John Fetterman seeks to build broad Pennsylvania coalition in U.S. Senate bid

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has come a long way since his first U.S. Senate run in 2016, when he captured attention as an atypical small-town mayor. 

The 52-year-old has expanded his profile as a progressive candidate and enters Tuesday’s primary election as the Democratic party’s front-runner in the race for U.S. Senate. His relatable nature could give him a crucial voice among the state’s swing voters.

MORE ELECTION COVERAGE: Pennsylvania race for open U.S. Senate seat is a focal point for party control in Washington, D.C.

As a member Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration since 2019, Fetterman has benefited from the increased visibility of his role. He has traveled with Wolf to promote a range initiatives ranging from blight removal to Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response. And he embarked on a statewide listening tour to gather feedback on the legalization of recreational marijuana.

One of the earliest Democratic candidates to declare his run, Fetterman has led the pack in campaign fundraising, in part, by emulating Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ model of small-dollar online donations. Fetterman also has received a large number of direct donations using traditional mail, demonstrating the variety of supporters who make up his base.

Fetterman has spread a message of unity on the campaign trail, appealing to small communities and rural areas that often have been alienated by Democratic candidates. Though these pockets of voters have largely leaned Republican, Fetterman has made a point of connecting with people by drawing on his experiences in Braddock, a small community outside Pittsburgh.

“Talk is cheap, but for the past 20 years, I have been working to represent, rebuild and to advance these places,” Fetterman said during the early stages of his campaign. “It’s not rural versus urban, it’s rural and urban. I’m going to fight not for one part of Pennsylvania, not for one party of Pennsylvania, but for one Pennsylvania.”

Standing at 6 feet, 8 inches, with a few tattoos on his arms, Fetterman is an object lesson in a candidate being more than initially meets the eye. A former member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of American and Americorps, Fetterman’s interest in politics grew after attending Harvard University for a master’s degree in public policy.

One of the tattoos on Fetterman’s arm is the 15104 ZIP code of Braddock, where he lives with his wife, Gisele, and their children. Tattoos on his other arm include the dates of fatal shootings and other tragedies in Braddock that occurred during his tenure as mayor, which he uses as a reminder to push for solutions to violence.

Fetterman has said his core values include the belief that health care is a fundamental right and that workers deserve dignity, fair pay and the protection of unions. Some of his key campaign issues include criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, environmental justice and preventing gun violence by adopting better safeguards for firearms sales. 

Fetterman also supports abortion rights. After the Supreme Court draft that would overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked, he urged the Democrat-held Senate to abandon the filibuster and codify abortion rights into federal law. 

With wide leads in polls in the Senate race, Fetterman has had a more welcoming response from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In 2016, the party endorsed moderate Katie McGinty over Joe Sestak and Fetterman. McGinity ultimately fell to Republican incumbent Pat Toomey, whose decision not to seek another term left the seat open.

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