As he sought to rally his fellow Democrats in the Midwest, Sen. John Fetterman on Saturday brought his Pennsylvania brashness to the state that bills itself as “Iowa nice” and roasted the 2024 Republican presidential field.
“Were you devastated, devastated when Mike Pence dropped out?” Fetterman said at the annual Iowa Democrats’ Liberty and Justice Celebration.
“Can we all join for a moment of silence for that?” he added, bowing his head in mock solemness.
He ribbed at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying the GOP candidate has “managed to make laughing awkward” before doing an impression of DeSantis’ wide laugh.
Despite joking that he was only in Iowa to try the breakfast pizza, Fetterman – in his first major out-of-state speech since winning his competitive Senate race last fall –brought his brash style to the Hawkeye State to rally Iowa Democrats around Joe Biden’s bid for a second term. It comes months after the Pennsylvania Democrat was hospitalized for depression in a challenging start to his Senate career.
“We have to come together to elect Joe Biden,” he told the crowd of Democratic elected and party officials who are the minority in the GOP-led state.
He argued that Democrats who want to “criticize and go after Joe Biden, our president – just go ahead and write a check” to former President Donald Trump.
Fetterman was sworn into the chamber in January still dealing with lingering auditory processing issues following his stroke last year in the middle of a tough campaign. In February, after struggling with substantial weight loss and a loss of appetite, he entered inpatient treatment for depression.
On Saturday as the Iowa dinner’s keynote speaker, Pennsylvania’s junior senator made light of a darker theory about his fitness for office.
“I’m John Fetterman, maybe, maybe,” he said, before mentioning a “fringe” conspiracy theory that he has a body double.
“Normally, that stuff’s crazy…But this is actually true. And I am the body double here tonight,” he said to laughter. “Do you have any idea how hard it was to find somebody that’s six foot eight, that looked like this, and had a stroke?”
Since his return to work in April, the first-term senator has been seemingly more himself again and his unusual persona has been shaking up the Senate.
“It’s just the water here,” he told CNN in September when asked about the change back to his Senate schedule.
Fetterman was the first of his colleagues in September to call for Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez to resign, and now is leading the push for Menendez’s expulsion, after the New Jersey Democrat was indicted on alleged bribery charges and over allegedly acting as a foreign agent on Egypt’s behalf.
Shortly after the allegations against Menendez were publicized, Fetterman told CNN he was “surprised” he was the first person to come out against Menendez, saying the case against him was “so stark.”
“That arrogance where now he’s saying, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ it’s like – my dude, you are going somewhere, and it’s going to be an election or it’s going to be a conviction,” Fetterman told CNN’s Manu Raju. “Do the honorable exit, and stop being a massive kind of distraction here for the Senate and for the nation.”
On Thursday, he introduced a resolution, seemingly targeted at Menendez, that would strip senators charged with certain crimes from their committees and block them from having access to classified information.
“When you find gold bars stuffed in a mattress, the jokes write themselves. But our national security isn’t funny, it’s often life or death,” Fetterman said in a press release about the resolution.
Besides Iowa, Fetterman has been on the road showing support for striking autoworkers. In September, the senator drove from his home in Braddock, Pennsylvania, to Wayne, Michigan, to join the United Auto Workers’ picket line. He has walked the strike line at least five times since then, also in Ohio and his home state.
Known for sporting a hoodie and shorts, Fetterman pushed back on Republican criticism of his casual attire after the brief change in Senate rules,attacking them with memes and pointed tweets about their actions and the impasse over funding the government.
“If those jagoffs in the House stop trying to shut our government down, and fully support Ukraine, then I will save democracy by wearing a suit on the Senate floor next week,” he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, in September.
The senator’s colorful language and use of viral memes on social media were hallmarks of his campaign for Senate last year, especially after his stroke in May 2022 took the then-Pennsylvania lieutenant governor off the campaign trail for three months and affected his ability to communicate easily with voters.
Earlier this year, Fetterman spent eight weeks at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center receiving treatment for depression.
With auditory processing difficulties from his stroke, he used closed captioning technology to assist him with questions.
As Fetterman has adjusted to life in the US Capitol, he has also adjusted to the new form of communication. Early on, he kept the transcription app on a large tablet and did not have many hallway interactions with reporters. As time has passed, he has since transitioned to using the app on his phone and stopping to answer questions and joke with his colleagues around the Capitol.
Speaking in September during a Senate Aging Committee hearing on accessibility, Fetterman became emotional as he discussed how he has relied on the transcription app on his phone to communicate.
“I had a stroke about 18 months ago, you know, and I have lost my ability to fully process language. And I like to think I was an empathetic person, truly, but until that happened, I’ve raised to a whole different kind of level as well,” he said.
His voice cracked as he spoke about political attacks focused on his disability, sharing that he was “ridiculed and made fun of because I wasn’t able to process things sometimes or say things.”
“I was lucky enough to go through my life, the vast majority, without this kind of disability that I have. But again, I can’t imagine the challenges, and I admire anyone that has to live with these kind of struggles and prevail over them,” he told the accessibility advocates at the witness table.
In a moment that got attention on X, Fetterman feigned shock in September when asked by a reporter about the Republican-led House’s opening of an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.
“Ooooo, don’t do it. Please don’t do it,” he said, making ghost-like noises as he wiggled his fingers.
After GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida went after him for these comments, Fetterman posted on X, “Government shutdown in t-minus 16 days. Instead of crying about how I dress, how about you get your sh*t together and do your job, bud?”
And, later in the month, on the day of the first impeachment hearing at the House Oversight Committee, he sent the office a case of Bud Light – a company that has faced backlash from conservatives for featuring a transgender influencer in one of its ad campaigns. Fetterman posted on X a photo of him holding the case, with a note that read, “To: Rep. Comer and his squad, A profile in courage can make a guy thirsty. Congratulations, this bud’s for you. Hugs & Kisses: John Fetterman.”
He told CNN in September, with his trademark bluntness, that House Republicans would take the blame for a government shutdown if they couldn’t find a solution.
“Sometimes crazy doesn’t have a cure. And if they are going to drive over the cliff, they’re going to own it. And if they’re stupid to do it, then they’re going to have to live with the consequences,” he said.
The first-term senator was often criticized by Republicans for his attire of hoodies and gym shorts when he was on the campaign trail. Although he has been spotted in a suit occasionally at the Capitol, the 6’8” senator says he still mostly dresses casually for “comfort” and because “it’s kind of hard to findsuits this size too.”
After Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in September stopped enforcing the Senate’s unwritten dress code of business attire on the chamber floor, Fetterman bore the brunt of Republican attacks about the change, with then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy calling the shift “embarrassing.”
In an interview with CNN’s Manu Raju, he called the reaction to his attire, “mystifying,” arguing that the Senate has more important things to address.
After the Senate unanimously agreed to a new, official dress code of business attire, Fetterman’s only response was posting a viral meme of actor Kevin James, shrugging and smirking.
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