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By JIM ECKSTROM

SMETHPORT,PA — In a campaign swing through Northern Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said one thing struck him the most.
“I can’t get over how grateful you are that we’re here,” he told a crowd of 100 people who turned out Feb. 12 for Fetterman’s U.S. Senate campaign stop at the Smethport Fire Department.
Fetterman, seeking the Democratic nomination to run for the seat held by Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican who is retiring after 2022, said he was “blown away” by the turnout in Smethport. He mentioned what a thrill it was for him and his wife Giselle to visit the Kinzua Bridge State Park and see the famous railroad bridge earlier in the day.
Fetterman, lieutenant governor since 2019, said he understands the political makeup of McKean County, which leans heavily Republican, but he believes it’s important to connect with rural Pennsylvanians to show that both Republicans and Democrats can find common ground at a time “when there’s a real hunger” to get past the divisive politics.
“Life in public service means you are going to work for everyone and make sure they aren’t left behind or forgotten,” he told the enthusiastic crowd.
“I don’t want to be thanked for showing up,” he said.
A former mayor of Braddock, which saw major job and population losses as steel production and other manufacturing melted from the Pittsburgh area in past decades, Fetterman said he has more in common with the people of McKean County than many might realize.
He lives “literally across the street” from the last operating steel mill in the Pittsburgh area, a fact that he notes with regret and a sense of loss. Braddock, he said, struggled economically for years and saw access to services erode — not unlike, Fetterman pointed out, the concern Bradford area residents have about the future of their hospital.
“Wherever people might feel they’ve been forgotten and marginalized … that’s where someone like me needs to be,” he said. “Someplace like Smethport, Pa. … these are places that should matter as much as anywhere.”
Fetterman, pointing out that earlier in the day he had difficulty sending a text, said it was important that broadband and other communications tech is improved for rural Pennsylvanians. He also said that ensuring access to healthcare, improving wages for all Americans and addressing failing infrastructure would be among his priorities as a U.S. senator.
He spoke about the need for more politicians to put aside their differences and work together for the benefit of the nation.
Tall and even somewhat imposing at first glance, and dressed in a dark blue Carhart hoodie, basketball-style shorts and New Balance running shoes, Fetterman joked, “To look at me, no one would assume that I am a politician.”
His style has resonated with many Pennsylvanians in the form of small donations to his campaign. Fetterman takes pride in the volume of small donations he has received both through online giving and through old-fashioned mailed-in checks — The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier this month that he’s received about $2.1 million in unitemized, direct donations that weren’t made online.
Overall, Fetterman leads the fundraising race with two other candidates in the Democratic primary field — Rep. Conor Lamb and state Sen. Malcolm Kenyatta.
A correspondent for National Public Radio and an Associated Press writer were shadowing Fetterman on his campaign trip.
Marty Wilder, the Democratic party chair for McKean County, made it clear Saturday that she’s all in on Fetterman’s campaign, pointing out that’s her personal preference — she wasn’t speaking for the county party as a whole.
“He’s been in contact with us from the very beginning, and he has the energy that we need,” Wilder, who was delighted by Saturday’s turnout, said. “Rural issues are going to be huge in this race — roads, internet, economic development — and he’s taken notice of the situation with (Bradford Regional Medical Center losing services.)”
In his comments to the crowd, Fetterman referenced Bradford hospital and said that access to health care is a fundamental right for all Americans. Asked later if he would support a movement toward universal health care coverage, Fetterman said it was too soon to be that specific but that he would support anything that ensures access to care.
On industry and economic development, Fetterman said he simply wants to see “more stuff made here,” which would lead to more job opportunities and better wages for Pennsylvanians. He lamented that the state’s minimum wage remained at $7.25 per hour — the same as the federal minimum wage.
“Can anyone honestly live on $7.25 an hour?” he asked the crowd, with the loud response being, “No!”
On energy, Fetterman said he agreed that the transition from fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas to cleaner renewables has to be done in a way that makes sense and is affordable for consumers.
“I have never opposed fracking in Pennsylvania … and I never supported the Green New Deal,” Fetterman said, noting that calls for the immediate end of fossil fuel use without specific plans and infrastructure to provide for the state and nation’s energy needs are not realistic.
As the event was winding down, Wilder presented both Fetterman and his wife with PA Wilds t-shirts — both were adorned with a figure of a bull elk peddling a bicycle. She also presented Fetterman with a Zippo lighter, engraved with “Sen. John Fetterman.”
The lieutenant governor, while quickly noting that the Zippo was made in nearby Bradford, was compelled to say that candidates are not allowed to accept gifts.
“But I am allowed to accept gifts!” his wife, Giselle, interjected, bringing laughter from the crowd.
Both Fetterman and his wife, while they were scheduled for another event in Warren later Saturday, spent several more minutes in the firehall, talking with people and posing for numerous pictures.