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Personalities of Pa. candidates take center stage in tightening U.S. Senate race

Tom Fontaine
| Saturday, April 16, 2016, 11:10 p.m.
Democratic Senate candidates (from left) Joe Sestak, Katie McGinty and John Fetterman are running for their party's nomination in the April 26, 2016, primary. The winner of the contest will try to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in the fall election.
Democratic Senate candidates (from left) Joe Sestak, Katie McGinty and John Fetterman are running for their party's nomination in the April 26, 2016, primary. The winner of the contest will try to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in the fall election.

The race for the Democratic nomination to take on U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in November has intensified, with the three candidates largely turning from attacking the Lehigh Valley Republican to hammering each other.

Former Navy admiral and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who lost to Toomey in 2010, has maintained the upper hand in polls against Pennsylvania's former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.

McGinty has narrowed the gap at the top of the race in recent weeks with the help of an aggressive advertising blitz and endorsements from nearly two dozen labor unions and more than 50 elected officials, including President Obama. She has raised more than $1.8 million this year, about three times more than Sestak, and been supported by millions of dollars from outside groups, reports show.

The primary is April 26.

“I'm proud to have so many people standing with me. They recognize that I've been out there fighting for people. The momentum has decidedly moved in our direction,” said McGinty, 52, of Chester County.

From his position at the bottom of the three-way race, Fetterman doesn't like what he sees.

“If McGinty prevails, it will only be because of a geyser of money and outside influence. It would be another sad day for America,” said Fetterman, 46.

“Money has been the only barrier we've had. When people see us in debates or meet us in person, they say, ‘Hey, I love this guy.' If I come up short in this race, it's sad because it's only about money,” said Fetterman, who entered the race in September.

Sestak, 64, did not talk with the Tribune-Review.

“This campaign is about personalities and style. On 100 issues in the Senate, these candidates would probably vote the same way on 98 of them. I don't think the issues are as defining as who these candidates are,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Politics and Public Affairs.

Sestak grew up in Delaware County and attended the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated second in his class. He earned a doctorate from Harvard. Sestak spent 31 years in the Navy and retired as a two-star admiral. Sestak has said he retired in 2005 to help care for his daughter, who was diagnosed with cancer and recovered, and that the experience drove him to run for Congress because he saw that many Americans didn't have access to high quality health care.

Sestak made enemies within his party when he refused to drop out of the Democrats' 2010 Senate race. His opponent, party-switching U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, had been endorsed by Obama and other party leaders. Sestak beat Specter, then lost to Toomey by 2 percentage points. Since then, Sestak has been a regular at political forums, fundraisers and other events — prompting many to say that he hasn't stopped campaigning for the Senate seat.

“Anywhere five Democrats would meet, he'd be there. He's probably worn out 20 pairs of shoes campaigning,” Madonna said. “No matter what you think about Joe Sestak, no one can question his effort. He's indefatigable, he's relentless, he's tireless.”

McGinty grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, the ninth of 10 children. Her father was a Philadelphia police sergeant, her mother a homemaker who worked as a restaurant hostess at night. McGinty earned a chemistry degree from St. Joseph's University and a law degree from Columbia. In addition to being the state's environmental chief under former Gov. Ed Rendell, she served as an environmental policy adviser to then-U.S. Sen. Al Gore and former President Bill Clinton and as Gov. Tom Wolf's chief of staff for about a half-year. She resigned to run for Senate.

Outside government, McGinty's resume includes stints as an executive at an environmental management company with federal, state and local governments among its clients; a partner at a clean-technology investment firm; and a board member for two energy companies.

Opponents have criticized McGinty for using the “revolving door” between regulatory and legislative roles in government and lucrative positions with companies that deal directly with government. They've also branded her the race's establishment candidate — a derogatory term in an election year when millions of primary voters have turned against more traditional, mainstream candidates with ties to Washington. But anti-establishment sentiment isn't nearly as strong among Democrats as it is Republicans, which could work in McGinty's favor, Madonna said.

“People have a reason to be angry. Washington hasn't been working hard enough for hard-working families,” McGinty said. “The middle class has been squeezed to near disappearance, and people are fed up that no one has been their champion. I have a career of being in the arena and fighting to create good jobs.”

Sestak and Fetterman are viewed as anti-establishment candidates — Sestak for his decision to ignore party leaders who urged him to drop out of the 2010 race, and Fetterman, in part, because he doesn't look like a candidate for office. He is 6 feet 8 inches tall, bald with a goatee, tattooed and seen routinely wearing a black work shirt and jeans or shorts. He grew up in a middle-class home in York, where his father ran an insurance agency. He played football at Albright College in Reading, earned an MBA from the University of Connecticut, then started selling insurance.

He re-evaluated his life after a friend died in a car crash.

Fetterman worked with Big Brothers & Big Sisters and AmeriCorps. After earning a master's from Harvard, his work with AmeriCorps brought him to Braddock, a financially distressed community in the Mon Valley that was plagued by poverty, violence and drug problems after the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s and '80s. He became the town's mayor a decade ago and, along with his wife, helped breathe life into it through an array of innovative programs and by attracting others to get involved in rebuilding the community.

“Government is not working for too many people. Look at (financially challenged) towns across Western Pennsylvania: Monessen, McKeesport, Aliquippa, Sharon, Greenville. I understand the challenges they face. I would be their champion in the Senate,” Fetterman said.

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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