The two very different ways John Fetterman answered GOP attacks over crime and drugs
The contrasting responses show how one Democrat, in one of the country’s most crucial elections, is confronting a national GOP focus on crime as he tries to hold off Republican opponent Mehmet Oz.
He did it in two very different ways.
Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and Democratic Senate nominee, leaned into his advocacy for pardons and commutations for long-serving prisoners — casting a GOP criticism as a point of pride. But when it came to his past statements supporting the broad decriminalization of all drugs, he changed course.
The contrasting responses show how one Democrat, in one of the country’s most crucial elections, is confronting a national GOP focus on crime as he tries to hold off his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz.
A shift on drugs
While Fetterman has long embraced clemency as part of his record, he shifted his position on decriminalizing drugs, narrowing what were once sweeping statements of support.
Fetterman, who has famously advocated for legalizing marijuana, in 2015 told The Nation magazine he would go even further: “I’m for decriminalizing across the board. I see it as a public-health issue, not a criminal issue.”
He backed that up in 2020 by supporting an Oregon referendum decriminalizing possession of small amounts of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines. (Under decriminalization, drugs remain illegal, but possession of small amounts results in minor charges, similar to a traffic ticket.)
The Inquirer asked Fetterman’s campaign multiple times if that remained his position, without getting a direct answer. But after Oz’s campaign highlighted the issue again on Saturday ahead of Fetterman’s rally that day, the Democrat’s campaign responded.
“John is an outspoken advocate for weed legalization and has always believed we should not be criminalizing addiction,” his spokesperson Joe Calvello said. “We need to make sure that we are locking up drug dealers who are pushing and profiting from hard drugs, while making sure that people get real help if they are addicted. But let’s be clear, John does not support decriminalizing all drugs including heroin, methamphetamines, and other hard drugs.”
Oz’s campaign called him a liar.
“John Fetterman and his campaign can’t hide his long and radical past of advocating to decriminalize drugs ‘across the board,’” Oz spokesperson Brittany Yanick said. ”I don’t know what’s crazier: advocating for decriminalizing heroin or thinking you can blatantly lie to the press and voters about decriminalizing heroin and thinking you’ll get away with it.”
Oz has a long history of policy shifts himself. During the GOP primary earlier this year, he reversed or disavowed past statements staking out moderate or liberal views on abortion, gun laws, and fracking. He has also evaded clear answers when asked about a range of topics, including on abortion, gun laws, and the minimum wage — all of which are pending in Congress and far more likely to see a vote than a bill to decriminalize drugs. Regarding a proposed national ban on abortion after 15 weeks, Oz has said it should be up to the states, but hasn’t said how he would vote if the bill came before the chamber.
“He has no core,” Fetterman said at his Philly rally. “He will say whatever he thinks he has [to] to try to get a vote.”
Support for clemency
Fetterman has long taken pride in his work on the state Board of Pardons, which he chairs as lieutenant governor. Since he took charge, it has issued 50 commutations, up from six in Gov. Tom Wolf’s first term.
Fetterman says he’s given second chances to people who served long sentences and showed they had reformed, or been convicted under questionable circumstances. Oz has highlighted some of the cases, including some involving murder, to cast Fetterman as a danger to public safety — though lifers who gain freedom very rarely commit new crimes. (The commutations required a unanimous vote by the five-member board.)
Speaking to hundreds of supporters in deeply Democratic Philadelphia, Fetterman embraced the issue Saturday. He was introduced by two Philadelphia brothers he helped: Dennis and Lee Horton, who had their life sentences commuted after 27 years in prison for their involvement in a robbery and murder. Their convictions had come under heavy criticism and they maintained their innocence. They now work for Fetterman’s campaign.
“Knowing that they were going to have material to attack me, I would never trade a title for my conscience,” Fetterman said to cheers. His campaign has accused Oz of “fearmongering.”
Oz’s campaign has called on Fetterman to fire the brothers. A spokesperson earlier this month pointed to the Hortons to say Fetterman “puts murderers and other criminals ahead of Pennsylvania communities.”
At the Philadelphia rally, many Fetterman supporters cited crime as a worry in their lives, but they often also supported his push for criminal justice reform.
“African Americans are disproportionately impacted in a negative way by the justice system,” said the Rev. Kevin Murphy, 63, of Elkins Park. “We need someone in place who can turn that around.”
Rhonda Johnson Mazzccua said she lost two nephews and a stepson to gun violence. But she supported Fetterman on clemency.
“The judicial system has been real hard on us, and he’s been fair about it,” said Johnson Mazzccua, 62, of Germantown.
While Fetterman highlighted the issue in Philly, he didn’t bring it up later in the day when he rallied in the much more politically competitive Lehigh Valley region.
Inquirer staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.