Oz is accusing Fetterman of being soft on crime. Some of his claims are inaccurate

Julia Terruso
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

As Philadelphia passed its 300th homicide of the year, Mehmet Oz made a campaign stop in North Philadelphia to talk to pastors about violence in their communities.

The celebrity doctor visited Kensington, the center of the opioid epidemic, to introduce himself to people struggling with addiction. And he told Republicans at a barbecue in the Northeast that his opponent’s support for “sanctuary cities” would make them less safe.

It’s all part of an ongoing through-line in Oz’s campaign to direct rising fear over elevated crime toward his opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and stress that Oz would be tougher on crime.

More:Pa. Senate race could set record for ad spend

More:Fetterman absence raises stakes for Dems in key Senate race

“Sanctuary cities, weak prosecutors, crime skyrocketing, failed liberal policies are making us less safe,” says a narrator in Oz’s first TV ad of the general election, released Thursday.

“Incredibly, Fetterman says, ‘Get as many folks out as we can,’” the narrator continues, referencing a comment Fetterman made about increasing the number of people who apply for pardons and commutations.

Dr. Mehmet Oz makes his entrance during the Doctor Oz for Senate campaign tour stop at Wisehaven Event Center in Windsor Township, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The Fetterman campaign quickly called the ad “full of lies and distortions that fact checkers have already said are false.”

“Unlike Mehmet Oz, John has actually taken on crime,” Fetterman campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello said. “As Braddock’s hands-on mayor, he worked with the police force to stop crime. ... John supports commonsense policies to provide more second chances that are supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.”

The ads will run in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh over the next few weeks in what the Oz campaign says is a $2 million buy. So far the campaign, in conjunction with the National Republican Senate Committee, has spent $380,000 on airtime. The focus on crime in the campaign’s first ad shows Oz’s team believes the issue could be a winning message heading into the fall, though it’s one of several lines of attack Oz has debuted in recent weeks.

Oz has also accused Fetterman of being too liberal for Pennsylvania and drew comparisons between him and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent Fetterman endorsed for president in 2016. (The ad ends with photos of Fetterman and Sanders and the words “Crazy, dangerous ideas.”)

Oz has also criticized Fetterman for being largely off the trail since his May 13 stroke. The campaign sends out a daily “basement tracker” that counts the days since Fetterman has done public events with voters. He edited Fetterman into the title slide for the TV show "Lost" to try to further drive home his point.

Fetterman, meanwhile, has focused on one line of attack against Oz, relentlessly, and often snarkily, blasting him for being an out-of-touch “Doc Hollywood” who is not from Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, the Fetterman campaign announced a billboard going up on the Betsy Ross Bridge welcoming people from New Jersey that reads “Now Leaving NJ for PA ... Just like Dr. Oz.”

The campaign also flew a plane over the Jersey Shore trolling Oz and released videos of Jersey Shore star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and E-Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, urging Oz to come home to the Garden State.

The crime attacks strike a more serious tone. On the same day as the TV ad release, the Oz campaign also published a letter signed by 13 Republican county sheriffs — including York County Sheriff Richard Keuerleber — calling on Fetterman to explain certain policy positions to them, including comments he made in 2015 supporting decriminalizing drugs beyond marijuana; an op-ed he wrote in 2020 about police “demilitarizing,” in terms of the way they dress to respond to protests; and his support for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.

“Under Krasner’s (w)atch, between 2019 and 2020, the number of homicides in Philadelphia rose 40 percent,” the letter said. “We would greatly appreciate your clarification on how your policies would keep our communities safer. This race is crucial for our community as crime continues to skyrocket and progressively continue to plague our streets.”

Fetterman’s campaign did not immediately respond to the letter.

Fact-checking Oz’s claims about Fetterman and crime

Republicans around the country have been attacking Democrats on crime, particularly in big cities where shootings and homicides have risen across the board since the beginning of the pandemic.

Oz has attacked Fetterman for supporting sanctuary cities, which aim to offer a harbor for some undocumented immigrants; for backing Krasner; and for comments on criminal justice reform that Fetterman made as chair of the Board of Pardons, a five-member body that hears applications for pardons and commutations.

Several of the comments stretch the truth or are inaccurate.

Claim: “Fetterman wants to do away with life sentences for murderers.” — Oz’s newest ad and Oz in stump speeches.

Fetterman has criticized the application of the state’s felony murder statute, which sets a mandatory life sentence without parole for people convicted of second-degree murder, meaning some prisoners will spend the rest of their lives behind bars having never pulled a trigger or killed anyone.

He hasn’t called for eliminating life sentences for murderers but for eliminating the felony murder law.

The law applies when someone dies during a felony, such as robbery, burglary, kidnapping or rape. The “without parole” punishment then applies to both the person who caused the death and any other person who participated, including being a lookout, being a getaway driver, receiving stolen goods or planning the crime, even if they did not execute it.

About 1,100 people are serving life sentences for second-degree murder, among the highest in the country.

Claim: “Fetterman wants to release 1/3 of the prison population” — Oz’s ad

That’s a reference to a May 30, 2020, tweet in which Fetterman quoted the former head of the Department of Corrections, who Fetterman said told him the state could decrease its prison population by one-third at no risk to the general public. He again referenced the comment in a July 2020 tweet.

Fetterman campaign spokesperson Calvello told Politifact in July that Fetterman was not endorsing releasing one-third of all inmates but highlighting the comment and its potential for cost savings in the prison system.

Quote: “I’m trying to get as many folks out as we can” — Fetterman in an April 2021 Politico article. The quote is also running in Oz’s ad.

Oz has also criticized Fetterman for statements made about increasing the productivity of the Board of Pardons, which Fetterman chairs.

In an April 2021 Politico article, Fetterman told an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh who worked with at-risk youth to spread the word to encourage people to apply for pardons.

“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 said.

The Board of Pardons, which hears applications for pardons and commutations of life sentences, has been much more active under Fetterman than in previous administrations, though Fetterman has also denied clemency to more than 120 applicants.

The state still has among the highest number of prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences in the U.S. To be granted release, a lifer must get unanimous approval from the board and then get a signature of approval from the governor.

Despite the fact that recidivism among released lifers is extremely rare, releasing prisoners can be politically fraught.

Fetterman has doubled down on his support for more clemency and even hired two former lifers, Lee and Dennis Horton, to work on his campaign.

With Oz’s campaign ad debut, both candidates have now gone on TV in the high-profile Senate race. Fetterman — who has been a much more prolific fundraiser — has been on the air for months. He ran ads detailing his unconventional political style, his time as mayor of Braddock, and one slamming Oz for being from out of state.

Pennsylvania is a huge state where television will likely be critical to messaging.

And the Senate race, which could determine control of the chamber, has so far largely been fought with memes and on screens. Oz has done in-person campaigning around the state, but he’s kept those visits controlled and largely closed to the media.

Fetterman attended several in-person fundraisers last week but has yet to do any events with voters, save for a quick pop-in at a volunteer event earlier this month. He has done one media interview since his May 13 stroke.