PHILADELPHIA — John Fetterman has recently taken to paying surprise Zoom visits to his campaign volunteers, usually next to the same open-brick wall in his home in Braddock, Pa. But on Wednesday evening, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor dropped into a phone bank training session from a different location: a nondescript, beige-colored hotel room in Philadelphia.
Fetterman was on the campaign trail for the first time since a stroke two months ago.
“The work that you’re willing to do could be the difference,” the Democratic candidate for Senate told his supporters. “And remember, my first race, I won by one vote. One vote. And so the one vote that you could flip could be the difference. So thank you for what you’re willing to do for us. I’m so, so grateful.”
After being sidelined as he recovered from the stroke, Fetterman is starting to gingerly hold a few private events and build up to what he hopes will be larger public appearances. In coming days, he is set to hold his first formal in-person campaign stops since a blood clot in his brain nearly killed him in mid-May. The only other appearance he has made was an impromptu visit to a volunteer gathering in Pittsburgh earlier this month.
Fetterman will have a friendly audience for his debut: He’s going to three fundraisers in the Philadelphia area on Thursday, which are closed to news organizations. The stakes will be high as Democrats and Republicans watch for any information that trickles out about how he performs in an unfiltered setting. Though his aides say his doctors predict a full recovery, Fetterman acknowledges that since his stroke, he has sometimes stumbled over his words and has trouble hearing pieces of what others say.
The peek at Fetterman as he greeted volunteers, which the campaign provided to POLITICO exclusively, is one of the first glimpses of the candidate in action since his stroke. Fetterman also spoke to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Wednesday, the only other non-recorded access to him that the campaign has provided to the media since the incident. He told the newspaper “I would never be in this if we were not absolutely, 100 percent able to run fully and to win — and we believe that we are.”
Fetterman’s speech was occasionally halting in his drop-in to the Zoom training. Wearing his trademark Carhartt hoodie, he said, “Thank you so much for helping this campaign. Thank you so much. You could be doing so many different things, but to help us win — thank you so much.”
His wife, Gisele, who was also on the call, said, “If the background looks a little different than our usual, it means that we are back on the campaign trail. So we are on the road.”
Fetterman’s campaign has not yet announced when he will hold his first public event, though it is internally discussing dates in the coming weeks and plans to stage something in western Pennsylvania.
In recent weeks, Fetterman has ramped up his activity behind the scenes. He has made calls to donors, recorded new TV commercials, strategized with aides about how to talk about inflation, and helped brainstorm posts on social media poking fun at his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz. The TV ads Fetterman is currently airing feature footage of him that was taped before his stroke.
On Tuesday evening, Fetterman participated in a Zoom call with more than 20 Indian American civic leaders and others, according to a person who attended. He talked for 20 minutes and took questions, said Indian American Impact executive director Neil Makhija, who hosted the event.
Makhija, a friend of Fetterman’s who met him in Carbon County in 2015 when the two were candidates for office, said Fetterman told the audience that “he’s 90 percent better and he’s campaigning. He’s going to be on the road starting this week.”
The message from Fetterman, he said, was that the campaign would be “positive” and “we’ll go after Oz, but we’re not going to be mean.”
Oz’s Twitter account wasn’t off limits, though. Fetterman joked that it “is basically a ratio factory,” Makhija said, referring to when a tweet receives far more replies than likes or retweets, indicating that the account is getting more negative feedback than positive.
Fetterman has generated enthusiasm among Democrats for his social media posts tagging Oz, who lived for decades in New Jersey until recently, as a carpetbagger. Fetterman commissioned a plane to fly a banner over the Jersey Shore that read “HEY DR. OZ. WELCOME HOME TO NJ! ♥ JOHN.” He also enlisted the reality TV star Snooki, who flaunts her New Jersey roots, to tell Oz in a Cameo video that “Jersey will not forget you.”
After avoiding the sensitive topic for weeks, Oz has begun to attack Fetterman over his absence from the campaign trail. He tweeted a graphic on Wednesday that read, “69 Days Since Fetterman Left His Basement,” drawing a comparison to President Joe Biden’s isolated 2020 presidential bid during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Oz also released a video in which he said, “Now that he’s back, John Fetterman can’t keep hiding from voters forever. I mean, Joe Biden hid in his basement, how did that work out for us?”
Oz’s campaign said the celebrity doctor has attended more than 75 events since his victory speech in June and participated in 14 interviews in July.
“As a heart surgeon, Dr. Oz knows how scary unexpected health challenges can be, and is glad to see that John Fetterman is okay. But Fetterman can’t hide from Pennsylvania voters forever,” said Brittany Yanick, a spokesperson for Oz. “It’s time he starts answering publicly, not behind closed doors, for his crazy views on things like support for dangerous sanctuary city policies, releasing one-third of Pennsylvania’s prison population, damaging anti-energy policies and goals for trillions more in wasteful spending.”
Despite his health setbacks, Fetterman has led Oz in public polls by 4 to 9 percentage points. Fetterman has also out-raised him, bringing in $11 million in the last three months compared to Oz’s nearly $4 million. Oz loaned himself more than $2 million of that.
Fetterman’s advantage in this early stage of the race has tamped down fears among Democrats about the impact of his stroke on the election. He’s spoken to several Democratic senators since the stroke, who said his recovery is going smoothly. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who also suffered a stroke earlier this year, reached out to Fetterman and said he was “impressed” by his progress. Meanwhile, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who talked to Fetterman for 10 minutes on Zoom, said he is “in very good shape.”
“I had a daughter who had a stroke, right before he had his stroke. She just got done with speech therapy. … She didn’t even know she was stuttering,” Tester said. “He had none of that.”
On Thursday, Fetterman will headline a sold-out fundraiser in Montgomery County hosted by Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, which is expected to draw 100 people. Jill Zipin, chair of the organization, said “we do not have any concerns about his health or physical well-being at this point.”
“Lieutenant Governor Fetterman is positioned quite well. I think he reflects the values of the majority of Pennsylvania residents,” she said. “Dr. Oz is not running a particularly good campaign, and that does help Lieutenant Governor Fetterman. … He has not taken advantage of the situation of which he could have.”
Pennsylvania state Sen. Sharif Street, chair of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party, is planning to attend the big-money event in Montgomery County. He said he has spoken with Fetterman a few times in recent weeks, and that he “sounds good” and “I haven’t encountered any impairments at all.”
Street said he could not provide an exact date, but expects Fetterman to hold a public event soon: “John himself is very excited about getting out. He loves interacting with people.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who has talked to Fetterman multiple times recently, said he is “going to be transitioning more into more campaigning.”
In the immediate aftermath of Fetterman’s stroke in May, when the state of his health was unclear, some Democratic officials inquired about the process of replacing a candidate on the ballot and even discussed names of potential replacements.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Tony Williams said that he was aware of those conversations, and that was “a dumb, dumb, dumb, very, very reckless way of approaching it. … They’re the same kind of people who, when I was sick, when I was diagnosed with cancer, started like, ‘Huh, who’s going to take his seat?’”
Democrats are adamant that no one is having those kinds of conversations today. The deadline for a candidate to withdraw from the ballot is Aug. 15.
“Anyone currently talking about that has no idea what the fuck they’re talking about,” said Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello.
Sen. Gary Peters, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he spoke with Fetterman a few weeks ago. He said he is confident “he’ll be ready to be out on the trail soon.”