In a 1959 Broadway musical about New York Mayor Fiorello LaGaurdia, local pols lament that their candidate beat the Tammany machine. Why were they upset that their guy won? Because he won without their help and could become too independent.
Traditional politics is built on a ledger of favors and debts. You want your guy or gal to win—but you also want them to owe you something.
But what if the political establishment, the headquarters for collecting debts and distributing favors, is not really needed? Then the whole system for ensuring loyalty and making collections changes.
We are seeing more examples of this as newcomers emerge from the margins to take out established candidates and as grassroots fundraising and social media upend the old pathways to power.
The security of established forms of power are not what they used to be. In Moises Naim’s brilliant book The End of Power, he describes the technological and civic forces leading to the devolution and decentralization of power and how those that seem to be in control are at greater risk than ever. It’s a great read.
Which leads me to the 2016 Senate race in Pennsylvania and candidate Joe Sestak. Sestak seems to be ignoring the Democratic establishment and running, much to their chagrin.
The Ed Rendell/David Cohen fundraising wing of the party never forgave Sestak for running against Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary, after they helped engineer Specter’s party switch. Party leaders thought Sestak should have kept his congressional seat. Waiting your turn is a big deal in political party systems; you put in your time on one level before jumping to the next.
I like Joe (full disclosure: I supported him in 2010), although I do not always agree with him, including on a few foreign policy issues. But mostly I love the way the guy runs for office. He just does it, without asking permission.
The incumbent Senator, Republican Pat Toomey, was elected in 2010, narrowly beating then-Congressman Sestak. Toomey won, but only by 80,000 votes in an election that featured a national Republican tsunami. Most observers thought Sestak did better than expected given the mid-term tidal wave.
The prospect of the November 2016 battle once again pitting Sestak against Toomey is driving many within the Democratic Party establishment haywire. So they keep looking for other candidates: first Josh Shapiro from Montgomery County (who declined), and now there are rumors of Katie McGinty, the Governor’s chief of staff.
Other names have been floated from the usual stack of familiar pols. The Mayor of Allentown jumped in but then jumped out again when the FBI raided Allentown City Hall; he apparently has other things to worry about at the moment.
What is the problem with Joe, you ask? Where’s the love? There seem to be three issues.
First, some in the party never forgave him for running against Arlen Specter in the 2010 primary; particularly the Ed Rendell/David Cohen fundraising wing of the party. They were close to Specter and helped engineer his switch from being a Republican to a Democrat, all with the idea that he stood a better chance of winning one more term as a D rather than an R.
In fact they were so upset when Sestak beat Specter that their support for Sestak in the general election was limited. Some in the Sestak camp thought they indirectly gave support to Toomey.
In 2010 Party leaders thought that Sestak should have kept his congressional seat (which was then lost to a Republican) and waited his turn. Waiting your turn is a big deal in political party systems; you put in your time on one level before jumping to the next place.
Bob Brady, the capo di tuttie capi of the Philly Dems, recently said he would back Katie McGinty 100 percent over Sestak, who he said did not have an honorable record with people like him. This is Philly ward leader code for “He did not do what I asked.”
Sestak was never that patient; nor was he all that politically compliant. A former three star admiral who served in the Clinton White House as the Director for Defense in the National Security Council, Sestak holds a PhD in political economy from Harvard. He had already paid dues in other ways.
Secondly, there are also Democrats who simply do not think he can win against Toomey. They do not think he can raise the money or inspire the base. They could be right, but I am not familiar with the data behind their logic.
I am particularly mystified by the idea that Katie McGinty would be a stronger candidate. She has never won an elected office before, and her statewide primary candidacy garnered about 65,000 votes. Not the stuff of electoral legends.
In contrast, Sestak garnered about 1.9 million votes in 2010 when he ran for Senate.
Yes, I know, I am comparing apples and oranges. If Katie were the lone Democratic candidate she would get a large statewide vote.
But the fact remains that she is largely an untested statewide candidate who would be running against a very strong Republican who can tack to the center when it is convenient. Sestak has had 1.9 million voters pull the lever for him once already.
Today Sestak is still the only Democratic candidate, and he is running hard. He just finished a 400-mile hike across the state. He is raising money and building a grassroots network.
Given the time it takes to get a Senate candidacy moving, the party has to get a new candidate sometime soon or they have to decide to place their fundraising and organizing muscle behind Sestak.
Finally, there are many who view Sestak as a little quirky and too independent. They are looking for someone a bit more loyal to the party, someone whose point of view they can predict. Joe’s perspectives are not always predictable.
Bob Brady, the capo di tuttie capi of the Philly Dems, keeps telling people that he is just not sure about Admiral Sestak. In fact he recently said he would back Katie McGinty 100 percent over Sestak whom he said did not have an honorable record with people like him. This is Philly ward leader code for “He did not do what I asked.”
Brady was quoted as saying that Sestak is “a little too free thinking.” A quote like that is one reason the fastest growing party in America is Independent. In a world where we can get instant information and have access to lots of opinions, who needs a political boss?
Sestak has a strong relationship with the Clintons, and Hillary is the presumptive 2016 presidential candidate. Some polls are starting to move in his direction, but it is early. Can he beat Toomey? It may depend once again on the national mood, which will get driven from the top of the presidential ballot.
The party might want to rethink its strategy. First because time is running out and there is little to be gained from a costly primary battle; and second because the state Dems have a few other things to deal with, like their statewide image and the current budget battle.
First consider the statewide image.
Former, state Treasurer Rob McCord pleaded guilty to extortion. McCord was an upcoming star who had one of the more spectacular falls in state politics.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane could be indicted based on a grand jury recommendation she be criminally prosecuted for illegally leaking information. She has declared that if she is charged, she will not step down. Watching this soap opera is painful.
Then there is the problem of the six Democratic politicians from Philly accused of illegally taking money in a sting operation, in a case that Kane would not prosecute. Thank heavens for local DA Seth Williams. A fellow Democrat, he stood down those that urged him to look the other way and has brought in several convictions.
And to top it all off, there may be something afoot in Allentown and Reading, as the FBI has just conducted raids on mayoral offices in those towns. It is far too early to know what is happening there.
This is not to mention a new indictment just brought in against former, and longtime, Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed for using public money for private purchases.
Then there is the budget. We do not have one and we are getting closer to the point where there will be real pain, based on a lack of state funding for a variety of services.
Some compromises are going to have to be made in order to align the agendas of the new Democratic Governor and the Republican legislature. Nobody is getting everything they want. The leadership test of a smart compromise is going to be a hard pill to swallow for some, particularly on pensions.
So party elders, here is the situation: Either learn to love Joe or make some other choice quickly. But the wrong choice could lead to a battle that may strengthen the Republican you want to defeat.
In either case, pay attention to the other issues in front of you, like the need to gain the trust of voters who are getting turned off by high profile disappointments, and the need to govern the State in partnership with people who think differently but have a significant legislative edge.