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Mehmet Oz pressures John Fetterman over debates, policy

  • Chris Potter/WESA
Senate candidate Mehmet Oz speaks with supporters at an Aug. 29, 2022 town hall in Monroeville

 Chris Potter / 90.5 WESA

Senate candidate Mehmet Oz speaks with supporters at an Aug. 29, 2022 town hall in Monroeville

During a town hall before hundreds of supporters in Monroeville Monday night, Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz criticized opponent John Fetterman for not committing to debates. And while he argued that Fetterman should be more forthcoming about the effects of a stroke this spring, he suggested Fetterman may be avoiding a debate for fear of having to articulate the policies he supports.

“I have tremendous empathy for what it’s like to go through a health problem,” said Oz. And while his campaign has suggested Fetterman’s diet may have been responsible for the stroke, Oz said he would support accommodations to help Fetterman participate. “But if that’s not the reason you’re not debating, you’ve got to tell us, because the other possibility is you don’t want to defend your far-left radical positions.”

Fetterman’s campaign last night repeated prior statements it has made about debates: that he is willing to participate, but will make that decision on his timeline, not Oz’s. But it is not clear when that will actually happen. And while Fetterman has stepped up his public appearances in recent weeks, his performance has at times been halting and he has not taken questions from reporters or the public.

In the absence of a debate schedule, Oz spent Monday evening outlining his own positions on a number of issues he said were key in the race — among them crime and energy.

Fetterman, he contended,” wants to legalize all drugs” at a time when in Philadelphia there are “addicts walking like zombies … with needles sticking out of their necks.” And he noted that during a 2016 Senate campaign, Fetterman once called fracking for natural gas a “stain” on the state.

“You know firsthand how devastating it is to our communities to take away the ability for us to drill … and allow our communities to thrive,” Oz said.

Fetterman has supported efforts to decriminalize drugs, a position that is not the same as legalization but supports treatment for addiction over criminal penalties for people suffering from substance abuse. And he has embraced “harm reduction” approaches like needle-exchange programs which reduce the danger of drug users being infected from dirty needles.

Fetterman had been critical of fracking during his earlier run, a position that distinguished him from Democratic frontrunner Katie McGinty. But to the consternation of some environmentalists, Fetterman has since tacked back on the issue and backed a proposal to drill for gas at the Edgar Thomson Plant in his hometown of Braddock. He’s explained that stricter regulations have made him more comfortable with the practice.

More broadly, Oz portrayed the race as a contest in values, over the role of free markets and the prospects for the American Dream.

Fetterman “grew up in privilege,” he said, referring in part to the fact that Fetterman’s paltry salary as mayor of Braddock was supplemented by financial support from his affluent family. That, Oz said, meant his rival “doesn’t have a life experience that makes him think that as an individual, you can do things he believes in collective decisions like the big government comes in and saves the day.”

Oz contrasted that with his own upbringing as the child of immigrant parents who rose to become a famous surgeon and TV celebrity. Echoing a critique that conservatives have been making in races across the country, he said, “I want the American dream to stay strong. And I sometimes feel people don’t respect the American dream.”

After a 30-minute stump speech, Oz took audience questions for about 15 minutes, but did not speak with reporters. During that give-and-take, he struck a cautious note on issues like abortion, indicating that he would not support efforts by some conservatives to pass a federal ban on abortion. “Health care is always better delivered locally, and I trust democracy,” he said. “I trust your ability to influence our representatives in Harrisburg, which is where this decision should be made. … Let the state figure this out.” Oz also said he supports the right to abortion where there is a danger to “the life of the mother and in cases of rape or incest.”

He also took a measured approach to a question from an audience member what he would do for those “hundreds of people sitting in jail for an incident that they’re calling an insurrection” — a question whose sympathies for those accused in the January 6 attack on the Capitol elicited considerable applause.

Noting that he’d been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, Oz said he was “a law-and-order kind of person, [and] if you broke the law you have to pay the price.” But he said “the adjudication needs to be done in a timely fashion, and I will push for that.”

Throughout the evening, Oz referred to his own background as a noted thoracic surgeon, at one point taking the blood pressure of an audience member. He attacked Fetterman for wanting to “get rid of all private health care and [supporting] socialized medicine. … There is no way that will work. It sounds great as a Tweet. It’s not a policy.”

Fetterman has previously backed a “Medicare for All” expansion of the government insurance plan currently available to seniors. He has more recently de-emphasized that policy and said he favors any reform that expands coverage, including more modest Medicare expansion.

But Oz said the government’s handling of COVID-19 was part of the reason he jumped into the campaign in the first place. Among others things, he objected to a federal response that he said “put all of our eggs in the vaccines. … The idea of not treating the actual illness to not allow antivirals to be developed that could reduce the symptoms … made no sense. And yet, if you brought that up, you’re attacked as anti-vax.”

The basis for that complaint is unclear. Under the Trump administration, the federal government did spend billions on a crash-course to develop vaccines. But the Biden administration invested $3 billion in developing anti-viral treatments last fall. Oz himself, meanwhile, has been criticized for his embrace of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial treatment embraced by conservatives despite a lack of evidence to suggest it was at all effective as a treatment for COVID.

In any case, Democrats sought to rebut Oz’s attacks with a pre-emptive statement that rehashed some attacks of their own. Reprising criticism that Oz long lived in New Jersey before shifting addresses prior to launching his Senate bid, the state Democratic party called him an “out-of-touch TV millionaire from New Jersey who doesn’t know anything about Pennsylvanians or what our lives are like.”

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