John Fetterman heard what sounded like gunshots and saw a man running away. So he reacted by putting his child inside in a safe place before calling 911.
What Fetterman did next, however, still haunts him nine years later as he campaigns for the Democratic nomination for the Pennsylvania Senate: He chased the man with a shotgun and held him until when the police arrive.
Turns out the man was jogging and wearing running gear. According to a police report, the man was unarmed and said the sound of gunfire was actually fireworks, although two witnesses thought they heard gunfire.
The man Fetterman pointed a gun at is black. Fetterman — the mayor of the Pittsburgh-area borough of Braddock at the time and now the state’s lieutenant governor — is white. Fetterman, 52, said he couldn’t tell the jogger’s run at the start because of the way he was bundled up in the winter cold.
Statewide, Democrats who understand black voters and are neutral in the May 17 primary blame Fetterman’s actions and explanations so far, and they fear attacks on him over the incident do reduce African American turnout in November in its two largest urban areas, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – a must for Democrats to carry the Commonwealth.
The incident took center stage in the race on Thursday when Fetterman’s two Democratic opponents – US Representative Conor Lamb and State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta – faced him for the first time in the first televised debate. statewide and excoriated him for his actions in 2013 and for his refusal to say whether he was wrong or would act otherwise today.
“I took on the problem of gun violence in Braddock, and we succeeded,” Fetterman said Thursday onstage, pointing out that there had been no gun deaths in the plague-stricken borough. crime for more than five of his 13 years as mayor.
Fetterman went on to explain that he made the “split-second decision” to “intercept” the man “until our first responders arrived as Braddock’s Chief of Law Enforcement and as mayor.
Fetterman’s suggestion that he was acting under the guise of the law is a new topic of discussion that contrasts with his initial comments about the 2013 incident.
“He’s not shooting directly at it, no pun intended. Just confess. Apologize,” said Michael Nutter, Philadelphia’s last black mayor, who served until 2016.
“All that other stuff — whether he was the chief of law enforcement or he didn’t know the guy was black — just doesn’t really seem to mean the truth,” added Nutter, who is neutral. in the Senate. primary. “It doesn’t help him. Figuratively, he shoots himself in the foot, and he doesn’t have to.
It’s a matter of national importance, say Nutter and others, because Pennsylvania is a swing state with an open Senate seat that could decide control of the equally divided upper house of Congress in November.
The Reverend Mark Kelly Tyler, one of Philadelphia’s top Democratic organizers who helped cast large numbers of black voters to help President Joe Biden win the state in 2020, said he fears Fetterman’s failure to adequately address the gun incident recalls the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign in 2016, when Republicans saturated black voters with messages about her comment in the 1990s about “super predators”.
“If you think black voters didn’t go for Hillary Clinton because she called people super predators but you think a white man shooting a shotgun at a black man won’t have any effect – in the post-George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor context — then you live in never-never land,” said Tyler, who is also neutral in the primary.
About 11% of voters in the state are black. And while black voters overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, turnout must be strong to ensure a Democratic victory, Tyler said.
“This story can become a drumbeat almost every day or just result in good publicity that can lower Philadelphia’s turnout by 40,000 to 50,000 votes,” Tyler said. “That would be enough to make us lose the election.”
Biden’s margin of victory in the state was around 80,000 votes in November 2020. By contrast, Clinton lost around 44,000 votes in 2016. And she had apologized for her “superpredator” remark – a sign that contrition might not be enough anyway.
After meeting the black jogger, Fetterman admitted to a Pittsburgh television station that he might have broken the law by chasing the man with a gun. Fetterman at the time didn’t mention anything about being a chief law enforcement officer.
Admitting possible wrongdoing in 2013 doesn’t fit his talking points now, said Fawn Walker-McDonald, a black political consultant and former council member from McKeesport, near Braddock. Walker-McDonald did not endorse any primary candidate.
“He was not the chief of the forces of order. It insults our intelligence. It was a white man with a gun chasing a black man,” Walker-McDonald said in an interview. “I was a board member at McKeesport, and if I chased someone with a gun, I’d still be in jail. He shows he’s unaware of his white privilege.
A spokesperson for Fetterman’s campaign said he started using the term ‘chief law enforcement officer’ last year to push back against opponents like Kenyatta as they accused him of acting as a vigilante”. His campaign also said he did not coin the term in connection with his duties as mayor and pointed out that the Association of Borough Mayors of Pennsylvania uses wording from a handbook to describe office duties.
Fetterman supporters say he is being singled out unfairly.
“I’m offended, as a black social worker who worked side by side when Fetterman was mayor, that this is what his opponents are talking about,” said Lisa Freeman, a longtime supporter who criticized Lamb for having lived in a gated community and said Kenyatta hasn’t done enough to stop crime in North Philadelphia, where he lives.
“John was mayor of Braddock, a majority minority community. So more often than not a person running down the street would be black,” she said. “Mayor Fetterman barely had a police department, barely a fire department. He had a police scanner that he was listening to. And when something happened – a shooting, a fire – he was close at hand.
Freeman went on to note that Fetterman tattooed the names of murder victims on his arm when he was mayor. He has nine – all of them were black.
Braddock Mayor Delia Lennon-Winstead, another Fetterman supporter, said he was repeatedly re-elected in the majority-black town because he did a good job.
But her predecessor, former mayor Chardae Jones, who took over from Fetterman after he was elected lieutenant governor in 2018, said she supported Kenyatta because she opposed Fetterman’s leadership style, describing him as more focused on getting national media attention and getting higher positions.
At a whopping 6ft 8in with a bald head and tattoos, Fetterman, the Harvard-educated white mayor of a predominantly black town, has been hailed as a community-minded blue-collar progressive, securing him more consistent national attention. than any other small town mayor in the country. Banking on name recognition, his campaign hopes he can straddle the worlds of black voters, white progressives and more conservative voters in rural parts of the state where Democrats have hemorrhaged support in recent elections.
Critics wonder if Fetterman’s reluctance to apologize for the gun incident is a game for eligibility in November.
“He’s acting like he’s going to win the primary and he doesn’t need us,” Pittsburgh rapper and community organizer Jasiri X said. “We look at this and think, ‘OK, you’d rather not apologize at our expense.’”
The Senate candidacy is Fetterman’s first campaign in which the 2013 incident was fully explored. Besides his repeated mayoral campaigns, Fetterman ran for a Senate seat in 2016, losing in the Democratic primary. He was elected lieutenant governor two years later.
As soon as he entered the Senate race in February 2021, The New York Times pored over the gun incident, and it has been featured in national and state media ever since. Months after Fetterman declared his candidacy, jogger Christopher Miyares told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Fetterman “lied about everything” because Fetterman knew he was black and pointed a shotgun at him. Fetterman denied this account.
But Miyares also indicated that he now supports Fetterman.
“Even with everything I’ve said, it’s inhuman to believe that a single mistake should define a man’s life,” Miyares said in one of two letters sent to The Inquirer. “I hope he becomes a senator.”
Miyares wrote his letters from prison, where he is incarcerated for kidnapping, terrorist threats and unlawful coercion, among other crimes. He claims he is innocent.
Khari Mosley, a go-to Pittsburgh consultant for getting black voters to vote, said the problem with Fetterman’s response is that he found himself in a public debate with a black man over whether he had pulled a gun on him and didn’t discuss the charge with the symbolism that is.
“There is a lack of recognition as to the gravity of the situation and how badly it could have gone and how tragic this situation could have been. It’s like it’s underplayed,” Mosley said.
“I share this concern with Democrats across the state that once May 18 rolls around — and by all appearances it’s likely to win — we know what the Republican machine is going to do or can do: drive that into the ground and depress participation. It’s going to hurt Philadelphia. It will hurt here.
A senior Republican consultant involved in Senate races nationwide said: ‘If we think we need to communicate with voters about Fetterman, the vigilante who pulled a gun on a black man who had no committed a crime, we will do it.”
Mustafa Rashed, one of Philadelphia’s top Democratic consultants specializing in black voter turnout, agreed that Republicans can easily “weaponize” the incident. He said the Democratic Senate race hasn’t received the same attention in Philadelphia as the brutal, spendthrift Republican primary and that the debate over meeting Miyares is crowding out a deeper discussion of the political positions of the candidates.
“We got to the point where it became fetishized — why John pulled a gun on someone — like it was the only thing that mattered to black voters,” he said. “We’re not really talking about John’s record. It’s just if he pointed a gun at someone and why he won’t say he’s sorry.