Senate candidate John Fetterman was embraced by voters at his first Philly campaign rally

PHILADELPHIA — Ted Gardner sat on his front stoop watching hundreds of people across the street snake down the block and around a corner, marveling that he hadn’t seen a crowd like that since former first lady Michelle Obama campaigned in the same spot eight years ago for Gov. Tom Wolf (D).

This time, the people in line were waiting to see Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman, who on Saturday afternoon held a campaign rally in a predominantly Black neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia, his first public visit to the city since launching his candidacy in February 2021.

Fetterman has centered much of his candidacy’s appeal on his ability to woo voters in more conservative parts of the state, where White working-class voters have migrated to Republicans in recent years. As he’s worked to attract those voters, it has remained unclear whether Black voters — a critical voting bloc for any Democrat to win statewide in Pennsylvania — would turn out for Fetterman, particularly in vote-rich Philadelphia.

Gardner, 55, and his next-door neighbor, Ronald Lamb, 52, who are both Black, have “Fetterman for Senate” signs in their windows.

“I like John Fetterman because he’s one of us,” Gardner said. “He stands for everything I stand for,” Lamb added.

Donna Bess, 56, who was standing on the stoop with Gardner and Lamb, pointed to a picture of Fetterman plastered on the side of a black truck selling campaign merchandise. “Look how he dress,” she said, referring to his trademark oversized sweatshirts. “He’s one of us.”

During the Democratic primary, Fetterman’s challengers tried to convince Black voters that he was not one of them. They raised an incident from 2013 when Fetterman, then mayor of the predominantly Black town of Braddock, a suburb of Pittsburgh, chased down an unarmed Black jogger, who he suspected may have just fired gunshots. Fetterman, who was armed with a shotgun, detained the man until police arrived. Fetterman has insisted he didn’t know the race of the person he pursued.

This month, a super PAC backing Fetterman’s rival, Republican Mehmet Oz, revisited the incident with a 30-second television ad intended to sow doubt with Black voters about the Democrat.

But, in interviews with a dozen Black leaders, strategists and voters in Philadelphia, no one brought up the nine-year-old story. Even state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat, who raised the issue when he was running against Fetterman in the primary and demanded an apology, said he wasn’t interested in looking backward. He criticized Oz and his allies for bringing it up.

“He is just throwing out anything he can throw out,” Kenyatta, who is Black, said. “He has no business being in a conversation about the Black community.

“What frustrates me, you cannot tell me that you care abut gun crime in this community and then oppose all the things that would actually deal with crime,” Kenyatta said, referring to GOP opposition to gun control. “That’s not a message to Black people, that’s a message to scare White people about Black communities.”

Earlier this week, Oz held a roundtable with Black Philadelphians and touted his “Plan to Fight for Black Communities,” which includes support for criminal justice laws. Oz and his campaign have attacked Fetterman over his work to release people from prison who were wrongfully accused, as well as some nonviolent offenders. The Oz campaign has specifically pointed to Fetterman’s role in the commutation of two brothers serving a life sentence for a murder they maintained for nearly 30 years they didn’t commit. When they were released, Fetterman hired them to work on his campaign.

Those brothers, Lee and Dennis Horton, flanked Fetterman at his Philadelphia rally, which drew a crowd of 600 people, about evenly divided between Black and White people, to the gymnasium of a recreation center. Fetterman, still recovering from a near-fatal stroke in May, spoke for a little more than 12 minutes. He spent much of that time mocking Oz as out of touch with Pennsylvania, delivering laugh lines to the friendly audience. He also touched on overhauling criminal justice laws, protecting abortion access, getting rid of the filibuster and raising the minimum wage as key issues.

The Horton brothers, who are Black, introduced Fetterman at the rally, sharing first how the Democrat was the first elected official to fight for them. Lee Horton said Fetterman told their sister, “I am going to fight to get your brothers out even if that means I lose every election after this.”

Fetterman, in his remarks, said he knew that this would be material for future opponents to use against him, but said, “I would never trade a title for my conscience.”

Fetterman is leading Oz in polls, although the race has tightened as both sides pour money into the race in the final weeks. Democrats see Fetterman as their best chance to flip a Senate seat, currently held by retiring Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, as they defend other seats around the country. Republicans need to gain only one more seat in the 50-50 Senate to take the majority.

Despite not having campaigned in the city during the primary, Fetterman narrowly won Philadelphia, beating Kenyatta and Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who was the favorite of the Democratic establishment.

Several Black Democrats who attended the rally cited abortion and gun violence as issues motivating them to vote this year.

“Fetterman listens to women’s rights because if they take away women’s rights, what other rights are in store? Is it going to be voting rights? It’s already under attack,” said Verhonda Williams, 69, standing in the front of the line before the rally.

Other voters talked about Fetterman’s authenticity as driving their excitement about his candidacy. Dana Ancrum, 59, said she’s been listening to his ads and thinking, “he might just be the real thing.”

Asia Whittenberger, 23, and Alyvia Benson, 22, both doing a year with AmeriCorps, said they were excited to vote for Fetterman.

“I think, for me, I know I’m a very young voter, but I’ve never been more confident in a politician in my life or someone running,” Whittenberger said.

After the rally, Denise Smith, 64, stood outside with her brother, John Holmes, 54, and reflected on what they’d just experienced.

“His energy, his swagger, his vibe and his experience of knowing what it takes,” Holmes said, when asked why he’d be supporting Fetterman. “I’ll 100 percent back him up.”