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In Pennsylvania’s Republican counties, John Fetterman is stirring Democratic interest

John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, is bringing his populist approach to politics to Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled counties, trying to supercharge activism on the rise in reaction to President Trump.

Braddock Mayor and Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman talks to fairgoers as he campaigns at the 163rd Bloomsburg Fair September 25, 2018.
Braddock Mayor and Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman talks to fairgoers as he campaigns at the 163rd Bloomsburg Fair September 25, 2018.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

TUNKHANNOCK, Pa. — John Fetterman stood in front of a large American flag hanging from the wood-paneled walls of a Moose Lodge and cracked a joke about the crowd of more than 100 people gathered for the Wyoming County Democratic Party's annual get-out-the-vote breakfast.

"Have you guys ever felt here in Wyoming County like you're the center of the political universe?" he asked and then waited for the laughter to die down. "It sounds like I'm a stand-up comedian, right? But look around. This room is jam-packed with people. It's not supposed to be that way. You're just another rural county in Pennsylvania. It's all about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with our party. But that's not the way with our campaign."

Fetterman, who became Gov. Wolf's running mate after defeating Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III in the May 15 primary election, is on the trail with what, in many election years, would be the heaviest of lifts — kindling Democratic voter enthusiasm in counties controlled by the Republican Party.

But in three stops across northern Pennsylvania last Saturday, Fetterman encountered something unusual: Crowded events and an activated party base eager to hear him.

It might help that Fetterman, 49, is an unconventional candidate in an unusual time.

The mayor of Braddock, a struggling steel town in Allegheny County, Fetterman drapes his 6-foot-8 inch frame with Dickie's short-sleeve work shirts that show his forearm tattoos.

Fetterman played offensive tackle for Albright College in Reading, later attending Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. An AmeriCorps job took him to Braddock, where he stayed to start a nonprofit providing social services with seed money from his father, who runs an insurance agency in York.

Fetterman rose to prominence with an unsuccessful 2016 primary bid for the U.S. Senate that played well with progressives. Many expect him to take another shot in 2022 at challenging U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Lehigh County.

Along the way, Fetterman became a national lefty icon and celebrity, along with his borough of 2,100 residents on the Monongahela River.  Levis made a television commercial about the town. The late celebrity television chef Anthony Bourdain came calling. The Washington Post sung the "ballad of Big John Fetterman."

In Wyoming County, Fetterman tells the crowd he gets embarrassed when voters in rural areas thank him for showing up, as if they're "an afterthought" in the state's politics.

"The key to a blue Pennsylvania is counties exactly like Wyoming," he tells them. "And we will never ignore you."

Laura Dickson, the county's Democratic chairwoman, said her party was already mobilized by President Trump and his administration. And Fetterman's "dynamic" presence helped boost attendance at the event to a 10-year record, she added.

"It's about time we had someone who looked like him, acted like him and did what he does," Dickson said of Fetterman.

Tom Henry, one of a handful of Republicans in the crowd, was paying close attention. The chairman of the Wyoming County Commissioners, Henry said Democratic energy exceeds Republican interest in the area and Trump's constant presence in the news "definitely has a pull on what's going on."

Republican voters outnumber Democrats nearly two to one in Wyoming County, about 117 miles north of Philadelphia. Trump took 67 percent of the vote here in 2016.

Still, Henry said he was drawn to Fetterman's "audacity." Enough to vote for him?

"We're not going to go that far," Henry said, but then added, "You know what? Maybe. I don't know. But I like him."

‘Easy to become demoralized’

Fetterman and an aide jump into his black Ford F-150 — new this year but the odometer hit 68,000 miles this day after so many swings across the state. The Susquehanna County Democratic Party's annual luncheon is already underway at an American Legion post when he arrives in Hallstead, a borough of 1,200 people three miles south of the New York border, on a bend in the river that bears the county's name.

Party Chairman Rick Ainey senses a shift in sentiment. More Democrats are volunteering again to canvass for votes or make calls in phone banks. There are new faces. What drives that?

"One word: Trump," Ainey said. The mood has changed since 2016, he said, recalling how Democrats manning a booth to talk to voters at the county fair were greeted with partisan ridicule from Trump fans. "People would come in and yell and scream at us. That hasn't happened in the last two years at the county fair. I don't think they're taking ownership of Trump."

Fetterman alludes to Trump at times but saves his criticism for former State Sen. Scott Wagner, the York County Republican trying to defeat Wolf's bid for a second term. It's a well-honed hit-list Fetterman dubs, "the accidental genius of Scott Wagner."

The rapid-fire litany hits Wagner on labor rights, abortion, expanding Medicaid in the state, funding public education, taxing retirement income, climate change and gay marriage.

In each telling at three events that day, Fetterman warns Wolf is the guy moving things forward while Wagner is threatening to roll it all back.

Fetterman and Wagner's running mate, developer Jeff Bartos of Montgomery County, appear to have a friendly relationship. They bantered before a debate in Pittsburgh Saturday. "I thought about asking for a 1-foot stool," the shorter Bartos said. "I thought about requesting a tie," Fetterman joked. Noted Bartos, "We actually get along."

And, again, Fetterman notes that the state's Democratic Party has too often left rural supporters out in the wilderness.

"If you feel ignored or underappreciated by the party in general you have a right to because we as a party, I have to say, didn't spend enough time hearing your concerns," Fetterman said. "When you're in a red county, it's easy to become demoralized."

Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1 in this county, where Trump took 68 percent of the vote.

Ainey said Democrats should contest rural areas of the state, where every vote won by a Democrat makes a difference. On Election Day, he predicts, local Republicans will make one of two decisions.

"They're either going to vote for the Democrat or they're going to stay home," he said. "There are a lot of Republicans who wouldn't vote for a Democrat. But I think they're ashamed or embarrassed enough that it will force them to sit home."

Fetterman works the buffet line, too long, in fact, and later laments missing out on a chance to sample the green bean casserole. He has dropped 170 pounds in 15 months, cutting out grains and sugar. At a Wendy's lunch stop, Fetterman orders two hamburger patties, served on a black plastic plate with no bun or toppings.

‘We’re not asleep at the wheel’

Ed Bustin, the lone Democrat on the Bradford County Board of Commissioners, notes Wolf's quiet, almost academic mien and says Fetterman's scruffy populism "is a nice little counter to that."

Wolf is six feet tall, but in campaign literature on the tables, Fetterman looms over the governor. The larger man is careful not to overshadow the top of the ticket, calling it "the Tom Wolf show."

"I have always and will always recognize my role as subordinate," Fetterman said. "I'm here to take a bullet for my running mate and throw myself on any hand grenades."

Bustin said voters are looking for "calm, moderate, intelligent voices from either side to try to bring some reason back into politics." Fetterman fits that bill, he said.

"I think if the table's set right, Republicans could be attracted to Democratic candidates," he said.

Here in Sayre, a borough of 5,500 that shares a border with New York, the annual Democratic dinner at an old train station converted to a busy bar and restaurant is sold out and organizers are talking about how they should have booked a bigger room.

Wesley Smith was a committeeman who didn't attend meetings a year ago. Now he's the party chairman, talking about rallying the base, luring independents and getting Republicans to cross over.

"I know we're not asleep at the wheel," Smith said.

Fetterman mingles and jokes with the crowd before taking the microphone, praising them as "true believers." Trump took 70.5 percent of the vote in Bradford County.

"It gets lonely, right?" Fetterman asks.

He urges them to seek out Republicans with "buyer's remorse" from 2016. And, as in previous stops, Fetterman warns against the overconfidence that left Hillary Clinton's campaign shocked when she lost Pennsylvania by a .73 percent margin two years ago.

"We can't let that happen," he said. "My biggest fear right now, other than Scott Wagner being governor, is the complacency of Democrats thinking we've got this in the bag in 2018. We can't have it."