiro, who has not endorsed a candidate.
Meanwhile, signs seem to be pointing to a competitive race ahead.
On June 25, Franklin & Marshall's Center for Opinion Research released a job-approval poll showing that 28 percent of Pennsylvanians thought Specter should be re-elected, down 34 points from March.
And in a recent interview on KYW Newsradio 1060, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who is another Specter ally, acknowledged that Sestak could pose a formidable challenge to the five-term senator. On the other hand, a July 22 Quinnipiac University Poll showed Specter leading Sestak 55 percent to 23 percent among registered Democrats. But that same poll wasn't all good news for Specter; it showed him holding a narrow 45 to 44 percent lead over possible GOP opponent Pat Toomey, a former congressman. Less than three months ago, the same poll showed Specter leading Toomey by 20 points.
"Voters see Sen. Specter much less favorably than they once did and are net negative about giving him a sixth term in the U.S. Senate," Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the poll, said in a news release.
Specter still maintains a sizable lead in fundraising — $6.7 million to Sestak's $4.2 million, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings.
'Strategic and Security Issues'
Sestak, 57, has spent most of his career in the military. He jumped into politics in 2006, defeating 10-term incumbent Curt Weldon. At that time, he cited his daughter's treatment for a brain tumor, and the fact that all Americans couldn't get the same kind of health care, as his reason for entering politics.
On foreign policy, Sestak — who has a doctorate in political economy from Harvard University — has long advocated for diplomatic engagement, both in terms of Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Doing nothing bodes that you won't have any success, and I believe in trying," he said.
In 2008, Sestak was endorsed by J StreetPAC, the arm of the relatively new organization that advocates for more American involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, and was founded in part to counter the influence of the more established AIPAC lobby.
"He just has an unusually deep grasp of strategic and security issues; with that grasp, he also understands the agenda that J Street is pursuing," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and executive director of J StreetPAC, which donated some $10,000 to Sestak's 2008 re-election bid.
For his part, Sestak says that he broadly supports the positions of both J Street and AIPAC, stating that AIPAC also favors a two-state solution.
"If you are able to engage both sides, Israel and the United States will ultimately be more secure," said the lawmaker, who frequents Jewish gatherings in his district, and has met with Israeli diplomats and military officials about weapons technology.
Sestak recently backed the House foreign-aid bill, which guarantees $2.2 billion in security aid. But some pro-Israel advocates have asserted that he's not always as quick to back other efforts.
Sestak did not sign a May 28 AIPAC-backed letter to Obama that stressed the risks to Israel in peace talks, and insisted upon a Palestinian commitment to end terror and violence. More than 300 of his House colleagues signed on to it.
He declined, according to an aide, because it did not emphasize the need for American leadership in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the table. He did sign such a letter backed by J Street on June 3.
Perhaps it was his belief in dialogue that got him into trouble with the Jewish community during his first term in office. He accepted an invitation to speak at an April 2007 event organized by the local chapter of the Council on Islamic American Relations, a group many claim has ties with Islamic extremists.
Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown nearly canceled Sestak's planned appearance; instead, he showed up and explained his desire to reach out to all constituents and talk tough about the need for Islamic leaders to forcefully condemn terrorism.
But one after another, audience members blasted his position.
Among them was Lori Lowenthal Marcus, then president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Zionist Organization of America and now the co-founder of a new group called Z Street, a response to the left-leaning J Street. She said that despite being aware of the ties between CAIR and the Holy Land Foundation — an alleged front group for Hamas — Sestak wrongfully stuck by his decision.
"Anyone who cares about Jews and Israel should not be supporting Joe Sestak," Marcus said last week.
At the time, Sestak said that he believed that "if the evidence was so strong that this group was involved in terrorism, then the government would have closed them down."
In the midst of the public-relations crisis, Sestak got a call of support from Rabbi Peter Hyman, religious leader at Temple Sholom in Broomall. Hyman introduced Sestak to Midrash, which the lawmaker says he now uses from time to time in speeches.
In early 2008, Sestak invited Hyman to deliver an invocation in Congress.
"He's a bright man, he's well-read, and that he should know from Midrash I think should tell the Jewish community a lot about who he is and how he works," said Hyman, who for the past year has led Temple B'nai Israel in Maryland.
In the end, however voters feel about Sestak, the campaign may turn into a referendum on Specter's career.
"I have a lot of respect for Joe. I feel badly that I am not able to support him," said Richard Schiffrin, a Wynnewood attorney who served as a key fundraiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. "But Arlen has earned the right to be supported by the Democratic community and the Jewish community."
Many of the region's more well-known Jewish political fundraisers, including Mark Aronchick and Joseph Smukler, have pledged to back Specter.
But Grossman noted that many wrote off Sestak in 2006, and he proved a prodigious campaigner and fundraiser. Grossman, who is currently running for state treasurer of Massachusetts, also said that Sestak will be able to make a credible argument that he'd be as influential an Israel supporter as Specter; Sestak, the highest-ranking military official to ever serve in Congress, visited Israel while still on active duty.
But if Sestak does win the nomination, it may be because Democratic voters trust him more on domestic issues.
Jill Zipin, 44, a member of the Horsham Democratic committee, said that she's leaning toward Sestak, but also notes that she doesn't yet know enough about him.
"Among many Democrats, there is a lot of unease about Specter," said Zipin, adding that she's looking for a candidate to offer broad support for Obama's domestic agenda. "I'm not completely decided. But I get the impression that Specter is for Specter."