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 kill 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, who 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.
Casey doesn’t expect Fetterman’s progressive politics will sideline him, saying Democrats already have a broad coalition that can get things done on President Joe Biden’s priorities.
“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 moved from New Jersey to run.
Fetterman still suffered from a stroke’s common aftereffect that could require him to use closed-captioning in hearings, meetings and debates.
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. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., jokingly told one crowd that Oz at least “wears pants.”
In the Senate, Fetterman joins the clubbiest of clubs, 100 of the nation’s ultimate insiders. His supporters see him differently: as an outsider and regular guy who became a progressive hero as the mayor of a Pittsburgh satellite community. One supporter, Lydia Thomas, says “he’s for the little Pennsylvania guys.”
Fetterman’s campaign struck a balance between insiderism and outsiderism. He 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.
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.
Manchin’s office wouldn’t comment.
Fetterman has dismissed questions about how he’d 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. As a senator, he may again be in high demand on the Sunday talk shows. And his social media feeds will bear watching after his campaign drew national attention with how it trolled Oz relentlessly.
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.
That may not last, though. Casey suggests that the dress code isn’t always enforced, noting that some Republican senators lately have shown up without ties or without a jacket.
Fetterman has not always shown reverence for job expectations or requirements he may not like. For instance, as lieutenant governor, he skipped dozens of Senate voting sessions where he was supposed to preside. Twice, Republican senators removed him as the presiding officer in the middle of a voting session in partisan disputes over floor rules.
Not only that, 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 or a balcony overlooking 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. What may be the biggest change for Fetterman, Casey said, is the demand on his time.
“Most people don’t have that kind of schedule where … sometimes you’re in Washington more than the state that you represent,” Casey said.