Stepping up: Joe Sestak starts congressional race with a walk down State Road

James Boyle, for the Wire

JAMES BOYLE / WIRE PHOTO Joe Sestak walks with a group of reporters and staffers down busy State Road in Bensalem on Friday.  The 26-mile walk through Lower Bucks County was the second event in a weekend-long kickoff to Sestaks' campaign to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate.

The setting hardly matched what he faced during his 31 years in the United States Navy, but Joe Sestak’s morning walk with a group of reporters and staffers down busy State Road in Bensalem against oncoming traffic on a brisk Friday had its moments.

Unfazed by some honking horns and snow kicked up by passing vehicles, Sestak did not waste the opportunity to touch on issues such as elder abuse, domestic violence and government transparency.

“We need to restore trust in our government officials,” said Sestak. “Congressional approval ratings are at 8 percent, and that’s because the people no longer trust their representatives.”

The 26-mile walk through Lower Bucks County into Montgomery County was the second event in a weekend-long kickoff to Sestak’s campaign to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is up for re-election in 2016, and Sestak has his sights set squarely at the incumbent.

“Senator Toomey has spent his time in office telling Pennsylvanians one thing, then going down to Washington to do the opposite,” said Sestak. “Whether it’s elder abuse, health care for veterans or domestic violence, he says he cares about those issues, then votes against funding that would help solve those problems.”

Sestak is the first Democrat to announce his candidacy for the 2016 election, setting up a rematch for the seat he lost to Toomey in the 2010 general election.

Starting his Friday walk at Neshaminy State Park, Sestak described himself as an independent in the Democratic Party, a status that allowed him to defeat longtime Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 primary.

Mark Harris, a top strategist for Sen. Toomey’s re-election campaign, responded to Sestak’s statements by criticizing him as a career politician who has been obsessed with the Senate seat since the 2010 loss.

“Joe Sestak has been running for this office for six straight years, so nothing changed today. While former Congressman Sestak remains obsessed with his personal ambition for higher political office, Senator Toomey will continue to keep his focus on ensuring Pennsylvanians’ safety and security, and promoting fiscal responsibility in Washington,” said Harris in an emailed statement.

The latest Quinnipiac University numbers have Sestak at a disadvantage to Toomey, trailing 43 to 25 percent in a Feb. 10 poll. However, that same poll says 64 percent of respondents do not know enough about Sestak to form an opinion.

Plenty of time still exists for Sestak to change minds, but there is also time for more Democratic candidates to enter, including rumored possibilities such as Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.

Sestak officially launched his 2016 campaign Thursday morning across the street from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. After the announcement, he began the first steps of a planned 422-mile walk across the state, pledging to spend time in the shoes of Pennsylvanians overcoming hardships.

Saturday, Sestak met business owners in Norristown, and on Sunday he shook hands with senior citizens in Havertown.

After retiring from the Navy as a three-star admiral, Sestak represented Pennsylvania’s 7th district in Delaware County from 2007 to 2011. During that time, Sestak said, he witnessed firsthand the importance of staying open and transparent to the people he represented.

“We kept our offices open seven days a week, rotating more than 40 interns to keep it staffed,” said Sestak. “We held town halls and open meetings and did more to solve my constituents’ problems than any other representative.”