The race to topple Toomey
Much like the current president race, the three-way Democratic primary in the Pennsylvania Senate shows signs of a fractured party.
Seeking to topple incumbent Senator Pat Toomey in the November general election, there is the party-approved and highly credentialed Katie McGinty. There is the grassroots insurgency of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. And then we have the decorated Admiral Joe Sestak, who has no counterpart in the Democratic race to the White House, but one could easily imagine the appeal of such a candidate to moderates on both sides of the aisle.
Who will face off against the incumbent Republican in November?
Sure, we could look at the polls: Sestak, who ran and nearly beat Toomey in 2010, appears to be heading for the nomination with or without the party’s stamp of approval. McGinty is in a somewhat close second. And Fetterman, despite his appeal and media-darling status, has hovered in the low double digits. But the voters haven’t spoken yet.
While all three candidates have a vocal following, their ideological differences are somewhat minor. In their own way, each is as Democratic as the California sunshine: champions of working families, job growth, the Affordable Care Act, LGBT rights, immigration reform, and common-sense gun laws. They have each billed themselves as everything incumbent Pat Toomey is not. And in many ways, this race boils down to personality more than it does the finer policy points.
John Fetterman may be the most self-conscious man in Pennsylvania politics.
You would be self-conscious too if everything ever written about you described your appearance at length. That’s not to say that Fetterman is navel-gazing or narcissistic. Quite simply, his looks are an odd advantage, and he knows it.
Goateed, tattooed, built for Wrestlemania — he’s is the most visually striking of the candidates running for this or any other office. But that’s not the only attribute that makes him an outlier.
“I’m not aware of another story where a 6-foot-8 white guy with a shaved head got elected mayor of a town that is 80 percent African American,” Fetterman said.
Fetterman was elected the mayor of Braddock, Pa., in 2008. Just miles outside of Pittsburgh, the town of just over 2,100 people has suffered from the postindustrial woes as dozens of other towns. Working with this poor, predominantly Black community, there’s nothing in the national conversation about poverty, class, and race that Fetterman hasn’t experienced firsthand. He even found himself momentarily in hot water after mistakenly stopping a Black man on the street whom he thought might have been involved in a nearby shooting.
But it’s hard to find fault in his record. Not only does Fetterman wears Braddock’s struggle on his sleeve — literally, the town’s last nine homicide dates are tattooed on his tree trunk of a forearm — he puts his bleeding heart out there for all to see.
Images of suffering are a constant in any conversation: the Syrian boy washed up on a Mediterranean beech; forgotten American cities; people of color being gunned down by cops; families risking it all to flee their homelands. Fetterman’s love story fuels his views on immigration. His wife, Giselle, came to the U.S. from Brazil as a child. She lived undocumented for many years, and both she and Fetterman share that fact with pride.
His campaign blends sentimentality with a no-nonsense approach. Fetterman may have produced some of the grittiest, rawest campaign ads in recent memory. No hero music. No infomercial antics. John Fetterman’s gun is on the table, and he wants you to know what it means. John Fetterman is inside an abandoned house littered with hypodermic needles, and this is where we’re at, America.
While he may not be doing so well in the polls, Fetterman's candor has won him a strong following. It is by no coincidence that he was the first elected official in the state to endorse Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy. And like Sanders, he has a message that resonates with Democrats who are fed up with establishment politics and politicians.
“Politicians deserve the reputation that we have. We are a shifty, cynical lot. But whether you believe it or not, this is a straight-up authenticity play,” he told AL DÍA.
Fetterman is no stranger to the other side of the aisle. A native of York, Pa., he grew up in the “Red T” part of the state. He jokes that he’s the only Democrat his family will vote for. Moreover, his campaign has been “the most fun” when visiting conservative areas of the state. They packed the house in Jim Thorpe, in Carbon County. They had three meet-and-greets in Greensburg that were well-attended. “Progressives in a majority Republican area are that much more energized and excited,” the 46-year-old Fetterman says.
He won’t mince his words when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s rise to the White House, or his opponents. But up until recently, Fetterman, who earned a master’s in public policy from Harvard, had surprisingly little to offer in terms of concrete plans. At the time he visited AL DÍA’s offices in March, the Fetterman campaign still hadn’t published its policy proposal.
They’re coming “sometime this month,” he said, haltingly. “We’ve been actively working on it.”
That was over a month before election day. But by that point, Fetterman had already been on the campaign trail for over six months. It’s somewhat of a “blood over brains” approach, he said. The policy proposals have been published since, and he has some interesting things to say, even if it took him a while to write it all down. In short, Fetterman distinguishes himself with a promise of urban investment.
Will he wear a suit if he goes to Washington? “I don’t know, I haven’t measured the drapes yet,” he says.
As with Hillary Clinton’s election to the White House, Katie McGinty’s rise would be a historic and much-needed first: Pennsylvania has never had a female senator.
And as with Clinton, gender equality is close to the heart of the McGinty campaign.
A recent study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Pennsylvania women who were full-time wage and salary workers in 2014 had median weekly earnings of $716. Compare that to Pennsylvania men in the same bracket, whose median weekly earnings were $909. Moreover, from the bottom up, women are horrendously underrepresented in politics. In one of her ads, McGinty promises that "for my daughters and yours, I'll fight for equal pay for women.”
But the main focus, she says, is her commitment to working Pennsylvanians.
Second generation Irish Catholic, McGinty comes from a huge family in Northeast Philadelphia. She’s the second youngest of 10 children. Her father was a police officer, and her mother moonlighted as a diner hostess. She was the first in her household to go to college. “My parents were none too sure that I shouldn’t be hopping right into the workforce and getting a ‘real job,’” she says. She didn’t disappoint them. She studied chemistry, went to law school at Columbia, and eventually became an environmental advisor to the Clinton White House.
Decades later, she would seek the highest office in Pennsylvania.
McGinty ran for governor in 2014, and came in fourth place in the Democratic primary. But that didn’t matter. She ended up in newly elected Governor Tom Wolf’s cabinet as his chief of staff. But for that reason, the senate race comes with high stakes for McGinty. There’s an old expression in politics that goes something like “lose two races in a row, and you’re done.” The point? Voters like to vote for winners.
But the difference this time around is that McGinty, 52, has a strong showing of support from the Democratic establishment. From President Obama and Governor Wolf to big labor and big senators, she is the party’s unequivocal choice. And friends in Washington are tipping the scales in her favor. The U.S. Senate has set aside $1.5 million from its campaign committee for pro-McGinty advertising in these final two weeks before the primary.
McGinty says it’s not the Democratic party’s support that gives her bid its energy: “The momentum that we have in this race first and foremost is about the issues I’m speaking about.”
She promises to be a champion of middle class Pennsylvanians: raising the minimum wage, investing in the workforce, and closing corporate loopholes. Anti-fracking advocates have raised the alarm about McGinty’s positions on the natural gas industry, but she isn’t bothered by the criticism. To her, there is a balance between environmental safety and job growth, and she says she’s uniquely equipped to find it.
On the campaign trail, she’s keeps the focus on the issues. Which is good. In an election cycle that has been defined by its anti-establishment fervor, McGinty knows as well as anyone else that the national party’s support doesn’t mean an easy victory.
In a recent Harper poll, McGinty trailed Sestak by double digits among likely Democratic voters. And while Fetterman criticizes his opponents for relying on the polls, McGinty has been taking shots at the frontrunner as we inch closer to election day. Time is running out, and all three candidates want to reach the voters who haven’t made up their minds.
Joe Sestak is the type of guy that sends you a handwritten thank-you note a few days after you meet. When you ask Sestak why he tweeted his condolences to the victims in the March terrorist attacks in Brussels — but not to those in Turkey, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast, or any of half-dozen non-European countries in which terrorist attacks happened last month — he’ll take 20 minutes out of his morning to talk your ear off about ethnocentrism in foreign policy.
Beyond the anecdotes, Sestak, 64, is everything the Democratic party should want: an effervescent, high-achieving veteran, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a foreign policy wonk.
But the party’s disdain for Sestak isn’t based on his credentials. It’s based on him.
Call it unfair. Call it over the top. Sestak isn’t bothered.
When he sought the party’s endorsement for the Senate race in 2010, a senior senator reportedly told him “Sestak, whenever I tell you anything the only answer will be ‘yes.’” Sestak said no. He defied marching orders and ran in the Democratic primary, besting the party’s choice candidate, the late Arlen Specter, and went on to lose to Toomey in the general election by just two percentage points. It was a bad year for national Democrats. And the stakes are just as high to put more Democratic seats back in the Senate this year.
Of course, Sestak isn’t running just to stick it to the party. He’s eager to govern with ferocity he says is lacking among Democrats in the capital.
“We have good senators,” he says, not naming names. “But on the Democratic side, we don’t have titans.” Sestak cites the dominant voices of Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio on the House floor, and asks “tell me who roars on our side about what needs to be done?”
While Sestak sets himself apart from the competition on foreign policy, he sometimes veers far off course. He wants you to know he can talk the talk on just about any issue from Alzheimer’s to fisherman’s rights. He won’t let you forget that he wrote a book about restoring the American dream, and how he can do it.
But when it comes to political labels, Sestak is wary. He’s a pragmatist, not a moderate, he says.
In March 2015, Sestak completed a 422-mile walk across Pennsylvania, from Philadelphia in the east to the Ohio border in the West. The goal was to “walk in Pennsylvanians” shoes, and at the end of the 25-day hike, Sestak touted that he had addressed about three dozen wide-ranging issues with residents across the state.
To some, it’s ambitious. To others, it feels aimless. Throughout his fierce campaign, Sestak’s message has been that he’s “got your 6” — a military phrase meaning to have someone’s back — no matter what the problem is.
If Sestak wins the April 26 primary, the Democratic party will have to make nice if it hopes to take the seat from Toomey come November. For his part, Sestak could take it or leave it.
“I get it. They don’t support me. They don’t like my independence,” he says. “But the independence is for a purpose. And if they’re with me, I’m happy to have them.”