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Who is Joe Sestak? A bio of the Democratic presidential candidate
Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson June 28, 2019


Editor's note: This story is part of PolitiFact’s ongoing coverage of the 2020 campaign; these reports will be updated as the campaign continues. For more candidate profiles and fact-checking, go to

Joe Sestak spent 31 years in the Navy, retiring as an admiral. He then ousted a Republican U.S. House incumbent from Pennsylvania. But after winning re-election once, Sestak twice failed in U.S. Senate bids, in 2010 and 2016. In late June 2019, Sestak joined roughly two dozen other Democrats running for president.

Sestak has said that his daughter Alex’s battle against brain cancer focused his attention on health care and nudged him into politics. 

Sestak graduated from the Naval Academy and earned two advanced degrees from Harvard. 

He served as director for defense policy on the National Security Council; as the first director of "Deep Blue," the Navy’s anti-terrorism think tank; and as commander of the 30-ship George Washington Aircraft Carrier Battle Group in the Afghanistan theater. 

In Congress, Sestak was a prominent voice on military matters and was also active on veterans affairs, autism, education, and small business issues.

In the 2010 election cycle, Sestak -- against the wishes of most party leaders -- mounted a primary challenge to long-serving Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who had recently switched his party from Republican to Democratic. 

An underdog, Sestak defeated Specter, but he lost the general election to then-Rep. Pat Toomey, 51%-49%. Six years later, he ran for the Democratic nomination to face Toomey but lost in the primary.

Legistorm, a congressional staff data source, found that more than twice as many staffers had cycled through Sestak’s office as worked for House members from Pennsylvania who had been elected in the same year. 

In 2007, one staffer wrote that his aides were "expected to work seven days a week, including holidays, often 14 hours each day, going for months without a day off." Sestak acknowledged that his office was "pretty demanding."


Name: Joe Sestak

Current occupation: Retired admiral; former U.S. House Member, 7th DIstrict of Pennsylvania

Party: Democratic Party

Federal offices: U.S. House, 2007-2011; director for defense policy at the National Security Council, 1994-1997.

Key votes: Raise minimum wage (yes), strengthen auto emissions standards (yes), employment non-discrimination (yes), repeal gun restrictions in Washington, D.C. (no).

State and local offices: None

Private sector work: Taught at Cheyney University and Carnegie Mellon University and held a joint faculty appointment between the U.S. Army War College, Dickinson College, and Penn State University.  

Military: U.S. Navy 1974-2005, including deployments to Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Books authored: "Walking in Your Shoes to Restore the American Dream" (2015)

Education: U.S. Naval Academy, B.S.; Harvard University, M.P.A. and Ph.D.

Birth date: Dec. 12, 1951

Personal life: Susan (wife); one daughter, Alex

Religion: Catholic

Top issues: Improve infrastructure; public option for health care; expand early childhood education; repair ties to allies; rejoin Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear agreement.

Major donors: No data is available for his presidential run. In his two U.S. House campaigns, his top three categories of donors were lawyers, retired individuals, and people in the securities industry.

Miscellaneous: By joining the Navy, Sestak followed in the footsteps of his father, a World War II captain. 

Other coverage: PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter; RealClearPolitics, "Sestak: Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead?" June 9, 2009; New York Times, "Joe Sestak, Ex-Pennsylvania Congressman, Becomes 24th Democratic Candidate for 2020," June 23, 2019; New York magazine, "Just What the Democratic Primary Needed: A 25th Candidate," Jun 24, 2019.

Campaign website:

This report will be updated as the campaign continues.

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Who is Joe Sestak? A bio of the Democratic presidential candidate