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John Fetterman skipped a forum with Black clergy and some Democrats say he’s ducking scrutiny

Recent no-shows have sparked questions about whether Fetterman can handle the scrutiny of being the Democratic front-runner in one of the country’s most crucial Senate races.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in 2020.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in 2020.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

When Philadelphia Black clergy members held a forum last week with Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate candidates, there was one notable absence: the Democratic front-runner.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman didn’t attend.

His three main primary opponents did, answering policy questions the night after Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the historic Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Germantown. The event was streamed live by churches in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as candidates addressed concerns raised by Black leaders, whose communities are a pillar of the Democratic coalition.

Fetterman said he had to preside over the state Senate that day. But to some of the roughly 25 clergy who participated, it was a damaging snub — the kind that two other Democratic groups say they’ve also experienced.

The no-show brought into the open simmering questions in Democratic circles about whether Fetterman can handle the intense scrutiny that comes with being his party’s early leader in one of the country’s most crucial Senate races. It also drew criticism of his willingness to listen to Black voters.

“The fact that he did not want to come into Philadelphia to have this conversation with African American leaders says to me he doesn’t really care about our community and our vote,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of the faith-based activism group POWER.

“If you’re gonna run for this position, then you have to make time for this community,” said the Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “One of the knocks against white elected officials outside of Philadelphia who seek votes inside Philadelphia is that they don’t understand us or they don’t respect us.

“I’m not saying that’s true for him,” Tyler added, “but we don’t know what’s true unless we hear from you in a forum like this.”

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Fetterman’s campaign said his responsibilities presiding over the Senate on its first day of the 2022 session “made his attendance literally impossible.” The state constitution has provisions for the Senate president pro tempore to lead the chamber when the lieutenant governor is absent, and Fetterman has missed sessions before, though not frequently.

The Senate session in Harrisburg ended at 4:50 p.m. Jan. 18, the day of the forum. The event in Philadelphia, roughly two hours away by car, began at 7 p.m.

“Our campaign clearly communicated this along with our sincere regret to the event’s organizers,” the campaign said in a statement, also pointing to his record as mayor of Braddock, a city outside Pittsburgh. “As the four-term mayor of a more than 70% Black community, our campaign is eager to discuss John’s record on these and other critical issues in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania.”

In a letter Fetterman sent the clergy before the event, he apologized for missing it, said he hoped to speak with them another time, and highlighted some of the work he has done on economic inequality, criminal justice, and voting rights. “I understand how important the forum is,” he wrote, “and I very much wish that I could be there.” Fetterman also met last year with the host church’s pastor Alyn Waller, the campaign said.

But for Black community leaders, his absence from a public forum meant they and their congregants didn’t get to hear directly from Fetterman — or to ask about a 2013 incident in which he held a Black jogger at gunpoint, a moment that has sometimes dogged his campaign. The other candidates took questions about issues ranging from the minimum wage and voting rights to student debt and gun laws.

The scrutiny comes as Fetterman casts himself as a candidate who can appeal to both white and Black working-class voters.

Waller, the Enon Tabernacle pastor, said he planned the forum to emphasize to Black voters the importance of the Senate race, which could determine control of the chamber.

“The ones that wanted to be there were there,” he said. “My father used to tell me 80% of ‘can’t do’ is ‘don’t want to.’” Fetterman, Waller added, “knew it was going to happen, and he was invited to come and he chose not to come.”

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Fetterman’s campaign also canceled on a December forum organized by the group Indivisible Narberth and Beyond, which said his campaign hasn’t responded to requests to reschedule. In Western Pennsylvania, Progress PA, a coalition of progressive groups, is struggling to schedule him for a candidate event.

“We’ve reached out several times, and it does not appear he’s available,” said Stacey Vernallis, a co-lead of Progress PA. “This is what democracy is at its finest — bringing candidates to the voters.”

Fetterman’s campaign pointed to some 20 events he’s done since mid-November, including 10 Zoom calls with Democratic Party groups where aides said he faced questions. Four days before the Philadelphia event, Fetterman joined a Pennsylvania State Education Association forum with other Democratic candidates. Other events on his list likely included far less scrutiny from voters and activists, such as fund-raisers, holiday parties, and a labor union rally.

Fetterman’s public events are often shared with the news media only after they have occurred. Multiple requests by Inquirer reporters to join him on the campaign trail have gone unanswered.

Front-runners often try to avoid situations that might trip them up. And the few polls of the race show Fetterman with a substantial advantage — as much as 24 points. He’s also comfortably leading in campaign fund-raising. But Fetterman has also cast himself as an everyman who doesn’t go for the typical political machinations.

Tyler said he personally appealed to Fetterman’s campaign to reconsider attending the clergy event, adding that the 2013 incident was something several people wanted to hear about.

“You can’t win Pennsylvania as a Democrat without significant turnout from Black people in Pennsylvania,” Tyler said, “and we deserve to hear from him and he’s gotta explain that to us.”

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Fetterman has said he heard gunfire near his Braddock home in 2013 and pursued a man wearing a mask who he believed was involved. Fetterman chased him in his truck and then approached the man with a shotgun. He turned out to be an unarmed Black jogger. Fetterman said he didn’t know the man’s race and never pointed the shotgun at him, and he posted a lengthy explanation last year.

The jogger has said that the gun was pointed at him and also that he doesn’t think the incident should define Fetterman.

Fetterman has noted that he was reelected mayor of the predominantly Black city after the incident and that violence plummeted there under his tenure. Still, the moment has loomed as a potential vulnerability that rivals in both parties have probed as they test whether Fetterman can withstand sustained political attacks.

While he’s built a national following thanks partly to frequently glowing profiles emphasizing his tattoos and biker-bar looks, Fetterman has never faced the scrutiny that comes with being the leading figure in a marquee race.

He was an underdog in the 2016 Democratic Senate primary, and while he won a competitive statewide primary in 2018, the lieutenant governor’s contest is hardly a high-profile one.

“He’s got a lot of vulnerabilities that I don’t think he’s addressed yet,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-area Democratic strategist who worked on Katie McGinty’s 2016 Senate campaign, when she defeated Fetterman in the primary.

“Every candidate has got something they have to answer for, and if he handles them well, he may be able to hold on to the lead,” Mikus said. “But his response on the gun issue has not been very convincing.”

Fetterman’s primary opponents saw the church forum as significant enough to prompt a rare volley of direct criticism. State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta said it’s time for Fetterman “to leave the candidate protection program.” Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh questioned how Fetterman would face Republicans in Washington if he won’t “stand before voters in the largest Black church in Philadelphia and answer their questions.”

Fetterman has acknowledged his distaste for some of the traditional political glad-handing of campaigns. He hasn’t sought out endorsements from elected Democrats in Philadelphia the way some rivals have. In some cases, though, the rooms (and Zoom rooms) he’s skipped out on include potentially influential Democratic voters and activists.

Nancy Kleinberg, a fund-raiser and organizer in Montgomery County, said Fetterman backed out of a call with the Indivisible Narberth group and never responded to four attempts to reschedule. She’d planned to ask about the jogger incident. U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, Kenyatta, and Arkoosh all participated.

Tracy Baton, a Democratic activist in Western Pennsylvania, said even progressive voters from Fetterman’s part of the state have found him hard to reach.

“It’s not just that he doesn’t want to answer questions about specific issues right now, but he doesn’t feel he has to answer questions for the voters, period,” Baton said. “And that’s really problematic to me.”