Supporters of Mehmet Oz — the Donald Trump-backed Republican Senate nominee in Pennsylvania — are going after Oz’s Democratic opponent John Fetterman with a new series of attack ads. The new spots, which are part of a $500,000 ad campaign from the pro-Oz group American Leadership Action, criticize Fetterman for a 2013 incident in which he pulled a gun on a Black jogger and detained him after mistakenly believing he had committed a crime.
Unsurprisingly, the 30-second version of the ad started airing on TV networks with a solid Black audience, such as Black Entertainment Television (BET), ESPN and the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). There is also a 15-second version meant to reach people on their social media feeds and smartphones. It’s a desperate move in a race that could be crucial to keeping Democrats in control in the Senate.
Fetterman has admitted his mistake but hasn’t apologized as fully as some in the Black community believe he should.
This latest GOP strategy and the underlying incident highlight two things. The first is the depth Republicans will go to suppress Black voters they are not interested in winning over. Secondly, the campaign punctuates the fact that white people, Democratic politicians and purported allies of the Black community must own up to their mistakes and do better — and be better — after they have transgressed.
In January 2013, when Fetterman was the mayor of the Pittsburgh-area steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, he reportedly heard gunshots near his home and claimed he saw a man dressed in black and wearing a face mask running in the street. The then-mayor claimed the man was running toward an elementary school — this was weeks after the Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
Fetterman said he chased the man in his pickup truck and detained him with his 20-gauge shotgun until the police arrived. That man, who was an unarmed jogger named Christopher Miyares, provided a very different account of the incident. He said Fetterman had pointed the gun to his chest and he definitely knew he was Black, both of which Fetterman denied.
Nevertheless, Miyares, now incarcerated for an unrelated offense, supports Fetterman in the Senate race. “Even with everything I said, it is inhumane to believe one mistake should define a man’s life,” Miyares said in a letter to The Philadelphia Inquirer last year. “I hope he gets to be a senator.”
Fetterman has admitted his mistake but hasn’t apologized as fully as some in the Black community believe he should. For example, he could have used the incident to point to the pervasive racial attitudes, perceptions and stereotypes in society that endanger Black lives. Even white progressives, such as Fetterman, who fight for criminal justice reform, voting rights and cannabis legalization, are not immune from so-called implicit bias and the subconscious signals that associate blackness with criminality and violence. And not speaking up more may be why he lost some of the Black votes in Philly, where Black people account for over 40% of the population, during the May primary.
As a Philadelphia voter who has worked on issues impacting Black people — I was the director of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus in the state Legislature over a decade ago — I am reminded of the James Carville quote: “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” That quote resonates with me, although it does not tell the whole story.
Philadelphia is two cities in one. Although it has suffered from a long legacy of racial segregation and present-day social stratification based on race, education and geography, Philadelphia is an economically booming and gentrifying city. It has also been the poorest of the large U.S. cities in recent years, with roughly a quarter of its residents — disproportionately Black and other people of color — living in poverty. Despite the world-class hospitals in Philadelphia, residents of color suffer from health disparities due to lack of access. And even with its many fine universities, only 28% of its residents 25 and older have earned a bachelor’s degree; Philadelphia is among the worst cities in college attainment.
When voters see ads such as the ones bringing up Fetterman’s 2013 incident, we must ask ourselves what is the GOP offering or has offered to its Black constituents.
Nothing the Republican Party has shown indicates that it is willing to address these crises in a meaningful way. So, when voters see ads such as the ones bringing up Fetterman’s 2013 incident, we must ask ourselves what is the GOP offering or has offered to its Black constituents. To be very clear, it’s fair to criticize Fetterman for what he did, but we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the GOP really cares about what the former mayor did to an unarmed Black man or that the party is dedicated to getting Black voters on its side.
After all, Pennsylvania has shown itself to be a national leader in hate and an attempted insurrection. Nearly 70 people from Pennsylvania have been charged for participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. And last year, the Keystone state ranked first in the nation in the dissemination of white supremacist propaganda such as fliers, posters and graffiti, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Not to mention we’ve seen how Trump foot soldiers such as the state’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano — who was recently seen posing in a 2013-2014 faculty photograph wearing a Confederate uniform — attempted to overturn the 2020 election. Mastriano plans to push for every Pennsylvania resident to re-register to vote, a move that has been criticized as a way to disenfranchise Black voters in the future.
The tactic smells very much like the GOP and Russian social media disinformation campaign of 2016.
And take the hot-button issue of whether or not a woman has a fundamental right to make choices about her body. Republicans in the state Legislature have signaled that they want to push anti-abortion laws, and both Oz and Mastriano want to make abortion illegal in Pennsylvania. It’s a move that would exacerbate health inequities for women and result in more Black women dying from pregnancy-related complications. From 2013 to 2018, data shows that Black women accounted for 43% of births in Philadelphia but 73% of maternal deaths.
Indeed, Oz and his Republican supporters care nothing about Black voters short of efforts to keep them away from the ballot box come November.
The tactic smells very much like the GOP and Russian social media disinformation campaign of 2016. This effort fed Black resentment toward Hillary Clinton in the presidential election over her 1996 comments labeling Black youth as “superpredators.” However valid the anger was about her use of the word and the harm it perpetuated, the campaign was used not to empower Black people but to dissuade them from casting their votes.
In 2016, when Bill Clinton would not apologize for his wife’s comments or his 1996 crime bill that promoted Black mass incarceration, Fetterman tweeted: “Real progressive leadership requires the honesty & humility to admit when you’ve made mistakes & work to fix them.” He went on to say: “It’s a harsh truth that America’s ‘first black president’ actually enacted policies that were highly destructive to African Americans.”
Like Democrats as a whole, Fetterman should heed his own words. Democrats must build trust and show results rather than do performative politics with empty promises, as the Congressional Democrats dressed in kente stoles during the George Floyd protests. Once the dust settled, Democrats failed to deliver on the criminal justice reforms their base demanded.
But this doesn’t negate the fact that Oz is a Trump-backed candidate who would be a nightmare for Black people and that a Republican-controlled Senate would be a disaster. If Black people don’t show up to vote in the general election, we may face that reality. It is possible to call out Fetterman and demand he does right by Black voters, but also acknowledge that he is the far-better candidate and vote for him out of self-interest.