The freshman legislator's April 7 speech at the first gala dinner hosted by the Pennsylvania chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations went largely as expected. Sestak offered praise for CAIR's work on civil rights, but also delivered some rebukes. In addition, he declared his support for Israel.
"It is my and your just duty to condemn not just terrorism — as you have done — but also condemn the specific acts, and specific individuals by name, associated with those acts, such as Hamas and Hezbollah," Sestak said, according to a copy of the speech posted on his congressional Web site.
What proved rather unexpected was a visit from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who showed up at the Hilton on City Avenue unannounced. He took to the podium for a few minutes to deliver what his press person, Chuck Ardo, said where "off-the-cuff remarks."
Lori Lowenthal Marcus, president of the Greater Philadelphia District of the Zionist Organization of America, said Rendell's presence at the event was "totally inexplicable." She protested outside the hotel with about a dozen other opponents of CAIR.
She said that "Rendell should be ashamed of himself. You want to meet with Muslims, fine. But don't go to an event that serves as a fundraiser for a group with so many connections to terrorism."
Founded in 1994, CAIR has 32 offices around the country, and bills itself as America's foremost civil-rights organization for Muslims. Critics charge that while the group presents itself as mainstream, some of its leadership have longstanding ties with terrorist groups, such as Hamas.
Ardo explained that the governor "went to the group to speak to the need for tolerance, diversity — and to urge them to seek peaceful solutions to complicated problems."
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, also attended the event.
'Hope It Doesn't Backfire'
The brouhaha started back in March, when a Sestak staffer — a former CAIR employee — accepted an invitation for the congressman to speak at a group fundraiser. Some members of the Jewish community called for Sestak to cancel the appearance, arguing that the congressman would wind up legitimizing a group that's anti-Israel and anti-American.
Sestak responded by citing the importance of speaking to constituents of all backgrounds. He did ask the CAIR organizers to separate his talk from the fundraiser, so the address took place at the same venue, but started several hours earlier.
"I was personally opposed to it, and I advised him to cancel it. I thought it was a loose, loose proposition," said Betsy Sheerr, a Sestak supporter who is a Democrat and a pro-Israel activist. "But I do respect his reasons for not canceling it," she allowed, as well as his attempt to use the opportunity "to condemn specific acts of terrorism."
"He made the best of a bad judgment call on the part of one of his staffers," she added. "I think Rendell showed up to give the congressman cover."
Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, served under Rendell in City Hall, and said she was completely surprised by the governor's appearance. Schatz said she planned to question his office upon her return from leading a mission to Israel.
As for Sestak, Schatz said that she disagreed with his decision to speak, but on balance said he's a strong supporter of Israel and a good fit for the Jewish community in terms of his emphasis on health-care reform.
"I just hope it doesn't backfire on him. I still believe he was naive in going to this banquet, and I hope the good he is doing isn't short-circuited by this," she said.
Last fall, Sestack defeated longtime Republican incumbent Curt Weldon, who was known as a staunch supporter of Israel and a recipient of heavy financial backing from pro-Israel advocates. Sestak was poised to earn some of Weldon's run-off, fiscally and vote-wise, for his fall 2008 re-election campaign.
A question now is whether this incident could put a damper on such hopes.
"He's probably been hurt in his fundraising capability in the Jewish community," said Schatz. "I think it is going to continue to be an issue. Some members of our community are not going to let it go."