It’s been rumored for months that one-time U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman was again setting his sights beyond Braddock, the steel town-turned-urban renewal test lab where he’s been mayor since 2005.
And while Fetterman has yet to publicly confirm the speculation, campaign-style meet-and-greets announced via his Facebook page over the weekend may have done it for him.
Those events are slated for Braddock on Tuesday and Philadelphia on Wednesday. The latter, in particular, lends credence to the theory that Fetterman is again looking outward as he seeks a larger platform for his brand of liberal populism.
As recently as August, Fetterman, a Democrat, told KDKA-TV that he was contemplating a run to replace Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, a scandal-plagued second-in-command to Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat. But Fetterman has remained publicly noncommittal since then.
Other rumors dating back to 2016 indicated that Fetterman was being considered for the role by Democratic power brokers looking to oust Stack as his relationship with Wolf soured.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell told City & State in August, “John is the archetype of a Trump-Democratic voter — except that he has a master’s from Harvard. We should be using candidates like John in Pennsylvania all the time.”
Rendell added at the time, “I love John Fetterman. Of course, only Gov. Wolf can choose who to back for lieutenant governor.”
The governor’s office has so far declined to comment.
State Democrats will hold their endorsement convention at the beginning of February. In Pennsylvania, candidates for lieutenant governor and governor run separately in party primaries and together in the general election.
It’s clear why some like Rendell see Fetterman as an asset, should he choose to run.
Not only does Fetterman have a larger-than-usual profile for a prospective statewide candidate — thanks in part to years of national media profiles and appearances on shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown“ — Fetterman is also politically ambidextrous.
He’s a progressive Democrat with a Sanders-esque resonance and, some believe, an ability to draw disillusioned Democrats — many of them spurned Sanders supporters — back into the party fold. And while he’s been deeply critical of President Donald Trump, he’s also remained empathetic to those Trump voters, including his own parents, who responded more to Trump’s economic message than cultural dog whistles.
“The question within our own party is: ‘Do we go after these Trump voters? Or are we like ‘Screw ’em, we’re going to find a new way,'” Fetterman told PennLive in May. “And I feel like we’re evenly divided between ‘Screw ’em, they’re all racists, we’ll find a new path’ and ‘Look, many of these folks voted for Obama twice.'”
Fetterman belongs to the latter camp, in case that wasn’t clear.
Either of these anomalies could, on its own, give Pennsylvania Democrats a boost in what is expected to be a heated race next year for Pennsylvania governor.
Meanwhile, the speculation around Fetterman’s own interest in the lieutenant governorship has only grown.
As recently as October, Fetterman was rumored to be quietly pursuing a bid for Stack’s seat, with one report indicating he would be turning his sights to the campaign trail immediately after winning re-election as mayor of Braddock, which he won last Tuesday.
He has yet to confirm any plans, though a Philly.com report citing sources close to Fetterman says he’s expected to formally announce his candidacy Tuesday.
The Pennsylvania Department of State did not recently have any 2018 campaign paperwork on file for Fetterman or any of the declared candidates for lieutenant governor, for that matter.
“I think that John Fetterman has had his sights set higher than Braddock mayor for a while,” Kristin Kanthak, an associate professor with Pitt’s Department of Political Science, told The Incline. “That’s been pretty clear since he ran for Toomey’s Senate seat in the last cycle. He has had a national reputation for a while, and I expect he will continue to try to parlay that into statewide office until he succeeds. I think he learned from his Senate race that he needs to work up in the ranks before he will be able to win an election like that.”
Fetterman has said he plans to run for Senator Pat Toomey’s seat again in 2022. (Lieutenant governors and governors are elected every four years.)
But Kanthak said of a preceding run for lieutenant governor, “What I think is difficult for Fetterman now is that ‘primary-ing’ a fellow member of your party is generally considered to be bad form. Loyal Democrats don’t run against loyal Democrats, usually. The parties are very powerful in Pennsylvania. Stack is a special case because of his controversies, though. My expectation is that if Fetterman moves, it will be with the blessing of key Democrats.”
But Rendell told Philly.com last month of a possible Fetterman candidacy: “If Fetterman has the guts to run without Wolf’s blessing, I think he’ll win.”
As for Stack, he’s also expected to run, to the dismay of some.
Asked about a potential challenge from Fetterman, a spokesman for Stack shrugged, telling Philly.com, “We don’t see him [Fetterman] as being any different than anyone else.”