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Retired Navy rear admiral Joe Sestak is the highest-ranking former military officer serving in Congress as well as one of the loudest advocates on Capitol Hill for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." A vocal member of the House Committee on Armed Services, the Pennsylvania politician is also a cosponsor on the House's Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which if passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by the president would end DADT.
But Sestak knows it'll be a long, bumpy road to a congressional repeal -- he wants DADT dismissals stopped immediately and has publicly criticized the plan of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which calls for a one-year study on how to implement the repeal of DADT. Amidst all this, Sestak is running for the Democratic senatorial primary in Pennsylvania, sparring with current Senator Arlen Specter --who switched from Republican to Democrat last year -- for the nomination. Sestak spoke with us about not only DADT and Specter but John McCain, health care, and the mind-set of teenage soldiers.
The Advocate: You criticized Robert Gates's plan for the repeal of DADT. Why?
Joe Sestak: We don't need a whole year to study how to implement something. There's two primary reasons for that -- we have lots of lessons on integration, whether it was African-Americans or women in the military. We know how to do this. Number 2, the chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff had said we're asking people to lie. It has to do with principle. We are able to turn on a dime in the military on an issue that has to do with being able to better maintain a plane or something that requires a better organization among different disparate sections of the U.S. military. We should be able to turn around even more quickly [on DADT]. This is the right thing to do.
It's very questionable as to why the one-year study is necessary. If it is necessary for some reason, then why don't we just have the president of the United States issue an executive order under the stop-loss provision so we're not kicking out individuals who, within a year, or approximately a year, will be staying in the military anyway. Again the [military's] answer was really incomplete -- Gates's attorneys and the Justice Department don't think its legal. But it's not his assessment to make, that's the White House's to make. At least we should [stop the dismissals] if we're not able to implement [the repeal] fully within a year or more rapidly than a year.
How much can "don't ask, don't tell" be neutered without a congressional repeal?
I think you need a congressional appeal ultimately. I would love to see them do it rapidly. For one, "don't ask, don't tell" is a law; it needs to be changed. Number 2, we should have the whole body of Congress speak with a voice to overturn this. The next point is, the way I understand this is going to be done is there's going to be a 45-day study to see how to mitigate some of the problems that happen with "don't ask, don't tell' so individuals aren't unduly processed. But [Gates] didn't say stop them from being processed. [He said] we're going to study how to implement the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Ultimately Congress is going to have to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," so let's get that done. And I don't see any reason as to why the military can't, in two to three months, be ready to implement it. Does that answer your question?
I was wondering, before the actual repeal happens, how much the military is limited in terms of how many dismissals they can prevent.
I think before it's passed you can probably under stop-loss make a legitimate argument that we are losing good soldiers, good service members that are needed in wartime, and that [President Obama's] executive authority permits him to [stop their dismissals].
Again, you have to have a lawyer look at that, but that's a Justice Department decision, not a Pentagon decision. I think you could make a good argument that Obama could issue an executive order and stop-loss, and it would prevent anyone [from being dismissed]. I don't see any reason why the House and the Senate, if people had more courage, can't act upon this and get it done and in about two to three months have it implemented.
What is the status of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act?
It's been assigned to the House Armed Services Committee, of which the personnel subcommittee has jurisdiction over it. This act was reintroduced this year and it had been under [retired California representative] Ellen Tauscher the first two years. I was original cosponsor of it both times. We'll probably have a series of hearings at the subcommittee level, at the house armed services committee. My understanding is the head of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton [of Missouri], is not supportive of the repeal. That may make it more challenging, but I believe when the defense authorization bill comes through it will have the budget submitted with some policy changes, including some language from the Pentagon about "don't ask, don't tell." If there is insufficient language about it, an amendment, which would be inserted in the bill, goes to the Armed Services Committee. I believe that amendment would be that bill that I'm an original cosponsor of. The issue is when will the Armed Services Committee take it up. That hasn't been addressed yet, and the chairman, as far as I understand, is not supportive of the repeal.
When will the defense reauthorization bill be something you deal with on the committee?
We would start having hearings on various portions of it probably at the end of February time frame.
So pretty soon.
Correct. So February, March, even into April, we would be discussing it, then there would come what's called the mark-up of the bill, which would be the April-May time frame if we were voting on it to get it out of the House. I would say based upon past history, it will be the May-June time frame to get it to the Senate.
Do you think a bill similar to the readiness enhancement act is going to be introduced in the Senate any time soon?
I don't know, I'm surprised it hasn't [reports indicate independent senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut will introduce a bill shortly]. I still don't understand why this is such an issue. There are 5,000 sailors on an aircraft carrier. The average age is 19 and a half -- this isn't an issue for them, serving alongside sailors who are gay. On the whole it just isn't an issue; you can discipline the few that believe it is an issue -- they just have to understand that everyone is created equal. So I don't know about the Senate. Once it's over there, if it hasn't gotten through, I intend to submit it and push it through [if he's elected to the Senate].
Why do you think it is an issue for people like Sen. John McCain, who oppose the repeal? Are certain people trying to placate their constituencies? Considering most Americans don't support DADT, that seems an odd rationale.
What the polls show, I've never even thought about. For me, this is an equality issue, so I don't look at polls.
Looking at the general American public, most Americans don't support "don't ask, don't tell."
With regards specifically to Senator McCain, I have great respect for him. What he did as a prisoner of war -- I'm a fellow naval officer -- I'm not sure I could have done. I have great respect for him. But I disagree strongly with him on this issue.
Several years ago he said if the military felt they should change it, he would support it. So I'm not sure why he says he doesn't support it. I don't believe that on the whole Senator McCain is an individual who is swayed by polls either. I may disagree with him, but I think he's a man of integrity. That said, I don't understand why he's opposed to it. Unless it's generational. He's not of the same generation as young sailors out there; older generations tend to have this different template by which they look at those who are gay.
But I just don't know if that's it. On the whole there are others I don't understand why they don't stand for what's obviously a principle of equality on this. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staffs have said this is not an issue. For some, it's a matter of courage in front of constituencies and others. But I can't say that for Senator McCain, because I think he has stood for what he believes in; he has taken some tough positions on issues like immigration. I just totally disagree with him on this issue.
opinion on Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen? Do you
believe he always disagreed with DADT, or was swayed by President Obama?
I don't know. If it hadn't been for the president, would he come to this position? I don't know.
I think a lot of people were stunned by how strong he was at the committee and how personal his statement was regarding repealing DADT. Has your opinion on the matter changed?
First off, if it wasn't for this president, I don't think we would have seen what happened [with the military leadership pushing for the repeal]. I think this president has a lot to do with what's occurring in the Defense Department. He should; he's the commander in chief.
I was a one-star select rear admiral, and a two-star admiral asked I what I thought about [DADT]. I said this is unconstitutional and that I believe the Supreme Court in a couple of months will rule this is unconstitutional. I said it to the senior officer I was working for at the time. I always felt this was a wrong policy. You enforce it because you're in the military, and you follow the orders that they give you. I still think it's unconstitutional. That's how I felt then; that's how I felt today.
When you were in the Navy, you must have known gay sailors. What were your experiences?
Some of them would come up -- and this was even before "don't ask, don't tell" -- and start to say, "Captain, I need to tell you ... " And all that would go through my mind was, Oh, gosh, I just hope you don't say it. I don't want to lose you because you're so good. It was a loss when someone would say they were gay. You would lose them. That's all I thought about.
The state Democratic committee in Pennsylvania recently endorsed Arlen Specter for the Senate. Does this affect your senatorial plans?
Not at all. Look, the Washington establishment, the Democratic Party made a deal to get us a 60th vote [in the Senate], which has got us nothing. The insiders of the [nominating] convention didn't even show up and had to send proxies. They have long-term insider obligations to close on that deal [to endorse Specter]. This was nothing but bad. It was never part of a plan or strategy to have an impact there. Many of them said on the floor, "I'm obligated to do this, Joe, but I'm for you."
This wasn't anything that had to do with our plan, except [giving us the opportunity] to let them know that Arlen Specter had voted almost nine out of 10 times with President Bush's policies that have savaged us in this recession and let Wall Street gamble with our savings. That's why 60% in every poll I've seen says Arlen Specter should not be reelected.
I just wanted to make sure they had an alternative to that -- someone who would stand on principle over politics and push real policies that would help the working family. I just wanted to carry that message there because with 55% undecided, I just have to have the name recognition. They are looking for someone who doesn't place politics first as Arlen Specter did in switching jobs because he couldn't win in the Republican primary, so he ran away. He ran away from Pat Toomey [the Republican front-runner in the Republican senatorial primary]; we can't afford to have Arlen Specter run against Toomey because he'll lose. We need a real Democrat down there. But it's not just a Democrat, it's not just another vote, it's who is that Democrat that's fighting -- is it someone of principle?
The people of Massachusetts said, "A pox on both your houses, both Democrat and Republican [with the election of Republican senator Scott Brown]." Voters want people who are in it for principle and willing to lose their job over what's right, not have a senator like Ben Nelson [D-Nebraska] who will give his vote for a special interest deal, and not an Arlen Specter that will leave a party to give 2,000 votes to George Bush when Bush couldn't win. When [Pennsylvania] governor [Edward] Rendell was running for governor, he didn't even bother to go to the state committee and still won against Bob Casey and was 26 points down. [The endorsement of Specter] was just another insider deal. Particularly when 180 people don't show up at proxies.
Is there anxiety among Democrats regarding the November midterm election?
I think they should be very anxious, not afraid, but anxious in terms of looking upon themselves saying, "We were given an opportunity to lead -- have we?" No, I don't think the Democratic leadership has. I think the type of deal-making that's gone on throughout this health care process epitomizes why voters are so disappointed in politicians who should be public servants. They weren't opposed to the health care bill; they were opposed because it wasn't explained. All they saw were hints and glimpses of deals like what was going on, like with Ben Nelson. The Louisiana senator or the Florida senator -- they gave their vote almost as not quite a distortion, but "you can have my vote if I get this." That's why they kept people in the dark. I've done a good job of explaining, like a good captain of a ship does: "Here's what we're doing, what's your concern?" The crew is not always going to agree, but you lay it out very clearly. I don't think the Democrats earned that mantle of leadership during that time. There was no mandate given to Democratic leadership; they were given an opportunity to lead. An opportunity to lead means keeping people informed, explaining, and standing up for what's right. I think the fact that a lot of that wasn't done and some were in the echo chamber amongst themselves rather than out in their districts fighting and explaining it [hurt it]. Democrats have to decide whether they deserve leadership, not by backing away all of a sudden but by doing it the right way.
Do you think the repeal of DADT could be threatened should the Democrats lose their majorities in either the House or the Senate in the November midterm election?
It's interesting, because I don't think there are many Republican co-ponsors of the bill. I would say it would be quite a bit more challenging. It's challenging right now with not having enough Democrats to get it through the House Armed Services Committee! Yeah, I think it would make it more challenging, and that's the issue.
When they voted the Democrats in last year, they weren't voting for Democrats. They were voting to say the Republican philosophy of the last eight years failed. We're giving you all an opportunity to do it right. Well, you know what, that takes real leadership and not just the opportunity to not just jam things down, but to be riveting and coming back to the districts and explaining and pushing and making sure the process involved the electorate. They lost that leadership. I think too many of them thought they could go down there and close deals with special interests. It wasn't just the health care bill. They have the same health care plan in Massachusetts as we have in the House [and they still voted a Republican into the Senate seat formerly held by Edward Kennedy]. Frankly, that's why I'm running. I'd like to be part of a Senate and House of Representatives where principle matters over politics.
Do you think a congressional repeal of DADT could happen by November?
I'm a little apprehensive at times of how courageous people will be. It's a tough environment. I think when it's tough you need true leaders to stand up. It doesn't have anything to do with our ideals. It's the right thing to do. How can you go to war with a certain percentage of individuals [fighting] and say they don't deserve equal rights for having served this nation? I think it should go through, but it is a tough environment. Having spoken to the commander in chief and having spoken to the Pentagon, they say they're going to be supportive even though it's going to take a year to study. I think you're going to see it happen. But Congress should act on it before November with the House Armed Services Committee bill, and I'm going to be fighting for it.