John Fetterman Charts a New Path for Democrats

John Fetterman, a Easton, Pa. brewery owner, walks in with his arms stretched out like a wrestler. The state’s lieutenant governor—6 ft. 8 in., bald and goateed, wearing his trademark Carhartt sweatshirt and athletic shorts—doesn’t bother with his stump speech right away. He instead starts to work the crowd. He asks if they’re Eagles fans or Steelers fans; crows, “Shorts, 365!” to another year-round-shorts guy; kneels on the ground to accept a “lucky penny” from a little girl; and takes photos with arms so long he calls them “selfie sticks.”

Fetterman is the front runner in Pennsylvania’s May 17 Democratic Senate primary, a marquee race that could have been a microcosm of the split within the party. Conor Lamb, the U.S. representative, is a TV-friendly moderate and has become a star after winning a House seat from a conservative district. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Black progressive state senator from Philadelphia, is his opponent. Fetterman has a clear lead in the polls, and is favored for the nomination. He also enjoys a large cash advantage due to the support of small-dollar donors.

Fetterman explained his philosophy to me the day after his brewery visit. He served hot dogs and mustard with onions. He thinks the left-vs.-moderate divide that dominates Democratic strategy discussions is largely a Washington paradigm; that normal people don’t care as much about policy positions as much as political wonks think they do; and that Pennsylvania voters mostly want somebody who bothers to travel to the far reaches of the state to meet them. “I just show up,” he says, squeezed into a booth at Yocco’s Hot Dogs near Bethlehem. “And I just try to be me.” The voters he meets make their decisions based on a “visceral” feeling, he says, that “it’s someone they believe is a good person or gonna be honest at the end of the day.”

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Recent elections have seen Democrats focus on young and Black voters, while also winning suburbs. Fetterman is a rare Democrat that sees rural and white voters as a critical part of a winning coalition. Many GOP regions are magenta, not ruby red according to Fetterman. “We cannot afford to cede a county 80/20, like has been done in the past,” he tells the crowd in Easton. Trump was victorious in at least five of these counties during the second to last weekend.

Fetterman doesn’t expect the hardcore MAGA crowd to vote for him. “Some people think it’s about trying to go in and have some mass conversion by laying hands on Republicans,” he says. “That’s not gonna happen.” But “there are plenty of people in Pennsylvania that are open to the argument,” he adds. “And if you don’t make it, then you can’t blame them.”

It took just a few hoursAfter our hot dog lunch Fetterman walks into Bethlehem’s United Steelworkers union. One leaky ceiling pipe dripping into a trash can. In the distance, the old Bethlehem Steel mill looms over the town like an abandoned cathedral; it’s now a music venue adjacent to a casino. “We need to keep making sh-t in this country,” Fetterman says, vowing to protect what he calls the “union way of life.” As United Steelworkers Local 2599 president Jerry Green put it: “He’s one of us.”

When I mention to Fetterman that he doesn’t look like a typical politician, he makes a tremendous effort not to roll his eyes. “I am a conventionally unattractive person. This is how I dress, and that’s all I have to say about it,” he says. “If I wear a suit, I get sh-t; if I wear shorts, I get sh-t.”

Fetterman, 52, was born to teen parents and grew up in York, Pa. His father worked a union job at a grocery before becoming successful in the insurance industry; both of Fetterman’s parents are conservative Republicans. When he was about to go into insurance, his father died in an accident while bringing him home. Fetterman began volunteering with the Boys & Girls Club. After joining AmeriCorps Pittsburgh, Fetterman earned a Harvard Kennedy degree and began to teach GED classes in Braddock (a town in Western Pennsylvania that was devastated by the loss local steel jobs).

Two of his students were killed in a gun attack, and Fetterman was elected mayor of Braddock. For the next 13 years, he worked to revitalize a town once known as the “murder capital” of the region, implementing youth anti-violence programs that helped it go five years without a homicide. The dates of every murder in Braddock that happened on his watch are tattooed on Fetterman’s right forearm.

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One incident from Braddock threatened to overshadow Fetterman’s campaign. Fetterman, a father of a young boy, thought he heard gunshots while out with his child. A man ran from the scene. The man was chased down by Fetterman in his truck. He then detained the suspect with a shotgun, until police arrived. He turned out to have been an unarmed Black jogger. Fetterman is being criticized for suggesting that it was a racist incident and demanded an apology from them. Fetterman claims he didn’t aim his gun at him and that Braddock, a majority Black, re-elected Fetterman to two additional terms. Fetterman also speaks out about his track record in clemency. As the state’s lieutenant governor since 2019, Fetterman has revitalized the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, eliminating application fees and presided over a seven-fold rise in recommended commutations of life sentences.

Fetterman was a 2016 supporter of Bernie Sanders, but he is now avoiding most progressive litmus testing. He is most concerned about raising the minimum wage, legalizing pot, and nuking filibuster in order to assist Biden. He’s not a purist on Medicare for All (he’s for “expanding health care access, whatever that looks like”) and he isn’t pushing the Green New Deal. He told the steelworkers he was “pro-policing, pro–community policing, pro–funding the police,” and called the activist cry to “defund the police” an “absurd phrase.” He once called fracking an “environmental abomination,” but now says the industry has reformed enough that he sees the practice as crucial to energy security.

Fetterman isn’t running as a progressive crusader or policy wonk. He’s running to be the Democrats’ 51st vote in the Senate. He has the support of his supporters to get it done. “They have their own tough guy in Donald Trump,” says George Bonser, a retired steelworker. “He’s gonna be our blue-collar tough guy.” —Reporting by Julia Zorthian

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