BRADDOCK, Pa. — John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee in a crucial Pennsylvania Senate race, still struggles to understand what he hears and to speak clearly following a stroke in May.
In an exclusive broadcast interview with NBC News taped Friday at his home, Fetterman said both that his recovery “changes everything” and that it would not affect his ability to serve in the Senate if voters choose him over Republican Mehmet Oz.
“I don’t think it’s going to have an impact,” said Fetterman, who resumed his duties as Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor in May but did not begin appearing at public campaign events until mid-August. “I feel like I’m gonna get better and better — every day. And by January, I’m going [to] be, you know, much better. And Dr. Oz is still going to be a fraud.”
In the wide-ranging interview, Fetterman discussed issues that have loomed large over the Pennsylvania race: abortion rights, crime and inflation, as well as how to tackle the opioid epidemic.
During the interview, Fetterman occasionally stuttered and had trouble finding words. He responded to oral questions after reading captions on a computer screen. “I sometimes will hear things in a way that’s not perfectly clear. So I use captioning so I’m able to see what you’re saying on the captioning,” Fetterman said.
He said the stroke, after which doctors implanted a pacemaking device with a defibrillator to monitor and regulate his heartbeat, has altered the way he communicates, including with his family.
“It changes everything,” Fetterman said, responding to a question about how his recovery has changed his day-to-day. “Everything about it is changed.”
Fetterman, acknowledging the challenges he still faces, added: “But it gets much, much better where I take in a lot. But to be precise, I use captioning, so that’s really the maijing — that’s the major challenge. And every now and then I’ll miss a word. Every now and then. Or sometimes I’ll maybe mush two words together. But as long as I have captioning, I’m able to understand exactly what’s being asked.”
At one point, he struggled to articulate the word “empathetic” — toggling between the correct pronunciation and “emphetic” — and then pointed to that as an example of the effect of the stroke. Asked about those moments, Fetterman said searching for language is not a difficult experience.
“No, I don’t think it was hard. It was just about having to be thinking more, uh, sl, uh — slower — to just understand and that sometimes that’s kind of the processing that happens,” Fetterman said.
Fetterman’s health has been a major focus of a marquee race that stands out for its high stakes, low blows and tightening polls. But it hasn’t been enough to put Oz in the lead in any major survey, and Republicans are pouring millions of dollars into ads that portray Fetterman as soft on crime and that point to a 2013 incident when he detained an unarmed Black jogger at gunpoint (Fetterman was the mayor of Braddock at the time).
The Real Clear Politics average of polls on Monday suggest Fetterman has a 3.7 percentage point lead, much smaller than the double-digit advantage he enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of a contentious GOP primary that Oz won. Recent polls have shown his leads within the margin of error.
But Fetterman’s stroke, which occurred just before he won his primary, took the Democrat off the campaign trail and planted doubts in some minds about his health.
Pressed by NBC News why he declined requests to share his medical records and make his doctors available for interviews, Fetterman said he’s not aware of any undisclosed symptoms and argued that he has been open with the public about his health and recovery, including the auditory processing challenges. He has said that his cognitive function and memory are unaffected.
“I feel like we have been very transparent in a lot of different ways,” Fetterman said. “When our doctor has already given a letter saying that I’m able to serve and to be running. And then I think there’s — you can’t be any more transparent than standing up on a stage with 3,000 people and having a speech without a teleprompter and just being — and putting everything and yourself out there like that. I think that’s as transparent as everyone in Pennsylvania can see.”
Democrats are also pumping money into the state, one of their few pickup opportunities at a time when their control of the 50-50 Senate rests on party unity and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. Along with their counterparts in a handful of competitive states, Pennsylvania voters will have a say in which party controls the Senate come January.
For months, Democrats have painted Oz, a longtime New Jersey resident, as a tourist who used his fame as a television personality to profit from selling bogus “miracle” cures to consumers. Fetterman’s campaign has hounded him for refusing to take a position on a proposal from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“If you’re going to be our next senator, you have to give the answer,” said Fetterman, who opposes the Graham legislation.
Instead, he said, he supports a national law that would effectively reinstate the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling that was overruled in June, adding that he would vote to get rid of the Senate filibuster to make it easier for Democrats to enact such a law.
Responding to a question about his focus on the issue of abortion at a time when many Americans say they are more worried about inflation and the economy, he said Americans have been outraged by the court’s decision to overturn 50 years of precedent and end federal protections for abortion rights.
“And they [women] believe their choice belongs with them, and not with Dr. Oz or the Republicans,” Fetterman, adding that inflation was a big issue.
Fetterman went on to blame inflation on “corporate greed” and attacked Oz for having “no idea what inflation is in terms of what it feels like and what it really and how it manifests itself.”
He also pushed back on Republicans who accuse him of being soft on crime. Though he used his seat on a state parole board to advocate for the early release of some prisoners — including felons convicted of murder and other violent crimes — Fetterman said paroles were only granted in a small fraction of cases and to convicts who had demonstrated remorse through years of good behavior.
“I believe in redemption,” Fetterman said, using the film “Shawshank Redemption” to explain his approach to clemency.
“If you, at the end of the movie, you would vote to have Morgan Freeman’s character die in prison, then that’s really those — that’s the choice,” he said. “I haven’t met a single person that’s said, ‘Yeah, Morgan Freeman should die in prison.’ It’s all a choice on redemption and giving somebody a chance to not die in prison that is no of any danger to the public whatsoever.”
He also praised President Joe Biden’s decision last week to pardon thousands of people convicted only on charges of marijuana possession at the federal level; he said earlier this year that he had pressed Biden to decriminalize pot.
At the same time, Fetterman told NBC News that he favors strengthening federal drug laws to make it easier to apply mandatory minimum sentences to fentanyl dealers, an idea incorporated into GOP legislation on Capitol Hill.
Pennsylvania, like many states, has grappled with the abuse of pain-killers such as fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that can be lethal in small doses. Despite his approval for releasing some violent criminals early, and without committing to signing onto a GOP bill in Congress, Fetterman endorsed the basic aim of the legislation.
“I’d have to see what’s in front of me when it’s there. But the bottom is that being an addict, you know, we haven’t been able to arrest our way out of, you know, to the addict,” he said. “But it’s the, actually the pushers and the dealers, that’s a completely different issue. And they deserve to be in prison.”
In the weeks immediately following Fetterman’s stroke, some Democrats told NBC News they had concerns about his recovery and whether he had been forthcoming enough about his health. But those voices faded as he returned to the campaign trail and as it became evident that he could not easily be replaced on the ballot.
Last month, several Democratic officials told NBC News they had seen Fetterman up close and are not worried about his capabilities. But Democrats have asked voters in focus groups about their views on Fetterman’s health, a sign that there is at least concern about the potential for political fallout from his stroke.
Fetterman has slowly ramped up his campaign schedule, and his team has released video clips of him speaking at rallies. Still, they have limited his exposure to tough questions from voters and the media.
Oz has criticized Fetterman for agreeing to just one debate — and accused his rival of hiding from voters during the stroke recovery. The two campaigns have tussled over the rules for the Oct. 25 debate, but Fetterman vowed to participate.
“Well, yeah, of course I’m going to show up on the 25th,” Fetterman said.
Dasha Burns reported from Braddock, Pa., and Jonathan Allen from Washington.