By MIKE CATALINI and MARC LEVY
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — As Sheila Armstrong became emotional as she recounted how her brother and nephew were killed in Philadelphia, Dr. Mehmet Oz — sat next to her in a black church, their chairs arranged much like her old tray daytime television – placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
Later, he hugged her and said, “How are you coping?”
Two days later, on a stage 4 miles away, Oz’s Democratic rival for the U.S. Senate seat from Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, stood alongside Lee and Dennis Horton and spoke about his efforts as a lieutenant governor to release the two black men from life sentences.
“Almost 30 years in prison, sentenced to die in prison as innocent men, and I fought to get them out to their families,” Fetterman told the crowd.
Black voters are at the center of an increasingly competitive battle in a race that could swing control of the Senate, as Democrats try to channel outrage over the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and as Republicans are exploiting the national playbook to focus on crime in cities.
They are perhaps the most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party. About 9 in 10 black voters nationwide opted for Joe Biden in 2020, according to AP VoteCast, an extensive survey of more than 110,000 voters nationwide. In Pennsylvania, support was similar, at 94%.
There is no evidence of an impending mass defection from Republicans like Oz. But if he can pull off even a small chunk — or a critical mass of black voters choose not to vote — that could prove significant in a race that polls show so close.
In Philadelphia, where black voters make up the largest bloc in the swing state’s largest Democratic stronghold, some activists question Democrats’ reach and worry about turnout.
Charles Ellison, executive producer and host of Reality Check, a daily public affairs program on Philadelphia’s prominent black-themed WURD radio, said Democrats lacked a unified message tailored to the black community and had not undertaken a long-term investment in the black voter. sensitization.
“There just isn’t this realization that Pennsylvania is a national battleground and Philadelphia is the cornerstone of that,” Ellison said. “And the only way to get Philadelphia and the only way to get Pennsylvania is through maximum black voter turnout.”
Fetterman could benefit from this year’s gubernatorial race.
In it, Democrat Josh Shapiro’s campaign said it was investing $3 million in black voter education while his opponent, Republican Doug Mastriano, drew criticism from members of his own party for focusing almost exclusively on its right base.
Shapiro also makes regular visits to black churches and businesses, has rolled out a platform to expand pathways to employment and build wealth in black communities, and has endorsed a black man, Austin Davis , for the post of Lieutenant Governor.
In the race for the Senate, millions of Republican attack ads aired on television in Philadelphia before Fetterman — who spent much of the summer off the campaign trail recovering from a stroke – held his first public political event there in late September.
For Oz, crime is a priority. He held two town halls on the topic of public safety in black communities, suggesting that Democrats have failed to protect them from violence and drugs.
Republicans frequently point the finger at gun violence in Philadelphia and have sought to undermine one of Fetterman’s avenues of appeal to black voters: his efforts as lieutenant governor to free those overly incarcerated, rehabilitated or innocent. Republicans framed it as freeing dangerous criminals to roam the streets.
Fetterman and Democrats call it a lie and a fear campaign that understates black voters’ support for second chances. And they say black voters know they can trust Fetterman to support the things they care about, like voting rights legislation in Congress.
Additionally, Oz is former President Donald Trump’s endorsed nominee.
“I think most black people would say he was one of the worst presidents for black people in our lifetimes,” said Sharif Street, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party and the first black to hold the post. “I don’t think a TV commercial can replace what people already know to be true.”
At Fetterman’s rally at a northeast Philadelphia recreation center, at least half a dozen black supporters pitched Fetterman.
One of the speakers, the Reverend Mark Tyler, said Fetterman supports things that matter to black voters, like creating jobs in ‘the poorest big city in America’, ending environmental racism and supporting fundraising. more important for city schools. Fetterman also supports criminal justice reform and an end to gun violence, Tyler said.
“He did it as Mayor of Braddock and understands what it’s like to sit and stand with grieving Black families after such a tragic incident,” Tyler said.
As Fetterman stood on stage with the Hortons — brothers whose life sentences were commuted after nearly 30 years in prison and who now work for Fetterman’s campaign — he took aim at Oz attacks for his work aimed at to liberate men. The Oz campaign called the Hortons “convicted murderers” and Fetterman “the most pro-murdering Senate candidate in the entire country.”
The Hortons were convicted of second-degree murder in a fatal shooting during a Philadelphia bar robbery – crimes they claimed they did not commit. Despite opposition from the victim’s brother, Governor Tom Wolf released the men in late 2020, noting they had served 27 years after refusing plea deals for 5 to 10 years.
“What does it say about a person’s character if he will fight to make sure innocent men die in prison versus a man who will fight to make sure she can go back with her family?” Fetterman asked the crowd. “It’s the choice.”
Groups allied with Oz also aired TV ads reliving a 2013 incident in which Fetterman – as Mayor of Braddock – grabbed his shotgun and chased a jogging black man he suspected of having been involved in shootings nearby. No one has been charged in the incident and Fetterman said he did not know the race of the man before confronting him.
“He didn’t even apologize and now he wants our vote?” says a black woman speaking on camera in a Republican Jewish Coalition ad. “No chance.”
Oz town halls take on a softer tone, where the heart surgeon-turned-talk show host says he’s here to listen and find solutions to the problems the Democrats have let fester.
“The best thing a doctor does is listen. You can’t fix a problem you can’t hear. So I’ve spent a career considering that and trying to figure out what’s going on. people try to tell, because then you can really get the answers,” Oz said.He also touted his work raising money for scholarships for black medical students.
Love Williams, a 25-year-old registered Democrat who came to the Oz event at the invitation of a friend, said he was unsure whether to vote this fall after feeling like Biden had under-delivered for blacks.
Asked by Williams what he would do to help his community, Oz said he would push for more taxpayer money for private schools and to open liquefied natural gas export stations around the city to to bring wealth to the community.
Williams said afterwards that he wasn’t sold on Oz — or the ideas of Oz, either.
The event, he said, presented itself as “just a political stop for a politician”.
Levy reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
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