Senate candidate John Fetterman was welcomed by voters at his first campaign rally in Philadelphia

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

This time around, people in line expected 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 he He launched his candidacy in February 2021.

Fetterman has focused much of his candidacy’s appeal on his ability to appeal to voters in more conservative parts of the state, where white working-class voters have migrated to Republicans in recent years. As he worked to appeal to those voters, it was unclear whether black voters, a critical voting bloc for any Democrat to win statewide in Pennsylvania, would lean toward Fetterman, particularly in vote-rich Philadelphia.

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

“I like John Fetterman because he’s one of us,” Gardner said. “He represents everything that I represent,” Lamb added.

Donna Bess, 56, who was standing on the step with Gardner and Lamb, pointed to a photo of Fetterman taped to the side of a black truck selling campaign items. “Look at how he dresses,” she said, referring to his oversized sweatshirts. He is one of us.

During the Democratic primary, Fetterman’s rivals 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 city of Braddock, a suburb of Pittsburgh, chased an unarmed black jogger he suspected had just been shot. Fetterman, who was armed with a shotgun, held the man until police arrived. Fetterman has insisted that he did not know the race of the person he was pursuing.

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

But, in interviews with a dozen Black leaders, strategists and voters in Philadelphia, no one mentioned the story from nine years ago. Even state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat from Philadelphia who raised the issue when he ran against Fetterman in the primary and demanded an apology, said he wasn’t interested in looking back. He criticized Oz and his allies for bringing it up.

“He’s just throwing everything he can throw,” said Kenyatta, who is black. “You don’t have to be in a conversation about the black community.

“What frustrates me is that you can’t tell me you care about gun crime in this community and then oppose all the things that actually deal with crime,” Kenyatta said, referring to the GOP’s opposition to gun control. of weapons. “That’s not a message for black people, it’s a message to scare white people about black communities.”

Earlier this week, Oz held a roundtable discussion with Black Philadelphians and promoted his “Plan to fight for black communities”, which includes support for criminal justice laws. Oz and his campaign have attacked Fetterman for his work to free wrongfully accused people from prison, as well as some non-violent criminals. The Oz campaign has specifically pointed to Fetterman’s role in the commutation of two brothers serving life sentences for a murder they held for nearly 30 years that they didn’t commit. When they were released, Fetterman hired them to work on his campaign.

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Those brothers, Lee and Dennis Horton, flanked Fetterman at his Philadelphia rally, which drew a crowd of 600, evenly split black and white, to a rec center gym. Fetterman, still recovering from a near-fatal stroke in May, spoke for just over 12 minutes. He spent much of that time mocking Oz for being out of touch with Pennsylvania, and delivered laugh lines to the friendly audience. He also cited reviewing criminal justice laws, protecting access to abortion, removing filibuster, and raising the minimum wage as key issues.

The Horton brothers, who are black, introduced Fetterman at the rally, first recounting how the Democrat was the first elected official to fight for them. Lee Horton said Fetterman told his sister, “I’m going to fight to get your brothers out, even if it means I lose every election after this one.”

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

Fetterman leads Oz in the polls, though the race has become closer as both sides have poured money into the race in recent weeks. Democrats see Fetterman as their best chance to win a Senate seat, currently held by retired Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, while defending other seats across the country. Republicans need to win just one more Senate seat 50-50 to gain a majority.

Despite not campaigning 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.

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Several black Democrats who attended the rally cited abortion and gun violence as issues that motivated them to vote this year.

“Fetterman listens to women’s rights because if women’s rights are taken away, what other rights are reserved? Will it be voting rights? She is already under attack,” said Verhonda Williams, 69, standing at the front of the line before the rally.

Other voters spoke of Fetterman’s authenticity as a source of enthusiasm for his candidacy. Dana Ancrum, 59, said she’s been listening to ads for him and thinking, “he could be the real deal.”

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 had just experienced.

“His energy, his swagger, his vibe and his experience of knowing what it takes,” Holmes said, when asked why he would be rooting for Fetterman. “I will back it 100 percent.”