Climate Activists Reluctantly Back John Fetterman in Tightening Pennsylvania Senate Race

The GOP’s Mehmet Oz may be shrugging off “carpetbagger” claims but faces headwinds over Trump endorsement.

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Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman greets supporters during a campaign rally at the Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman greets supporters during a campaign rally at the Dorothy Emanuel Recreation Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

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EXTON, Pa.—Almost a year after a major natural gas liquids pipeline project was completed through his suburban neighborhood, Connor Young is still speaking out against it, but he doesn’t expect any help from John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for a Pennsylvania U.S. Senate seat in November’s election.

Young, a registered Democrat, says he will vote for Fetterman but only because he likes the Democrat’s policies on other issues such as abortion and criminal justice reform, and not because he expects Fetterman to take a stand against the natural gas industry.

Half a mile from his house on a leafy street where single-family homes sit on manicured half-acre lots in the town of Exton some 30 miles west of Philadelphia, a grassy right-of-way bordered by yellow markers shows the path of the pipelines which since December 2018 have been carrying a highly pressurized form of natural gas from southwest Pennsylvania to an export terminal near Philadelphia.

After fighting and losing a battle against building the pipeline since construction began in 2017, Young and other critics fear a leak or rupture in the line could prompt a catastrophic explosion of its highly volatile fuel, prompting mass evacuations or even loss of life in the densely populated neighborhood.

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But he’s not anticipating any support from Fetterman, or his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, when one of them gets to the Senate after a closely watched race that could determine the balance of power in the upper chamber. The candidates are seeking to replace Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican who is retiring.

“I am completely unrepresented in this issue in terms of federal candidacy,” said Young, 27, a nurse. “I’m not really picking an ally here; I’m picking an enemy. I would rather combat a much more reasonable enemy, and I think that’s what we have in John Fetterman.”

Recent polls suggest that Fetterman, currently Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor, is leading Oz, a celebrity surgeon endorsed by former President Donald Trump, although by a dwindling margin.

Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate and former TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz is greeted by former president Donald Trump at a rally to support local candidates at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Sept. 3, 2022 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Credit: Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate and former TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz is greeted by former president Donald Trump at a rally to support local candidates at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Sept. 3, 2022 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Credit: Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to an average of five polls monitored by FiveThirtyEight, a website that analyzes politics, Fetterman led by 8.9 points on Sept. 22, down from a high of 12 points in mid-August. 

That suggested a bigger lead than one shown by Real Clear Politics, which showed a Fetterman edge of between 2 and 5 points in five other polls taken between Aug. 22 and Sept. 16.

G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow for political affairs at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, said the tightening polls suggest in part that Oz is beginning to overcome critics’ accusations that he is a “carpetbagger” from New Jersey who never had an address in Pennsylvania before the Senate race, and has no real knowledge of the state that he hopes to represent in Washington.

Fetterman’s shrinking lead may also signal that Oz’s frequent attacks on Fetterman’s health—which Oz says could stop him being an active senator—are starting to have traction with voters, Madonna said. Since suffering a stroke in May, the Democrat has made few media appearances and declined Oz’s proposal for five debates but has now agreed to one—on Oct. 25.

Still, Oz has to overcome polls that show most voters view him unfavorably, and to figure out how to win over swing voters in Pennsylvania’s crucial suburbs where Joe Biden handily won the presidential vote in 2020. In Philadelphia’s four “collar” suburban counties—Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks—Biden beat Trump by 170,000 votes in 2020, in a sign that a Trump-backed candidate will face strong headwinds there on Nov. 8.

“If you’re a Republican, you can’t win on the vote in small towns in rural Pennsylvania,” Madonna said. “There just aren’t enough votes; you need to win the suburbs.” He said Oz is not talking about his endorsement by the former president, in an apparent recognition that it wouldn’t play well with suburban voters.

Christopher Borick, a professor of politics at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, argued that the Trump endorsement will be an increasing problem for Oz as the election nears, even though it helped him win a closely contested primary, albeit by less than a percentage point.

“Trump’s endorsement carried Oz across the line in the primary, but it’s more a curse than blessing in the general election,” Borick said. “Oz has tried to find some distance from Trump without antagonizing the former president, as he tries to make some headway among the voters that supported down-ballot Republicans in 2020 but wouldn’t vote for Trump.”

So far, the candidates have focused on abortion, voting rights, crime and Fetterman’s health but each has also taken a position on energy in the state that produces more natural gas than any state except Texas. Fetterman calls on his website for a transition to emissions-free energy sources but not at the cost of jobs, while Oz says gas output should be increased by easing regulations that he said have been imposed by the Biden administration, stifling domestic production at a time of soaring global energy prices.

“Dr. Oz will work to overturn these heavy-handed regulations that are hurting Pennsylvania jobs and our local communities,” his website says. “These attacks have resulted in skyrocketing gas and energy prices and made our current energy options less reliable.” 

The Oz campaign did not respond to several requests for comment.

For his part, Fetterman has refused to repeat his call in 2016 for a temporary ban on fracking until state regulations could be tightened to protect water sources. Those rules were later tightened, and the candidate has since supported the fracking industry, disappointing critics in areas like Chester County.

“John does not support a moratorium on fracking,” said Joe Calvello, communications manager for the campaign. “In 2016, he supported a temporary moratorium until there were stronger regulations. Pennsylvania passed them, and since then John has said ‘It’s better than what we had.’”

On his website, Fetterman calls climate change an “existential threat,” and calls for a transition to clean energy as soon as possible, but not at the cost of current jobs in the fossil fuel industry.

“We need to make sure we are moving to a green-energy economy but we’re not leaving people in the dust,” Calvello said. “You can’t just tell people who work in the oil and gas industry, ‘You need to learn to code now.’ But fighting climate change creates thousands of good-paying union jobs.”

At a Sept. 24 rally in North Philadelphia, Fetterman said nothing about fracking, the environment or climate change, but pushed back against Oz’s attacks on his health.

“The one issue that I have is auditory processing, I think that’s the technical term,” he said, in an 11-minute speech to about 600 supporters in a recreation center. “Sometimes I might miss a word, or sometimes I might push two words together. I guarantee that there’s at least one person in this audience right now who is filming me, hoping that I mess up some words.”

Fetterman, wearing his trademark black hoodie, with tattooed arms and a gray-tinged goatee beneath his bald pate, argued that anyone who suffers a serious illness should not be ridiculed for it, as Oz has done to him. “I hope that you didn’t have a doctor in your life making fun of it, saying that you’re not able to do your job, that you’re not fit to serve,” he said.

That was a response to Oz’s attacks such as one in early September when he pressed Fetterman to agree to a debate. “John Fetterman is either healthy and he’s dodging the debates because he does not want to answer for his radical-left positions, or he’s too sick to participate in the debate,” Oz said.

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In an attempt to counter Oz’s claims that he is soft on crime, Fetterman called to the stage Lee and Freedom Horton, two Black brothers who were incarcerated for 28 years after being wrongfully convicted of murder and robbery, and then exonerated in December 2020 by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons which Fetterman chairs as lieutenant governor.

“I fought to make sure they would come out to their families,” Fetterman told the audience, which was about half Black.

At the rally, Sherman Aronson said he wants to see a transition away from fossil fuels but will still vote for Fetterman even though the candidate has backed away from the idea of a fracking ban in Pennsylvania.

“We shouldn’t be using it as a bridge fuel for much longer,” said Aronson, 73, who lives in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. “We’ve got to get through this phase and transition to cleaner energy. I am in favor of a ban on fracking but I understand why people are not.”

Wynetta Ward, a retired trade union president, said she will vote for Fetterman because he supports unions and women’s rights. But if he’s elected to the Senate, she will also be looking to him to support action on climate change.

“He will have to implement some sort of plan that people are willing to get behind for climate change,” said Ward, 53. “If we don’t have some form of climate change none of us will be here.”

Back in Chester County, Tammy Krumbhaar lives just 30 yards from the pipeline route in Upper Uwchlan Township, and she worries about how she will respond if there’s a leak or explosion. Krumbhaar, 52, a kindergarten teacher in nearby Malvern, doesn’t know how to protect her family from any leak of a colorless and odorless gas because she doesn’t understand evacuation instructions from the pipelines’ builder, Sunoco Pipeline.

“If you’re sleeping, you could just die, and if you’re awake you don’t know that there’s a leak because you can’t smell it or taste it,” she said. “We have no emergency plan in our township. You’re not supposed to use your phones because they are a possible ignition source, and we’re supposed to run uphill.”

Krumbhaar, a registered Democrat, said she will vote for Fetterman but not with any great enthusiasm because, she says, he has stopped supporting her fight against the pipeline.

She called Fetterman “the lesser of two evils,” and said his “silence” on fracking raises questions about his commitment to curbing fossil fuels to control climate change.

“I believe that he does want to use our country’s resources, and fracking is one of the means to get it,” she said. “Fossil fuels are creating climate change and destroying our environment.”

But Fetterman’s withdrawal from so-called fracktivism doesn’t mean he’s not serious about curbing climate change, argued Danielle Friel Otten, a Democratic state representative from Chester County, who lives about 50 feet from the Mariner East right of way on the same street as Connor Young.

“John Fetterman supports the fossil fuel industry in Pennsylvania, and specifically the workers, and that’s a big concern for anybody but the alternative is going to be much worse,” Friel Otten said. “I do believe that John will be better on the issue of how we move away from fossil fuels in Pennsylvania.” 

She predicted that, if he’s elected to the Senate, Fetterman will work with other Democrats to curb climate change. “I believe that he is committed to moving us to a clean-energy future. How we get there, we might not agree on,” Friel Otten said.

Standing outside her front door within sight of the pipeline right-of-way, she said she’s concerned about the safety of the pipeline, and about fossil fuel infrastructure in general but feels less vulnerable than she would if she lived in neighboring West Whiteland Township where pipeline construction through unstable limestone opened sinkholes behind some houses in 2018.

“The closer you are to the weaker parts of the project, the more likely you are to be impacted by a failure,” she said. “But I still live within the blast radius, and I am still very much concerned with pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure in general.”

For Friel Otten’s neighbor, Connor Young, the fight against the pipeline is part of a larger effort to persuade policymakers to take significant action to curb fossil-use and curb climate change.

“I look at Pennsylvania’s natural gas production and I see temperatures in London topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit; I see heat domes in British Columbia; I see droughts in the west; I see high rates of cancer surrounding fracking sites, and plastics production plants,” he said.

“I’m going to vote for John Fetterman because the Democratic Party has deprived me of better options,” Young said. “But I’m going to hold him accountable for the issues that have plagued my community.”

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