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Republicans spent over $10 million on ads depicting Fetterman as a far-left softy—but his record suggests otherwise.
If there’s one thing Dr. Mehmet Oz wants you to believe, it’s that his opponent Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is soft on crime.
Oz, a celebrity talk-show host turned Republican politician, has hit this point over and over again as he attempts to close the gap in an increasingly tight race in Pennsylvania that could determine whether Democrats or Republicans take control of the Senate next year. In September, he put up a billboard in the town where Fetterman formerly worked as mayor, depicting images of toilet paper (“soft on bottoms”) and an adorable puppy (“soft on skin”) alongside Fetterman (“soft on crime”). “John Fetterman wants ruthless killers, muggers, and rapists back on our streets, and he wants them back now,” one ad for Oz, underwritten by the conservative group MAGA Inc, warned. From mid-August to mid-September alone, Republicans spent upwards of $10 million on TV spots depicting Fetterman as a far-left radical who allowed crime to spiral under his watch, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “John Fetterman is one of the most dangerous Democrats,” Donald Trump said at a recent rally. “One of the most fringe, far-left freak shows.”
But though Fetterman may not seem like a typical political candidate, with his tattooed arms and tendency to wear hoodies and shorts to campaign events, he’s far from lackadaisical about crime, and he’s not as leftist on questions of policing and public safety as Republicans have made him out to be. In fact, though he and Oz obviously differ a great deal in their beliefs, their stances on these issues have more in common than you might expect. The ads against Fetterman “are misleading,” says David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “John is no radical.”
If stopping crime has only recently become a talking point for Oz, who jumped into the Senate race after many years of hosting The Dr. Oz Show, it’s long been a top priority for Fetterman: It was a primary reason why he became a politician in the first place. In 2005, after stints working at an insurance firm and then as a teacher, Fetterman successfully ran for mayor in the borough of Braddock after two of his former students were gunned down, as my colleague Abby Vesoulis wrote in a recent deep-dive about the candidate. Two weeks after taking office, he personally showed up at another homicide scene, that of a pizza delivery man who’d been killed during a robbery. “I think it’s time we do something” to make the street safer, Fetterman told reporters at the time. In the coming years, Fetterman hosted gun buyback events and helped establish youth enrichment programs to deter kids from crime, and even tattooed the dates of homicides on his forearm to keep the issue top of mind.
He also kept showing up at crime scenes, which helped convince some residents that he cared about their safety. “I remember when there was a shooting one time and he jumped in his car and he almost beat the cops there,” Joe York, a construction worker in Braddock, recently told a reporter for WESA, the NPR affiliate in nearby Pittsburgh. At moments, Fetterman’s zeal for crime-fighting arguably went too far, like in 2013, when, after hearing gunshots, he grabbed his shotgun and chased after a Black man on a run in the neighborhood named Christopher Miyares, whom he falsely suspected of pulling the trigger. (Years later, Miyares seems to have forgiven the candidate, writing to the Philadelphia Inquirer that “Mr. Fetterman and his family have done far more good than that one bad act or action and, as such, should not be defined by it.”)
If you examine Fetterman’s overall record as mayor, “it was very clear that he was trying to direct attention onto these problems” of gun violence, “that he wanted something done about it,” says Harris, the law professor. Gun violence dropped after Fetterman took office, with no homicides in Braddock from mid-2008 to mid-2013, though they later crept back up. (Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate has a great analysis of how overall crime shifted there, and whether Fetterman should take credit or blame.)
On the question of law enforcement funding, Fetterman has also been fairly moderate. Spending for the police department rose in Braddock during his mayoral term, from 18 percent of the borough’s budget when he took office in 2006 to nearly 25 percent in 2013 and then 21 percent by his last year in the position. While Fetterman may not agree with Oz’s claim that funding the police is a way to fight back against “radicals and the extreme left,” he has talked about wanting to ensure that law enforcement have the money they need to do their job (even as he stresses the importance of police oversight). “It was always absurd to defund the police,” Fetterman told the news site Semafor in October. “From my own experience I’d say, anytime you have fewer police, you’re going to have more crime.”
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