'We Can't Have Different Facts': Why Lt. Gov. John Fetterman Still Believes in Universal Truths

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gavels in a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate before Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year, Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gavels in a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate before Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year, Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Associated Press

 

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The Pennsylvania Democrat received national attention for his blunt takedowns of voter fraud claims in the wake of the November election. He's now pondering a U.S. Senate run.

Since announcing a potential U.S. Senate run two weeks ago, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has raised more than $1 million from donors in each of his state’s 67 counties—along with every other state in the country. 

Fetterman’s geographical reach isn’t surprising—these days, he’s everywhere. The 6-foot-8-inch tall, tattooed Democrat has been in politics for more than a decade, most of it as mayor of Braddock, a once-booming steel town he sought to revitalize with infusions of art, green space and urban agriculture. His efforts caught national attention, including the title of America’s “coolest mayor”, an appearance on The Colbert Report and a handful of high-profile magazine features on his life and mayoral tenure. 

But he’s garnered extra headlines since November, when Republicans across the country began questioning the integrity of the presidential election and Fetterman—who refers to himself as Gov. Tom Wolf’s “anger translator”—came out swinging.

On Nov. 5, Fetterman told Rachel Maddow that the only irregularity in the 2020 election “was the president’s campaign rolling up in a clown car in downtown Philadelphia, having an impromptu press conference, and saying ridiculous things and making up lies.” A day later, he told NBC News that President Trump “can sue a ham sandwich. He can send a thousand lawyers to Pennsylvania, but it’s not going to change the basic fact of the matter.” On Nov. 11, he told CNN that, “If its and buts were candy and nuts, the president would be on deck to have a better Thanksgiving...but math doesn’t care about his feelings.”

His Twitter feed since then has been a near-daily takedown of Republicans, conspiracy theories and claims of voter fraud in general and in Pennsylvania, peppered with love letters to Sheetz (IYKYK), banter with his wife Gisele Barreto Fetterman, and clips of his own frequent television interviews.

Fetterman isn’t the only Democrat to push back against baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud, but he’s among the most vocal—though that’s not how he’d put it.

“With all due respect, I don’t think I was vocal,” he says. “I was just telling the truth.”

That's because, even in the age of hyper-partisanship and conspiracy theories, "alternative facts" and the rejection of science, Fetterman still believes in truth. Specifically, he believes in universal truths—things he thinks should be common sense, even for politicians who disagree on just about everything.

Take, for example, the notion of a living wage.

“Like, why do we lie and pretend you can do anything close to resembling living on $7.25 an hour? Why is that a political issue? Why? I don’t know,” he says. “It’s math. It’s a fundamental equation.”

Consider, also, the idea of wearing a face covering during a pandemic to protect yourself and others. This is not, Fetterman notes, an issue of personal freedoms, but one of science.

“This idea that what has been fundamental, established medical protocol for as long as I can ever remember is now suddenly an assault on your civil liberties is just emblematic of how far and low we have gone as a civil society, when we’re arguing about things so profoundly stupid as that,” he says. “It’s astonishing.”

And these days in particular, Fetterman believes in the existence of free and fair elections, including the one that took place in November. It’s not that voter fraud is impossible, he says. But it’s rare, and it’s hard to commit, and he believes that elected officials—even those who have recently claimed otherwise—know that’s true.

“They don’t contest their own election results. I haven’t heard one Republican who won a race on the same ballot as Joe Biden, say, ‘Yeah, my race was fraudulent too,’” he says. “What has never been in dispute was that this was a free, secure election. You’ve had 10 weeks to come up with a single instance of [fraud], and they couldn’t.”

Questioned on this long enough, Fetterman begins to sound incredulous. At one point, describing continued claims of a rigged election despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, he mimics the call of a seagull (“They still cry, ‘fraud! Fraud! Fraud!’”). 

Still, he concedes, there are citizens who genuinely believe the election was rigged (“There are people, quite frankly, that aren’t reachable.”). But hearing those same claims come from elected officials, whose basic job responsibilities are built on upholding and defending democracy—that’s a whole other type of egregious, Fetterman says.

“Not one single GOP congressman lost their race this cycle, so you’d have to believe the Democrats are so capable, and evil, that we rigged it for Joe Biden, but we said, ‘You know, let’s keep all the GOP reps in Congress. Go ahead.’ It’s lunacy,” he says. “I don’t know how else to describe it. It just underpins how profoundly disingenuous and seditious it is to repeat these lies when you’re on the same ballot and you know damn well there wasn’t any fraud.”

Perhaps the most famous target of his ire on this subject is Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who, the week after the election, offered a reward of “up to $1 million” to tipsters who provided proof of voter fraud “that leads to an arrest and final conviction.” Fetterman leapt on the offer, introducing himself to Patrick on Twitter and relaying the details of alleged voter fraud in Pennsylvania—in a case that would have benefited the GOP.

“I got a dude in Forty Fort, PA who tried to have his dead mom vote for Trump,” he wrote. “I’d like [my reward] in Sheetz gift cards pls.”

Patrick responded the next day, saying that “faith in the electoral process is a serious issue” and that Fetterman should “stop the snide put-downs and #getserious.”

“My dude, you put out a national call for voter fraud and I delivered,” Fetterman replied. “It was a dead mom voting for Trump. Your generous reward will go directly to the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank.”

Patrick hasn’t acknowledged Fetterman again, despite numerous tweets and the launch of a line of T-shirts celebrating their spat. A spokesman for Patrick told the Dallas Morning News that government officials, including Fetterman, aren’t eligible for the reward, then declined to answer questions about the application process and other details of eligibility. The whole thing was a sham to begin with, but that’s the point, Fetterman says—elected officials aren’t supposed to support conspiracy theories with no basis in reality.

“We have a fundamental duty as public officials—he does, as lieutenant governor of Texas, as I do—you don’t have to agree with the results of an election, but you can’t spread lies and disinformation just because it might be politically advantageous to you,” he says. “Ultimately, that is corrosive to what a civil, functional society is.”

Fetterman will decide in the coming weeks whether to launch a formal Senate bid. Should he run, and win, he’s undaunted by the prospect of legislating among the Republicans who embraced claims of widespread fraud that sparked an insurrection at the Capitol. He’d be happy to have these conversations face-to-face with those legislators, he says—because “the truth is important.”

“If that makes me a champion or an advocate, so be it, but all I’m doing is telling the truth, and God help us all if telling the truth becomes provocative,” he says. “We can have different opinions and we can talk through them, but we can’t have different facts, and that’s where we are right now...I feel like we can only go up, at this point, as a nation. We have to.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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