PENNSYLVANIA

From the top of the political world to a basement office: How John Fetterman will fit in the US Senate

Julia Terruso and Jonathan Tamari
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

For close to two years, John Fetterman was a political celebrity starring in one of the nation's most closely watched — and well-funded — Senate races.

Now, he's a newly sworn-in senator with a temporary office in a colorless conference room in the basement of a Senate office building. You can find him across from the stationery shop.

"It's not a part of the building people tend to venture to," said Fetterman's chief of staff, Adam Jentleson. "This is the life of a freshman senator, and we are basically at the bottom of the food chain."

Vice President Kamala Harris, right, participates in a ceremonial swearing-in of Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., left, with his wife Gisele Barreto Fetterman, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Fetterman's new life as a Senate rookie calls for many adjustments.

As is tradition with incoming freshmen, he must wait for senior members to move into their offices before getting a permanent home, likely sometime in the spring or early summer. In the meantime, colleagues and supporters watch to see what kind of legislator the former small town mayor becomes on Capitol Hill.

Fetterman has been an advocate for union rights, marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform. But he often campaigned in broad strokes and themes — promising, for example, to fight for "the union way of life" and "forgotten communities." Now, Fetterman, who has no legislative voting record, will have to detail his vision as he weighs the trade-offs and compromises that come with lawmaking in Congress. What issues might he prioritize and which ones will go on the back burner? Where will he agree to give-and-take and where will he stand firm? What committees will he serve on, which can determine which areas he can most directly affect?

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There's also the question of style. Will the often-brash lieutenant governor be outspoken in Washington? Or more of an apprentice to fellow Pennsylvania Democrat Sen. Bob Casey? It's the first time in decades the state has had two Democratic senators, which could mean more liberal judicial nominations for federal judges in the state.

"He's got guts and he'll stand up for the right causes," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who campaigned with Fetterman and has become one of the party's most outspoken advocates for blue-collar workers. "He'll stand up for workers first."

'Socks on a rooster'

Fetterman prided himself on being an unconventional candidate, despite a somewhat typical political background — a longtime mayor, then the lieutenant governor. But his Carhartt hoodies and shorts captivated supporters, and many wonder how he "fits in" in the gilded rotunda.

In his first trip to the Capitol since his election, Fetterman wore his only suit (Jentleson said the senator-elect has plans to buy more) and made the news for it. The media fascination prompted eye rolls from Fetterman aides.

"I saw the picture ... it was like seeing socks on a rooster," said Ross Baker, a Senate historian and political science professor at Rutgers University.

While jackets and ties are expected for senators on the floor, many have found ways to flash their style — Westerners in cowboy boots and string ties, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in Puma sneakers.

But Baker said Fetterman's suit "certainly signals his respect for the office. I think he gets that that's important coming in."

There's a tradition of incoming senators keeping a low profile, no matter how big their backgrounds, something that Hillary Clinton, among others, honored.

But that custom has been upended in recent years by brash freshmen who tried to make a mark early, including Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Josh Hawley, R-Mo..

Jentleson, a former senior aide to ex-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, got a close look at the inner workings of the Senate, and negotiations that keep the body moving. He predicted that Fetterman will ease into the job.

"There is a value to learning how the place works and building relationships and taking it one step at a time," Jentleson said.

Boldness brings some risk, Baker said. "You can irritate your colleagues. I think there's a desire to steer clear of people who are clearly showboating."

At the same time, social media has enabled some senators to have outsized influence, and that's a venue where Fetterman thrives.

"The good thing about being known like him is a lot of times there are issues that haven't really bubbled to the surface, that he can help shine a light on," said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., another former mayor who arrived to the Senate with a national following. "If you shine lights on things, you could often shame people into getting things done."

Because of Fetterman's star power, Booker said, "he'll be able to highlight the struggles of people that often don't get paid attention to or challenges that Americans are facing that this place really needs to address."

Jentleson called Fetterman's relative celebrity "a blessing and a curse."

"It brings the ability to have influence, but it can also be a pitfall because it can be a source of jealousy ... If you are seen as someone who doesn't work hard, or deliver for the greater good or be a team player. We're very aware of that."

Fetterman is also joining a body that has long prized its tradition — or at least veneer — of collegiality. But as lieutenant governor, Fetterman was criticized, including by some fellow Democrats, for being brusque and at times uninterested in other people's opinions. (His supporters say he's just shy and that some of his edge has softened since his May stroke.)

"It's different than being an executive," Booker said. "You create relationships on both sides of the aisle, and you get things done."

One factor that might keep Fetterman's debut more subdued is his continued recovery from his stroke and lasting auditory processing challenges. While many senators make news in hallway press scrums, where reporters pepper them with questions, Fetterman is unlikely to be able to participate in those interactions, at least not immediately.

But Jentleson said the office has already started working with the Senate on closed captioning technology and that Fetterman has mingled with colleagues with and without captioning assistance.

He said Fetterman, who campaigned to be the Democrats' 51st vote, will approach the job as a team player, not unlike Casey (with whom he said Fetterman enjoys a "bromance").

Casey said Fetterman will be served well in Washington by the strong connection he built to Pennsylvanians back home.

"People expect you to listen to them and to understand as best you can their struggles, to understand what they're up against every day," Casey said. "John has shown not just a willingness to do that, and a strong record of listening to people and fighting for them ... His personal story with his health challenges makes that connection to people even stronger."

Some of the adaptations are more tied to everyday life: understanding the rhythms of the Senate and how to manage time away from home. Casey and his wife, Terese, had dinner with Fetterman and Gisele the Monday after the election, the senator said.

Fetterman's wife and three children will live in Braddock while the new senator commutes to Washington.

"We just tried to give him a sense of the life of the Senate," Casey said. "How many days you're in Washington and what that can mean for your family."

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., noted that he and Fetterman are both ex-mayors and ex-lieutenant governors (not a big club).

"Mayors are real hands-on people. Mayors are also the kind of people who will say, 'Yeah, this bill sounds good, but let me tell you, when you try to implement that in a place where people live and work, it ain't going to work so well,'" Kaine said.

'A senator in D.C. to move the ball forward'

Sean Damon, organizing director at the Amistad Law Project, a civil rights legal group for prisoners, hopes Fetterman works with Booker to push for second chance legislation.

Damon said more than 6,000 people are serving life or virtual life sentences in federal prison, some for decades-old drug convictions.

"In the last year, we saw him attacked relentlessly over his role at the Board of Pardons," Damon said. "He stood strong ... and I think that's a great window into the kind of person he is and how he will govern."

Marijuana legalization advocates are also watching (and it's another issue where Fetterman and his New Jersey neighbor Booker have common ground). "The people of Pennsylvania have been clear that they want prohibition ended," said Randal Meyer, executive director of the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce. "And it's high time they have a senator in D.C. to move that ball forward."

Disability activists, too, have said they hope Fetterman becomes not only a public face for stroke survivors but also a visible sign of accessibility and accommodations.

Jentleson was mum on what committees Fetterman hopes to be on. He acknowledged in a divided government, Fetterman "will have to find creative ways to deliver on his promises."

Shaping the judiciary

Shaping the judiciary is likely to be one of the most consequential moves the Senate can make in the next two years, and with two Democrats in office, there's a chance the federal bench in Pennsylvania could become more liberal.

For many years, Pennsylvania's split Senate delegation has negotiated nominations for district court vacancies. The president's party picked three nominees and the other side got one, all subject to bipartisan approval. Now, Casey and Fetterman can work with the White House without the constraints of bipartisan negotiations, potentially allowing them to move faster and nominate more liberal judges.

"Judicial picks will certainly reflect his own his ideology and his views," Jentleson said of Fetterman.

As Fetterman comes into office, there are three federal court openings: one in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and two in the Middle District.

Then there are the day-to-day challenges: managing a staff and offices sprawled across the state, as well as constituent casework to help Pennsylvanians with problems caught up in the federal bureaucracy.

Fetterman's team hired Philadelphian Joe Pierce to lead his office's statewide business and Elizabeth Casertano as regional director in the West. Fetterman's Senate office has 50 positions to hire for in about two weeks, Jentleson said. They're also evaluating where statewide offices will be. Eventually there will be the business of moving into a permanent spot accented with some Braddock decor.

But for now the basement has its upsides, Jentleson said — it's near the Dirksen cafeteria, a common meeting spot. And it's got some history. Barack Obama and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., have used the space during their transitions into the Senate, Jentleson said.

"So it's got a good genealogy."