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Bernie Sanders heads to Pennsylvania to stump for Democratic insurgent candidates

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), left, talks with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as they head to the Senate Chamber for a vote last month. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is hitting the road to boost three candidates before Pennsylvania’s May 15 primaries, clashing with Democratic Party forces at the state and federal levels in some of the year’s most bitter races.

“We are endorsing candidates at the federal, state and local level, all over this country, who are prepared to stand up for a progressive agenda, to run against big-money interests, and to run grass-roots campaigns,” Sanders said in an interview. “That’s what these three candidates are doing. I happen to believe that the only way Democrats are going to win in those states is by running strong Democrats, progressive Democrats, who will stand up for the working class.”

On Friday and Saturday, Sanders will rally with John Fetterman, a candidate for lieutenant governor; Jess King, a nonprofit executive running in the 11th Congressional District; and Greg Edwards, a candidate in the 7th Congressional District. Edwards’s race has become a smash-mouth three-way battle between himself, a conservative Democrat, and a liberal candidate backed by Emily’s List. King’s race had been one of the highest-profile clashes between the party’s left-wing base and its establishment, until court-ordered redistricting put her in a new right-leaning district. (She now faces no opponent in the primary.)

The Fetterman race has turned bitter, too. Fetterman, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2016, has angered some activists in Allegheny County, where he is the mayor of Braddock, by endorsing a fracking proposal in his city and endorsing an incumbent Democratic state legislator who is being opposed by a member of Democratic Socialists of America.

Sanders jumped into the fray anyway, and Fetterman was happy to have him. “He’s the most popular polling Democrat in the country, and he’s a leader of the progressive movement,” said Fetterman. “I want to push back on that fracking thing. We’re Democrats. We are supposed to look after working-class families. If the [steel] mill that wants to do this goes under, that’s 3,000 jobs lost. All they need to do is drill two wells.”

Sanders also said that the fracking issue was no reason to reject Fetterman.

“My view is that we’ve got to transform our energy system and move away from fossil fuels, and ban fracking from one side of this country to the other,” Sanders said. “If John happens to disagree with me on that issue, then we disagree. What I do know is that John believes in Medicare for all, believes in raising the minimum wage, believes in pay equity.”

But Fetterman’s opponents aren’t sitting by while the candidate rallies with Sanders. Nina Ahmad, a former Philadelphia deputy mayor who jumped into the race this year, used the occasion to criticize Fetterman’s 2013 handling of a situation near his home in Braddock. Fetterman, who said he had heard gunfire while one of his children was playing outside, grabbed his shotgun, called 911, and confronted a man who claimed to have been merely jogging by. The runner was black, but Fetterman said he didn’t know that because the man was wearing “a face mask and goggles” and what Fetterman called “commando gear.”

The jogger story re-emerged in 2016, during Fetterman’s Senate bid. At the time, he suggested that one of his better-funded Democratic opponents was shopping the story around.

This year, Ahmad is attacking Fetterman’s judgment herself, with no filter.

“As a brown person in this country, it’s important that we understand that implicit bias is destroying lives,” she said. “It’s important that we hold people accountable. It doesn’t matter if an incident happened years ago or yesterday.”

Fetterman defended his decisions in 2013. “When the rifle rounds started going off, I made three quick decisions: to get my little boy indoors, to call 911, and to confront the suspect,” he said. “This was three weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre,” the shooting at a Connecticut school in which 20 young children and seven adults were killed.

In one way, Fetterman said, the reappearance of the 2013 incident demonstrated how the ground had moved. In 2016, when the controversy first circulated, he was not able to secure key endorsements; Sanders, who Fetterman backed in the 2016 presidential primary, did not come to the state to campaign for him.

“There’s not been any pressure on this campaign,” he said. “From 2016 to now, my positions haven’t changed. What have changed are the dynamics. In 2016, I had a 90 mph head wind coming at me, with unlimited money going to [party-backed candidate] Katie McGinty. And in this race that’s not the case.” (McGinty won the Democratic primary but lost to Republican Patrick J. Toomey in the general election.)

Sanders’s 24-hour Pennsylvania trip began with a visit to someone who has no election this year — Larry Krasner, the new district attorney in Philadelphia. On Friday afternoon, Krasner and Sanders sat down for an interview with Jacobin magazine and community activists, and Sanders praised the new DA for working to “end mass incarceration” and change the justice system from inside.

But Krasner spent some of their time together criticizing Democrats who run “as Republican lite,” arguing that his party had been losing elections because voters did not have candidates they believed in.

“Voting is habitual,” said Krasner. “If you run candidates who excite people, and they go register to vote, they might do it again.”

Krasner looked across the table at Sanders, who was grinning widely.

“I’m glad you’re smiling,”  Krasner said.