ERIE, Pa. ― U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman expressed gratitude to his supporters and the resolve to beat Republican rival Mehmet Oz at his first campaign rally after suffering a nearly fatal stroke in May.
The Pennsylvania Democrat, clad in a black hooded sweatshirt, rose to the lectern at the Erie convention center accompanied by his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, on Friday evening. The verses of ACDC’s “Back in Black” were barely audible over the roar of the 1,300-person crowd. The campaign said it had anticipated a turnout of about 500.
“Thank you so much for being here tonight. Thank you so much,” Fetterman declared. “Because really tonight for me, it’s about being grateful.”
At times choking up with emotion, Fetterman, who never prepares his speeches, kept his remarks to roughly 10 minutes.
The stroke had noticeably slowed his speech. At times he would deliver the first three-quarters of a sentence with confidence and then pause before getting the last few words out.
But Fetterman, who looked considerably thinner than he had before his medical event, hit most of the notes that Democrats have come to expect from their congressional candidates. He presented himself as a champion of abortion rights, union rights, a $15 minimum wage and an end to the Senate filibuster rules.
Perhaps most important, Fetterman continued the beatdown he has been applying to Oz on social media and in the press for months while recovering. Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor and former mayor of the troubled steel town of Braddock, has painted Oz as an out-of-touch celebrity who moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey in pursuit of vain political glory.
“He doesn’t live here. He’s not about us. He doesn’t care about us,” Fetterman said, the volume rising in his voice.
The Fetterman campaign decided to hold his comeback rally in the city of Erie because the county where the city is located is a swing-voting bellwether for the direction of the state as a whole.
Fetterman, who staked his primary run on the notion that Democrats needed to compete in every county in the state, pointed to his strong performance in Erie County in the primary ― and Oz’s poor showing in his own intra-party contest ― as evidence that Erie would once again deliver for Democrats in November. As if to drive home the point, a giant campaign logo with a map of Pennsylvania and the words “Every county, every vote” hung behind him as he spoke.
“You are going to deliver for us in November,” Fetterman said in concluding his speech. “That will deliver Pennsylvania for us. That will deliver the 51st [Democratic] vote in the Senate.”
“You are going to deliver for us in November. That will deliver Pennsylvania for us.”
The conceit of Fetterman’s campaign is that his appearance, speaking style and focus on economic fairness can help Democrats compete in a state where the Democratic coalition has struggled to withstand decades of attrition from rural and blue-collar voters.
Fetterman’s origins are not as folksy as his towering height, bald pate, tattoos and casual attire might suggest. He is the son of a wealthy insurance executive in central Pennsylvania who provided significant financial support for Fetterman and his family while Fetterman was running Braddock.
But Fetterman’s contempt for the traditional fanfare of politics, such as schmoozing with political insiders and delivering soaring speeches, is genuine. And Oz, who indeed lived in a massive mansion in New Jersey until running for Senate, provides a perfect foil for Fetterman.
Fetterman’s biggest obstacles are a national political environment that remains largely unfavorable to Democrats and the stroke that kept him off of the campaign trail for three months.
Fetterman suffered the stroke days before his blowout primary win in mid-May. He had not been feeling well while campaigning near Lancaster, and his wife urged him to go to the doctor. Had he been in a more remote region of the state, farther from a sophisticated medical facility, he might not have survived.
Fetterman, who underwent surgery to insert a pacemaker the day of his primary victory, had for years ignored his doctor’s recommendations to take preventive medicine for a congenital heart condition and to seek regular medical attention. He has promised to change his behavior going forward.
In response to Fetterman’s trolling, Oz has been taunting Fetterman for being absent on the campaign trail.
“Pennsylvanians know John Fetterman hasn’t shown up to the campaign trail, but they might not know that as Mayor of Braddock, he didn’t show up for work either,” Oz tweeted on Friday.
Democrats eager to see Fetterman hold his polling lead over Oz, and Republicans looking for signs that Fetterman will never quite regain his step, both will find material from which to draw in Friday’s rally.
Pauline and Dave Demarrall, retirees from Harbor Creek, were excited to see Fetterman speak and glad they came. But Pauline lamented that the speech had felt a little “generic.”
“I wanted to hear about more policy stuff,” Dave concurred. Both of them nonetheless still think Fetterman is suitably healthy and will vote for him.
As Fetterman continues to get his rhetorical groove back, Gisele is likely to be an asset to him on the campaign trail. Gisele, who filled in as keynote speaker in her husband’s absence on primary election night, spoke with her characteristic humor and grace on Friday.
She introduced herself as the second lady of Pennsylvania, or “my favorite way to say it: the SLOP.” But when she turned to introduce John, she got serious again.
“I’m thrilled to be here and to be introducing John Fetterman: my husband, your lieutenant governor, a stroke survivor and the next senator of Pennsylvania,” she said, prompting cheers from the crowd.