PHILADELPHIA — Mehmet Oz opposes federal mandatory minimum prison sentences and thinks President Joe Biden made a “rational move” by announcing a broad pardon for certain marijuana users, Oz, the Republican Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, said Thursday in an exclusive interview with NBC News.
The remarks represent a slight tack to the center in the final days of a race in which Oz, who trails in public polling, has repeatedly attacked Democratic rival John Fetterman as being too soft on crime.
Oz said he supports Biden’s decision to clear the records of ex-convicts who were in federal prison solely on charges of simple marijuana possession, a rare area of agreement with Biden and Fetterman.
“Going to jail for marijuana is not a wise move for the country. I think folks who have used marijuana and that’s the only reason they’re in jail should not have those criminal — those rulings — held against them,” Oz said, crediting Biden with a “rational move.”
He also said he broadly opposes federal mandatory minimum prison sentences, just days after Fetterman voiced support for applying them in more cases involving fentanyl dealers in an exclusive interview with NBC News.
“I really think judges should be empowered to make the difficult decisions, and they generally do it well,” Oz said. “When we tie their hands by making laws at the federal level, it hinders their ability to do what needs to be done.”
In a wide-ranging discussion that covered criminal justice issues, race, abortion and Fetterman’s recovery from a stroke in May, Oz stressed that his campaign literature advocating “justice for George Floyd” doesn’t mean he supports the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think it was a hijacked effort to address some of the deep problems we have with race in America,” he said of BLM, which organized racial justice protests around the country after Minneapolis police murdered Floyd in May 2020. “I don’t think the Black Lives movement did justice to the real struggle that we have.”
Oz, a newcomer to politics who is best known as a TV doctor, said he wants to reduce disparities in health outcomes between Black and white patients, particularly in the area of infant mortality.
“I’ve worked in these areas quite a bit both as a clinician but also on the show. We started #moreblackdoctors because there’s some obvious problems that happen in the practice of medicine when it comes to Black folks,” he said. “If we’re going to deal with race issues, we have to have more Black doctors who feel like they’re part of the system and encourage more Black people to become members of the health care system.”
To win, Oz will need to find pockets of voters who don’t traditionally identify with the GOP. He has already made efforts to improve his standing — and harm Fetterman’s — in Black communities in Pennsylvania. Republicans have tried to make an issue out of an incident in which Fetterman, armed with a gun, detained an unarmed Black jogger when he was mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 2013. Fetterman, the state's lieutenant governor, has acknowledged he made a mistake.
Fetterman has never trailed in a major poll, but recent surveys show the race has closed to within statistical margins of error. An average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics suggested a 3.7 percentage-point advantage — 46% to 42.3% — for Fetterman on Thursday afternoon.
Fetterman has depicted Oz, a longtime New Jersey resident, as a carpetbagger who has switched his positions on issues since he won the contentious GOP primary with the help of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 and lost it in 2020.
Oz and fellow Republicans have portrayed Fetterman as being too liberal on economics and public safety. They have also accused him of not being straight with Pennsylvania voters about his health. Fetterman suffered a stroke in May, just before he won the Democratic primary, and he had a pacemaker with a defibrillator installed to monitor and regulate his heartbeat.
As a result of the stroke, Fetterman has dealt with auditory processing issues that require him to use closed captioning in interviews, and he said he sometimes has difficulty finding the right word.
Democrats have criticized Oz for his campaign jabs at Fetterman’s health. In August, an Oz aide said Fetterman wouldn’t have suffered a stroke if he had “ever eaten a vegetable in his life.” In another caustic barb, Oz’s team offered to pay for any additional medical personnel Fetterman might want at a debate and allow him to raise his hand and say “bathroom break” at any point.
Oz hasn’t apologized to Fetterman.
“The campaign has been difficult for both teams,” Oz said Thursday. “I accepted responsibility, and I deal with issues as they come up. But he has his own set of issues. I think we need to look, again, eye to eye and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do going forward.’ We should have had a debate already.”
But Oz contended that he has “tremendous compassion” for Fetterman and believes it was courageous for him to give NBC News a face-to-face interview last week. He also said his dispute with Fetterman is about not releasing his medical records.
“I think people with disabilities can serve and they should serve. I would never hold that against anybody,” Oz said. “The issue for me is the voters of Pennsylvania deserve transparency.”
He said he watched Fetterman’s interview with NBC News and thought: “He probably does want to release his records, but he’s not. So why not?”
Asked why he declined requests to share his medical records and make his doctors available for interviews, Fetterman said in the interview that he isn’t aware of any undisclosed symptoms and argued that he has been open with the public about his health and his recovery, including the auditory processing challenges.
As both campaigns have gone after each other over transparency, NBC News asked Oz to take questions for the same amount of time Fetterman did; his campaign declined. Oz’s aides, citing time constraints, ended the interview after 17 minutes, about half the 33 minutes Fetterman allowed for his interview.
The two candidates are set to meet on a debate stage Oct. 25 after weeks of tense public negotiations. Most competitive Senate races feature at least one debate, and Oz had pressed for more than the one that is scheduled.
On abortion, Oz reiterated that he opposes the procedure except in cases of rape, incest or risk to the life of the woman. He declined to say directly whether he would support the proposal by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to ban most abortions after 15 weeks, but he implied he wouldn’t support it.
“I don’t want any federal rules limiting what states do with abortion,” he said, saying his view was bigger than the question of Graham’s bill. “It should be up to the states.”
In 2019, Oz said he didn’t “want to interfere with everyone else’s stuff” in response to a question about abortion, but more recently he has referred to it as murder.
“I’ve always been pro-life,” he told NBC News. “In that interview you mention, I said I was pro-life.”
While Oz has spent much of his campaign hitting Fetterman on crime, he offered few specific policy solutions of his own. He said Congress should use its subpoena powers to press local governments for answers on crime, and he promoted federal subsidies for school choice as a response. He also said Philadelphia needs a liquid natural gas facility, arguing that drilling more in Pennsylvania would create jobs, export energy and lower inflation.
He rejected a comparison between Fetterman’s efforts to win clemency for violent offenders in Pennsylvania and Trump’s First Step Act, which provided for the early release of nonviolent convicts.
“Being released from prison, especially if you’ve been sentenced to life in prison, it’s a whole different game,” he said.