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

It could have ended the Democrat’s Senate hopes. Instead, it allowed him to connect to voters on a new level

By: - November 13, 2022 6:30 am

Then-Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman addresses supporters during an event in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, 10/27/22 (Capital-Star photo by Ethan Dodd).

By Kim Lyons

PITTSBURGH – By now, the story is well-known: Four days before Pennsylvania’s May primary election, lieutenant governor and Senate hopeful John Fetterman suffered a stroke. He was still in the hospital when he won the nomination to be the Democrats’ candidate. 

Up to that point, the towering Fetterman had been a hale and hearty figure; he lost about 150 pounds in 2018, but otherwise his health had not really been a concern. 

The stroke could have meant the end of Fetterman’s Senate campaign. Instead, it provided a way for the candidate to connect with voters on a completely different level: someone who’s been knocked down but gets back up again. 

Fetterman’s communications director, Joe Calvello, told the Capital-Star that the Democrat’s team always had thought of itself as the “punk rock campaign,” and gained attention for its use of social media barbs aimed at opponent Mehmet Oz’s missteps.

It enlisted Nicole Elizabeth LaValle (née Polizzi), of Jersey Shore fame, to record a video that made fun of Oz’s New Jersey residency status, which became a common feature of Fetterman’s stump speech. 

The Fetterman camp continued to troll the Oz team, famously mocking the Republican’s use of the word “crudité” in a video where he tried to criticize the inflation that had driven up food prices. 

But after the stroke, Fetterman basically had to recover under the intense scrutiny that a political candidate from a swing state typically attracts. He suffered some auditory issues and conducted interviews — and an October debate — using closed-captioning devices. 

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That raw imagery of Fetterman struggling resonated strongly with Pennsylvania voters, Calvello said, especially after the debate, where he made verbal missteps and seemed slower to respond to questions than usual.

“We were inundated with emails, with messages on social media, of everyday people saying ‘thanks for doing this, thanks for putting yourself out there,’” he said of the post-stroke reaction. 

It wasn’t all rosy, Calvello said, and people certainly had concerns. But while the national media portrayed the debate as a disaster, the reaction from the general public was much different. 

Fetterman’s campaign manager Brendan McPhillips had even stronger words for “unnamed” Democrats who fretted to national media about Fetterman’s debate performance. 

“I hope you stub your toe on the corner of your bed frame this morning, spill coffee on your shirt and then lock your keys in your car,” McPhillips tweeted the day after the election. 

Calvello said he viewed the Oz campaign’s reaction to Fetterman’s stroke as a major failure, and particularly cruel considering Oz is a medical doctor.

“It was disgusting,” Calvello said. “I think if him and his team had used compassion, things would have been different.” 

But Oz’s team went into attack mode, with the campaign’s comms director tweeting “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke.” 

Calvello thinks that turned off a lot of voters. 

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“That’s not how people in [Pennsylvania] talk about their neighbors, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “That is not what this Commonwealth is about. People have disagreements that can be polarizing, but people don’t want to see someone stay sick. It showed that the candidate and his staff really didn’t understand Pennsylvanians at all.”

Calvello said the stroke changed Fetterman’s outlook and will inform his priorities in the Senate. 

“He’s always been a huge advocate for healthcare as a basic human right, but said after the stroke ‘healthcare saved my life, and everyone needs to have it.’” 

Calvello was with Fetterman in Lancaster when the stroke happened, about 15 minutes away from Penn Medicine, which has one of the best stroke centers in the country. Had they been elsewhere, the candidate may not have had the same outcome, Calvello added.

 “John’s going to be talking a lot about rural health care, and counties that don’t have good access to health care.”

Fetterman’s campaign slogan “Every County, Every Vote” evolved from his 2019 listening tour of the state to gauge Pennsylvanians’ thoughts on the topic of recreational marijuana. He visited all 67 counties in less than 100 days that year, speaking to residents who weren’t used to having the lieutenant governor’s ear. 

Calvello said the simple concept of just listening to voters could be a takeaway for other political campaigns. 

“You can’t write off these forgotten communities, you have to go and talk to people,” he said. “Yes, people disagree across a number of issues. But when we get to some of these small red counties, they would say ‘I’m not going to vote for you, but there’s no politicians — Republicans or Democrats— who have come to this town in ten years.’”

 He concluded: “People in politics like to think they’re so smart, that everything has to be data driven, but a lot of it is just showing up and listening to people because so many are struggling and just want to be heard.” 

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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