John Fetterman brings his irreverent style to Washington
When John Fetterman goes to Washington in January as one of the Senate's new members, he'll bring along an irreverent style from Pennsylvania that extends from his own personal dress code — super casual — to hanging marijuana flags outside his current office in the state Capitol.
Pennsylvania's unique lieutenant governor, who just flipped the state's open Senate seat to Democrats, may be the only senator ever to be declared an “American taste god” — as GQ magazine once did.
The 6-foot-8 Fetterman will tower over the currently tallest senator, Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas by 3 inches. And he might be the most tattooed senator (if not the only tattooed senator).
He may break some things: He can be aggressively progressive, campaigning hard on a pledge to rid the Senate of the filibuster rule. He also might become the Senate's biggest media attraction: He's plainspoken and, especially on social media, has a wicked wit.
He has a fan in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom Fetterman endorsed for president in 2016 when Sanders was the insurgent Democrat challenging the establishment favorite in the primary, Hillary Clinton.
Sanders called Fetterman's race the nation's marquee contest — a victory for a progressive candidate who focused on economic issues, middle-class struggle and the increasing enrichment of the rich.
“And I think if there’s any candidate who was running more than anybody else, who identified with the working class, who made clear it that he was going to Washington to represent working people, it was John Fetterman," Sanders told The Associated Press.
Fetterman has played down his own progressivism. Instead, he said the Democratic Party has come around to his long-held positions — such as legalizing marijuana — and has held himself out as a Democrat who votes like a Democrat.
On the campaign trail, Fetterman said he would like to emulate his fellow Pennsylvania Democrat, third-term Sen. Bob Casey, an institution in the state's politics who campaigned for Fetterman and is lending his chief of staff to help oversee Fetterman's transition.
Casey doesn't expect Fetterman's progressive politics will sideline him, saying Democrats already have a broad coalition that can get things done, such as President Joe Biden's infrastructure legislation and massive health care and climate change bill.
“I think you see a kind of a broad coalition that’s going to hold together to, you know, to move the country forward. So I think John will fit well into that," Casey said. “And there’ll be times when he’s got an issue that he wants to pursue that not everyone will want, but we can work through those.”
Fetterman, 53, is fresh off winning the midterm election’s most expensive — and, probably, most unusual — race for Senate.
In the middle of the campaign, Fetterman survived, then recovered from a stroke that he says almost killed him. He went on to beat Dr. Mehmet Oz, the heart surgeon-turned-TV celebrity who spent $27 million of his own money after moving from New Jersey to run.
Fetterman still suffers from auditory processing disorder — a stroke's common aftereffect — that could require him to use closed-captioning in hearings, meetings and debates. It also could possibly limit his ability to engage in the common practice of giving interviews to reporters in Senate corridors.
Fetterman's fashion sensibility — he sports hoodies and shorts, even in winter — came up on the campaign trail, when Republicans plastered him as someone who dresses like a teenager living in his parents' basement. At one campaign event for Oz, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., jokingly told the crowd that Oz at least "wears pants.”
In the Senate, Fetterman will be joining the clubbiest of clubs, 100 of the nation's ultimate insiders: millionaires, scions and king — or queen — makers. His supporters very much see him taking to the Senate differently: as an outsider.
Fetterman became something of a progressive hero without the party's help, attracting a following as the mayor of a Pittsburgh satellite community. In that role, he performed same-sex marriages before they were legal and got arrested in a demonstration after Pittsburgh's regional health care giant closed a hospital in Braddock, his poverty-wracked town.
"He’s for us — not for the big movie stars or the big people who have all the money. He’s for the little Pennsylvania guys,” said one supporter, Lydia Thomas.
In a possible preview to his Senate tenure, Fetterman's campaign struck a balance between insiderism and outsiderism.
He has forged bonds with Casey and Gov. Tom Wolf and got high-profile campaign trail help from Biden and former President Barack Obama. But as lieutenant governor, he forged a reputation as someone who didn't schmooze with state lawmakers and, as a candidate, who didn't kiss party insiders' rings.
When it came time for the state Democratic Party to endorse in the four-way Senate primary, Fetterman dismissed it as transactional; his campaign slagged it off as an "inside game.”
On the campaign trail, Fetterman regularly used Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia as a foil, suggesting Manchin doesn’t vote like a Democrat should and won’t get rid of the filibuster.
At one packed county Democratic party breakfast, he asked voters if there were any "Joe Manchin Democrats" in the room. Nobody spoke up. Then Fetterman told them that a Democrat who doesn’t support eliminating the filibuster “must believe that there are 10 or 12 Republican senators of conscience.” Manchin’s office wouldn’t comment.
It’s not clear that Fetterman views himself as an outsider, or that he intended to run that way. He has dismissed questions about his style or how he would fit into the Senate, saying it should be the least of anyone’s concerns given the stakes.
“Here’s what I promise to never to do: I promise to never incite a riot on Capitol Hill. I promise to never stand up on the floor of the Senate after I’ve been driven from it by a bunch of rioters and lie about our election in Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said in an interview last year.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Fetterman was in high demand from TV networks and carried Biden's shield. As a senator, he may again be in high demand on the Sunday talk shows. And his social media feeds will bear watching: His campaign trolled Oz relentlessly, and he sometimes spits out cuss words when describing things he doesn’t like.
Then there's his wardrobe. Fetterman has said that he will wear a suit in the Senate chamber and, sure enough, when he showed up for orientation earlier this month, he wore one. He isn't entirely a stranger to dressing up; he has worn a suit while presiding as lieutenant governor in the state Senate.
Senate aides aren't sure if the Senate dress code is written down anywhere. And while men are expected to wear jackets and ties, Casey suggests that the dress code isn't always enforced.
“Lately I’ve seen certain Republican members whose names I will not reveal — but if you watch closely on the video, you can see — have showed up without ties, or sometimes without a jacket,” Casey said.
Fetterman has not always shown reverence for job expectations or requirements he may not like. For instance, as mayor of Braddock, he skipped roughly one-third of the borough council meetings during his 13 years in office, records show.
He skipped dozens of voting sessions in the state Senate during his four years as lieutenant governor, including eight of nine days this fall while he was on the campaign trail. When he did show up to preside, Republican senators complained that he showed a lack of interest in learning the rules of order.
Twice, Republican senators went through extraordinary procedural maneuvers to remove him as the presiding officer in the middle of a voting session, contending he had willfully defied rules of order to help fellow Democrats in partisan showdowns.
Not only that, but he ruffled feathers by hanging flags — such as the pro-marijuana legalization and LGBTQ and transgender-rights flags — from the door of the lieutenant governor's office and its second-floor outdoor balcony that overlooks the state Capitol's sweeping front steps.
Republicans, complaining he was turning his Capitol office into a dorm room, slipped a provision into lame-duck budget legislation to stop it — prompting Fetterman to lampoon them as marshaling the “gay pride police.”
The U.S. Senate will have its own partisanship and its own transactional dealings between members. Casey says Fetterman is prepared for it, having been a mayor and lieutenant governor. What may be the biggest change for Fetterman, Casey said, is the demand on his time that will keep him in Washington and away from his wife and three school-age children.
“Your life becomes — because of the schedule of votes and hearings — the time in Washington and that’s different,” Casey said. "Most people don't have that kind of schedule where ... sometimes you’re in Washington more than the state that you represent."
Associated Press national political writer Steve Peoples and video journalist Jessie Wardarski contributed to this report.