The Hicks Mural Room was packed this past Monday in anticipation of Congressman Joe Sestak’s visit to Swarthmore College, sponsored by the College Democrats. The Congressman was warm and personable, as he engaged students and members of the Swarthmore community in a town-hall setting. Environmental issues, such as clean energy and the fight against global warming, were key topics.
Sestak began with a five-minute discussion on what he had done in Congress thus far, and claimed that he would like to do more work with environmental issues. During the campaign, Sestak had run on what he called the four pillars of national security: economic secuirty, health security, education security, and defense security. “I missed one during the campaign.” Sestak admitted. “Environmental security should be a part of that, because it is integral to national security.”
Sestak discussed the ways in which he was pursuing those pillars, which included educational summits, meetings with environmental groups on watershed, and a planned summit on healthcare. On the latter issue, Sestak believes its necessary to have a bipartisan approach. “Republicans and Democrats must come together to create a plan. It will be imperfect, but it will be better than nothing.” he said.
One student asked whether the Congressman would support a recent bid by TXU, a Texas Coal company, to build 11 new “dirty” coal plants in Pennsylvania. Sestak responded that he would support it only if scrubbers were in place to make the coal “clean”. He felt the same way about nucleur power. “We can’t say yes to it unless we have a safe, comfortable place to deposit the waste.” Sestak believes that in the mean time, we should pursue alternative energy venues like solar power.
A member from the Swarthmore community wanted to know how unified the Democratic caucus was when it came to dealing with issues of environment. Sestak answered the question carefully, starting off with “My hat goes of to Speaker Pelosi. She’s a very strong leader. she works hard to resolve differences and that’s the mark of good leadership.” Sestak continued by referencing the divide among Democrats between progressives and the more moderate-to-conservative Blue Dogs who tend to be more pro-business. He acknowledged that there are Democrats who come from districts where, for example, the automobile industry is important. “It’s understandable that they are interested in keeping those jobs…I’m not saying that it makes them right, but it’s understandable.”
At the same time, Sestak believes that even the business sector has come to see global warming as an issue it needs to engage with. “Business is seeing this as a necessity. They’re also seeing this as this can be a win. Just like health, we’re moving to ‘Now is the time.’ The time has come to address these issues. What comes out might not be perfect, but it will stick. We need a strategic plan, and we need to get to it.”
Sestak also addressed issues regarding U.S. international relations. He believed that foreign aide was an important way to create goodwill among other nations, but that the “challenge we have is how much can we give? We’ve underfunded No Child Left Behind, we’ve cut money from Medicade, from NIH funding, and from supporting higher education. We can’t do it all, as much as I wish we could.” Sestak also believed that the use of extraordinary rendition deprived the U.S. of moral highground and damaged its reputation across the world. “The way we treat others doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll treat us equally- but we can a least turn to the world and say ‘Look, this is wrong, help us.’ We can’t say that if we’re practicing torture, too.”
Finally, Sestak responded to a student’s concern regarding his much-criticized appearance at the Council of American-Islamic Relations fundraised (CAIR). CAIR is a major, non-profit Muslim advocacy group that works to promote civil rights for American Muslim. It has been criticized because former leaders of C.A.I.R. have been alleged to have ties with terrorism. The group has also been criticized because it has not condemned Hamas and Hezbollah specifically by name, thought it does regularly condemn individual acts of terrorism.
Despite this, Sestak believed that it was important to engage the Muslim community in America. Though he said that he would not have attended the event if he had known it had been a fundraiser, he still stood by the comments that he made in his speech. “I told them, you do good work, but it’s inadequate. And according to your religion is it inadequate. Excellence is defined as beauty. To attain it, there must be justice. You must testify against kin or parents if they are in the wrong.”