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‘We have the power’: Fetterman zeroes in on Philadelphia with Senate race on the line

<i>Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call
CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

By Gregory Krieg, CNN

If Democratic nominee John Fetterman is going to become the next senator from Pennsylvania, he needs to wallop Republican Mehmet Oz in the Commonwealth’s largest and most diverse city, Philadelphia.

That’s no secret.

Fetterman has multiple paths to victory in November, but they all hinge on at least matching — or even exceeding — President Joe Biden’s vote share in the city during the 2020 presidential election. And while overall turnout should be down, a precipitous drop could also spell doom for the Democrat who, despite narrowly winning the city during the primary, only consolidated the support of local leaders, some of whom had questioned him on race relations, after securing the nomination.

The national stakes are crystal clear. The Senate is currently split 50-50, with Democrats in the majority only because of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. And with so many other races around the country in flux, control of the body for the final two years of Biden’s first term could well be decided by the Keystone State. Oz, former President Donald Trump’s endorsed candidate, eked out a contentious primary win and has been slow to coalesce conservative support as the Republican nominee, but recent polls show the race tightening. And Oz, unlike Trump, is better disposed than most national Republicans to winning back at least some of the suburban vote that fled the former President two years ago.

“The obvious baseline for a Democratic candidate is to win big in Philadelphia,” said Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College. “And by big, we mean you’re looking at turnout that is at least equal to the state turnout and that you come away with probably 85% of the vote.”

Biden undershot that number in 2020, winning with roughly 81% in Philadelphia, but solidified his narrow statewide win by pummeling Trump in the suburbs, where he outperformed the former President by nearly 20 points. Yost, whose most recent poll showed Democrat with a narrow lead, figured Fetterman might need to overperform Biden in the city.

“Fetterman could replicate Biden’s performance and win,” Yost said. “But I’m not sure he can do that, particularly in the suburbs, because of his opponent. Saying that, it means he needs to be in a better position coming out of Philadelphia.”

Fetterman bulldozed his way to the nomination with a remarkable primary wipeout. He won all 67 counties, often by wide margins, in a four-way race. The man who built his political brand in Western Pennsylvania even emerged the narrow victor in Philadelphia — home of fellow Democratic candidate and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a groundbreaking Black and gay lawmaker from North Philadelphia — with nearly 37% of the vote. In the four crucial collar counties around the city, Fetterman prevailed by an average of almost 25 percentage points.

So when Fetterman held a rally in a Mount Airy gymnasium late last month, in a Philadelphia zip code where Biden won 96% of the vote in 2020, for his first major public event in the city since entering the race in early 2021, a question lingered over the festivities: What took him so long?

The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, a pastor and radio host who had been critical of Fetterman in the past and was one of the first early speakers that Saturday afternoon, saw the headlines and addressed it early on.

It was a “crazy question,” he said, with a clear answer: “Everybody knows you save the best for last.”

“Don’t let the conversations that take place by others overwhelm you. I know the state as well as anybody,” US Rep. Dwight Evans, who represents the district that hosted the event, said afterward. “Look at the way (Fetterman) runs and he lives. He beat the person from Philadelphia in this race … It’s that connection. Authentic. That is a very important thing not to underestimate.”

Fetterman’s pivot east

Fetterman’s campaign schedule was thrown off track this spring when he had a serious stroke just days before the May primary. His recovery took him off the trail for much of the summer. When he returned, the lingering effects were evident. He spoke haltingly, in brief, often clipped or uneven sentences. His campaign attributed it to ongoing “auditory processing” issues, a symptom that would resolve itself with time and rest — two things that, in the home stretch of high-stakes campaign, he doesn’t have much of to spare.

Still, at recent events, his progress was evident. Fetterman was cautious at times, sticking to familiar anecdotes and lines of attack, but the bullish confidence and humor that helped burnish his unique political brand were clear enough to see and hear. And a friendly audience — Fetterman is the rare politician who attracts fans as much as supporters — was eager to urge him on at any hint of a rough patch.

Fetterman’s campaign viewed the event as less of a “last stop” than the culmination of its long, often subterranean efforts to win over a city, block by block, that is so crucial to his chances in November.

His campaign manager, Brendan McPhillips, lives in the city and worked as Biden’s state director two years ago. And his hiring of Joe Pierce, a Black operative with deep ties across the city, was often the first name mentioned as proof, in the minds of local officials, that Fetterman was pressing all the right buttons.

These local officials and leaders who spoke to CNN about Fetterman’s outreach, all of whom have now endorsed and support him after either backing one of his primary opponents or sitting out the nominating contest, were all guardedly optimistic that Fetterman was well-positioned to hit the needed margins and, in tandem with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor with whom Fetterman shares a coordinated campaign committee, inspire necessarily high levels of turnout.

Before the Philadelphia rally, as supporters queued up around the block waiting for doors to open, Desiree L.A. Whitfield, 56, a local business owner and traveling civil and voting rights activist, walked the line with a loud message.

“Last (primary) election day, 30% of voters voted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That’s unacceptable. They’re waiting for us to not vote,” she yelled. “We can rally all day long — Fetterman! Fetterman! Fetterman! — but if you don’t do your part, we don’t get this.”

Speaking afterward with what remained of her voice, Whitfield, who lives a few blocks from the venue, praised Fetterman’s and Shapiro’s community outreach, but put the onus on her neighbors.

“They can campaign,” she said of the candidates, “but we have the power because we’re the ones that go to the voting place and cast your vote.”

During the primary, the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, a labor coalition that encompasses unions in the city and surrounding suburbs and has nearly 50,000 members, endorsed US Rep. Conor Lamb. But it switched to Fetterman after he won the nomination and its members are now knocking on doors and leadership is committed to a robust internal communication effort.

“What we’re trying to do is really galvanize, first of all, our membership to make sure that we have at least 90% voter participation within our ranks,” said Ryan Boyer, the first Black council leader.

The 2016 presidential election, Boyer added, had been a wakeup call for labor and his own group, which saw “some of our members go outside of our endorsement and vote for former President Trump,” a development that caused the union’s political leadership to refocus on “zealously, hyper-targeting our membership base and the families of our membership.”

The Biden administration’s infrastructure legislation, Boyer told CNN, had provided a concrete argument, on behalf of Fetterman, for labor leaders to make to the rank-and-file.

“We talk about (how) if Democrats weren’t in charge of the Senate and the House, we wouldn’t have an infrastructure bill that a lot of our members are going to get some great work in,” he said.

Winning over Black voters and immigrants

But Fetterman’s challenge in winning over a critical mass of Philadelphia and, more specifically, its Black and brown voters, has also run up against one specific hurdle that traces back to his time as mayor of Braddock.

Known locally by its shorthand as “the jogger incident,” Fetterman in 2013, after hearing what he has described as a “burst of gunfire” nearby while outside his home with his young son, subsequently grabbed a shotgun and stopped a man he said he believed was running away from the sound of the shots.

But when police arrived, the man — a Black jogger — was found to be unarmed and, after being patted down by an officer, immediately released. Fetterman, in explaining the confrontation, has said he saw someone “dressed entirely in black” and clad in a “face mask,” before making a split-second decision to intervene. He has always maintained he could not determine the jogger’s skin color until they came face-to-face.

Fetterman, who released a video about the incident early in the primary, came under harsh criticism over it from some activists and officials, including Kenyatta, one of his primary opponents. (Kenyatta has since endorsed Fetterman and campaigned for him.)

Christopher Miyares, the man Fetterman confronted, has accused Fetterman of lying about the encounter. But in April 2021, he expressed forgiveness in letters, written from a state prison, to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“Even with everything I said, it is inhumane to believe one mistake should define a man’s life,” Miyares said. “I hope he gets to be a Senator.”

Supporters outside the Philadelphia rally uniformly dismissed the episode as a one-off and, given the stakes in November, unlikely to affect their vote.

“I can’t really make an opinion about that, because if I’m having somebody come up on me and I feel as though I’m being threatened, I’m going do what I need to do,” Valerie Ellis, a 65-year-old retired mental health professional, told CNN.

Boyer, the union leader, said he had spoken to Fetterman about it and came away satisfied with his explanation.

“It was a private conversation, but, you know, sometimes we react with fight or flight, and if you think your family’s in danger, sometimes you can make some rash decisions that in retrospect, when you have all the facts, they were wrong,” Boyer said. “And that’s as simple as that.”

Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whom Fetterman recently visited for an unpublicized community walk in her district, told CNN she had not addressed it with the candidate, but was adamant the story would not dampen Fetterman’s support in the city.

“Any Black person is going to look at a story like that and feel some level of concern. But at the end of the day, he’s spoken to it many times. The jogger, or the gentleman involved, seems he has forgiven him for it. His community seems to have forgiven him for it,” said Gauthier, who is Black. “And I am willing to enthusiastically support John even though he made a mistake in his past … because he is the best candidate for my community.”

The Oz campaign so far has not sought to use the incident as a means of potentially driving down support for Fetterman with Black voters, though an outside group supporting him, American Leadership Action, is running a 30-second television ad highlighting the dispute.

The Oz campaign, instead, has focused its attacks primarily on Fetterman’s record during his time as the chair of the state Board of Pardons, one of the few official roles of the lieutenant governor. In ads and statements, the campaign has hammered Fetterman for being soft on crime — and zeroed in on his recommendations while helming the pardons board and, in an ad it approved, claimed the Democrat plans to “eliminate life sentences for murderers.” (Fetterman has said he wants to end life sentences, without the possibility of parole, for those convicted of second-degree murder.)

At the beginning of September, Oz — whose campaign created an “Inmates for Fetterman” website — also called on Fetterman to fire two brothers, Dennis and Lee Horton, who had previously been convicted of murder, from his campaign.

“John Fetterman consistently puts murderers and other criminals ahead of Pennsylvania communities,” Brittany Yanick, Oz communications director, said in a statement. “If John Fetterman cared about Pennsylvania’s crime problem, he’d prove it by firing the convicted murderers he employs on his campaign.”

Fetterman, well before his run for Senate, fought zealously for the Horton brothers’ second-degree conviction to be commuted, a push that ultimately led to a recommendation for just that from the Board of Pardons to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. Broad agreement that the circumstances leading to their conviction were dubious led to them being freed after 28 years in prison.

Despite the attacks, not only have the Hortons continued working as field organizers for Fetterman, but they spoke — to a rapt audience — at his rally in Philadelphia.

“He told my sister something that blew my mind,” Lee Horton recounted of Fetterman. “He said, ‘I am going to fight to get your brothers out even if it means I am going to lose every single election after this.'”

Fetterman, in his remarks, said that he knew that his advocacy would provide “material to attack me,” but proclaimed, “I would never trade a title for my conscience.”

Rev. Tyler, the pastor, made specific reference to the Horton brothers, too.

Fetterman, he said, “is absolutely right on criminal justice reform, refusing to leave anybody languishing in jail cells when they don’t need to be there.”

Former City Council Member Maria Quiñones Sánchez, a four-term lawmaker who recently stepped down to launch her campaign for mayor and previously served as a member of the Biden campaign’s Pennsylvania Latino Leadership Council, slammed Oz over his recent visit to Philadelphia, where he held a forum and then toured Kensington, a neighborhood Republicans have often cited as evidence of Democratic failures to combat drug use and violence, as part of his outreach to Black voters.

“I thought it was very insulting to the civic leaders in that community, to say that nothing is happening and that people don’t care, really is hypocritical,” Quiñones Sánchez told CNN. “Kensington is ground zero, but this is a city problem, it’s a national problem, it’s a worldwide problem.”

Like so many other Fetterman backers, Quiñones Sánchez praised the Democrat’s strategic communication efforts in the city, particularly the campaign’s hiring of Pierce as its statewide political director. (Pierce and McPhillips, the campaign manager, are headquartered in Philadelphia.)

But she also singled out Fetterman’s wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, who was born in Brazil, as a unique force, both within the Latino community and, more broadly, among the city’s immigrant population.

“From the very beginning, since he became lieutenant governor, everyone has always said, ‘Okay, is she coming with him?’ when he was coming to events,” Quiñones Sánchez said.

“They see themselves in her,” she said of the immigrant community, “and they feel like she’s going to be a good advocate and a good spokesperson for what they want out of life, which is the ability to work and an opportunity to provide for their families.”

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