Steve April 14, 2021

A super PAC is airing a radio ad slamming Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the front-runner for the Democratic Senate nomination in the Keystone State, over a 2013 incident in which he chased down a Black jogger and held a shotgun while detaining him.

Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates, is airing the ad on Black radio stations in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The group has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary, though two Black state lawmakers ― Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Sen. Sharif Street ― have entered the race. 

In 2013, Fetterman ― then the mayor of Braddock, a small industrial city outside of Pittsburgh ― heard gunshots, called 911, jumped in his truck and chased down Christopher Miyares, a Black man who was jogging nearby. Fetterman got out of his truck and held his shotgun while waiting for police to arrive. Cops searched Miyares, found no weapons and let him go. 

“What gave John Fetterman the right?” the narrator asks in the minute-long radio ad, which also features news anchors speculating about whether Fetterman received special treatment from the police. “It’s time for us to finally hold John Fetterman accountable.” 

Collective PAC is spending $100,000 to air the ad and related digital ads over the next several weeks, said Quentin James, the group’s president, suggesting the gun incident could be a make-or-break issue for Black voters in the state. (Pennsylvania is roughly 10% Black, according to census data, with Black voters making up a significantly larger chunk of the Democratic primary electorate.)

“Black voters need to hold him accountable, and he needs to speak to our community and tell the truth about what happened,” James said. “He broke the law and walked away scot-free. Is that who we want to represent Democrats in the general election and to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate?”

In interviews since, Fetterman has maintained he did not know the race of the man he detained and said he made a series of split-second decisions to detain the man, who he said was dressed in black, wearing a face mask and running in the direction of an elementary school. He’s also said he never pointed the weapon at Miyares.

Shortly after entering the Senate race, Fetterman released a video and wrote a Medium post explaining the incident.

“Since 2015, political adversaries have tried to portray an episode from 8 years ago as being racially motivated,” Fetterman writes in the post, noting the residents of Braddock, which is 80% Black, reelected him overwhelmingly not long after. “The facts, circumstances, and greater context of that encounter all support that race played no role.”

Fetterman, who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 presidential primary, is seen as an early front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the seat now held by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. He’s pushed for marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform as lieutenant governor, and he’s gained a national fan base with his unconventional style ― he’s 6 feet, 8 inches, heavily tattooed and avoids wearing a tie at all costs ― and frequent appearances on cable news.

His positions, platform and persona helped him raise $3.9 million in the first quarter of 2021, his campaign said earlier this month, a massive total for a Senate candidate in a non-campaign year. 

Kenyatta, who is competing with Fetterman for progressive backing, has earned the endorsements of Democracy for America and the Working Families Party. He has yet to reveal his first-quarter fundraising totals. The other major candidate in the race is Val Arkoosh, a commissioner in the Philadelphia suburb of Montgomery County. 

U.S. Reps. Chrissy Houlihan and Conor Lamb could also run on the Democratic side. 

Among Republicans, Army veteran Sean Parnell ― a favorite of former President Donald Trump’s ― is expected to announce a run soon. Other potential GOP candidates include moderate former Rep. Ryan Costello and Reps. Guy Reschenthaler and Mike Kelly. Businessman Jeff Bartos has already announced a bid.

Pennsylvania is widely seen as one of the Democratic Party’s best chances to pick up a Senate seat during the 2022 midterm elections. The Senate is now split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris giving Democrats control of the chamber.

Miyares, who was convicted in 2018 of unrelated crimes, is now in prison. In a letter to The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month, Miyares said Fetterman had “lied about everything” regarding the 2013 incident. But he also said it should not disqualify him from the Senate race.

“Even with everything I said, it is inhumane to believe one mistake should define a man’s life,” Miyares wrote to The Inquirer. “I hope he gets to be a Senator.” 

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