• Politics
  • democrats

‘Our Blue-Collar Tough Guy.’ John Fetterman Charts a New Path for Democrats

7 minute read

John Fetterman walks into a brewery in Easton, Pa., with his arms outstretched like a wrestler. The state’s lieutenant governor—6 ft. 8 in., bald and goateed, wearing his trademark Carhartt sweatshirt and athletic shorts—doesn’t bother with his stump speech right away. Instead, he starts working the crowd. He asks if they’re Eagles fans or Steelers fans; crows, “Shorts, 365!” to another year-round-shorts guy; kneels on the ground to accept a “lucky penny” from a little girl; and takes photos with arms so long he calls them “selfie sticks.”

Fetterman is the front runner in Pennsylvania’s May 17 Democratic Senate primary, a marquee race that could have been a microcosm of the split within the party. His opponents include U.S. Representative Conor Lamb, a telegenic moderate marked as a rising star since flipping a House seat in a conservative district, and Malcolm Kenyatta, a Black, gay progressive state rep from Philadelphia. Yet Fetterman is the clear favorite for the nomination, boasting huge leads in the polls and a big cash advantage, thanks to his base of small-dollar donors.

The day after his brewery visit, Fetterman explains his philosophy to me over hot dogs with mustard and onions. He thinks the left-vs.-moderate divide that dominates Democratic strategy discussions is largely a Washington paradigm; that normal people don’t care about policy positions as much as political wonks think they do; and that Pennsylvania voters mostly want somebody who bothers to travel to the far reaches of the state to meet them. “I just show up,” he says, squeezed into a booth at Yocco’s Hot Dogs near Bethlehem. “And I just try to be me.” The voters he meets make their decisions based on a “visceral” feeling, he says, that “it’s someone they believe is a good person or gonna be honest at the end of the day.”

Read More: The End of Roe Could Galvanize Democrats’ Burned-Out Base.

In recent elections, Democrats have focused on turning out Black and young voters while winning the suburbs. Fetterman is the rare Democrat who sees white working-class and rural voters as a key part of a winning coalition. He thinks many GOP areas are more magenta than ruby red. “We cannot afford to cede a county 80/20, like has been done in the past,” he tells the crowd in Easton. He spent the second-to-last weekend of the primary campaign in five counties that Trump won by at least 35 points.

Fetterman doesn’t expect the hardcore MAGA crowd to vote for him. “Some people think it’s about trying to go in and have some mass conversion by laying hands on Republicans,” he says. “That’s not gonna happen.” But “there are plenty of people in Pennsylvania that are open to the argument,” he adds. “And if you don’t make it, then you can’t blame them.”

A few hours after our hot dog lunch, Fetterman lumbers into the United Steelworkers union in Bethlehem. A leak from the ceiling drips into a plastic garbage can. In the distance, the old Bethlehem Steel mill looms over the town like an abandoned cathedral; it’s now a music venue adjacent to a casino. “We need to keep making sh-t in this country,” Fetterman says, vowing to protect what he calls the “union way of life.” As United Steelworkers Local 2599 president Jerry Green put it: “He’s one of us.”

When I mention to Fetterman that he doesn’t look like a typical politician, he makes a tremendous effort not to roll his eyes. “I am a conventionally unattractive person. This is how I dress, and that’s all I have to say about it,” he says. “If I wear a suit, I get sh-t; if I wear shorts, I get sh-t.”

Fetterman, 52, was born to teen parents and grew up in York, Pa. His father worked a union job at a grocery before becoming successful in the insurance industry; both of Fetterman’s parents are conservative Republicans. He was all set to follow his dad into insurance until a tragedy knocked him off course: in 1993, a friend was killed in a fatal car accident on the way to pick him up. Fetterman began volunteering with the Boys & Girls Club. He joined AmeriCorps in Pittsburgh, got a degree from the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and started teaching GED classes in Braddock, a western Pennsylvania town that had been decimated by the loss of local steel jobs.

After two of his students were gunned down, Fetterman ran for mayor of Braddock in 2005. For the next 13 years, he worked to revitalize a town once known as the “murder capital” of the region, implementing youth anti-violence programs that helped it go five years without a homicide. The dates of every murder in Braddock that happened on his watch are tattooed on Fetterman’s right forearm.

Read More: Pennsylvania’s Senate Primary Shows How Republicans’ Abortion Rhetoric Could Backfire.

One incident from Braddock threatened to overshadow Fetterman’s campaign. In 2013, while outside with his young son, Fetterman thought he heard gunshots and saw a man running from the area. He chased him down in his truck and detained him with a shotgun until police came. The man turned out to be an unarmed Black jogger. Opponents have suggested it was a racist incident, and demand Fetterman apologize. Fetterman says he never aimed his gun at the man, and points out that after the incident, the mostly Black voters of Braddock re-elected him to two more terms. He also points to his record on clemency. As the state’s lieutenant governor since 2019, Fetterman has revitalized the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, eliminating application fees and presided over a seven-fold rise in recommended commutations of life sentences.

While Fetterman endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary, he now avoids most progressive litmus tests. His main issues are raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, and nuking the filibuster to help Biden get things done. He’s not a purist on Medicare for All (he’s for “expanding health care access, whatever that looks like”) and he isn’t pushing the Green New Deal. He told the steelworkers he was “pro-policing, pro–community policing, pro–funding the police,” and called the activist cry to “defund the police” an “absurd phrase.” He once called fracking an “environmental abomination,” but now says the industry has reformed enough that he sees the practice as crucial to energy security.

Fetterman isn’t running as a progressive crusader or policy wonk. He’s running to be the Democrats’ 51st vote in the Senate. And supporters believe he can get it done. “They have their own tough guy in Donald Trump,” says George Bonser, a retired steelworker. “He’s gonna be our blue-collar tough guy.” —With reporting by Julia Zorthian

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Charlotte Alter/Easton, Pa. at charlotte.alter@time.com