As Pa.’s Fetterman nears return to Senate, voters have stayed supportive

From Arlen Specter to Tom Wolf, Keystone State residents have stuck by pols contending with illness

By: - March 15, 2023 10:33 am

Adam Jentleson (L), chief of staff to U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa. (R), meets with Fetterman at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. on Monday, 3/6/23 (Photo via Twitter).

U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa. is reportedly nearing the end of his hospital stay and an expected return to the Senate. After suffering a stroke last year during the campaign, Fetterman checked himself into Walter Reed Medical Center in mid-February for treatment of clinical depression. 

In recent weeks, Fetterman has been issuing statements through his staff and joining legislation, including a bill meant to prevent future derailments such as the one last month in Palestine, Ohio. 

His chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, posted a photo of himself meeting with Fetterman in the hospital to Twitter, tweeting that the senator “is well on his way to recovery and wanted me to say how grateful he is for all the well wishes. He’s laser focused on PA & will be back soon.” 

With the boss away, running Fetterman’s office takes a village of coordinated staff

And even though national headlines and some right-wing pundits have suggested Fetterman’s medical status should disqualify him from serving in Congress, by and large his constituents in the Keystone State believe otherwise, and have demonstrated support and sympathy for the freshman senator once again, Jentleson told the Capital-Star in a recent interview. 

“The campaign taught us that there is a huge disconnect between the froth on the right and what the reality is on the ground,” he said. “But the calls, mail and messages to our office have been overwhelmingly on the side of well-wishes. It’s not even close, not even in the same ballpark.”

After the October debate between Fetterman and Republican challenger Mehmet Oz, national headlines declared the race over, saying Fetterman’s shaky debate performance would doom his campaign. In fact the opposite was true: Pennsylvanians turned out to elect the Democrat to the Senate, and Fetterman beat Oz by 6 points

But it should come as no surprise to anyone who listens to Pennsylvania voters for longer than the few weeks leading up to an election. Even though it’s not as common for an elected official to disclose treatment for depression as it may be for other illnesses, Pennsylvanians have a history of supporting elected officials during personal health crises.

The late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., battled cancer three times, but won five Senate races, starting in 1980.

How John Fetterman — and his campaign — recovered from the candidate’s stroke

Former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016, but was reelected in 2018, after receiving a clean bill of health. And Fetterman’s fellow Pennsylvania Democrat, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, of Scranton, has already been treated for the prostate cancer he disclosed in January, and is back in the Senate. 

Daniel Mallinson, an assistant professor of Public Policy and Administration at Penn State Harrisburg, said Pennsyvlania’s identity as a blue-collar state likely informs voters’ views on political candidates, even if depression hasn’t always been a topic discussed publicly. 

“If Arlen Specter had needed to be hospitalized for depression I don’t know that it would have received the same acceptance and pats on the back from a lot of corners that it does now,” Mallinson noted. 

But with Fetterman’s public announcement, that may be shifting, if slowly. There is some precedent; Mallinson pointed to former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, of Rhode Island, who eventually went public with his struggles with substance use and depression. 

“[Kennedy] talked about his era in Congress and how there were lots of people who were struggling with addiction and mental illness and it was all kept quiet —they knew each other and they supported each other,” Mallinson said. “But it was kept very quiet because it was not considered something that voters were as sympathetic to.” 

But as Kennedy has said in recent interviews, after he spoke publicly about his mental health problems following a 2006 car crash, he felt the support of his constituents when he was reelected to Congress. 

In a previous role, Jentleson worked for the late U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. “He had health issues, he had an awful eye injury while he was in office and had to take time off for that,” Jentleson noted. 

Other staff in Fetterman’s office worked for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.,, who has had health issues, including hip surgery for a fall last year, Jentleson added. “People have health issues, and they take time off for them.” 

Fetterman has been touched by the people who have reached out to him to say his being transparent about his treatment has inspired them to consider seeking care, Jentleson added.

“People really connect with John on a deep level,” Jentleson said. “Millions of people have had similar experiences, or would have loved ones with similar experiences. And frankly, the overwhelming sense we’re getting is that people are inspired by his courage and are rooting for him to come out of this fully recovered.” 

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly