Former Congressman Joe Sestak Runs For President On Message Of Unity09:39
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Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak speaks during the DNC summer meeting in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak speaks during the DNC summer meeting in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The National Review dubbed former Rep. Joe Sestak “the most interesting Democrat you forgot was running” in the 2020 election.

The Pennsylvania Democrat was the highest-ranking military official ever elected to Congress in 2006. He served in the Navy for 31 years and worked under former President Bill Clinton as director of defense policy.

Sestak is spending almost all of his time in Iowa trying to reach moderate voters with a hunger for a candidate who wants to unify the deep divide in our political system.

“It's always about people, going to them,” he says. “That's why we went everywhere, particularly the rural counties. That's sometimes where they feel forgotten by my party.”

He’s coming in between 0% and 1% in the polls. He hasn't participated in a debate so far and he hasn’t qualified for the next one, but that’s not stopping Sestak from trying to spread his message of unity to the American people.

Sestak’s status as the forgotten Democrat is in-part thanks to his campaign starting later than the other 2020 Democrats because of his daughter’s brain cancer.

“While some may say it's late, I think my ideas are timely,” he says.

Interview Highlights

On why he’s committed to his campaign

“I was late because of my daughter's brain cancer, which initially drove me into politics back in 2005. When I was in the Navy, I got out to take care of her and ran for health care for everyone that saved her life. So it came back last year, and so I wasn't thinking of getting in. But as I sat with her, particularly while she went through proton beam radiation, burning radiation for her brain that saved her again, I decided I needed to get back in.

“What I also learned in the military was amateurs do tactics; experts do logistics. What we wanted to do because we were — in other people's minds — late, we secured the beachhead in Iowa because you have to identify 1,800 people for the caucuses, one in each of the precincts. We went everywhere, 17,000 miles we traveled, 135 events to do that.”

On creating a national healthcare system

“I have seen hospitals in the rural counties closing, over 100 already this year … Government has been shown by The New England Journal of Medicine to be number one in terms of being tied or better than any private or public health care provider. So I want a public option that proves itself that that is one way to go for the rural counties because no for-profit hospitals are going to go back there. But it also will have a public option that will prove itself as we head towards ‘Medicare for All’ for the rest of the nation. But my thing is I want to make sure that when 255 million Americans are in some form of private health care, we just don't mandate it like in the next two or four years. We give it a transition of choice that proves itself to get us there.”

On his top priorities in combating the climate crisis

“After I hold a town hall in the middle of America, and I will do those every two weeks, I will fly to Paris to convene 194 of 196 nations that are not meeting their national commitment under the Paris Climate Accord, including us. Because we know that here in America, even if we do get to zero on greenhouse emissions, it won't matter unless the rest of the world does it because 85% of the emissions that have to go to zero come from abroad. Yes, here at home we have to have a carbon-free dividend. Yes, we have to stop fossil fuel subsidies and moving to green energy. And yes, we must stop offshore drilling in the Arctic and on Native American lands. But we also have to convene the world because it is one world and that catastrophic threat, if it isn't stopped everywhere, will explode on us.”

On how he’d get Republicans in Congress on board with this plan

“That is the major reason I would be running, to unite this country. What this nation most wants, most yearns for, most needs is someone where people know, all Americans know, that even when they disagree well with him, he will always be accountable to them above one's party, above self and any special interest. That is what we need more than anything or else we'll end up, much as you're pointing out, with another president that will only be able to executive orders and the next one rips it out. America can't go sideways anymore.”

On whether House Democrats should pursue impeachment

“I think when the commander in chief who occupies the presidency reaches out to a foreign leader and invites him to actually violate the most sacred sanctity of America, fair and free elections, there is an obligation upon the Congress to follow its constitutional duty, investigate it and if it bears out that the evidence is pretty compelling and conclusive that he did that, then they must proceed with impeachment.”

On how he would support workers in the gig economy

“They're not doing that because they want to. They're doing that because they have to. And so what we have to do is get that program I've talked about where I met somebody who had been a bus driver, lost his job, but when 40% of Americans only have $400 and no more than that for a near-term emergency, how will he ever get trained into another job? Because our nation doesn't do that. We'll give loans for youth to go to colleges but not for that bus driver to learn a new trade. So my program of training for a lifetime is a social combat commitment just like the military. When you lose your job because you're 15 leaves the service, the Air Force doesn't kick you out. They send you to the largest community college in America, the Air Force Community College, you learn how to maintain the F-22 [fighter aircraft]. That's what we have to do. And my party and others do nothing for labor force training. So we need one that you train and retrain throughout a lifetime just like we do in the military.”

On what issues he would take on first in office

“If we're ever to meet our defining challenges of the time, it’s the absolute prerequisite after meeting Mr. Trump, I would hold that town hall and do it every two weeks so all Americans know I’m there listening to you but letting you know where I stand. Then I'd fly to Paris for climate change, stop over at NATO to let our allies know this past administration kicked you and told you it was a wrap as far as our great leadership of a rules-based world order, but we're back. And then I come home and announce this training for a lifetime … I'd walk into a mosque to let everyone know that we're all equal and I love you all. And then I'd walk to a gun show, perhaps invite Holly North to go with me who I knew who ran my backside backward in the 70s when I thought I was going to the Marine Corps. We may disagree but I'm going to go there to say I am for an assault weapon ban but I love that you do like the hunt.”

On how he would enact an assault rifle ban

“That would look like, just like we had in the 1990s when these semi-automatic weapons were banned. The deaths of police officers plummeted to near zero because of that. But I want to go to that gun show to say, ‘No, the Heller decision was good in that it said there's no slippery slope here.’ They said in that decision that doesn't mean all weapons should be out there on the streets of America. We must end semi-automatic weapons that are used for war. We don't want those in the streets of America and that's why I've got to go to the people on this, not just the elected representatives and Senate, just like I did in my district.”


Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on September 30, 2019.

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