From left to right: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (Philadelphia Gay News photo collage).
Democrats running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania remain united in efforts to maintain control in Congress. But the race has seen a tone shift in recent weeks — with the three leading candidates attacking each other as they compete for the party nomination ahead of the May 17 primary election.
When Lt. Gov. John Fetterman skipped a debate earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta accused him of avoiding questions about his record and past actions. Their accusations focused on a 2013 incident where Fetterman — with a shotgun in hand — confronted Christopher Miyares, a Black man, who Fetterman believed was involved with nearby gunfire.
Police never charged anyone in the matter.
Fetterman, serving as mayor of Braddock at the time, has denied pointing the firearm directly at Miyares. Fetterman’s campaign has suggested that Lamb, D-17th District, revived the incident because he is not making headway with voters.
After the confrontation, Miyares told reporters that Fetterman pointed the shotgun at him. In a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miyares — currently incarcerated for an unrelated crime — said Fetterman knew he was Black and pointed the loaded shotgun at him.
Though he insisted that Fetterman “lied about everything,” Miyares added: “It is inhumane to believe one mistake should define a man’s life. I hope he gets to be a senator.”
Even during his absence at the first Democratic U.S. Senate debate, Lamb and Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, dealt blows to Fetterman’s record, bringing up the 2013 confrontation and accusing him of “flip-flopping” on policies.
During a recent forum with Fetterman, Kenyatta asked why he has yet to apologize for the incident and noted inconsistencies in retellings of what transpired.
Fetterman defended his actions — describing it as an “active shooter situation.”
“There was only one individual out running from the scene of gunfire, wearing a ski mask, of unknown race, running from the gunfire. And as Braddock’s chief law enforcement officer, I made a split-second decision to intervene for the safety of our community,” Fetterman said, refuting claims that his story has changed over the years.
In their first debate on the same stage last week, the three Democratic hopefuls engaged in a contentious exchange for about five minutes over the incident, with Lamb and Kenyatta explaining why it should disqualify Fetterman from being elected to the Senate.
Lamb referenced the letter from Miyares and his insistence that Fetterman has been dishonest about the encounter., Kenyatta urged Fetterman to apologize.
Asked whether he would handle the situation differently if he could, Fetterman, who did not apologize, skirted the question.
“It’s certainly not a situation anyone would want to be in with gun violence,” Fetterman said. “But I’d like to point out that I’m the only Democrat on this stage that has successfully confronted crime and violence and has been in charge of a police department.”
Recent polling shows that Fetterman has pulled ahead of Lamb, with 41 percent of registered Democrats saying they would support him in the upcoming election. Fetterman jumped 13 percentage points since last month’s Franklin & Marshall College poll and has consistently led in fundraising efforts.
The same poll showed that 26 percent of voters say they are still undecided about whom they will ultimately support in the Democratic primary.
But that’s not the only issue where the candidates differ.
Here’s a look at where the leading Democrats running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania stand on key issues and the accusations they face from their opponents.
With Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry, the issue is a hot topic in the race, specifically when it comes to addressing climate change, creating jobs, and keeping energy costs low.
Kenyatta is the only candidate who supports a ban on new natural gas permits. During candidate forums and debates, he has argued that Pennsylvania can create jobs and transition to renewable energy.
“These industries do not give a darn about these workers, don’t care about their health,” he said. “These industries will leave at a moment’s notice, go bankrupt, open with a different name, and leave workers holding the bag.”
Lamb and Fetterman oppose bans on natural gas extraction.
Lamb, comparing the issue to a stool with three legs, said the United States should focus on lowering carbon emissions, allowing for affordable energy, and creating jobs.
“Fracking allows us to do all three of those things,” he said, referring to the process of extracting gas from the ground.
Fetterman referenced past support for an extraction tax and said fracking allows for energy independence and job creation. However, he has faced accusations of flip-flopping on the topic. He also said he has not accepted money from the fossil fuel industry.
“You haven’t taken a dime, but you’ve taken their positions, which is all the big oil and gas companies want you to do,” Kenyatta said of Fetterman. “So really, you know, this is a cheap date.”
Federal gas tax
Fetterman is the only candidate who supports suspending the federal gas tax, saying that he would offset any lost revenue by insisting that “multi-billion dollar corporations” and “hyper-rich billionaires pay their fair share.”
Lamb and Kenyatta oppose a suspension and said they would support an income tax hike for people who earn more than $500,000 a year.
Lamb said that while a federal gas tax suspension is “tempting,” the problem won’t go away without increasing oil production.
“What you will lose will be money in the funds that pay for our infrastructure,” he said. “That’s what the federal gas tax goes to.”
Kenyatta said the government should focus on helping support families by lowering childcare, education, healthcare, and prescription costs.
Legalizing recreational cannabis
Every candidate supports legalizing recreational cannabis.
Lamb, however, is the only Democratic candidate who wants to move ahead “slowly” with regulations to ensure safety.
Kenyatta noted that Lamb used to oppose legalization, citing a vote against legislation to end the federal ban in 2020.
COVID-19 mitigation measures
Philadelphia lifted its mask mandate just as last week’s debate ended, but the candidates are divided on addressing the pandemic now that a vaccine is available.
Lamb was the only candidate to support the Philadelphia mandate, saying the decision should be up to professionals who don’t have “any political interest at stake.”
“I hate masks,” Lamb said, adding: “But I do think the people who are considering this are trying to do what’s best for everybody.”
Fetterman said he opposed the mandate and that vaccines and business recovery should be the focus.
Kenyatta said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be the deciding factor. Since the mandate was not in accordance with current CDC guidelines at the time, he said he opposed the safety measure.
When it comes to extending Title 42 — a federal provision that allows the government to prevent migrants from entering the United States during an emergency, which expires next month, the candidates are divided.
Kenyatta called for a plan to ensure those seeking asylum in the United States are treated with dignity.
“We need comprehensive immigration reform as a pathway to citizenship,” he said.
Fetterman cautioned against revoking the provision, saying it requires a “deeper level of planning and understanding” of COVID-19’s future.
“I think it would be a rash judgment to revoke it too soon,” he added.
Kenyatta used Fetterman’s response to highlight inconsistencies in his position related to the coronavirus.
Lamb said Title 42 aimed to control COVID-19 variants, and said it should remain in place up to 60 days after the CDC says the pandemic is over.
All three candidates support efforts to provide artillery and ammunition support to Ukraine.
Fetterman and Kenyatta said they oppose sending U.S. troops to Ukraine. Lamb said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — an intergovernmental military alliance — binds the United States.
All three candidates have faced questions about their electability.
Lamb, who has faced speculation among Democratic leadership about his chances of winning against the Republican nominee in November for being too moderate, has looked to past victories against candidates supported by former President Donald Trump.
Lamb, a Marine and former prosecutor, entered the political spotlight in 2018 after winning a special election for a Pittsburgh-area congressional seat by a razor-sharp margin — 627 votes — in a district that Trump won in 2016.
He has portrayed himself as a moderate in rhetoric and with his votes. But Lamb took a more aggressive tone attacking Trump in the months leading up to — and after — the 2020 election.
“What Democrats in Pennsylvania can take away about me is that I have what it takes to withstand the pressure of these campaigns,” Lamb said during last week’s debate. “The attacks, there’s nothing new they’re going to learn about me.”
If elected to the U.S. Senate, Kenyatta would be Pennsylvania’s first Black and first openly gay senator.
Asked to address comments from Philadelphia Democratic Party Chairperson Bob Brady that some people did not think Kenyatta could win or have enough funds, Kenyatta said the race is about “who lays out a vision of what people need.”
Pennsylvania, he said, is ready for a “new day, fresh vision, [and] new leadership.
“We’re gonna win this race because we talk about, with a level of urgency and authenticity, what working families need and what they want to see out there,” Kenyatta said.
Fetterman has faced scrutiny over his ability to win statewide in the general election. He looked to his successful campaign for lieutenant governor and touted poll numbers.
“We are able to bring out margins that we are going to need,” Fetterman said “It’s going to be a tough cycle for Democrats.”
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