PHILADELPHIA — When the Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of a predominantly Black church and host of a drive-time radio show, spoke at Senate candidate John Fetterman’s campaign rally in northwest Philadelphia on Saturday, he addressed the elephant in the room: that Saturday’s event was Fetterman’s first rally in Pennsylvania’s largest city since he began his run for Senate in February 2021.
Earlier in the day, Tyler had heard someone ask why it had taken Fetterman, a Democrat, so long to hold a rally in the city, the pastor recalled to over 600 attendees assembled in a Mount Airy gymnasium.
“I said, ‘That’s ridiculous! Everybody knows that you save the best for last,’” Tyler quipped, drawing roars of approval from the racially diverse crowd.
Fetterman’s inaugural Philadelphia rally was the capstone of a monthslong effort by the campaign to scale up its operations in the city of more than 1.5 million people.
That’s because while Democrats’ rising fortunes in the Philadelphia suburbs have justifiably elicited national attention, Fetterman’s team understands that high turnout in the city itself is a prerequisite for victory.
“The stakes are always incredibly high. Philly has to turn out at a high margin.”
– Brendan McPhillips, Fetterman campaign manager
“The stakes are always incredibly high,” Fetterman campaign manager Brendan McPhillips told HuffPost in a pre-rally interview. “Philly has to turn out at a high margin.”
Fetterman’s decision in June to hire McPhillips, a South Philadelphia resident who was President Joe Biden’s state director for Pennsylvania, was an early sign of the candidate’s eastward pivot following the Democratic primary.
McPhillips, in turn, prioritized bringing aboard Joe Pierce, a veteran Philadelphia Democratic strategist with close ties to Black elected officials and organized labor, as the campaign’s political director. Both men operate out of a second Philadelphia headquarters that the Pittsburgh-centered campaign opened following the primary.
The campaign’s legwork was apparent in the list of elected officials and union leaders who spoke ahead of Fetterman at Saturday’s rally, including Rep. Dwight Evans (D), who represents the congressional district of the neighborhood where the rally was held.
Tyler’s participation was especially remarkable. He has gone from being a critic of Fetterman’s during the Senate primary to an ally, who also recorded an interview with Fetterman on his radio show this past Thursday.
Speaking to HuffPost before the rally, Tyler waved away his past differences with Fetterman as insignificant.
“The bigger issue is, which of these two persons who are still standing is going to represent the interests of the people that I care about, and in my opinion, only one of them meets any of those boxes,” he said.
Republicans Aim For Incremental Improvement
Philadelphia currently has just over 1 million registered voters, about 12% of the state’s entire electorate.
Given Republicans’ growing hold on rural swathes of the Keystone State, running up the margins in Philadelphia is a key part of any statewide Democrat’s strategy for victory. In every recent election cycle, even unsuccessful Democrats running statewide have gotten more than 80% of the vote in the city.
Turnout can be just as decisive as a candidate’s share of the vote, however. Donald Trump actually increased his share of the city’s vote from 15% in 2016 — when he won the state — to nearly 18% in 2020 — when he lost the state.
Higher overall turnout in the city is a key part of the reason Trump fell short the second time. President Joe Biden received nearly 20,000 more votes in Philadelphia than Hillary Clinton had four years earlier, even though Clinton picked up a higher percentage of the total.
Republicans are nonetheless eager to build on Trump’s modest inroads in the city. In March, the Republican National Committee debuted one of its new community engagement centers in a predominantly Black part of Germantown in northwest Philadelphia.
Brandon Brown, who is Black and grew up in the neighboring Mount Airy section of the city, is the center’s dedicated organizer. On Saturday, he led a team of six volunteers — all of them Black — and knocked on more than 240 doors on behalf of the GOP’s slate of candidates. Brown, whose central message is that Democrats have failed to control crime in Black neighborhoods, aims to have his team knock 1,000 doors and place 15,000 phone calls by Election Day.
That isn’t the kind of volume that’s likely to have a significant impact in a statewide race. But Republicans measure progress in Philadelphia very incrementally.
Given the possibility of lower turnout in the city overall in a midterm election year, a Republican candidate that can inch their way past Trump’s 2020 share of 18% might be unbeatable, according to Mark Harris, a Pittsburgh-based Republican strategist.
“Amongst Republicans, there is a belief on our side — and it may turn out to be wrong — that we can do better in Philadelphia in a meaningful way this election cycle,” said Harris, who does not represent Fetterman’s opponent Mehmet Oz or other statewide GOP candidates. “That’s super important.”
“Part of Republicans’ longer-term strategy to compensate for suburban losses has to be to do better in urban areas.”
– Mark Harris, Republican strategist
That might be what Oz was hoping to achieve when he held a series of events in Philadelphia last week, including a roundtable discussion on gun violence at a predominantly Black church in Germantown on Monday.
“Showing up matters,” Harris said. “Part of Republicans’ longer-term strategy to compensate for suburban losses has to be to do better in urban areas.”
In an unforced error that provided Oz with an unexpected public relations win, state Rep. Chris Rabb, a Democrat and Fetterman supporter, appeared onstage at the event. Under fire, Rabb claimed to have attended in solidarity with members of the community and said he stormed out in protest after being denied the right to speak. (The moderator of the panel disputed the latter point.)
Republicans have also had some success convincing previously registered Democrats to switch to the GOP in Philadelphia. So far this year, 4,499 Philadelphia Democrats registered as Republicans — a figure that is 3.6 times greater than the 1,245 Philadelphia Republicans who registered as Democrats over the same period, according to state data. That’s a bigger gap in party-switchers than the state’s overall shift toward Republican registration this year, where Democrat-to-Republican switches were about 2.9 times greater in number than Republican-to-Democrat switches were.
McPhillips characterized hopes of exceeding Trump’s 2020 showing in Philadelphia as a pipe dream, however.
“I don’t think Mehmet Oz is the same unifying electric figure for the right that Trump was,” McPhillips said. “People know that he’s not from here.”
During his remarks on Saturday, Fetterman also accused Oz of speaking out of two sides of his mouth in his effort to appeal to Black voters.
Oz unveiled his “Plan to Fight for Black Communities” at the event on Monday, which includes an endorsement of the bipartisan First Step Act legislation. The law, signed by Trump in December 2018, aimed to reduce the federal prison population by reducing prison sentences for some federal convicts.
The next day, Fetterman noted, Oz’s campaign again deployed “Inmates for Fetterman” — a group of people Oz pays to wear orange prison jumpsuits at Fetterman events — to a Fetterman rally in a rural county to depict him as soft on crime.
“He has no core,” Fetterman declared at the Philadelphia rally.
Fetterman’s Big Philly Makeover
There are a number of reasons Fetterman has been slow to plant his flag in Philadelphia.
For one thing, Fetterman has been deeply rooted in southwest Pennsylvania for his entire career in public life. He got his start in politics as mayor of Braddock, an economically distressed steel town outside Pittsburgh.
Fetterman has also used his perch as lieutenant governor since 2018 to form relationships with people in largely rural communities who have historically received less attention from the party. During the primary this year, Fetterman sought to leverage that experience, emphasizing his ability to compete in all 67 of the state’s counties.
Sure enough, in a three-candidate primary, Fetterman won every county. In Philadelphia, he even defeated state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Black and openly gay lawmaker from the city’s northern precincts. Kenyatta, who was a fierce critic of Fetterman during the primary, is now an active surrogate for Fetterman.
“John is laying out real solutions” for Philadelphia’s most vulnerable residents, Kenyatta told HuffPost on Friday. “Dr. Oz doesn’t even know where to find the solution.”
“I admire him. He’s got strong values, a decent person.”
– William Dorsey, resident of Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood
Kenyatta, Tyler and other Philadelphia-based boosters for Fetterman tend to emphasize the policy contrast between Fetterman and Oz, a Trump ally who refuses to fully acknowledge the validity of the 2020 election results. They note that Fetterman supports their priorities — strengthening federal voting rights protections, protecting abortion rights, raising the minimum wage, and supporting labor unions.
But their answers also reflect a reality that in a city where personal relationships are often the lifeblood of Democratic politics, Fetterman’s aversion to glad-handing has been a disadvantage.
For example, as lieutenant governor, Fetterman presided over the state Senate. State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Fetterman campaign surrogate who represents part of North Philadelphia, would nonetheless only describe his relationship with Fetterman as “fine.”
“There is nothing that has occurred that would stop me from aggressively supporting John Fetterman for U.S. Senate,” Hughes said on Friday. “He’s a good man and the choices are stark and real.”
By contrast, Hughes gushed over Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, describing him as a “personal friend” and a “very decent man — a very decent man.”
In recent weeks, Fetterman has quietly tried to make up for lost time, engaging key Philadelphia political players in ways that have not always come naturally to him. He has met privately with a number of Black clergy members, and, on Monday, he attended a walking tour of Black businesses in West Philadelphia with three members of the Philadelphia City Council.
Fetterman has also been investing heavily in radio advertisements on Philadelphia stations with large Black audiences since August.
Jokes, Sympathy And Powerful Validators
Whatever his challenges with the inside politics game, Fetterman found a warm reception from the audience that came to see him Saturday.
“I admire him. He’s got strong values, a decent person,” William Dorsey, a consultant from Germantown, said after the rally. “His kind of honesty needs to be in higher office.”
Linda Miller, a retail worker from West Philadelphia, described Fetterman as “refreshing.”
“It makes folks excited,” she said after the rally. “Everybody’s tired of the same old speeches.”
Fetterman’s speech has noticeably improved since he returned to the campaign trail after a life-threatening stroke. At a rally in Erie in mid-August that was his first public event since the stroke, his speech sounded more halting and disjointed, and his remarks had less of a natural structure to them.
At just under 13 minutes, Fetterman still keeps his remarks briefer than a typical Senate candidate might. And interviews with the press have been rare.
But on Saturday, Fetterman, who does not speak from prepared remarks, provided precious few noticeable miscues for any Oz-affiliated video trackers — whose presence he joked about — to pounce on.
Fetterman opened with a barrage of regional humor that is already part of his standard schtick on social media. He boasted of having the state agriculture department create a butter sculpture of Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty and introduced himself as “Jawn Fetterman,” a reference to a unique Philadelphia-ism (that does not really make sense as a replacement for “John”).
Incidentally, some of his wisecracks doubled as jabs at Oz, who does not live in Pennsylvania.
“I’m not going to stand here right now and pander to you the way Dr. Oz [does]. I’ll never do that. But … let me just say: WaWa is so much better than Sheetz,” said Fetterman, praising the Eastern Pennsylvania convenience-store chain that he has often jokingly disparaged on Twitter.
“He said, ‘I’m going to fight to get you and your brother out, even if it means I lose every single election after this.’”
– Lee Horton
Fetterman also reflected openly about his struggles with “auditory processing” following his stroke, using it again as an opportunity to blast Oz, a celebrity physician, for lacking empathy. He asked everyone in the room who either had experienced a serious illness or medical event themselves, or had a close family member who had endured that, to raise their hand. Almost everyone in the room raised their hand.
“I hope you didn’t have a doctor in your life making fun of it, laughing at you, telling you that you’re not able to do your job, you’re not fit to serve,” Fetterman said. “But unfortunately, I have a doctor in my life making fun of me and saying all of those things. But if we don’t do what we have to do and step up, you’re going to have that doctor in your life for the next six years.”
Fetterman was likely referencing a late August comment from an Oz spokesperson that if Fetterman had “ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.” In the course of negotiations over a televised debate, the Oz campaign also joked about keeping medical personnel on hand during the debate and allowing for extra bathroom breaks.
Perhaps the remarks with the most impact at Saturday’s rally, however, were not from Fetterman at all. The brothers Lee and Dennis “Freedom” Horton spoke powerfully about how Fetterman lobbied for their life sentences in prison to be commuted. The Hortons had unknowingly given a ride to a friend who had just committed a murder and were convicted of second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence in Pennsylvania.
Lee recalled Fetterman’s vow to help them at a time when their family had struggled to get the attention of other elected officials. “He said, ‘I’m going to fight to get you and your brother out, even if it means I lose every single election after this,’” he told the crowd.
Following a recommendation from Fetterman, who heads the board of pardons, Gov. Tom Wolf (D-Pa.) agreed to the commutation in February 2021, after both men had served 27 years in prison.
The Hortons have spoken in support of Fetterman before.
But in Philadelphia, many rally-goers were hearing the story for the first time. Raymond Drayton, a retiree from Germantown, pointed to the tale as evidence of Fetterman’s integrity.
Fetterman “was fantastic,” Drayton said. “Getting those individuals out of jail — it takes a man with a lot of backbone, who cares about people, to do that.”
Raymond’s wife, Vivian, who is also retired, agreed.
“He is going to have to really continue to utilize those individuals who were sentenced inappropriately so he can refute what they’re stating about him being soft on crime,” she said.