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Who is John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor running for Senate?

Fetterman received national notice during his time as mayor of Braddock, a small Rust Belt town outside Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic Senate candidate, during a debate at Dickinson College in Carlisle in April.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic Senate candidate, during a debate at Dickinson College in Carlisle in April.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

John Fetterman is the Democratic lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania vying to be the state’s U.S. senator.

Fetterman, 52, received national notice during his time as mayor of Braddock, a small Rust Belt town outside Pittsburgh. He ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2016. But he’s the Democratic front-runner in the May 17 primary, leading his opponents in the polls and in campaign fund-raising by wide margins.

He’s known for an unconventional political style and demeanor, which he’s embraced to connect with more rural voters, who are increasingly disaffected from the Democratic Party.

» READ MORE: Get to know the 2022 candidates for Pa. Senate and governor

What is John Fetterman’s background?

Despite his working-class persona, Fetterman grew up quite wealthy. His father is an insurance executive who has backed his campaigns and whose personal financial support allowed Fetterman to work full-time as mayor of Braddock, a part-time position. Fetterman was poised to join the business until a close friend died in a car accident on his way to pick Fetterman up in 1993.

“If it had been just a few minutes later, I would have been in the car with him,” Fetterman said. “I started to look at the world differently, and I wanted to give back.”

Fetterman joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and soon quit his job and moved to Pittsburgh, where he worked for AmeriCorps. He taught GED classes in nearby Braddock, a town of about 2,000 people. After two of his students were shot and killed, he decided to run for mayor.

He won the three-person contest by one vote and was reelected twice, serving as mayor for 13 years. During Fetterman’s tenure, the town went five years without a murder. (He famously got the dates of every homicide that occurred on his watch tattooed on his forearm.) He was featured in national magazines for his efforts to lift up the struggling small city, where he still lives in a converted car dealership with his wife, Gisele, and their three children.

Fetterman butted heads with some local elected officials who thought he received too much credit for progress in the majority-Black city.

In 2016, Fetterman ran for Senate. He was little-known and underfunded, and he finished third in the Democratic primary.

He ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 and won. He’s used the job, which comes with limited power, to advocate for marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform. He chairs the state Board of Pardons and has ushered the panel through more clemency hearings than it’s heard since the 1970s.

What are John Fetterman’s top policy priorities?

Fetterman started his tenure as lieutenant governor with a marijuana listening tour, and he flew a flag with a marijuana leaf from the balcony of his office at the state Capitol.

Fetterman often rails against economic inequality, what he calls the low minimum wage, and poor housing and health care systems. He’s shifted on certain issues including fracking, which he now largely supports.

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As chair of the Board of Pardons, which oversees clemency and pardon applications, Fetterman helped increase the number of applications coming into the office by waiving fees and making it easier to apply. Under his tenure, applications increased 104%, and the number of pardon requests granted increased by 64%. About 40 people who were serving life sentences have had their terms commuted, a huge increase from prior administrations.

Who is backing John Fetterman?

Fetterman’s campaign touts more than 150,000 individual donors as evidence of broad, statewide grassroots support. Polling also indicates Fetterman has by far the most support among likely voters.

When it comes to elected Democrats, though, Fetterman has very few big-name endorsements. Some in the party worry about his near total absence of party support and what it could mean for his ability to work with colleagues in the Senate.

Fetterman has been a longtime champion of organized labor, though he trails state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb in union endorsements. Fetterman is backed by AFSCME District Council 47, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, and United Steelworkers District 10.

What else should I know?

While Fetterman is seen as the likely Democratic nominee, one long-ago incident has at times overshadowed his campaign — and may be fodder for Republican attacks in the general election.

In 2013, Fetterman pursued a man and pulled a shotgun on him because he believed the man, who turned out to be a Black jogger, had been involved in a shooting. Fetterman has long defended his actions, saying he heard gunfire nearby and made a split-second decision to act, as Braddock’s then-mayor and chief law enforcement officer, in what he thought was an “active shooter situation.”

» READ MORE: Everything to know about the 2013 John Fetterman jogger incident

An officer who responded to reports of gunfire searched the man, Christopher Miyares, and found he was unarmed, according to a 2013 police report.

Miyares disputed some of Fetterman’s account when asked by The Inquirer in April 2021.

Lamb and Kenyatta have both criticized Fetterman over the incident, but those attacks have yet to gain traction, and national Democrats have made clear they’re unlikely to mobilize against Fetterman like they did against Joe Sestak in the 2016 primary.