PHILADELPHIA — In his ads, and much of the public imagination, John Fetterman is a tattooed everyman from a rugged steel town outside Pittsburgh.
The phrase “blue collar tough guy” flashes across one of his TV ads as a grim-faced Fetterman poses before billowing smokestacks. “He’s looked different and been different his entire life,” a narrator says.
That persona has long irked Republicans, who say Fetterman’s distinctive visual cues leave an impression that he’s more working class — and more moderate — than he really is. Now, as Fetterman campaigns as Pennsylvania’s Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, Republicans are aiming to challenge his story and undercut one of his greatest political strengths. They say his image obscures his roots in a comfortable, suburban family that provided his financial security deep into adulthood.
Public records show — and Fetterman has openly acknowledged — that for a long stretch lasting well into his 40s, his main source of income came from his parents, who gave him and his family $54,000 in 2015 alone. That was part of the financial support his parents regularly provided when Fetterman’s only paying work was $150 a month as mayor of Braddock, a job he held from his mid-30s until he turned 49. He lived in an industrial-style loft he purchased from his sister for $1 after she paid $70,000 for it six years earlier.
“He’s a pretend populist,” Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz, an ultra-wealthy TV star, said in a recent interview on Fox News. “Many folks think it’s because of the way he dresses with his hoodies and his shorts that he’s been working his whole life. It’s quite the opposite.”
Fetterman, 52, grew up, in his own words, in a “cushy” environment in York County. His upbringing helped him get an MBA from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree from Harvard without taking on student debt.
Fetterman now earns $217,610 as lieutenant governor, a job he started in 2019, and his family’s assets top $700,000. His parents supported him financially for nearly all of his 13 years as mayor, aid that he says allowed him to devote himself to public service. He no longer receives that assistance, his campaign said. The campaign did not answer when asked if the $54,000 disclosed from 2015 was typical of his parents’ aid.
Fetterman has long acknowledged his parents’ support. He has said he could have continued living a comfortable life with a lucrative job but made an abrupt change to dedicate himself to people who were less fortunate — including mentoring an orphaned child, leading a program to help high school dropouts, and eventually becoming mayor of Braddock, a hard-hit steel town. He made little money doing so and disclosed his parents’ aid during his 2016 Senate run, even when he wasn’t required to.
“John has spent his career rolling up his sleeves and fighting for forgotten people and communities in Pennsylvania,” said Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello, contrasting the Democrat with the “ultra-millionaire” Oz.
“(Fetterman) has dedicated his life to public service and helping others,” Calvello said. “John had a good job with a good paycheck, but gave it up to focus on serving the forgotten communities in Pennsylvania.”
Fetterman’s rugged image and blunt style has underpinned his rise from mayor to lieutenant governor and, now, Democratic nominee in one of the country’s most crucial Senate races. It even got him featured in Rolling Stone (”The Mayor of Hell”) and a Levi’s ad campaign.
While Fetterman’s suburban childhood and his parents’ financial assistance has been reported many times, Republicans say they’ve been obscured by his blue-collar branding.
Some liken his persona to a pro wrestling gimmick, with a look (once Dickies work shirts, now hoodies and gym shorts), origin story, and incessant trolling. Republicans hope his image wilts under the intensity and scrutiny of Fetterman’s first major general election battle.
“John Fetterman is not who he seems to be. He is a sheep in wolf’s clothing,” said David Urban, a longtime Republican strategist in the state. “Nobody’s ever laid a glove on him.”
Added Bill Bretz, chairman of the Westmoreland County GOP in Southwestern Pennsylvania: “We need to debunk the mythos that he’s created about himself and talk about the platform that he has.”
What Fetterman calls ‘the random lottery of birth’
When Fetterman speaks about his family’s background on the campaign trail, he often goes back to his father’s days stocking groceries at ShopRite.
But while the family didn’t start wealthy, Fetterman’s father built a successful insurance business, providing his son with what Fetterman has described as a sheltered childhood. For a time, he seemed on a track to take over the insurance work.
He worked as a risk-management underwriter for insurance giant Chubb from 1993 to 1995, according to his campaign. But he says he took a sharp turn in his 20s, prompted by a friend’s sudden death in a car crash. Shaken, Fetterman says he was moved to do something more meaningful and volunteered for Big Brothers, Big Sisters. He mentored an 8-year-old in New Haven, Nicky Santana, who had lost one parent to AIDS and would soon lose the other to the same disease.
“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my professional career just making my own circumstances even better than they were,” Fetterman told the Harrisburg Patriot-News in 2015, a sentiment he has often repeated. He frequently talks about the “random lottery of birth” that gave him an easy path and left Santana with so many obstacles.
He later joined AmeriCorps in Pittsburgh, went to Harvard to get a master’s in public policy, and then moved to Braddock to run a GED and life skills program for high school dropouts, a job paying $33,000, according to his campaign.
His family helped him stay afloat after 2006, shortly after he became mayor, a job with few formal responsibilities and a salary of $1,800 a year. He held the position from 2006 to early 2019.
The only publicly disclosed aid, reported as part of Fetterman’s first Senate run, showed four $13,500 gifts: Each parent gave that amount to Fetterman and his wife, Gisele. The support was just below the $14,000 threshold for taxable gifts at the time.
Fetterman’s family also provided significant funding to launch a nonprofit, Braddock Redux, that he used for civic projects and charity in the city, including, his campaign said, a winter coat drive, a grant for surveillance cameras, and a headstone for a murdered 2-year-old. His campaign said that after its early years, the “vast majority” of the charity’s funding came from outside his family.
Fetterman and his supporters dismiss criticism of his background, particularly because he’s up against Oz — a daytime TV celebrity who spent July Fourth partying with fellow stars in the Hamptons.
“This is a silly conversation that you can’t even have with somebody, and with a party, that doesn’t know a damn thing about the working class,” said state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat who ran against Fetterman in the Senate primary but is now campaigning for him. “They only know working people who are their employees.”
Oz faces his own questions
Oz may have a difficult time lobbing attacks on Fetterman’s image.
The GOP nominee has been barraged by questions around his authenticity, given his longstanding residency in New Jersey, his sometimes controversial medical advice, and policy shifts on a range of issues once he became a candidate.
The accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon is the son of a surgeon and attended a prestigious prep school before going on to Harvard, and then getting medical and business degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. His wife is part of one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest families, and together they are worth at least $104 million, and possibly multiple times more, according to campaign disclosures.
Among other properties in New York and Turkey, they have two multimillion-dollar mansions in North Jersey, another in Palm Beach, a Florida cattle farm worth more than $1 million, and a recently purchased $3.1 million Montgomery County home.
Fetterman has questioned how someone with such immense wealth can relate to an average Pennsylvanian facing rising prices. On Monday, he posted a video showing the celebrity talking about his custom suits and extensive travels.
Fetterman’s assets total between $717,000 and $1.58 million, according to the financial disclosure report he filed in May of last year. Much of that, between $450,000 and $1 million, is in bank accounts for his three children. (Senate financial disclosures only require candidates and senators to report ranges of values for their assets.)
Republicans counter that Oz, while far wealthier than most people, built his own career, and that it’s Fetterman whose image doesn’t match his reality.
“There is a lot of potential there,” said Peter Towey, a GOP strategist, “if they can make a sustained argument that John Fetterman is not who he says he is.”