ERIE, PA—Surrounded by two large American flags displayed on the wall behind him, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman took to the podium Friday night for his first rally of his 2022 Senate bid—and his first stop public campaign since suffering a stroke in May.
But amid his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz’s attacks on his absence from the track – and the insistence that Fetterman hid in a basement during the summer months while recovering – Fetterman didn’t didn’t hesitate to broach the subject while addressing the crowd on Friday evening.
In fact, he led with it.
Introduced by his wife, Gisèle, who had her own enthusiastic fans, she called him a “stroke survivor” and thanked the crowd for welcoming her husband to the track. Barely missing a beat, Fetterman stepped up to the microphone and tackled Oz’s line of rhetoric head-on.
“Are we in Erie, or did I house 1,400 people in my basement?” he joked. According to the campaign, the final number of viewers was 1,355.
The Senate hopeful then recapped his stroke experience, becoming visibly emotional as he shared the story of his wife who caught wind of his stroke before it was too late. “Gisele saved my life,” he said, adding he was grateful it happened near a well-equipped health facility, which appears to be a touchstone for his position. on approving access to quality health care across the country.
“I am so grateful. And I’m so lucky. So thank you for being here tonight,” he said.
Fetterman’s return to the campaign trail marks an important turning point in the race. Scheduled as one of the most competitive races this cycle, Democrats need every advantage they can get in Pennsylvania, including valuable time with voters. Pennsylvania is also being targeted by national Democrats as one of their top pick-up opportunities, potentially boosting their numbers in the Senate or simply preventing the Democrats from losing a majority.
Although Fetterman faced some pushback for not being fully transparent about the nature of his shot from the start, there didn’t appear to be any love lost with his base on Friday.
“He was extremely open and open… Things happen to human bodies. Things have happened to both of us and we’re coming in here,” Erie resident Jane Asher told The Daily Beast as she waved at her partner.
The crowds, who lined the block to enter, were filled with Fetterman’s black-and-white campaign signs on card stock. Campaign staff provided rally participants with yellow and black rags printed with the name “Fetterman” to wave in the air, like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ signature “Terrible Towels.” Classic rock blasted over loudspeakers in the Bayfront Convention Center, a location just at the edge of Lake Erie.
Looking exactly as he did when he left the campaign trial three months ago, Fetterman wore his baggy hoodie and bottoms.
The Democratic Senate hopeful didn’t mince words when explaining why Erie County was his pick for his first-ever campaign rally of the Senate cycle. A longtime political indicator for Pennsylvania, Erie is a summary of everything Fetterman’s campaign hopes to highlight this cycle.
It’s a part of the working class in the state that doesn’t vote Democrat by default. That fits right in with his “every county, every vote” model — a slogan he’s used to argue that Democrats should target votes in deep red areas just as much as they do in their metropolitan havens.
“If you can’t win Erie County, you can’t win Pennsylvania,” Fetterman told the crowd.
Only spending about 10 minutes on stage before going to shake hands and take selfies, Fetterman had another big topic on his agenda: Oz.
Much like his Twitter feed, which turned into a constant stream of shitposting about the Republican hopeful, Fetterman put out zingy one-liners on the TV doctor and asked the crowd, “Do you think Dr. Oz could fill a room like this? ”
The crowd responded forcefully, shouting “No”.
Asked for comment, the Oz campaign said Fetterman “refuses to be honest with Pennsylvanians or the press about his radical policies and history of no-shows for the Commonwealth.”
“Meanwhile, Dr Mehmet Oz is campaigning across the Commonwealth, listening to and sharing the concerns of people he meets and running for Pennsylvanians unlike John Fetterman. Pennsylvanians now deserve answers from Fetterman. It’s been way too long,” said Brittany Yanick, Oz’s communications director.
Fetterman also called the press, suggesting they should do a fact check on how many mansions Oz has. (It is difficult to discern exactly how many mansions Oz owns, but Oz declared $100 million in assets in his campaign filing.)
Fellow Erie resident John Whaley told The Daily Beast he was going to vote for Fetterman against simply voting against Oz. But Whaley added that he suspects some people are voting “just to keep Oz out.”
“And MAGA and ultra MAGA maniacs,” Whaley added, “we don’t need any of that.”
Mike Kurutz, another Democrat from Erie, told The Daily Beast he doesn’t think politics needs another “artist,” wondering if someone like Carrot Top might come next.
The Oz campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Fetterman’s appearance on Friday night — and Fetterman did not take questions from reporters during the event.