Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is running for US Senate, but his floundering performance on the campaign trail has left many questioning whether he is fit to run for office — or even serve in the upper chamber of the house.
After Fetterman suffered a stroke just days before his May primary, reporters were later told he had a pacemaker and a defibrillator fitted to address atrial fibrillation — a serious heart condition that was diagnosed years earlier but not revealed before he ran for lieutenant governor or senate. In a June statement, his doctor said he also had a serious heart condition called cardiomyopathy. Since then, none of the doctors on his current medical team have provided any details about the aftereffects of his stroke, despite frequent media requests for his medical records. On Thursday, his campaign confirmed that he had taken two neurocognitive tests, one of which showed he scored 28 out of 30 — which is common for people who have at least a high school education.
Since he returned to the campaign in mid-August, Fetterman has made brief appearances at a handful of events where he took no questions from journalists or audience members. He has largely relied on his Twitter account of nearly 800k followers to charm voters in his absence.
At the events he has attended, his halting, sometimes confused, remarks have caused concern. At his most recent event on Sept. 11, a Planned Parenthood “Women for Fetterman” rally, he struggled to finish his thoughts and fumbled his words, as he bashed his opponent, celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, for making fun of his health issues.
At his first event — a rally in Erie on Aug. 12 — he stumbled, paused or missed words throughout his nine-minute speech to the discomfort of many in the audience.
“I knew he had had health issues, I did not realize the extent they had affected him,” said a voter at the event, who said he was from the city of Erie and a Democrat.
A week later at a Steelworkers rally in Pittsburgh, Fetterman gave a four-minute speech and stumbled over his words. “What is wrong with demanding for an easy, safe, kind of their income,” he said. “A path to a safe place for them to win… Excuse me… To work?”
On Labor Day, as he spoke for just over two minutes at a rally for Steelworkers in West Mifflin with President Biden in attendance, he often halted or trailed off and offered no comments on policy. “I am going to make it really simple for all of you,” he said, in a riff that was filled with frequent stumbles and awkward pauses, and ended with him confusing New Jersey with Washington DC.
“I can champion the union way of life in Jersey. Excuse me… In DC.”
Democrats who attended that speech said they are becoming uneasy about Fetterman.
“Some tricky, cute tweet coming at the people of Pennsylvania again and again and again, with scarcely a word on substantive issues — if that is all his brain can remember, that is unacceptable,” one Democrat told me. “He seems to think he can ride out the storm and not debate.
Fetterman has not yet debated Oz once during his campaign, although on Wednesday he said will face off with him on October 25 — more than one month after the Sept. 19 deadline when voters start casting mail-in ballots.
On Monday, even the editorial board at the left-leaning Washington Post condemned his lack of transparency and willingness to debate early in the voting process. “Mr. Fetterman is asking voters for a six-year contract without giving them enough information to make sound judgments about whether he’s up for such a demanding job,” it stated. “We have called for full disclosure of health records for federal office in both parties, including Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and we believe Mr. Fetterman should release his medical record for independent review. And he should debate Mr. Oz before voters start casting their ballots.”
Both Fetterman and his campaign staff have said the candidate suffers from an “auditory processing disorder.” The condition makes it difficult for the brain to interpret what others say, according to Sarah Lantz, a speech language pathologist at Magee Rehabilitation.
Fetterman visibly struggles at communicating with people, and needs to read questions from people so he can process them. The New York Times, Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Politico have all noted that he needed closed captioning to conduct interviews with their reporters. His campaign confirmed that he used Google Meets, a video chat app with closed captioning, for a live television interview this month with MSNBC.
“I’m running a perfectly normal campaign,” Fetterman, 53, told the Times. “I keep getting better and better, and I’m living a perfectly normal life.” He added that he walks several miles a day and is rapidly improving his auditory processing.
On Monday, Joe Calvello, spokesperson for the Fetterman campaign, admitted to me that the candidate doesn’t write all his tweets himself. “He used to do it all himself but as the campaign has gotten busier from the primary he has some staff do some tweeting. But he still tweets a lot.”
When I asked Calvello for an update on his medical condition, he didn’t reply.
Meanwhile, when Fetterman walks in parades or attends rallies, he is tightly surrounded by volunteers and staff, giving him the illusion of robust health and adoring support while, in fact, it insulates him from reporters or outsiders who try to ask him questions.
The secrecy is in keeping with the entire Fetterman campaign. His stroke only became public just before the May primary when he was not seen on the trail for a handful of days. When pressed, the campaign admitted he had been hospitalized with a stroke caused by a blood clot from his heart as a result of atrial fibrillation.
“The fact that even [Pennsylvania] Governor [Tom] Wolf wasn’t aware for two or three days flies in the face of John Fetterman’s declarations of candor and transparency throughout his career,” said one Harrisburg-based Democrat who served in the state capitol for years. “It is unfortunate John has not been candid from the onset of his medical challenge, period.”
This is not the first time an elected official has had to contend with questions about his health, said Muhlenberg College political science professor Chris Borick.
“The late governor Bob Casey Sr., a Democrat, had a liver and heart transplant. Arlen Spector, a Republican senator, had a brain aneurysm, Hodgkin’s Disease and a triple bypass — [and] both of them constantly offer[ed] updates from their doctors on their health,” he said.
“Ultimately, having some clear verification of someone, both on their capability of running and their availability to the public, is important,” he said.
Right now, in his avoidance of the tough questions, Fetterman is projecting a shifty image to the public — an image that could eventually topple his 6.5 percentage lead in the polls.
The Harrisburg Democrat, for one, is worried about his chances at victory: “I think his physical impairments are such that he cannot successfully debate Oz.”