A Democrat in gym shorts tries to rally blue votes in Trump country

John Fetterman believes his road to the U.S. Senate runs through Pennsylvania’s red, rural areas

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) speaks to supporters at a campaign stop on April 3 in Gettysburg, Pa. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) speaks to supporters at a campaign stop on April 3 in Gettysburg, Pa. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

GETTYSBURG, PA. — The gathering feels like a support group. More than a hundred people have come to the community center, everyone seated in rows of chairs arranged in a large semicircle. The host, a towering man with a shaved head, a hoodie and gym shorts, speaks to them in an empathic tone, like he wants them to know he understands.

“Is it easy being a Democrat in a red county?” asks John Fetterman, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate.

“Nooooooo!” the crowd groans.

“Are you sure?” Fetterman asks.

“Yessssss!”

“A show of hands — who has had one of their signs stolen out of their yards?”

Hands shoot up.

“I got a bigger sign!” someone shouts.

“Who has gotten weird looks at the grocery store?” Fetterman asks. “Who has had strained relationships?”

More hands rise, including one belonging to Patsy Hartnett, 69, a retired teacher, who approaches Fetterman after he finishes speaking.

“You validate us,” she tells him. “Thank you.”

Rural Democrats. The muted minority. An embattled species. Here in Adams County, Pa., which borders Maryland, 66 percent of voters went for President Donald Trump in 2020 — about the same that voted for him in 2016, and 3 percent more than went for Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee in 2012. That’s the trend in Pennsylvania, and in many parts of the country. As rural counties grow redder and redder, some Democrats have focused on winning over suburban swing voters turned off by Trumpism and trying to maximize turnout in Democrat-heavy cities.

Is John Fetterman the political folk hero Democrats been waiting for? (From 2018)

Fetterman, 52, who is the purported Democratic front-runner for the coveted U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, has made a show of not giving up on the red counties. These are the places where Trump campaign signs still sit in front yards and banners hang from flagpoles and porches. Several are visible along Lincoln Highway, the road leading into Gettysburg. Plus, on the edge of town, a banner on the side of a shed that says “F--- Biden.”

Fetterman campaigned in these areas in 2016, when he ran for the Senate as a pro-Bernie Sanders candidate and finished third in the primary. After a similar strategy helped him become Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor two years later, he visited all 67 counties during a listening tour about legalizing pot. “This is old hat for us,” he says.

It’s mainly Democrats here at the community center, and at other such stops he has made over the months of his campaign. Fetterman has come to see them. To validate them. To listen. To feel their angst. And to advocate for legal weed, transgender rights, gay rights, ending the filibuster and immigration reform, among other Democratic touchstones.

One of those who have come out is Marty Wilder, a retired local newspaper editor who serves as a Democratic Party leader in McKean County, 150 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where Trump won 72 percent of the vote in 2020. Wilder has lived for 40 years in Bradford, Pa., where the largest employer is the Zippo lighter plant. In recent years, when she organized rallies for Democrats, she said there were people who drove by “in their pickup trucks with their Trump flags, giving us the finger, honking. They came right up to us, especially the younger kids, right to our face.”

“I had a ‘Resist’ sticker on my car that I took off because I don’t want to deal with the harassment,” she says. “It’s pretty difficult being in such a minority.”

In Gettysburg, as Fetterman begins his spiel, a woman shouts, “We all came out of hiding for you!”

This the last of a three-stop tour. Fetterman is doing the drive in his black pickup, along with an entourage that includes campaign staffers and a security detail that follows his truck in a black SUV. He’s done the call-and-response at each one of these stops — Bedford, Chambersburg and now Gettysburg.

“Do you feel the Democratic Party has made your concerns the center of their campaign?” Fetterman asks.

“Nooooo!”

“Do you feel that we need to flip this seat blue?”

“Yes!”

“It’s critical that the Democrats do a good job reaching out to the people, that it’s going to come down to every single vote, and that means every single person in this room.”

He’s quick to make sure everyone knows he doesn’t mean turning Trump counties blue. If he thought that was possible, he likes to say, “You’d think I was smoking too much of what we think should be legal.” The goal is cutting into the margins of Republican victories.

“We as a party cannot afford both from a moral perspective but also a tactical perspective to let any of these counties go 80-20, 82-18, where we just let them run away with it,” Fetterman tells a breakfast crowd at Horn O Plenty, a restaurant in Bedford County, where Trump won 83 percent in 2020.

Republican leaders in Pennsylvania do not seem overly concerned.

“Fetterman is welcome to waste his resources up here, we’ve got a couple of Democrats somewhere,” Vince Matteo, GOP chair in Lycoming County (Trump: 70 percent), said in an interview. “He doesn’t represent the values of Lycoming County or anywhere in rural Pennsylvania. He’d be better off running in New York City.”

The Democrats who have come out to see Fetterman feel different.

Hartnett, who was at Fetterman’s Gettysburg event, said she felt as though he understood what it means “to come from a small town.” “We’re a real overlooked population,” she said. “We’re surrounded by a lot of people who don’t see any value in our viewpoint. He’s listening to us.”

At the Horn O Plenty gathering, where the menu offerings included a $16 plate of corned beef hash and eggs, Dave Cook describes himself as “energized” by Fetterman’s willingness “to encourage us to be Democrats, to not be hiding, to be proud and realize we’re Pennsylvania voters, too.”

Cook, 57, the owner of a weaving business, moved to Bedford 20 years ago after marrying his wife and relocating to her family’s farm. In 2008, he says he and his three kids were standing on a corner with an Obama campaign poster when a car pulled up. The driver, he says, pulled out a gun, “flashed it at us and then drove away. Several people just flipped us off.”

“You learn to keep your views to yourself,” he says.

Seated in a nearby booth, Bonnie Walter, 55, who drives a school van, recalled her own unpleasant encounter at Walmart, where she went shopping in a face covering that had “B-i-d-e-n” printed across the front. “'You have a lot of guts wearing that in a public place,'” a man told her as he passed, she said.

“I wanted to say, ‘Are you one of those people who drank bleach?,’ ” says her husband, Steve Walter, a retired highway worker, but he decided silence was a more prudent response.

“I consider you the secret sauce in Democrats winning statewide,” Fetterman tells the Horn O Plenty crowd.

Fetterman is traveling with Gisele Barreto Fetterman, his Brazil-born wife, who — with her a stylish flower-print dress and leopard-patterned heels — is as dressed up as her husband is dressed down. “I’m always overdressed,” says Gisele. “I think half of it is me trying to compensate for him.”

Fetterman’s sartorial style may seem more suitable for Wawa than Washington (though, for the record, he describes himself as a “Sheetz guy.”) The shorts are a thing. Today’s are black-and-gray, similar to the gym shorts he wore in January, when he met President Biden at the scene of a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh. He also once tried to wear shorts to a funeral, but his wife wouldn’t let him. “You’re putting pants on!” Fetterman remembers her saying. Gisele recalls her husband arguing that the deceased wouldn’t be offended, on account of them being deceased. “I was like, ‘No, John,’ ” she says.

In Bedford, Fetterman meets Alex Dierling, 38, a machinist who is wearing cargo shorts.

“You’re a well-dressed man,” the candidate says.

His Everyman stylings — not just the shorts but also the tattoos on his forearms, and fondness for Carhartt and Dickies — are an often-chronicled aspect of his political rise, along with his 6-foot-8 frame, spiky goatee and intermittent scowl. Even GQ, the Manhattan-based magazine, was taken with Fetterman’s sense of couture, proclaiming him an “American taste god.” But some of the locals who have come out to see Fetterman today are a little nervous about how others will see him.

“I see its appeal,” Sandra Mailey, chair of the Franklin County Democratic committee, says of the Fetterman look. “It’s just that I grew up in a very different time. The whole world dressed for everything.”

“A lot of people are put off by how he dresses, that he isn’t professional,” says Jane Jacobs, a retired nurse standing a few feet away. “It’s not an issue for me but he needs to win. I just hope he talks to more and more people and that they see past the superficial.”

Fetterman’s defense: “Wearing a suit doesn’t make me any smarter.” Or, as he tells a local TV reporter, “This is who I am.”

So who is John Fetterman? He’s the son of a successful insurance executive, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an AmeriCorps alum who moved to Braddock, Pa., a depressed, majority Black mill town outside of Pittsburgh, to help youngsters get their GEDs.

Four years later, he ran for mayor, winning by all of one vote. During his 13-year reign as mayor, he made a point of getting a tattoo marking the date of every murder that happened in Braddock. Stephen Colbert came calling. So did Bernie Sanders. In 2020, Fetterman became a cable-news sensation defending Pennsylvania against Trump’s charges of voter fraud. “The president can sue a ham sandwich,” he said of Trump’s legal challenges.

And now, with a 24-point lead in a recent Franklin & Marshall poll and having raised $15 million, he’s a front-runner in a statewide primary, which means his time as a small-town pol is under as much scrutiny as ever. While he was running quasi-support groups for Democrats in Trump country, his primary opponents were slamming him at a debate in Allentown that Fetterman had chosen to skip.

Their focus was a January 2013 incident in which Fetterman, after hearing what sounded to him like gunshots, saw a man running and pursued him in his truck, then confronted him with a shotgun and held him until police arrived. The man, Christopher Miyares, was unarmed and Black, which Fetterman later said he couldn’t tell when he gave chase. Miyares later said he had been jogging for exercise when the Braddock mayor stopped him. He also said Fetterman had pointed the gun at him, which Fetterman denied. Miyares reportedly never filed a complaint. In Allentown, Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) accused Fetterman of skipping the debate to avoid questions about the incident. A Democratic opponent, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, predicted that Republicans would use it to attack Fetterman if he became the party’s nominee.

Maurice Floyd, a Philadelphia-based political consultant, said the criticisms — Fetterman describes them as “smears” — are generating little chatter beyond political circles. Fetterman, he said, has spoken at length about the incident and has enough of a record working with African Americans to counter the effort to portray him negatively. As for the incident becoming a potential liability in a general election, Floyd said, “It’s not going to hurt him in the African American community. Everyone knows what’s at stake.”

As his rivals debated without him, 100 miles away, Fetterman and Gisele arrived to cheers at an inn in Franklin County (Trump: 71 percent).

“Is it easy being a Dem in a ruby red county?” he asks.

“Noooo!”

When he asks about signs being stolen, someone shouts, “We put the signs up in the trees where they can’t reach them!”

No matter where rural Democrats put their signs, it is questionable whether Republicans themselves are in reach for a candidate like Fetterman. He was surrounded by Democrats grateful for validation; it was less clear how many might be Republicans or independent voters open to persuasion.

At least one is here in Franklin County. After Fetterman’s talk, Margaret Carll, 76, joins the long line to meet him and take photos. When it’s her turn, Carll tells Fetterman she is a registered Republican but plans to switch parties after hearing him speak.

“You made my day!” says the candidate.

Afterward, Carll expresses some trepidation about talking with a reporter about her moment with Fetterman. “It was like going to confession,” she says. “I just like the way he talks and I like the way he’s dressed. I like that he came in shorts. He’s normal, just like us.”

After shaking a last hand, the lieutenant governor gets back behind the wheel of his pickup and drives off, his security detail in tow.

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that John Fetterman finished second in the 2016 Democratic U.S. Senate primary in Pennsylvania; he finished third. The article also referenced Fetterman serving as mayor of Braddock, Pa., for 14 years; he was mayor for 13 years. This article has been corrected.

Loading...
Loading...