Can this offbeat tattooed Democrat flip a Pennsylvania Senate seat?

John Fetterman, a proponent of marijuana legalization and sentencing reform, is the frontrunner in his party’s primary

John Fetterman isn’t like most politicians, and not just because of his tattoos, his goatee, his 6ft 8in frame and his penchant for sweatsuits.

What really sets the frontrunner in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary apart is his demeanor. Fetterman is a bit awkward, the opposite of the stereotypical smooth-talking politician. He tends to stumble through debates, and in personal interactions he doesn’t always hold eye contact. On the campaign trail, it sometimes looks as though he just doesn’t want to be here. And maybe that’s part of the secret to his success.

“It’s hard to brand him as a politician,” says Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies grassroots politics, “because he literally shows up in shorts everywhere, year-round – with such commitment that it’s not a gimmick.”

Fetterman at a campaign event in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Fetterman at a campaign event in Easton, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Hannah Beier/Reuters

Now this least slick of politicians is poised to win the most heavily contested elections in America, and to test the strength of Democrats under Joe Biden in a crucial race. Pennsylvania is the swingiest of swing states, and, not incidentally, its Senate race this year will be the most expensive in the nation. It presents the Democratic party’s best chances to flip a seat away from Republican control, and could even decide the fate of the Democratic majority in the Senate.

Yet Fetterman’s ideology is hard to peg. He’s an enthusiastic union supporter who says he would vote for Medicare for all, but does not support scrapping the electoral college or defunding the police. He’s a longtime proponent of legalizing marijuana, but he also cares passionately about the minutiae of prison policy. When asked about the precise targeting of a wealth tax proposal, he shrugged and said, “You know it when you see it.”

“He doesn’t come across as a generic Democrat, in ways that may benefit him electorally and compensate for him not being a telegenic, charismatic gladhander,” says Putnam.

In fact, Fetterman’s ability to find strength in not being a predictable politician reminds some observers of another successful outsider.

“Donald Trump does things a lot of people find counterintuitive, but his finger is on the pulse of the Republican base,” says public affairs consultant and state political insider Larry Ceisler. “Maybe Fetterman has that ability.”

Pennsylvania initially seemed tailor-made for a different candidate: Connor Lamb. A clean-cut former marine and congressman with a record of winning tough races in Trump-friendly areas, he seemed like the perfect man for the race. Instead, Lamb badly lags Fetterman in every poll and has raised only a third of the money.

That’s not to say that Lamb and state representative Malcolm Kenyatta, the other competitive player in the primary, aren’t trying. In two bruising televised debates, they have jabbed at the frontrunner, probing his weak spots. Lamb claims Fetterman is too progressive for the state; Kenyatta attacks from the left. Fetterman simply stares forward and repeats his talking points.

“This is 2022, you don’t have to be great on the debate stage. Maybe you don’t even have to be on the debate stage at all,” says Ceisler.

From affluent childhood to steel-town mayor

Fetterman hails from York county, one of the most heavily Republican corners of Pennsylvania. His family was well-off – his father is an insurance executive – and quite conservative. According to his college roommate and football teammate, Fetterman was a conservative too.

But as a volunteer with Big Brothers, Big Sisters he was exposed to an America far beyond the exurban gentry class. Instead of going into business, he attended Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government and got a job teaching in a GED program in the deeply depressed steel town of Braddock, a mostly Black community where from a peak of 21,000 the population has fallen to less than 2,000.

His students persuaded him to run for mayor, and he won the 2005 election by one vote. Soon his gigantic stature and casually grizzled style attracted media attention – Levi’s even featured him in a series of advertisements set in Braddock, in exchange for a new playground and a $1m community center.

“He was known as someone who was trying to advocate for a really hard-hit community and bring new jobs and opportunities to that region and to that city,” says Putnam. Although he couldn’t stop the population loss, a handful of new businesses opened in town, and he parlayed his civic fame to attract corporate donations.

Above all, in a town scarred by violence, he says his greatest accomplishment is a stretch of five and a half years with no gun deaths. He championed community policing tactics and has never embraced the more aggressive leftwing critiques of law enforcement.

“I’m the only Democrat or Republican [in the race] that’s actually been in charge of a police department,” he boasted at one debate. “I fought to increase their wages, I fought to shore up their benefits, and I fought to increase budgets consistently every year.”

Gun violence is also at the root of the most uncomfortable criticisms of Fetterman. In the winter of 2013, he heard a burst of gunfire in his neighborhood and saw a man running in a ski mask and dark clothing. Fetterman grabbed a shotgun and drove his pickup truck in pursuit. He apprehended the man, who turned out to be an innocent Black jogger, until the police arrived.

The story raised eyebrows, and in the Black Lives Matter era looks even worse. Fetterman says he never aimed the shotgun at the jogger and that he didn’t know the man was Black. (The runner, who is incarcerated for unrelated reasons, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Fetterman is lying but that he should be elected to the Senate anyway.)

“For somebody who has cut an image as an incredibly tough guy, you’re so afraid of two little words: I’m sorry,” said Kenyatta, who is Black, at one of the debates.

Fetterman noted that he won re-election in Braddock twice more after the incident, and Ceisler says polling found that the story did not hurt Fetterman’s standing among canvassed Black voters.

“If they were counting on that story about the gun and the African American working against him, I don’t see it,” says Maurice Floyd, a Black political consultant in Philadelphia. “He’s got a lead like that and, what, you think there aren’t any African Americans in those polls?”

Fetterman’s case for facing the Republicans in November is rooted in his non-Braddock campaigns. In 2016 he launched a quixotic bid for the US Senate, embraced Sanders’ socialist presidential campaign, and energetically stumped all over the state. He lost, but won a respectable 20% of the primary vote.

Two years later Fetterman ran for lieutenant governor against the incumbent Democrat, a scandal-plagued politician from Philadelphia. This time Fetterman won a resounding victory.

The position is mostly ceremonial, but he has used it aggressively, visiting every county in the state on a listening tour about legalizing marijuana.

“John doesn’t wait for campaign season to show up,” says Joe Calvello, director of communications for Fetterman. “The first thing he did as lieutenant governor was to tour 67 counties to talk to people, to get out there, to hear people’s concerns, whether it’s about legalizing marijuana or forging new lives. He’s had these conversations for years.”

Fetterman also powerfully exercises one of his only actual powers in this odd duck role. The lieutenant governor sits on the board of pardons, which can review contested prison sentences and put them before the governor. As Politico reported in 2021, the board had at that point recommended for leniency more than twice as many cases under Fetterman than in the previous 20 years combined.

The 2018 race is also proof he can win a statewide election, something none of the other candidates can claim. His campaign believes his unusual political brand, idiosyncratic political ideology, and attention to rural areas and small towns will win voters who wouldn’t go for a cookie-cutter Democrat.

“Democrats cannot be writing off any community – that’s why we’re going anywhere in anywhere and everywhere,” says Calvello. “We don’t believe we’re going to flip these counties blue, but you cut down the margins by showing up, being honest, talking to voters. That matters in a statewide race.”

His detractors argue that the lieutenant governor’s race was a low-profile affair, won in an extremely Democratic year, and that Fetterman has never been under a harsh spotlight.

“The choices he has made place him too far to the extreme to win at the statewide level in Pennsylvania,” said Lamb during a debate. “When he was running around the state in his gym shorts, making marijuana the number one issue, campaigning with Bernie Sanders, he lost a lot of swing voters already.”

‘Every county, every vote’

So far, these fears do not seem to have infected the larger Democratic electorate. Republicans are locked in an extremely competitive and crowded primary, with two millionaires recently moved in from out of state – celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and hedge fund manager David McCormick – dealing each other expensive body blows.

The Republican attack line on Fetterman is likely to be that he’s a false working-class hero who cries poor but comes from money. “The guy’s a show-off fake,” says Christopher Nicholas, a Republican political consultant who is not working on the Senate campaign. “He is an interesting MSNBC and social media novelty. He parlayed that into raising a bunch of money, but when you strip away all the technology it’s still a people business. And he can’t go to meetings and do small talk.”

But in the debates Fetterman has already begun attacking McCormick: he couldn’t ask for a better foil than an exceedingly wealthy mogul who served in George W Bush’s treasury department and only just moved to Pennsylvania from Connecticut.

Such a contest would be the supreme test of Fetterman’s theory of the electorate: that even in a year where all signs are against Democrats on the national level, a socially awkward, heavily tattooed man who is deeply committed to his state can break through.

“We are able to bring out margins that we are going to need,” said Fetterman, making the pitch for himself at the second debate. “I’m the only candidate that has always embraced an every-county, every-vote philosophy. That’s how I believe we’re going to win in a tough cycle.”

Jake Blumgart in Philadelphia

The GuardianTramp

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