Is Joe Sestak Too Difficult To Work For - And Why Should Anyone Care?

Interesting story in the L.A. Times about Joe Sestak's campaign to win the Democratic nomination for Senate in Pennsylvania. Looks like the campaign

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Interesting story in the L.A. Times about Joe Sestak's campaign to win the Democratic nomination for Senate in Pennsylvania. Looks like the campaign is inoculating themselves about the single biggest negative about Sestak - the nagging rumor that he's impossible to work for:

Sestak is, at times to the chagrin of his staff, unfailingly accommodating -- to the media, to lobbyists and to constituents. He boasts that his aides handled 10,000 constituent cases in his first two years in office.

Not everyone he hires can stand it. Sestak lost staff at a staggering rate during his first two years in office. He went through nearly half a dozen press secretaries alone in the first year. Chiefs of staff came and went almost as fast.

He asks aides to work six days a week, 12-plus hours a day. Staff salaries are among the lowest on Capitol Hill, according to congressional records. No one in Pennsylvania's 19-member congressional delegation had a smaller payroll than Sestak in the 18-month period that ended June 30, records show, while only two members had larger staffs.

Chief of Staff Bibiana Boerio, who took over in February 2008, said that the office likes to hire recent college graduates in part because of the energy they bring to the job. She said they are paid in line with their experience.

Job applicants are given six reading and research assignments before their interviews. Among them is a review of a book by entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki, who espouses the belief that success comes in 80-hour work weeks.

"I try to let them know what the expectations are," Sestak said. "We don't try to measure ourselves by other offices."

The money Sestak saves on staff salaries is in part devoted to constituent mailings and brochures highlighting his positions on issues. Sestak last year spent more on mail than anyone in the delegation.

His reputation as a demanding boss predates his time in Congress. He was relieved as a deputy chief of naval operations in 2005 for what Navy sources called "poor command climate," an assessment Sestak disputes. He retired six months later. He said his departure had to do with Pentagon politics. His job at the end of his career involved providing an "alternative analysis" about the Navy's infrastructure, and he'd recommended a leaner operation, which he said had upset others at the top.

Those who stick around Sestak's congressional and district offices quickly learn that he likes employees who embrace his work ethic, immersing themselves completely in their jobs, mastering the details of legislation and following up with everyone who writes or calls the office or meets with the lawmaker. The reward is a quicker-than-usual path up the organizational ladder.

"He wanted us to dig deep in the substance of the issues," recalled Clarence Tong, 27, who spent 19 months in Sestak's office before leaving to get his master's degree in public policy. "While he expects a lot, he gave me every opportunity to learn."

The workaholic image is one Sestak is eager to portray, particularly in a contest against Specter, whose reputation as a tireless lawmaker is legendary on Capitol Hill.

"He is trying to make that point that he won't be out-hustled, he won't be outworked," said Franklin & Marshall College political science professor G. Terry Madonna. "He is going at Specter's historic strength by making it an endurance test."

When Philadelphia-area bloggers get together, this is a not uncommon topic: Is Sestak too difficult to work for? I can confirm he's cheap, and it certainly predates constituent service (I applied for the position of press secretary when he was running against Curt Weldon and they wanted me - an experienced journalist and campaign spokesperson, someone who was more familiar with his opponent than he was - to work for free.) I don't know about you, but I believe paying people well for their work is a progressive value.

It's a legitimate question since, as Howard Dean pointed out, the Senate is a gentlemen's club and your effectiveness is closely tied to your ability to build relationships. Can you sustain personal relationships with other Senators when you can't maintain them with your own staff?

Keep in mind that no one on the Hill works 40-hour weeks. These are not slackers, and compared to most people, they're off-the-charts workaholics. They're driven people who have chosen a political career and know they have to work damned hard to get there. Even in that workaholic culture, Sestak's developing a reputation.

And it's not just relationships. The most experienced Hill staffers have an enormous amount of institutional knowledge. If you're a Member who's constantly churning staff, and you get a reputation that makes the best people reluctant to work for you, how effective are you going to be?

I've asked Joe about this and he turns the question aside quickly with statistics about his constituent service and "high standards." His response reminds me one of something you'd say during a job interview: "Well, Fred, I'd say my weakest point is that I'm often impatient when coworkers don't meet my exceptionally high standards, and I really need to accept that not everyone cares about their job as much as I do." Uh huh.

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