John Fetterman Is Not the Progressive Politician Everyone Thought He Was

John Fetterman Is Not the Progressive Politician Everyone Thought He Was
(Illustration by The Epoch Times, Getty Images, Freepix)
February 11, 2024
February 20, 2024
News Analysis

Financial backing from progressive Democrats helped John Fetterman flip a long-held Republican U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania in 2022.

During his first two years as a senator, Mr. Fetterman has often surprised progressives and conservatives alike with his outspoken positions that have challenged party dogma.

Mr. Fetterman has voted against his party five times. He was the only Democrat to vote no on the confirmation of Monica Bertagnolli to direct the National Institutes of Health.

He was one of four Democrats who voted no to increase the debt ceiling.

And he agreed with Republicans on a resolution to disapprove of a rule written by the Department of Commerce relating to President Joe Biden’s June 2022 emergency and authorization for temporary extensions of time and duty-free importation of solar cells and modules from southeast Asia.

The guy on the Senate floor in the Carhartt hoodie is still very much a Democrat: pro-abortion, pro-recreational marijuana, pro-criminal justice reform, and a strong supporter of unions.

At the U.S. Capitol, Mr. Fetterman told The Epoch Times that he has not changed positions, but things are happening that highlight them—most notably, his support for Israel and acknowledging the problem of illegal crossings at the southern border.

“Sometimes people may have the wrong impressions, whether from the commercials and all that stuff,“ Mr. Fetterman said. ”I’ve always really had those kinds of positions, so it’s not like a shock. So, nothing’s changed, perhaps maybe the perception.”

He also said he’s never been a progressive. He described himself as a regular Democrat who has made the case that Democrats come with a variety of views.

G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University, has watched Mr. Fetterman’s political career from the beginning and said it is not uncommon for politicians to change their views.

“He’s not a typical liberal Democrat, which most of us thought he was during the course of his campaign, and the fact of the matter is, he’s evolving,” Mr. Madonna told The Epoch Times.

But he’s not turning into a conservative. “I’ve not seen any evidence, except for those two issues, that he’s moved away from the liberal mantra, but there have been growing questions about him because of these two big issues that he’s come out with [views] very different from liberal Democrats,” Mr. Madonna said.

Sen. John Fetterman (C) (D-Pa.) walks to the Senate chambers in the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 20, 2023. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Mayor of Braddock

Mr. Fetterman has often been undaunted by public opinion and sometimes the rules.

He was the first Pennsylvania mayor to perform a same sex marriage in 2013, despite that a state law prohibited it.

One January night in 2013, Mr. Fetterman, then the mayor of Braddock, thought he heard gunshots. He ran outside, got in his truck, and chased, confronted, and detained a black man with a shotgun that he had in his truck. The man had no weapon. He was out jogging.

“I believe I did the right thing, but I may have broken the law in the course of it, and I’m certainly not above the law,” Mr. Fetterman told a WTAE TV reporter at the time. Nothing came of the incident legally, but it does come up at election time.

Earning $150 a month, Mr. Fetterman worked as the part-time mayor for the impoverished borough from 2006 to 2019. It was his only job for those 13 years. Once a thriving steel town with 20,000 people, Braddock had dwindled to 2,300 by the time Mr. Fetterman became mayor. In 2021, only 1,700 residents remained, including Mr. Fetterman, his wife, Gisele, and their three children.

A statue, Braddock's Defeat, sits in Braddock, Pa., in this file photo. (Joseph/Flickr)
A statue, Braddock's Defeat, sits in Braddock, Pa., in this file photo. (Joseph/Flickr)

Then, like now, Mr. Fetterman’s style and blunt comments attracted media coverage and opportunities.

The small-town mayor was invited to speak in Colorado at the Aspen Institute Cultural Diplomacy Forum in 2009. He also spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2010, had a feature written about him in The New York Times, and gave a Ted Talk in 2013 about how he was revitalizing Braddock with community gardens, teaching youth work skills, creating housing for kids aging out of foster care, and building playgrounds on abandoned lots.

On the Issues

Many issues in Washington are boiled down to black-and-white positions, but immigration is a gray area for Mr. Fetterman, he said, as he acknowledges the complexity of the issue.

During his failed 2015 campaign for Senate, he ran an advertisement highlighting his wife, who is from Brazil. She entered the United States illegally at age 9 with her mother.

“I was asked: ‘Your wife’s family broke the law. What do you think of that?’ And I said: ‘Well, I’m so grateful that they did. Because if they didn’t have the courage to take that step, I wouldn’t have the three beautiful children that I have today,’” Mr. Fetterman said in the advertisement. “We as a society take a step backwards if we do anything but embrace the people that are here, and create effective laws and pass the citizenship for people coming into our country.”

Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman speaks to supporters with his family during an election night party in Pittsburgh on Nov. 9, 2022. Fetterman defeated Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

But since 2021, the southern border has been overwhelmed with illegal crossings.

“I hope Democrats can understand that it isn’t xenophobic to be concerned about the border,” Mr. Fetterman told Politico in December 2023.

He told CNN that 270,000 people, roughly the population of Pittsburgh, have been crossing into the U.S. every month.

“If that’s what you need to say, ‘That’s fine, that’s not really an issue,’ as a progressive, then I guess that’s why I wouldn’t be a progressive. But I have remained, and will always be, very, very pro-immigration.”

Mr. Madonna said he believes that the senator’s views are in line with those of most Pennsylvanians.

“We put people in boxes, and we want them to stay there. And when they move out of that box, we all get a bit surprised,” Mr. Madonna said. “I’m sure more of his constituents are concerned about the border, and want something done about it, than the other way. I think there is real concern about what’s going on at the border.”

Mr. Fetterman has remained unapologetically supportive of Israel from the moment Hamas terrorists attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing at least 1,139 people. He hung posters in his Senate office of Israelis who were kidnapped by Hamas and vowed to keep the posters up until every hostage is returned home. Replicas of those same posters have been torn down on college campuses by progressives supporting Hamas.

Last month, protesters waving Palestinian flags gathered at his Braddock, Pennsylvania, home shouting: “Fetterman, Fetterman, you can’t hide. You’re supporting genocide.”

Mr. Fetterman went to his rooftop and waved an Israeli flag, multiple news outlets reported.

“We must support Israel in their efforts to eliminate the Hamas terrorists who slaughtered innocent men, women, and children,” Mr. Fetterman said in a statement.

Thousands of Israelis attend a rally against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

“Hamas does not want peace; they want to destroy Israel. We can talk about a ceasefire after Hamas is neutralized.”

As chair of Pennsylvania’s Washington County Democratic Party, Christina Proctor said that a lot of people bring their complaints to her about candidates and elected officials. And although she has heard some negative comments about President Biden, she hasn’t received complaints about Mr. Fetterman.

“The general sentiment that I get is, people are happy. They feel like he’s doing what they wanted and sent him to do. I’ve only really seen positive feedback about John Fetterman,” Ms. Proctor told The Epoch Times. “I mean, the only negative feedback I have received is, maybe he could put on a suit.”

His style attracts some Republicans, she said, adding that Republican voters helped put him in office. Mr. Fetterman received 51.2 percent of the 2022 vote in the general election, beating Republican television personality Mehmet Oz, who got 46.3 percent.

“I feel like [Mr. Fetterman] draws a certain segment of the Republican voter base who likes somebody who’s going to go in there and upset the applecart a little bit,” Ms. Proctor said. “That is what they wanted from Trump, that certain segment. That’s what they like about him, that he’s not going to follow the rules.”

Mr. Fetterman has also been outspoken about his colleague Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was indicted in September 2023 for fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion. Mr. Menendez is running for reelection and denies any wrongdoing.

Mr. Fetterman has called for Mr. Menendez to be expelled from Congress and, in the meantime, be blocked from classified briefings.

“He is currently facing bribery and fraud charges that involve two foreign countries, Egypt and Qatar,” Mr. Fetterman told CNN. “The director of the CIA [is] now being involved in negotiations with the two nations that Menendez is accused of being a foreign agent for, and he’s getting that kind of classified briefings ... I don’t believe that should be allowed to continue.”

Mr. Menendez has called Mr. Fetterman a schoolyard bully. Other Democrats are not lining up to speak about the situation.

Joseph Lord contributed to this report.