PHILADELPHIA, PA (WHYY) — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has become the first major candidate to officially launch a campaign for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate in 2022.
The 51-year-old Western Pennsylvania Democrat’s announcement comes as little surprise. Fetterman, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate once before, has a steadily rising national profile and has long been considered a likely contender for the open seat.
Politically, he has made a project of attempting to bridge the increasing conservatism of de-industrialized, once-Democratic-voting areas with his own brand of progressive politics.
“I believe in the dignity of work and the dignity of a paycheck,” he said in his campaign announcement statement. “I believe the union way of life is sacred. I believe in health care as a fundamental, basic human right.”
Fetterman also said he believes in “environmental justice,” wants to overhaul the American criminal justice system, legalize marijuana nationwide, and thinks the country needs to increase protections for LGBTQIA people.
Along with the official start of his campaign, he announced endorsements by two large Pennsylvania unions — United Steelworkers District 10 and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776.
The lieutenant governor started his political career when he was narrowly elected mayor of the small borough of Braddock, outside Pittsburgh, in 2005.
Before that, the York native was involved in AmeriCorps and had earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University. A 2010 Harvard Magazine profile pegged him as an “outlier in an outlying town,” describing him as a “white man with an Ivy League degree and some family money who spent his twenties in existential wanderings” before deciding to settle in a struggling post-industrial town.
Braddock was, then and now, small and hard hit by the fall of the steel industry. Its population is still under 2,000, and its median income is around $22,000 a year.
But even before his first run for U.S. Senate, Fetterman developed an outsize reputation for a small-town mayor.”
Plenty of national profiles were written about Fetterman while he was in charge of Braddock. Many, like a 2011 New York Times story that dubbed him “Mayor of Rust,” focused on his arts-focused urban renewal programs, but also noted his height (6’8”), his imposing combination of a shaved head and goatee, his casual dress, and his tradition of getting a tattoo for each person who died in Braddock due to violence.
His national profile rose further when he launched a long-shot bid for U.S. Senate, jumping into the 2016 Democratic primary against two candidates who were both better known and better funded — former state Secretary of Environmental Protection Katie McGinty, and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.
Fetterman ran as a staunch progressive and endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president. He came in third, but captured a respectable 20% of the vote. McGinty, who won the primary, ultimately lost the race to incumbent Republican Pat Toomey.
Two years later, Fetterman launched a new bid, this time for lieutenant governor against embattled Democratic incumbent Mike Stack. He won.
Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor office has long been dismissed as carrying little actual power. But Fetterman has sought to make the most of his tenure.
When he took a seat on the commonwealth’s pardons board — one of the few actual duties of the LG, aside from presiding over the state Senate — he spearheaded an effort to eliminate fees for applications to have criminal records cleared, and has pushed to more often grant clemency to people who have been stuck in prison for decades.
He also used his position presiding over the Senate to cause some targeted chaos in a chamber that has been controlled by Republicans for decades. On two occasions, he attempted to ignore GOP motions in favor of allowing Democrats to make points — once, when Republicans were getting rid of a program that gave small cash payments to very low-income people, and when they were delaying seating a Democratic member. Both times, Republicans accused him of disrespecting the chamber.
All the while, Fetterman has continued honing his reputation.
His active social media presence — he has more than 350,000 Twitter followers — often features his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, their three children and dog, and their home in a converted Braddock car dealership. In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, his cable news appearances were prolific.
As he prepares for what will likely be a contentious, extremely expensive race, Fetterman is making the case that he’s “a rare Democrat” who can straddle the commonwealth’s — and the country’s — starkly divided politics.
“It’s not rural versus urban, it’s rural and urban,” he said in his campaign announcement. “I’m going to fight not for one part of Pennsylvania, not for one party of Pennsylvania, but for one Pennsylvania.”
Chris Borick, a political pollster and analyst based at Muhlenberg College, noted that “it’s certainly not easy” for a politician to create a labor-focused coalition that transcends “racial, ethnic, regional, and ideological divides.”
But, he said, if any candidate is going to do it, Fetterman might be the one.
“There is some overlap,” he said. “We saw in polling that some voters that were attracted to Bernie Sanders were also attracted to Donald Trump. And maybe somebody like John Fetterman could find a bit of his own recipe to attract members of both camps.”
Fetterman noted his early fundraising efforts have already been successful.
He estimates that in the month since he announced he was seriously exploring a run and began accepting donations, he has raised at least $1.4 million, from about 35,000 different donors. He said the average donation was around $31.
Though the lieutenant governor is the first person to formally enter the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, his is just one of dozens of names being floated as potential contenders.
Toomey’s announcement in October that he wouldn’t run for reelection has cracked the field wide open on both sides of the aisle.
At least one Republican, Montgomery County real estate developer Jeff Bartos, has said he’s seriously considering a run. Fetterman noted he considers Bartos a close personal friend — the two met during the 2018 gubernatorial election, when Bartos was running for lieutenant governor with GOP candidate Scott Wagner, who lost to Gov. Tom Wolf by a significant margin.
Former GOP Congressman Ryan Costello, who represented parts of Chester and Berks counties, is also expected to launch an exploratory committee for Senate. Several current members of Congress are also rumored to be interested in the seat.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.