John Fetterman rallies in Philly, his first public event in the city

Jonathan Tamari
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — Standing in front of a blown-up photo of the LOVE sculpture, John Fetterman introduced himself to a crowd dotted with Eagles gear in a Northwest Philadelphia gym.

“I’m ‘Jawn’ Fetterman,” he said to cheers Saturday morning.

With less than 50 days until Election Day, Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, held his first public campaign event in the deeply Democratic city where turnout is vital to his party’s hopes in November’s elections. But he promised not to pander to Philly voters, saying that’s something they’d hear from Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz.

“But if I can, let me say that Wawa is totally better than Sheetz,” cracked Fetterman, who lives in Braddock, near Pittsburgh, and usually promotes his loyalty to the western Pennsylvania chain.

More:Oz releases health records to spotlight Fetterman's stroke

More:Fetterman, Oz agree to Oct. 25 debate, but feud over terms

More:Election-denying 'patriot' groups trying to vote out voting machines across Pa.

The event in East Mount Airy was the first of two rallies Fetterman held Saturday, accelerating his campaign schedule as he recovers from his May stroke. Each visited key parts of the electoral map. The first was in Pennsylvania’s most deep blue city. The second, in Bethlehem, in a swing county that often serves as a bellwether, where more than 1,000 packed into a community college gym, waving black Fetterman signs.

Fetterman’s visit to Philly came as the race entered its final six weeks with polls narrowing and members of both parties predicting a tight finish in one of the country’s most crucial elections. The winner of Pennsylvania’s Senate race could help decide control of the chamber, and with it the direction of the Senate’s policy debates.

The Oz campaign said Fetterman had “arrogantly ignored” Philadelphia by waiting so long for a major event, while the GOP nominee has held a recent news conference in the city and made a five-hour swing Monday through Germantown and Kensington, laying out his plan to help Black communities and decrying the city’s opioid crisis.

John Fetterman poses for a selfie with a supporter Saturday in Philly.

Fetterman, the lieutenant governor, used his morning stop to directly hit back at some of the main attacks leveled by Oz and the GOP. He blasted the celebrity doctor for mocking his May stroke, and stood behind his push for clemency for people who had served long prison terms — aiming to counter a wave of advertising that has painted him as soft on crime.

Fetterman said he knew his advocacy would bring political attacks, but “I would never trade a title for my conscience.”After coming onstage to AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” Fetterman spoke to a crowd of about 600 for about 12 minutes. His speech was smoother than at some earlier events, though still halting at times, and with at least one notable stumble.

As he sarcastically pledged not to pander, he joked that “the Eagles are so much better than the Eagles.” He clearly meant to say the Steelers. (The crowd rallied to help him, unleashing an E-A-G-L-E-S chant).

But Fetterman aimed to flip criticism of his lingering speech and auditory problems against Oz, asking members of the crowd to hold up their hands if they or a parent or a child had endured a major health issue.

“I hope that you didn’t have a doctor in your life making fun of it, laughing at you, telling you that you’re not able to do your job,” Fetterman said to cheers, repeating a line he has used often as he has returned to the campaign trail.

More:Educators speak out against Mastriano's proposed cuts to school funding

More:Josh Shapiro, in $16.9M ad blitz, declares Doug Mastriano 'too risky for Pa.'

More:Fight over mail-in ballots persists in key states, including Pennsylvania

And he spent part of his speech answering the attacks on crime, amplified by millions of dollars of GOP TV ads highlighting his push for clemency as the head of the state’s Board of Pardons. Those criticisms have centered largely on Fetterman’s support for commuting the sentences of people who had served long prison terms and shown they had reformed, including some who had been convicted of murder or other serious offenses.

“After weeks of dodging debates and refusing to take questions about his support for putting convicted murderers back on our streets and decriminalizing dangerous drugs like fentanyl, John Fetterman doesn’t get a prize for finally showing up to an area he’s arrogantly ignored for months,” said Oz spokesperson Brittany Yanick. “He thinks he’s entitled to the votes of this community. He’s dead wrong.”

After weeks of pressure from Oz, Fetterman has agreed to a debate on Oct. 25.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman greets supporters after speaking Saturday at the Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center in Northwest Philly.

In the past Fetterman said he supports decriminalizing all drugs. His campaign hasn’t answered if that’s still his position.

Many of the Philadelphians at Fetterman’s event said they were worried about crime and violence in the city, but also that they supported his advocacy for clemency and sentencing reform.

“You talk to anyone in Philadelphia and we’re not the worst thing we have ever done,” said Tonya Bah, 56. “Philadelphia loves Fetterman. We believe in second chances.”

Ahead of the rally a line snaked around the block. A truck selling Fetterman merchandise was parked outside, itself a rolling troll machine. It had New Jersey license plates and, painted on the bumper, the words “Look familiar, Dr. Oz?” Inside, the pre-rally playlist leaned heavily on '80s and '90s rock, including Metallica and Poison.

Special Subscription Offers

But mostly they praised the Democratic nominee as a regular guy who they believed would stand up for ordinary Pennsylvanians.

“To me he’s like a regular, blue-collar guy,” said Wynetta Ward, 53, of Mount Airy. “There’s no suit and tie. We’re a blue-collar city.”

Rhonda Johnson Mazzccua called herself a “stone-cold Fetterman supporter.”

“He doesn’t seem like a politician that you can’t approach,” said Johnson Mazzccua, 62, of Germantown. “I haven’t felt like this about a politician since President [Barack] Obama.”

She said two of her nephews, and a stepson, had all been killed in shootings. But she cited Fetterman’s support for pardons as a reason to support the Democrat.

“What I see is that he’s fair, because the judicial system has been real hard on us, and he’s been fair about it,” said Johnson Mazzccua.

Women and men at the rally cited the end of the constitutional right to abortion as a motivating force. After the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, other individual rights are at risk if Republicans take control in Washington, said Craig Browne, 75, of Wyncote. He said voting rights could be next.

“My ancestors who died, who were beaten, who were maimed, we cannot let that go in vain,” Browne said.

Fetterman’s recent schedule has been limited by his recovery, but even before his stroke he had not held a public event or media availability in Philadelphia in more than 19 months of campaigning.

The city provides the biggest single pocket of Democratic votes in Pennsylvania, accounting for 17% of President Joe Biden’s support in the state in 2020, and is usually showered with attention from Democrats.

From the Democratic stronghold Fetterman then sped to the Lehigh Valley, heading to Northampton Community College, in a swing county that often mirrors the winner of statewide races. Around 1,025 packed into another gymnasium, where Fetterman spoke immediately after U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat locked in one of the most competitive U.S. House races in the country.

Fetterman’s speech was similar to the one in Philadelphia, his delivery and timing precise, with little evidence of trouble. And there was another local touch: This time the poster behind him showed the Bethlehem SteelStacks. He connected Bethlehem’s steel history to the coal industry in his part of the state.

“I promise you I’m the only candidate in this race who lives directly across from a steel mill,” Fetterman jabbed.