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John Fetterman

John Fetterman wants you to know he's consistent – and not just about hoodies

In the months since the Israel-Hamas war began, the Pennsylvania Democrat has become one of his party’s most outspoken supporters of Israel and an island apart from his peers.

WASHINGTON – If there’s one thing Sen. John Fetterman wants you to know about him, it’s that he’s the same guy he was on the campaign trail.

The junior Democratic senator from Pennsylvania still shows up to work each day in a Carhartt hoodie and gym shorts, peppers conversation with profanity and takes potshots at the “losers” and “sleazeballs” he feels need to be called out – and he won’t mince words when it comes to Israel.

“I said I dress like a slob, I dress like a slob,” he said. “I said I was going to stand with Israel, I stand with Israel. I said I’m going to be a reliable Democratic vote, and I’m still a reliable Democratic vote.”

That’s not how many on the left see him lately.

In the months since the Israel-Hamas war began, Fetterman has become one of his party’s most outspoken supporters of Israel.

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He’s on an island apart from his Democratic peers, most of whom have attempted to strike a balance between supporting Israel’s interest in self defense while condemning the carnage that has come from its airstrikes and ground invasion on the Gaza Strip, which have killed more than 34,500 people and created dire humanitarian conditions for those who remain. He’s also become a vocal critic of the pro-Palestine protests that have popped up on college campuses around the country in response.

Fetterman’s position has come as a shock to progressives who championed him on the trail in 2022, when he became the only Democrat to flip a seat in the upper chamber. The campaign drew legions of left-leaning admirers who saw him as a populist rising star in line with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – people who now call him a “,” a “” and a “.”

May 2, 2024; Washington, DC, USA; Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.) poses for a portrait in front of posters of Israeli hostages in his front office at the 91Ӱ Capitol Thursday, May 2, 2024 . Mandatory Credit: Josh Morgan-91Ӱ

In an exclusive interview with 91Ӱ last week, Fetterman argued those assumptions were wrong from the start, and that he for Israel well before he was elected.

“I am not a progressive,” he said. “I’ve been saying that for years. I just don’t identify with that label. But I’m still a Democrat and someone you can count on.”

Former supporters, frustrated with his public rejection of the label, point to social media posts .

And Fetterman – still four years away from another Senate campaign of his own – will put his message to the test this fall as an on-the-ground supporter for President Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state, and well beyond it too.

Biden has also fielded backlash from the left over his support for Israel. To Donald Trump's delight, thousands of Democratic voters have staged “uncommitted” protest votes in presidential primaries across the country in the hopes of pushing the president to end American military aid to Israel, one of its most staunch foreign allies, before the general election in November.

More than 60,000 Pennsylvania voters during the state’s April primary, which had a lower-than-average 30% turnout. Biden won the state in 2022 by around 80,500 votes.

But Fetterman argues that Pennsylvania voters have largely been supportive of his stance on Israel, and they’ll show up for Biden, too.

“I do believe that American people will be presented with that incredibly stark choice” in November, he said, “and I think they're going to make the right choice.”

May 2, 2024; Washington, DC, USA; Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.) poses for a portrait in his office at the 91Ӱ Capitol Thursday, May 2, 2024.. Mandatory Credit: Josh Morgan-91Ӱ

The Senate troll

Fetterman gained national attention during his 2022 Senate campaign in part because he was willing to be what few other high-profile politicians would be: a troll.

His campaign against Republican Mehmet Oz became flooded with memes as the Fetterman camp lampooned its celebrity doctor rival as an out-of-touch New Jersey transplant. They bought – personalized celebrity videos – of famous New Jerseyans like from "Jersey Shore" and from "The Sopranos" and down the coast calling him “home” to Jersey.

In one of the most viral gaffes of the campaign, Oz posted a video to social media complaining about the high price of assembling a platter of crudités – or, as most Pennsylvanians would call it, a veggie tray. The jokes came rolling in.

It’s a style that Fetterman’s campaign staffers lovingly called “ruthlessly authentic,” according to one top aide speaking to the “Know Your Enemy” shortly after they won their race.

But in the months since Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, killing around 1,200 people and taking hundreds hostage, Fetterman has applied that same taunting tone to those protesting 91Ӱ support for Israel’s counter-attack.

In one viral exchange, he as pro-Palestinian protesters got arrested outside his Senate office building. He similarly greeted protesters outside his home with a . Last week, he called the protests on Columbia University's campus the “” and after a Houthi-run university said it would take in American students suspended for supporting Palestine.

It’s a transition that has left Fetterman’s former left-leaning supporters reeling.

Lehigh University student Julie Wright recalled laughing about a crudité sign in the eastern Pennsylvania campus cafeteria in 2022. It was a few months before her first opportunity to vote, an exciting moment.

“That just reminds me of my very early college days, bugging my friends about whether they registered to vote,” Wright said.

At the time she was informally advocating for Fetterman and fellow Democrat Josh Shapiro, the gubernatorial nominee. Wright has since become president of Pennsylvania College Democrats.

“I look back very fondly on the passion I carried for those campaigns,” she said.

Supporters watch live results on screen during a watch party election night event for Pennsylvania Democratic Senatorial candidate John Fetterman during the midterm election at Stage AE in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 8, 2022.

Now, however, Wright said she and some of her fellow young Democrats barely recognize Fetterman. She feels there’s a disconnect between Fetterman the candidate and Fetterman the senator.

“I think one really big thing that I’ve seen is that (people feel) he’s not actually a progressive,” Wright said. “That’s what was pushed during his campaign. And people are talking a lot about holding candidates accountable.”

Leadership at Our Revolution – a progressive nonprofit that contacted hundreds of thousands of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters to urge them to vote for Fetterman – is already second-guessing their endorsement.

The group’s executive director, Joseph Geevarghese, told 91Ӱ that Fetterman “checked off every single progressive priority that we cared about.”

But “once he’s been in power … it doesn’t seem as if we’re aligned,” Geevarghese said. In 2022, he noted, Our Revolution’s candidate questionnaire focused on issues such as climate, jobs and health care. He said he believes the Israel-Hamas war will be a primary topic on the questionnaire moving forward.

“He is taking positions, for example, on Gaza, on immigration, that really don’t reflect the candidate that we thought he was,” Geevarghese said. “And that’s disconcerting.”

A few of Fetterman’s staff also earlier this year for other progressive offices off Capitol Hill. He pushed back on media coverage that suggested their departure was a reaction to his views on Israel, saying “it’s not unusual” for staff to leave for other opportunities.

Asked whether he considered himself a progressive during his 2022 Senate campaign, Fetterman plainly responded: “No. I’ve been saying this again and again.”

Fetterman said he’s “grateful” to “anyone who chose me over some weirdo from New Jersey.” He added that his previous voters don’t need to agree with him on everything, “but you can count on me to be consistent on the things that I campaigned on,” from LGBTQ rights to infrastructure investments.

“I would tell any progressives that worked for me: Look at my votes,” the senator said.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) walking to the Old Senate Chambers to meet, along with other Senators, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the United States Capitol.

'Why don't they have our back?'

It’s hard to miss the moment you step into Fetterman’s Senate office: Walls plastered floor to ceiling with the faces of the 240 hostages taken by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Standing in front of those posters, he speculated that his may be the only Senate office that has both a LGBTQ pride flag and a National League of Families POW/MIA flag – an indicator, he suggested, that you can “absolutely” represent multiple important issues that don’t fall neatly along political lines.

“It’s a false choice,” he said.

Fetterman still lives in Braddock, the steel town near Pittsburgh where he served as the mayor for 13 years. It’s a short drive from the Tree of Life synagogue, which was the site of an antisemitic mass shooting in 2018.

He recalled feeling horrified when he heard about it. He immediately called Jeff Bartos, then his GOP opponent in the race that year for lieutenant governor, who is Jewish, to check in on him. He paused his campaign for two days to join vigils with the local Jewish community.

“That certainly drove home that antisemitism is deadly and it’s a real thing. And now they have the trauma of Oct. 7,” he said.

“That’s one of the reasons why I’ve done what’s going on in our front office,” Fetterman said.And now it must be incredibly unnerving and terrifying if you are a Jewish student, when you have all of these things. I’m sure they might feel like – why don’t they have our back?”

Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 31, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pa. Eleven people were killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Oct. 27.

Fetterman suffered a stroke during his 2022 Senate campaign, which left him with an auditory processing disorder that makes it challenging to speak fluidly or quickly decipher spoken words. He uses a speech-to-text software that provides closed captioning in real time for media interviews and for conversations with staff and fellow senators.

He says he’s always been committed to the issues he cares about. But the stroke – and a battle with clinical depression for which he sought inpatient treatment – further put things in perspective.

“It’s undeniable. It’s like that line from the first ‘Batman’ – I’ve been dead once already,” he said. “It’s been very liberating in a sense, it allows me to focus on what really matters, and that’s my family and making a contribution.”

Fetterman’s critics ask where that empathy is for the people of Gaza, where more than half of the population is experiencing catastrophic hunger and at least 13,000 children have been killed.

The senator responded that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is “worse than horrible, it’s heartbreaking.”

But he pinned the blame on Hamas, which he says is the only party with the power to bring the war to an end by taking the , surrendering and returning the hostages.

Hamas accepted a cease-fire deal on Monday that was negotiated in Egypt without Israeli involvement. Israel plans to send negotiators to discuss an agreement they would be willing to sign. In the meantime, Israel began preparing to launch an offensive in the southern city of Rafah, which the Biden administration has urged them not to do.

“They started this,” Fetterman said of Hamas. “They have designed this to maximize the kinds of destruction and death. They hide behind places like hospitals and civilians and schools and refugee camps. That’s how it’s been designed.”

'You would think a rockstar was greeting us'

Fetterman’s outspoken support for Israel has drawn praise and from Republicans, which .

“We need more people in this institution that are willing to speak directly to hard things,” Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., told 91Ӱ. The pair, who entered Congress at the same time and are both raising school-aged children, struck up a friendship at orientation. “I’m grateful for his leadership and his willingness to be bold. We need that right now.”

He’s also been embraced by some Jewish groups in Pennsylvania, which have found his stance a source of elation in recent months.

Jeff Finkelstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit serving the local Jewish community. He remembered seeing Fetterman at a federation gathering as mayor of Braddock several years ago and more recently at a vigil for Oct. 7 attack hostages held weekly in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He also recalled Fetterman’s presence at a federation event in Washington, D.C. in March of this year.

“When Senator Fetterman came into the room, you would think a rockstar was greeting us,” Finkelstein said.

Finkelstein said he doesn’t believe Fetterman’s position conflicts with the senator’s liberal tendencies, calling Israel a bastion of democracy and noting its support for LGBTQ rights.

“People can have really strong, progressive stances and support Israel,” Finkelstein said. “It’s not, ‘This or that.’ It’s, ‘This and ٳ󲹳.’ĝ

“I think most of us in the Jewish community are so pleased with his stance in understanding the difference between right and wrong, between terror and a civil society,” he added.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators call for a ceasefire in Gaza during a protest as part of the "People's White House Ceasefire Now Iftar" outside the White House on April 2, 2024 in Washington, DC.

Swing state campaigning ahead

Like Fetterman, Biden has been fielding fierce opposition from young, progressive voters over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, during which he has largely shown steadfast support for Israel.

survey from February found 36% of voters under 30 thought Biden was unduly favoring the Israelis, more than any other age group. , conducted in March, found 51% of voters under 30 supported a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, and more respondents thought Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack was unjustified than justified.

It’s unclear whether that distaste will translate to enough Democratic base voters abandoning Biden in November to cost him the state. Recent polls show the presidential race .

found that around a quarter of voters said they view Fetterman more favorably since he began expressing strong support for Israel. Fourteen percent said it made them think less favorably of him.

Fetterman has criticized Biden for not going far enough to stand with Israel. In one instance in April, he that he would never “capitulate to the fringe” as Biden has by urging Israel not to directly respond to an attack from Iran.

But the senator told 91Ӱ that while they sometimes disagree, Biden is “an awesome president, and I’m all in on him.”

Fetterman has already been on the campaign trail stumping for Biden – including appearing in Orlando to speak at the Florida Democratic Party’s fundraiser on behalf of Biden, despite efforts from the party’s Progressive Caucus to disinvite him for being “a genocide promoter.”

A Biden campaign aide said that the president has support from Democrats across the political spectrum in Pennsylvania, including Fetterman, which they believe will work in Biden’s favor.

And other Democrats said in interviews that they thought Fetterman would still be an effective surrogate for Biden in the Keystone State.

Rep. Summer Lee, D-Penn., represents Fetterman’s hometown in Congress. A member of the progressive “squad,” she has been a vocal critic of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Lee beat out a primary challenger last month that took her on over the issue.

Asked what she thinks about Fetterman’s approach to the topic, she said “I would like to see people being a little bit more nuanced. There’s a realm of disagreement that is possible without labeling everybody as Hamas or an extremist.”

But she said Pennsylvania voters “are going to take a holistic approach to votes.”

“There’s a disproportionate amount of attention that's being spent on this one topic, but I think that Pennsylvanians care about lots of things that they would love to get some attention or for people to maybe even provide some solutions for,” she said

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., is the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is responsible for getting Democratic senators elected, including Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who will face a competitive general election in the commonwealth this fall.

Peters said Fetterman “is going to be who he is.”

“He is an incredibly authentic 91Ӱ senator, and people appreciate him for his authenticity,” Peters said. “I’m sure he will be effective at campaigning for his colleague (Casey) as well as for the president.”

Fetterman, for one, isn’t worried. His message to progressives who may abstain from the general election: “Go ahead. And then when you get the second term of Trump, you’ve got to own that tragedy.”

However, he said he believes voters will turn out for Biden when they realize the stakes.

“I trust in democracy. If the voters turn their backside to the stove, that fire is going to burn,” Fetterman said. “It’s really that kind of a choice right now.”

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