The party has a rare opportunity with a majority in Congress and control of the White House. But Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor who is running for Senate, fears Democrats are wasting that opportunity by not eliminating the filibuster and failing to enact key priorities.
“Stop apologizing for the space we take up as a party and ram some stuff through and get it done,” Fetterman said in an interview with CNN. “As a Democrat, I would just hate to be in a position of only being able to accomplish what Mitch McConnell allows us to.”
Fetterman, who stands at a towering height of 6-foot-8 inches tall and has tattoos down his arms, identifies as a populist and said during the interview that he is running as a “get sh*t done Democrat.” He argues the party is not delivering on promises to voters and warns the stakes are too high for inaction as bills to protect voting rights and prevent gun violence hit a wall in the Senate as a result of the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation.
“When you have the kind of extreme measures that are being used by the Republicans, now is the time to stand together. These are dangerous times,” he said. “I guarantee the Republicans, given the chance, would be far more ruthless.”
The fight over the filibuster has created a major dilemma for Democrats: Should the party shatter precedent and go it alone to lock down major legislation or focus instead on across-the-aisle cooperation? With key moderates opposed, there are no signs that Senate Democrats, who control only 50 seats, will eliminate the 60-vote threshold, but pressure continues to build and either choice risks a backlash. Whatever happens will be a major part of the legacy Democrats leave behind.
“When you really put together a core list of the things that are wildly popular and desperately needed by our country that we could accomplish by simply putting this rule aside to get it done, it’s astonishing,” Fetterman said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
The Democratic Senate candidate has a message for anyone in his party who won’t support policies like a $15 dollar minimum wage, voting legislation and safeguarding access to abortion.
“I don’t know why you’re a Democrat if any one of those issues isn’t something (where) you can say, ‘Yes, we need to protect universal voting access rights. Yes, you can’t live on anything less than $15 an hour. Yes, this is settled case law, Roe v. Wade,'” he said. “There’s a party for you if you don’t support all of those kind of basic, fundamental populist things.”
Not a typical purple state politician
Pennsylvania is a political battleground that went for Joe Biden in 2020 and Donald Trump in 2016, but Fetterman doesn’t fit the mold of the kind of play-it-safe centrist candidate the Democratic party often runs in swing states.
The state will have an open Senate seat in 2022 since Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is not running for reelection. The contest has quickly become one of the most high-profile Senate races in the country and is widely viewed as Democrats’ best chance to pick up a Senate seat in the upcoming midterms.
Fetterman mounted an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2016, before he became lieutenant governor. This time around, as a statewide elected official who’s leading the fundraising race, he has been talked about as an early front-runner in the Democratic field. He has so far raised the most of any candidate in the race, Democrat or Republican, at a total of over $6.5 million.
He faces a crowded Democratic primary field and a high-profile opponent in Conor Lamb, a Democratic congressman who represents the state’s 17th congressional district and became nationally known in 2018 when he flipped a House seat from red to blue in a special election. Lamb is a recent entry to the field, having announced his campaign in August, and has so far raised over $1.4 million.
The race will put to the test whether a Democrat like Fetterman can win a Senate seat in a purple state like Pennsylvania in the current era of bitterly-divided partisan politics.
He has long championed marijuana legalization and officiated same-sex marriages before it was legal in his home state. He has defiantly flown pro-legalization and LGBTQ pride flags outside his office at the state capitol after Republicans in the state legislature pushed to take them down. He once called Trump “no different than any other random internet troll,” and endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary as the Vermont independent ran on a progressive platform.
Asked if he has spoken with Bernie Sanders recently, he said, “No, I haven’t. I also endorsed and campaigned heavily for Hillary Clinton too, and I also campaigned strongly for Joe Biden too. It’s always been about what’s best for Pennsylvania.” (Fetterman stayed neutral in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and backed Biden during the general election.)
On Fetterman’s left arm is a tattoo of the zip code for Braddock, the struggling steel town where he served as mayor until 2019. On his right arm are the dates of violent deaths that took place in Braddock while he was mayor. He proudly proclaims that he only owns one suit, and chose not to live in the lieutenant governor’s mansion. Instead, he lives with his family in a converted car dealership in Braddock, while he and his wife, Gisele, opened up the pool at the mansion to the public.
“The people of Pennsylvania don’t owe me a mansion with a chef and a gardener,” he said. “I’m proud that my family and I live across the street from a steel mill and a union hall. This is where my wife and I want to raise our family, not in a mansion … and we’ve opened up the swimming pool to kids across Pennsylvania.”
A contrast with Manchin and Sinema
As he campaigns across the state of Pennsylvania, Fetterman has asked crowds of voters what they think of how Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are voting, and if that’s what they want in their senator. Manchin and Sinema, two influential moderate Senate Democrats, have both been outspoken in saying they oppose eliminating the filibuster.
“It’s like boo, no, no no,” Fetterman said, describing the reaction he has gotten from voters when he asks the question. “At no point does anyone ever raise their hand and say ‘no, I think that’s the right way forward.'”
Asked if he’s picking up on voter frustration when he gets that kind of response, he said, “Frustration is a generous word. It’s more than that. It’s anger. It’s exasperation. Why are we squandering this opportunity?”
Manchin and Sinema have also recently indicated they do not support spending $3.5 trillion on a massive economic package that Democrats hope to soon pass in Congress without Republican support to address health care, the climate crisis and a range of other priorities.
“If you, as a Democrat, are pleased with the way they are voting, or not voting, then I am not that kind of Democrat,” Fetterman said, referring to Manchin and Sinema. “It’s not so much a criticism as just making a statement and differentiating between myself and that.”
Manchin represents the deep red state of West Virginia, while Sinema represents Arizona, a longtime conservative stronghold that voted for Biden in 2020.
Both have argued the filibuster helps facilitate bipartisanship and protects the country from extreme swings in policymaking as control of government moves from one party to the next. They have also argued the filibuster is a critical tool that ensures the minority party still has a seat at the table and Democrats can use it to defend and uphold their priorities when they do not control the majority.
The recent negotiation and passage in the Senate of a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package with funding for roads, bridges, rail and transit is evidence that collaboration between the two parties can yield results.
But Fetterman argues that if Democrats make bipartisanship the overarching goal, they will cede important issues to Republicans, and he warns the GOP is already enacting extreme policies.
“Look at what they’ve already done to voting rights,” he said. “Look at what they’ve already done to abortion rights. Look at what they’ve already done to just basic truth, the way they talk about the election in my state and all these other states.”
There is one way, though, that Fetterman thinks Democrats should emulate Republicans to get things done.
“Republicans have demonstrated time and time again of being ruthless. Look at what they did with Merrick Garland. Look at how they exploited the death of Justice Ginsburg and they rammed Amy Coney Barrett through. They move with efficiency when they need to and this is a time when Democrats should emulate that and enact these things,” he said.
“We’re clutching our own pearls over saying, ‘Hey let’s drop this antiquated rule and pass this fundamentally and immensely popular and beneficial and transformative legislation for the American people who voted us into control of the White House, the Senate and the House.'”
A number of Democrats are competing in the Senate primary. In addition to Lamb, other candidates include state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Val Arkoosh, who serves as chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.
Asked why he thinks he’s the best candidate in the Democratic primary, Fetterman replied, “I’ve never said that I am. That’s up to the people of Pennsylvania to decide.”
The candidates and their records are now under scrutiny as they fight to make it to the general election.
While Fetterman supports a wide range of liberal policies, he opposes an immediate ban on fracking, an industry central to the local economy in parts of Pennsylvania. He argues that Democrats can’t abandon workers employed by the industry and dismissively tell them to “go learn how to code,” and says the party must acknowledge that powering the country with renewable energy won’t happen overnight.
“I’ve never taken a dime in money from the industry and I never will,” Fetterman said. “Two things are true at the same time. Republicans have to be honest and acknowledge our climate crisis. Democrats also must acknowledge the reality of our energy grid, our energy sources and the needs of energy security for our nation.”
“We should transition away from carbon-based fuels, but that is not something that you can just flip a switch metaphorically, no pun intended, and start immediately like banning fracking,” he said. “It’s a transition.”
He has also faced questions over a 2013 incident in which he left his home armed with a shotgun after hearing what he believed to be gunshots and confronted a man who turned out to be an unarmed Black jogger.
Fetterman has said the man was wearing a face mask and he was not aware he was Black, and that race played no part in his actions. He has noted the man was running toward an elementary school and the incident took place in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting.
“I made the decision at that point to intervene to stop him from going any further until the first responders could arrive,” he says in a video released by his Senate campaign. Fetterman told CNN he didn’t have anything further to add on the subject beyond what he has already said publicly when asked about the incident.
If he makes it to the general election, there will be more challenges, including whether a Democrat like Fetterman can win over conservatives and Trump voters in a purple state. Trump recently endorsed Sean Parnell, an Army veteran and former congressional candidate, in the competitive Republican primary.
Fetterman has a track record of success at the state level having won a statewide Democratic primary for lieutenant governor and then a statewide general election when he was on the ticket with Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018.
“There are enough reachable people in our Commonwealth that just want stuff to work. They want things to run,” he said.
“This isn’t about saying we’re going to turn these deep red counties blue. This is about acknowledging there are enough people in Pennsylvania that are open to a message of, ‘you want infrastructure? Hey how’s your internet service, how’s your cell phone service? Well, It sucks. Let’s change that,’ … We don’t have to agree on everything to agree on enough things.”
But Fetterman knows there are some voters that will never be reachable.
“If you believe that horse dewormer is the way to go with Covid, hey, you need to know I don’t. I’m vaccinated. I believe in masking. If that means I don’t get your vote well then I’m sorry about that, but at least you know the truth.”