The Democrats’ Giant DilemmaApril 16, 2021
John Fetterman is one of the most photographed rising stars in the Democratic Party. As gargantuan as Lurch Addams, with a bald head, goatee and closet full of Dickies shirts—and tattoos running down his arm marking every date a life was taken while he was mayor of his hard-knock steel town—Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor is a cartoon image of a working guy from the Rust Belt. Which is catnip for glossy magazine spreads.
But Fetterman hates having his picture taken.
At a shoot at his home in Braddock, Pennsylvania—a converted car dealership full of salvaged treasures that looks like something out of Architectural Digest—he’s not trying to hide his grumpiness even a little bit. He says he’ll pose for photos only while standing. (He’s 6 foot 8.) His senior campaign aide, Bobby Maggio, thanks a photographer for “dealing with Cranky Pants.” Fetterman jokes—although it’s clear he’s only half-kidding—that people prefer to take pictures of his wife, Gisele, and their dog.
“It all looks the same to me,” he says of portraits of himself. “It’s like Paul Rudd, except he’s handsome, I guess. It’s kind of like, same picture—not much you can do with it.” The idea of Fetterman trying out a new look to mix things up is, of course, out of the question: “I genuinely don’t have anything to wear that different. That’s just me.”
Most politicians love being in front of the camera. The few who don’t treat it as a necessary cost of media attention. But the man who has been profiled in People, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Washington Post and countless other publications—and who became the de facto spokesman for Pennsylvania Democrats after former President Donald Trump cried fraud in the state in 2020, appearing on multiple cable TV networks hour after hour—still hasn’t learned to tolerate it, even if his fame is due in part to how he looks.
Fetterman first exploded onto the national scene shortly after he was elected mayor of Braddock, a small, dilapidated town outside Pittsburgh, in 2005. Mayors of 2,000-person boroughs don’t typically receive much attention. But Fetterman had a story: A man who could pass for a Hells Angel and had a Harvard degree was revitalizing a place that epitomized the rise and fall of America’s steel industry—building a community center, renovating crumbling properties, talking about using art “to combat the dark side of capitalism.” Within a few years, he appeared in the Atlantic’s “25 Brave Thinkers” issue and was invited to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival. In 2018, he was elected lieutenant governor of the state, on a ticket with Gov. Tom Wolf, in a landslide.
After years in the spotlight, though, Fetterman remains unwilling, or perhaps unable, to play the part of a traditional politician. He hates mugging for the camera. He refuses to buy more than one suit. He’s shunned the lieutenant governor’s official mansion in Harrisburg, preferring to stay in his Braddock loft. He is constitutionally incapable of schmoozing with other elected officials.
So far none of those things have stopped him—in fact, they have often helped him—as he’s leapt from small-town mayor to swing-state lieutenant governor. But now he is running for an office that will put that to the ultimate test: He’s the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination in one of the most important Senate races in the country in 2022—a position he ran for and lost in 2016. And he’s facing some uncommonly strong headwinds from his own party.
Since launching his Senate campaign in February, Fetterman has quickly amassed nearly $4 million—more than any other Democrat in the field and mostly in small-dollar donations. He’s running as a progressive and supports raising the minimum wage, Medicare for All, criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization. But he’s more middle-of-the-road on items like fracking and the Green New Deal. And while he’s pro-gun control, he has been a gun owner himself. (Two lesser-known contenders, liberal state lawmaker Malcolm Kenyatta and moderate county commissioner Val Arkoosh, have also already thrown their hats in the ring. Other big-name Democrats who are more centrist than Fetterman, like Rep. Conor Lamb, might still jump in.)
Fetterman’s fans think his brand of economic progressivism and his Carhartt-wearing linebacker vibe make him uniquely able to win elections in the kinds of Rust Belt and white working-class areas where Democrats have been hemorrhaging support. In a party often seen as too elite, the lieutenant governor is unfussy and plainspoken—he poses for official government photos in workman’s shirts and calls Republicans “simps” on Twitter. Fetterman’s campaign is making the case that he has the best shot at picking off Trump voters in the general election.
That is, if he can get anywhere in the primary first. Already, he’s butting up against fierce resistance from a wide array of party leaders. Some take issue with his politics: Moderates think his deep commitment to getting repentant convicts out of life sentences is too radical. Progressives say he’s too squishy on fracking. Other Democratic honchos—from left to center—resent his go-it-alone attitude. They argue he’s a loner who doesn’t spend any time trying to build alliances with other pols—and that as a result he’ll be less effective in office.
But for many party leaders, this isn’t a question of “the intractable outsider” vs. “the establishment.” Fetterman’s candidacy hits at the heart of the debate roiling the Democratic Party today: Should the party try to win back working-class white voters who stray further from them every year or double down on the suburban and Black electorate that has powered their recent wins? Fetterman’s white guy working-class appeal, they say, is outdated for a party that should be committed to addressing structural racism.
Ryan Boyer, the African American president of Philadelphia’s powerful building trades council, took to Facebook earlier this year to make the case for a Black nominee: “What has John [Fetterman] done to warrant a U.S. Senate seat? If black [women] are the base of the Democratic Party … shouldn’t the state party recruit an African American candidate[?]”
One African American state House member says Fetterman’s “authentic” brand smacks of white male privilege. “I know it would be an impossible race [for a Black candidate] to be able to run for anything across the state being dressed down every day,” says the lawmaker. “It’s just not fair. It’s such a double standard.”
Fetterman’s team, meanwhile, maintains that his lack of pretense is exactly why rank-and-file Democrats like him—in Trump country, sure, but among other demographics too. It’s why he was reelected mayor of majority-Black Braddock by huge margins each time. It’s why he won his lieutenant governor primary and then statewide office with Wolf by double digits, including performing well in some tony Philadelphia suburbs.
Pennsylvania has a history of rewarding outsider candidates. But Fetterman’s rocky history with party elites still poses a problem, because for every Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Democratic politics, there are still more Bernie Sanders who lose out to the establishment. In the very Senate seat that Fetterman is vying for, there is a history of crushed mavericks.
To win, Fetterman will have to figure out how either to surmount his party problems or render them irrelevant.
‘I’m trying to get as many folks out as we can’
On a typical day during the pandemic, the Fetterman home is a hurricane of in-person meetings, Zoom calls, virtual schooling and cable TV interviews. Fetterman’s three children—ages 7, 9, 12—live on the same 3,100-square-foot floor of their Braddock loft as he and Gisele. This also happens to be the same place where Fetterman runs his Senate campaign and works as lieutenant governor many days. It’s not unusual for one of his kids, in the middle of a news interview, to ask for something to eat.
Today, Fetterman, 51, is dressed in his standard-issue Dickies button-up and neon Carhartt neck gaiter, sitting on his leather couch alongside anti-violence expert Richard Garland. There is one slight variation in his usual uniform: He’s wearing jeans, not cargo shorts, at the behest of an aide, ostensibly for the photo shoot. Behind him, framed by his massive soundproof windows, smoke pours out of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill.
Fetterman is meeting with Garland to talk about his crusade to give second chances to prisoners. As lieutenant governor, Fetterman chairs the state’s Board of Pardons, which votes on clemency applications from inmates serving life sentences.
For his predecessors, the role was a throwaway part of the job. Fetterman, on the other hand, has turned it into a cause célèbre and his prime focus as lieutenant governor. In the nearly two decades before he took the helm, the board only held votes on 30 commutation cases and sent just 12 to the governor’s desk for approval. During Fetterman’s first 2½ years as lieutenant governor, the board considered 67 cases and recommended 32 to Wolf. Many of the lifers are men who insist upon their innocence and have been model prisoners, or have faced what criminal justice advocates see as excessive sentencing. Wolf approved 17 of the commutations in 2019 and 2020.
Garland, an ex-gang member who now works with at-risk youth as an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, asks Fetterman, “How can I help you to keep this moving?”
Fetterman tells him: “Whoever you’re mentoring, whoever you’re talking to—get their shit in yesterday. And I’ll do my best to expedite it as fast as we can because I’m trying to get as many folks out as we can.” He repeatedly stresses the urgency at hand, reminding Garland that his term ends soon: “We have 1.75 years.”
Even for Fetterman, it’s a strikingly unvarnished comment for a politician running for office in a battleground state. And it would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, when Democrats went out of their way to embrace law-and-order politics before the criminal justice system was widely recognized as broken.
But that’s exactly why many voters love Fetterman: He’s blunt and unapologetically progressive on the issue of criminal justice reform. It’s also why moderate Democrats fear the GOP could make Fetterman look like a far-left freak in a general election, and why many Republicans think they could crush him. The ominous ads about Fetterman letting loose as many cold-blooded killers as possible write themselves.
Fetterman’s passion for rehabilitation—and other progressive policies—might seem unlikely for someone with his background. He grew up in Central Pennsylvania’s York County, the son of an affluent insurance firm partner. As a teenager, he describes himself as a “football-playing meathead.” His family members were all Republicans, so he was a conservative too, though “not in an aggressive or angry way.”
He was on his way to following in his father’s footsteps in the insurance industry—until one day everything changed.
‘John had a narrative that sold’
In 1993, Fetterman’s best friend was killed in a car accident while on the way to pick him up.
Searching for meaning after the earth-shattering loss, the 24-year-old Fetterman volunteered at the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, where he was paired with a young kid named Nicky Santana. The boy’s dad had died of AIDS. Not long afterward, his mother did, too.
That “one-two punch,” as he calls it, sent Fetterman into a spiral contemplating the cruelty of inequality.
“It was all born out of that random lottery of birth,” Fetterman says. “What stopped me from being the guy driving to his house and dying in a car accident? What’s to say that it wasn’t me who would bury both of my parents from a horrific disease like AIDS before my ninth birthday?”
That led him to make a drastic career change: He ditched his job at a lucrative insurance firm and joined AmeriCorps in Pittsburgh. He went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and studied public policy. Eventually, he found himself in Braddock, where he was hired to run a GED program.
The first time he drove around the town, he says, “it felt like ruins … you could just tell something really amazing happened here and then something really bad happened here.” What had happened was steel: Braddock was once a boomtown that nearly 21,000 people called home. When it went bust, it became one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden communities in the state. Today, 37 percent of Braddock’s 1,869 residents live in poverty, and the per capita income is about $15,000. A large majority of the population is Black.
In 2005, after living in Braddock for a few years, Fetterman decided to run for mayor to put a spotlight on the violence destroying the lives of the young people in the area. During the campaign, the town’s young residents especially flocked to the tall 35-year-old with the low-key style and the Harvard pedigree. “JKF” signs started appearing around town, as if Fetterman were a Kennedy-like savior. He won unexpectedly by a single vote in a three-way primary.
After he was elected, Fetterman and his wife successfully helped open art galleries and restaurants, housing units, and a “free store” that gives away diapers, clothing and other necessities. Some new people came to town. Urban farms sprung up. Fetterman’s wealthy father was critical to the resurgence, too: He funded a local nonprofit run by Fetterman that renovated dilapidated properties and subsidized his son financially—the mayor’s job paid only $150 a month.
Perhaps Fetterman’s biggest accomplishment, though, was reducing crime: Braddock, where Fetterman once found an AK-47 in his back yard, didn’t suffer a homicide for more than five years during his tenure. He took that mission personally, too. In 2013, after hearing what he thought were gunshots in his neighborhood, Fetterman pulled a shotgun on someone he assumed might be running away from a shooting—but who turned out to be a Black man who said he was out for a jog and who was, according to police, unarmed.
While the incident sparked a minor controversy at the time, he was reelected soon afterward. In fact, Fetterman was reelected three times, all by landslides. And his unique persona attracted a lot of national attention. He was profiled in top outlets and invited to prestigious conferences. He appeared on The Colbert Report to talk about revitalizing by building a community center, partnering with Levi’s, and driving down homicides.
But the national media coverage rubbed local officials the wrong way, especially given that Fetterman was a white newcomer getting credit for saving a majority-Black town, many of whose representatives were Black. And that’s when his problems with the Democratic Party began.
Ella Jones, who was borough manager of Braddock in 2009, derisively called Fetterman the “great white hope” of the area. He “came to a community that is 80 percent black and believes that he can amass control” and “views this community as a steppingstone,” she said. Jesse Brown, one of the council presidents who served with Fetterman, griped to the press that he was unfairly getting credit for other politicians’ work fixing up the town and badmouthing Braddock too much. “If he feels that the community is bankrupt, then he needs to go somewhere where he’d like it,” he said at the time.
Fetterman, in turn, saw many of the town’s politicians as being in it for themselves. In at least one instance, he was right: Jones later pled guilty to stealing roughly $170,000 from Braddock.
Tina Doose, a Braddock councilwoman, was one of Fetterman’s few elected allies in the borough in those days. “I always say that John had a narrative that sold, be it whatever may—Harvard grad, white guy comes to Braddock,” she says. “And it helped. Elevating Braddock in that respect made my job a little bit easier. When I went to the funders and said, ‘Hey, we want to do this development project, we need more housing’ … it helped.”
Doose blames his frosty relationship with other lawmakers on an “old guard’s” dislike of newcomers: “When I came on Council, I was the only person under 70, so some of it was generational things. They weren’t too fond of me, either.”
Fetterman’s successor, Mayor Chardaé Jones, raises another possibility. She says Fetterman didn’t attend council meetings: “When you’re not present at council meetings, there’s not much of a relationship there.”
Her own relationship with Fetterman has been similarly icy. She says he never asked for her endorsement for Senate—or even had a conversation with her, including when she took over his post after he won election as lieutenant governor.
Some of Fetterman’s opponents in the primary are already sensing an opportunity here, particularly Kenyatta, who is, like Fetterman, campaigning as a progressive—as well as someone who, as a young, gay, Black man, would make history if elected. He called Jones out of the blue, visited her in Braddock, and asked her about her views on environmental issues. It paid off: After an extensive courting process, she threw her support behind him. (In a different universe, progressives wouldn’t have to choose between Fetterman and Kenyatta: The two discussed the possibility of running together in 2022 as governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, according to a person familiar with the conversations.)
When asked about his run-ins with Braddock’s Council members, Fetterman says they were “for the first several years absolute obstructionists—they tried to block anything and everything that they could. And they were committed to my failure. It’s very much like Mitch McConnell’s commitment to Obama, that I want to make him a one-term mayor and shut him down.”
Fetterman’s team points to an endorsement by Braddock’s now-council president, Rob Parker, and Council member Dee Scales as proof of his current support among elected officials at home. But he cares more about what Braddock thought of him than his popularity with other politicians: “I just return to the simple fact that I was elected for four terms here. So the people overwhelmingly—for the three elections subsequent after my first one—overwhelmingly supported the things and the initiatives that we’ve done.” As for the idea that he used Braddock as a jumping-off pad? “LOL,” he says. “Whoever went to the poorest community in a state saying, ‘I’m going to make a political career and use that as a springboard?’ Because, literally, that’s never been done before. And I didn’t come here running for mayor. I came here just to work.”
Says Doose, “It was not like he came and this was a two-, three-year-stint. When he came, he wasn’t even married. He came, he got married and grew a family. … So whatever folks say, the truth of the matter is that he did not have to make Braddock his home.”
‘Not a real social person’
When I ask Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, what he’s really like when all the reporters are away, she says, “John is so shy. Like taking photos is painful. He is so awkward. He would pick a night at the couch with the kids and pizza watching Simpsons over anything.”
Once, when they were first dating, she made the mistake of throwing him a surprise birthday party. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever done. He was hiding in a corner, absolutely miserable.”
Fetterman is not the stereotypical big guy with a bigger personality. He’s calm, unshowy and perhaps a bit uncomfortable in his own skin. He has a sense of humor, but it’s the kind that usually makes you smirk rather than laugh out loud. And according to nearly everyone who’s met him, he’s got an anti-social streak.
Doose says he’s “not a real social person.” Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania’s former governor who endorsed Fetterman in the 2018 lieutenant governor’s primary, calls him a “lone wolf.” Nancy Mills, the chair of the state Democratic Party, says he’s “independent.”
That side of him might explain, at least in part, why he hasn’t fared better with some members of his own party. Because it isn’t just Braddock. Since he stepped down as the town’s mayor and went off to Harrisburg in 2019, his intraparty problems have grown only more numerous.
High-ranking Democratic members of both the state House and Senate say he never reached out to them to build a rapport.
State Sen. Tony Williams, the Democratic whip, says he doesn’t have a relationship with Fetterman. “That’s unusual for me,” says Williams. “Even if there are people I don’t particularly like, I have more of a relationship with them because I talk to them. But we never had that opportunity to have that level of interaction.”
In an echo of complaints aired about Fetterman in Braddock, Williams says the lieutenant governor sometimes didn’t show up to Harrisburg to preside over the Senate at the beginning of the pandemic.
Williams is now taking a step toward supporting another likely candidate for the U.S. Senate race: He recently became a member of the exploratory committee for state Sen. Sharif Street.
State Rep. Summer Lee, vice chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, grew up in North Braddock and says she regularly walks by Fetterman on a local trail. But “he’s never talked to me about politics, about policy, about me,” she says.
Lee has not endorsed anyone in the primary yet, and Fetterman has not asked for her support, she says, though other contenders have. As for the Black Caucus, she says, “I don’t know if he has a relationship with the Black Caucus.” One of the group’s members says the incident in which Fetterman pulled a gun on a Black jogger makes him a nonstarter.
Fetterman gets along with at least one top Democrat in Harrisburg—one who came into office as an outsider, too: the governor. Wolf and Fetterman’s teams both say they have a good relationship. A Wolf spokesman says Fetterman is a “strong partner.” But unlike Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whom Wolf called “my guy” in the upcoming 2022 gubernatorial race in an off-the-cuff remark, Fetterman hasn’t gotten a nod from Wolf.
The complaints about Fetterman aren’t limited to a particular flank in the Democratic Party: Lee was endorsed by the local Democratic Socialists of America, while Williams is a centrist who regularly works with Republicans. And they aren’t coming solely from elected officials or the party establishment. Organizers at Reclaim Philadelphia, a city-based chapter of the progressive group Our Revolution that has played a key role in electing several left-wing state legislators, say Fetterman hasn’t contacted them this cycle.
This appears to have already caused problems for Fetterman in the primary. The Working Families Party, a leading national progressive group, endorsed Kenyatta the day he announced—a major blow to Fetterman, who is also running as a left-leaning Democrat but is better-known and more experienced than Kenyatta. Kenyatta had the inside track: He spent years getting to know members of the organization, and its regional political director, Vanessa Clifford, is in the process of leaving to manage Kenyatta’s campaign. Fetterman didn’t have deep ties with affiliates in the same way, says a senior aide for the group’s Pennsylvania chapter.
But some Fetterman supporters don’t think the Working Families Party gave him or other potential candidates a fair shake: While officially considering an endorsement, the group sent likely candidates a questionnaire from a past election cycle that was littered with irrelevant comments about Trump, according to a copy obtained by POLITICO. Some people in the group’s state-based member organizations grumbled that a vote on the nod was sprung on them at the last minute, as though it had already been decided.
In response, the Working Families Party staffer says that making an endorsement early in order to consolidate progressives “was more important than spending the time to deeply review the questionnaire,” and that the group took hours to interview candidates who returned the form. (Fetterman didn’t return it.) A spokesperson for Fetterman shot back: “The questionnaire we were sent was from the 2020 election. It asked about President Donald Trump, not President Biden, and legislation sponsored by members who are no longer in Congress. It did not reflect the current reality, the fact that Democrats are no longer in the minority in the Senate, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has completely transformed American life.”
Meanwhile, climate change activists and other progressives have had discussions about recruiting a more left-wing candidate into the race, said a person familiar with their talks. They don’t approve of the fact that Fetterman has opposed a ban on fracking and has a mixed opinion of the Green New Deal.
Fetterman might never be an ally of environmental groups, given his stance on fracking, but he should in theory be a natural ally of labor-aligned organizations like the Working Families Party—and yet he can’t seem to gain traction with them. To Williams, Fetterman’s lack of a bedside manner poses a governing challenge. “If you’re talking about moving people out of poverty, recreational marijuana, these are things that require people to know people to figure out how to get it done,” he says. “Who’s your base? Who’s your clique in that body that you go to to get ideas and stuff moved? I can’t say that I’ve seen that in him.”
In at least one case, Fetterman’s connection to the party brass seems to have improved: A Fetterman adviser and representatives from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spoke in February, and the call was “civil,” according to source—a marked contrast from their testy relationship when he sought the nomination in 2016.
And some progressives think the left is making a mistake by not lining up behind Fetterman. Sean McElwee, co-founder of the liberal think tank Data for Progress, says Pennsylvania’s race “is the best chance for progressives to win a Senate seat” in 2022: “You have a situation that has basically not been seen in the past, in which a progressive is entering in with the sort of name ID and war chest to contest the primary and also has a strong case to be the strongest general election candidate—it is, in my view, indisputable that Fetterman would be the strongest general election candidate—and normally that’s not the case.”
Fetterman, for his part, dismisses the idea that he doesn’t have quality relationships with liberal organizations.
“I have plenty of relationships with progressive groups. And I’ve run as a progressive before it was cool to do so,” he says.
Pressed for specifics, he says: “The Innocence Project. The entire second chances and criminal justice advocacy community here in Pennsylvania.” Other than perhaps Larry Krasner, the left-wing district attorney of Philadelphia, Fetterman says “no other living Pennsylvanian has freed more Black and brown people from prison than I have. So in terms of actual progressive results,” it would be hard to “find any progressive in Pennsylvania who has created more progressive outcomes.”
“People are really upset … that we’re going to send another white man to Washington’
Rendell thinks that voters won’t care about Fetterman’s independent streak as much as party leaders do—in fact, they’ll like it.
“John marches to a slightly different drum than the ordinary politician does. But that, I think, could be construed as an asset,” the former governor says, arguing that voters like outsiders. “Remember, as a statewide race for senator or governor, other elected officials don’t matter much. There’s so much media that people make up their minds themselves. Elected officials matter more with their endorsements the less people can find out about the candidates.”
But some say Fetterman’s different path—his unapologetic white-guy-in-cargo-shorts vibe—is all wrong for Democrats, especially in the post-Trump era.
Fetterman believes the party must try to win all voting blocs—“why would you exclude or ignore one at the peril of the other?” he asks—and his motto is “every county, every vote.” His campaign has also explicitly made the case that he’s the best candidate to win back Trump voters in the general election. “That western Pennsylvania registered Democrat, but voted for Trump—Fetterman can get a lot of those voters,” goes one testimonial in his campaign launch video.
Fetterman’s record backs this up. When he ran for Senate in the 2016 primary, he came in third place. But he overperformed in counties in Western Pennsylvania, home not only to Braddock but also to Trump’s base. In the 2018 lieutenant governor’s primary, those areas powered Fetterman’s win against a field of candidates from the Southeast.
Many Democrats today view wooing Trump voters as a fool’s errand—and dangerous. And they think it’s long past time for the party to nominate a woman, a person of color, or both for the Senate seat.
“People are really upset that a woman’s not in there at this point—that we’re going to send another white man to Washington on behalf of Pennsylvania,” Democratic state Rep. Danielle Friel Otten said, a few days before Val Arkoosh jumped in the race. “We’ve also never sent a person of color.”
Otten predicts that “you’re going to see a lot of people in the suburbs that want to see a woman elected,” as well as energy for a candidate of color: “That’s a big factor in Pennsylvania.”
When I ask about Boyer’s Facebook post calling for the Democrats to nominate a person of color, Fetterman avoids the subject of race: “I have enormous respect for [Boyer]. I’ve had conversations with him. And for me, I’ve always said this in labor rooms where I knew I wasn’t likely to get their endorsement: ‘While your support and endorsement would mean the world to me, I’m always going to endorse you and your union’s way of life.’”
Some Democratic leaders in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs also see Fetterman’s style as an affront. “It’s a turn-off to me,” says Christine Jacobs, the Philly-based executive director of Represent PA, a liberal group that works to elect more women. “You don’t have to wear a tie, but at least be respectful of the office you’re running for.”
There has been no public polling yet in the primary, so it’s impossible to know how Fetterman is performing across different demographics. Here again, it’s possible voters have a different view from party brass. In addition to repeatedly winning in the majority-Black Braddock—after the incident with the jogger as well as feuds with Black Council members—Fetterman was also able to keep afloat in the Philly suburbs in the 2018 lieutenant governor’s primary. In Montgomery County, the most populous Philadelphia “collar” county, he came in second behind a Philadelphian. That was, however, in 2018, before George Floyd’s death, which was an inflection point for many Democrats who now say they are committed to putting candidates of color and urban areas at the center of the party’s strategy.
‘He didn’t look like [he’d support] two guys that look like us’
A photo of Dennis and Lee Horton, two Black Pennsylvania brothers who were until recently serving life sentences for murder and robbery, are the background image on Fetterman’s phone.
For decades, the Hortons maintained their innocence. They were offered five- to 10-year sentences if they pleaded guilty, but they refused. They became model prisoners, creating programs to help other inmates. Eventually, after decades in jail, their own prison superintendent made the case that they should be let out.
Fetterman breaks down into tears when he talks about them. “These brothers have been in prison for 27 years, and one of them had children and a wife. And they grew up without their father and their husband for no reason,” he says. “I can’t turn my back and let these and other deserving people die in prison.”
The Board of Pardons first voted on the Horton brothers’ clemency applications in late 2019. It failed 2-3, with Democratic Attorney General Shapiro most prominently casting a ballot against recommending them for a pardon. Fetterman wrote afterward that it was “truly one of the most dismaying days of my life.”
When their case came up again a year later, Fetterman publicly leaned on Shapiro. This was no small thing: Shapiro has a reputation for being cutthroat to get ahead. Fetterman was at the time toying with the idea of running for governor—a post Shapiro had for years been preparing to run for. He told a local reporter that his political future depended on what happened to the Horton brothers: “The trajectory of my career in public service will be determined by their freedom or lack thereof.”
The next time it was up for a vote, the board granted the Hortons mercy. And Shapiro spoke for Fetterman, who was choked up, when it was his turn to vote on Lee’s case: “I’m a yes, and I think the lieutenant governor is a yes as well.” (An aide for Shapiro says the attorney general initially “asked that the Board hold the Horton Brothers case under advisement in order to interview the brothers separately and review missing information from their files.”)
To Fetterman’s fans, this is proof of what Fetterman can do by being unafraid to clash with members—even sacred cows—in his own party.
The Horton brothers say loads of elected officials throughout the years promised to help them. “I’ve talked to a lot of politicians in my time,” says Lee. “I’ve had lip service, and them tell me how they gonna help and how they gonna do something. … And none of them have ever done anything. But Fetterman did. He told us he would put his career on the line. He said that. When we seen that … we was blown away.”
Dennis adds: “What politician says that? It’s clear that he cares about people.”
Fetterman, unlike other politicians, didn’t even connect with the Hortons before their clemency hearing. They heard through the grapevine that he was advocating for them. They had never heard of him, so they looked him up.
“He didn’t look like the type of person that would be supporting two guys that look like us. But here he was, fighting hard as anybody’s ever fought for us in our lives,” Lee says. “He looked to me like he would ride a motorcycle or something.”
It’s “not so much that he looked like a conservative,” Lee adds, “but more so he looked like the average guy. … We’re just young Black men. … And neither one of us come from the middle part of the state.”
Dennis and Lee have been hired to work as field organizers for Fetterman’s campaign in Philly, where the lieutenant governor will likely be competing for votes with city native Kenyatta, as well as state Sen. Sharif Street, who recently launched a U.S. Senate exploratory committee. They say other Black men might not initially see him the same way they once did. But the brothers are confident that will change once they hear his message: “Once they hear what he stands for, he will line up with everything they stand for,” says Dennis.
‘I just told the truth’
Fetterman is at his Harrisburg office, in a massive, ornate room with stuffy leather furniture and dim lighting. He is not sitting behind his desk projecting power the way politicians typically like to. Instead, he’s slouched over in a chair next to it, wearing his shorts and sneakers.
The only suit Fetterman owns is hanging up: He needs to perform his ceremonial duty of presiding over the Senate today, and the chamber has a dress code. Portraits of past lieutenant governors in their finest circle the wall.
I ask Fetterman if his wife is right when she says that he’s shy.
“Yeah, I’m quiet and introspective,” he says. “I’m not a social butterfly.”
Then how did he manage to win statewide office, and why is he running now in one of the most high-profile Senate races in the country? “Because I believe in the work. I believe in the issues. And I push myself out of who I … I mean, I’m sitting here in his office, dressed like this. This is who I am and how I am. I own one suit, and it’s over your right shoulder. … I don’t wear it unless I absolutely need to.”
I raise the possibility that, perhaps, his tendency to look inward has made it harder to build relationships with party officials.
“Possibly. I don’t know,” he says. “But if someone wants to prejudge me based on my aversion to wearing a suit and tie, that’s their right to do so.”
But I’m not talking about his clothes, I say—I mean his reserved side.
“I’ve never believed in my own political manifest destiny,” he responds. “I’ve always believed in the issues and the people and the places and these policies. And my political trajectory has always reflected that. And that’s what I’ve run on. It’s never been about raising my profile.”
He recalls how he became a fixture on cable TV when Trump and the rest of the Republican Party were screaming that the 2020 election was rigged.
“It wasn’t part of some grand strategy to be one of the faces of defending Pennsylvania’s electoral vote integrity to a national audience,” he says. “I just sat in front of my laptop and dressed no differently than this, and I just told the truth.”
Caroline Gutman contributed to this report.