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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.
Business owners and employees on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia responded to a surprise visit from Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman with equal parts support and ambivalence.
“Better him than Oz” was the overriding sentiment among the people Billy Penn spoke with, referring to Mehmet Oz, Fetterman’s Republican rival on the campaign trail.
That’s not surprising, given the voter registration demographics of the neighborhood around the business corridor and Philly in general, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1.
“Oz is out of touch with the people and what they need — even though I’m a business owner,” said Kelly Townsend, owner and operator of custom t-shirt store 2nd Threadz at 205 S. 52nd St.
Fetterman, the current Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, toured the strip sometimes referred to as the city’s “Black Broadway” last Monday, in one of his first few appearances in Philadelphia since he suffered a stroke right before the May primary. He was joined by his wife Gisele Fetterman and a trio of City Council members: Isaiah Thomas, Kendra Brooks, and Jaime Gauthier — in whose district the short tour took place.
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Gauthier was “honored and excited” that Fetterman visited the business corridor, in her words “a center for black commerce in West Philadelphia, for arts and culture, and an extremely important place in the community,” per a statement released by the Fetterman campaign.
After the walkthrough, Fetterman stressed the importance of the area and others like it in a tweet, urging his hefty online following of over 800,000 users to “Support local Black-owned businesses.”
Like other commercial centers, the area is still trying to recover from pandemic disruptions. 52nd Street was also one of the most affected sites of protests in 2020, where a series of store break-ins only compounded the challenges brought on by business slowdowns due to COVID.
The day after Fetterman came through, we retraced his steps to talk to employees and business owners along the avenue about his candidacy and what they think might happen if he were to become the junior senator from Pennsylvania.
‘I’m not really pressed to vote for nobody’
Fetterman’s walk up the block started at African Cultural Arts Forum, a family-run 52nd Street establishment founded in 1969 that first sold decorative African art, then expanded to manufacturing its own incense and clothing, and sells soaps, juices, and more.
Originally located further west in the city, ACAF moved into what used to be the renowned Aqua Lounge Jazz Club on 52nd Street in the 90s.
Khadir Abdur-Rahim, the son of cofounder Sharif Abdur-Rahim, noted that the Fettermans came by on fairly short notice. “I was told an hour before he got here that he was coming,” Abdur-Rahim said.
In the shop, John and Gisele Fetterman each bought some items for their three kids, and spoke with Abdur-Rahim about working along the corridor and the upcoming general election.
The next day, Abdur-Rahim said he appreciated the visit, despite the creeping suspicion that it was a “photo op.” He wasn’t familiar with Fetterman’s political background, but did approve of the lieutenant governor’s tenure leading Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, a body Fetterman has sought to reform.
Still, the storerunner was ambivalent about heading to the ballot box to show that approval.
“Personally, as a 26-year-old Black man in America, I’m not really pressed to vote for nobody,” Abdur-Rahim said.
It’s a sentiment that reflects the view of many Black people in a similar age range, even as Black voters have been the most likely racial group to register to vote and cast a ballot in the Commonwealth over the past few cycles.
‘Reestablishing an America that follows the rule of law’
Further up 52nd, Tedd Hall, the owner of the women’s clothing store Babe, said he was “in Fetterman’s corner.”
Hall, who is celebrating 50 years of working on 52nd Street this year, tends to vote for Democrats, but is especially keen to do so now based on the threat he sees coming from the GOP.
“The entire country is being threatened by MAGA Republicans, and I’m seriously concerned,” Hall said, echoing the rhetoric of President Joe Biden’s recent speech outside of Independence Hall. “I’m just supportive of the idea of reestablishing an America that follows the rule of law.”
Hall’s comments were shaded by the realities of America’s political duopoly. “Given democracy as it’s being practiced in this country, it’s either one or the other, so I’m with Fetterman,” he said.
When asked about the Fetterman campaign’s frequent highlighting of Oz’s connections to New Jersey, Hall said it resonated as just one more instance of Republicans “saying one thing and doing another.”
As for what he’d want Fetterman to do if elected, Hall inverted the phrase, giving approval to the candidate’s platform: “What I want him to do is just do what he says he’s going to do, that’s basically it.”
‘Do I want to be helped with taxes … or make sure I’m safe?’
A block south, Townsend of 2nd Threadz said she wasn’t aware the lieutenant governor had been in town, much less just down the street — but she’s seen lots of ads about the race.
“Sometimes you vote to vote against somebody, so I think I’m voting for [Fetterman],” Townsend said. She added, “If I really followed politics, I would probably vote for him anyway.”
Though she’s a business owner, and understands how Republican tax policy can ease business taxes, she thinks Democratic policies benefit her family more. “It’s like, ‘Do I want to be helped with taxes, or do I want to make sure that I’m safe and that my son is safe?’”
Townsend noted her significant other voted for Trump — a move of which she wasn’t a fan — but that he was not planning on supporting Oz.
The split between the two isn’t uncommon. A recent CBS poll showed 64% of Republicans polled wish that someone else besides Oz had won the Republican primary.
‘You gotta be out here in the street’
Although Fetterman officially started his visit at ACAF, he first dipped into Dynamite Pest Control — a 53-year-old business that was started by Richard Foreman Sr. in 1969 — to gameplan with Gauthier.
Foreman Sr.’s son and the business’s inheritor, Richard Jr., recalled that Fetterman had been having a hard time hearing Gauthier due to construction taking place outside. Fetterman’s hearing has been impacted by a stroke he had in May, which he told the New York Times hasn’t stopped him from “running a perfectly normal campaign.”
“They asked if they could come in and just meet, and it was fine by me,” Foreman said.
Asked about the race, an ebullient Foreman first joked that he was voting for Oz.
“Nah, I’m just messing with you,” he said, then recalled conversations he says he’s had with Republican voters when out and about exterminating. “Honestly the funny part is that Republicans, Trump supporters, say ‘I’m not voting for Dr. Oz.’”
He also said he was aware of a similar dynamic in the governor’s race, talking about the Republicans who are supporting the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, instead of GOP nominee Doug Mastriano.
As it concerns Fetterman? “I don’t really know the guy except for the fact that he’s hard of hearing and he was here yesterday.”
That said, Foreman has firsthand knowledge of the potential impact of elected officials working with economic development hubs, like The Enterprise Center, which is building an office right next to Dynamite.
“We just got the outside of our store redone,” Foreman said, courtesy of the center and a Wells Fargo grant delivered earlier this year. It was a bright note after a few years that tested Dynamite’s resilience.
“We’re still recovering from the riots financially,” he said, a harsh reality that hasn’t stopped him from believing that decriminalization for certain crimes is the right approach, something he noted when discussing Fetterman’s role on the Board of Pardons.
Fetterman’s visit, if anything, was a good first step, Foreman said.
“You gotta be out here in the street, you have to do the foot work, you have to be in the corridor.”