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Focusing on crime, Republicans think they’ve finally put John Fetterman on the defensive

Republicans have long targeted crime in campaigns, but think it's particular potent this year because of Philadelphia's homicide rate and public statements by Democratic nominee John Fetterman.

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman speaks during his rally at Montgomery County Community College.
Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman speaks during his rally at Montgomery County Community College.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

At a rally earlier this month, former President Donald Trump seemed to relish describing the grisly details of murders in Philadelphia. The city has “become a killing field,” he told thousands of supporters.

At the same event in northeast Pennsylvania, Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz pointed to Philly’s homicide rate and emphasized his endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, the main police union.

“I know and believe we can have safe city streets,” he said.

Two months before Pennsylvania’s crucial elections, crime has taken up a central role in Republicans’ campaigns.

» READ MORE: John Fetterman agrees to TV debate in Harrisburg with closed captioning. Mehmet Oz says he’s in, pending three requests.

That’s especially true in the U.S. Senate race, where the GOP believes the issue has finally put Lt. Gov. John Fetterman on the defensive, and helped narrow what was once a wide lead for the Democratic nominee.

“Security’s always an important issue, and John Fetterman’s terrible on it,” said Peter Towey, a Republican strategist who has long worked on Pennsylvania races, including the 2016 Senate campaign. “It’s not like worries about crime stop when you get on the Schuylkill Expressway. ... People work in the city, they want to go to the city, they want to go to dinner.”

From mid-August through this week, the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), has spent more than $10 million on four TV ads in Pennsylvania hammering Fetterman on crime.

GOP operatives say it’s working: Fetterman has run three ads of his own rebutting their spots and emphasizing his work to fight crime as mayor of Braddock.

» READ MORE: Two new polls show an edge for John Fetterman in Pa.’s Senate race, and Mehmet Oz’s support looking unenthusiastic

Pennsylvania Republicans, of course, have a long history of running against crime, and against crime in Philadelphia, specifically.

But Republicans say the issue is especially potent given the city’s record number of homicides last year, soaring shootings, and Fetterman’s stances on clemency and criminal justice reform.

“John Fetterman’s record on crime speaks for itself, literally — it’s the candidate in his own words describing how he wants to let criminals out of prison,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesperson for the Senate Leadership Fund.

As the head of the state’s Board of Pardons, Fetterman publicly and strongly pressed for mercy for people who had served long sentences and demonstrated they had been rehabilitated, including advocating for the release of some convicted murderers. He said he “agreed” with a corrections official’s analysis that one-third of prisoners could be released without harming public safety, though his campaign says he didn’t advocate for implementing that step, just agreed with the statement.

» READ MORE: John Fetterman ran the Board of Pardons like an activist — and at times a bully

And while he now focuses on legalizing marijuana, in 2015 he said in an interview with the Nation that he supported decriminalizing drugs “across the board.”

The Fetterman campaign did not respond to two attempts to clarify whether that’s still his position.

At times, the GOP has distorted and exaggerated his stances. Oz, for example, has said Fetterman wants to “legalize” all drugs, a step beyond decriminalization. Other Republicans have falsely said he wants to end life sentences for murders.

Fetterman’s campaign says the GOP is fear-mongering over an issue of compassion and fairness. There’s little evidence that granting clemency affects public safety.

And Fetterman’s camp points to his 13 years as mayor of a small town, overseeing the police department, including a five-year stretch, from 2008 to 2013, when Braddock had no homicides. The city of about 2,000, however, had few murders before he became mayor, typically three or fewer per year in the five years before he took office.

» READ MORE: ‘Women are the reason we can win,’ John Fetterman says at packed abortion-rights rally in Montco

“The reality is that John knows how to stop crime, because he’s actually done it,” said Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello. “Oz has no record. ... John has worked hand-in-hand with the police, and knows the challenges our police force faces and how to support them. John fought to ensure the police had the funding they needed, and he helped bring the town grants for surveillance cameras.”

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat who supports Fetterman, said Republicans are using a real problem as a political weapon, but they “don’t actually care about crime in Philadelphia.”

“These are people who through their actions and through their deeds have made it clear that they’re willing to talk about crime in this way that sensationalizes it, but not in a way that reveals a true compassion for people who are hurting,” Kenyatta said.

He pointed to proposals for tougher gun laws, to fight gun trafficking, and for community investments, saying all would reduce violence, and are opposed by Republicans.

Explicit attacks, vague policies

Neither candidate has said much about what specifically he would do as a U.S. senator to fight crime.

Asked about Oz’s plans, a campaign spokesperson said “he will ensure that our police officers have the resources they need to protect the commonwealth, that our brave first responders are respected and properly trained, and that our streets and neighborhoods are safe for everyone to enjoy.”

She didn’t offer more details.

On guns, Oz during the GOP primary wrote that he would oppose red-flag laws and universal background checks. His campaign didn’t answer this week when asked twice if he would have supported the bipartisan gun bill President Joe Biden signed in June, which included incentives for state-level red-flag laws after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Calvello said if elected to Senate, Fetterman will “never support defunding the police,” and will fight to increase federal funding and grants for police forces. He said Fetterman also supports a criminal justice reform bill named for George Floyd that passed the U.S. House but not the Senate.

» READ MORE: ‘Dr. Oz wears pants:’ Republicans rally to support Mehmet Oz in Bucks County

Fetterman and releasing inmates

“Dangerously liberal on crime,” goes the tagline in one Senate Leadership Fund ad.

It follows a clip of Fetterman emphasizing his work to help release prisoners through the Board of Pardons, pushing for clemency for people who he argues have served extensive sentences.

Fetterman has also called for ending mandatory life sentences for second-degree murder, a charge often filed against people accused of being an accomplice to murder — acting as a lookout, for example, or a getaway driver. Pennsylvania has among the highest populations of people serving life without parole for second-degree murder.

The GOP has emphasized instances in which Fetterman approvingly quoted, and said he agreed with, a state official who said Pennsylvania’s prison population could drop by one-third without any increased danger to public safety.

“He said something remarkable that I agree with,” Fetterman said at one 2020 event, before repeating the analysis, one of several examples of him making similar statements.

The official, former Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, was first appointed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and reappointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Under Fetterman the Board of Pardons commuted 46 life sentences, compared with just six in Wolf’s first term and none under Corbett.

For a commutation, the five-member board must vote unanimously and the governor must sign off.

Oz has singled out convicted murderers who were released. He sends weekly “Inmates for Fetterman” emails with grim details of their offenses.

Fetterman has long portrayed his push to release more inmates as an act of compassion.

“You have an opportunity to decide what direction we take in our society,” he told supporters in April as he sought the Democratic Senate nomination. “Should you pay for the rest of your life for a mistake that you made if you were addicted or you were young, or you were in poverty?”

The board’s work has long been politically fraught, even though recidivism among former lifers is extremely low.

In one notable case, Fetterman called Oz “sad and desperate” for attacking his decision to hire Lee and Dennis Horton, Philadelphia brothers who served 27 years after picking up a man who, unbeknownst to them, they said, had committed a murder. Their convictions had come under heavy criticism.

“It’s time for Dr. Oz to answer if he believes that the wrongfully convicted should die in prison,” Calvello said. He added, “Dr. Oz lives in a mansion on a hill. What does he know about confronting crime?”

Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the number of homicides in Braddock in 2005. While state and federal records list zero, there were three homicides that year, according to local news reports.