Meet John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. An unconventional candidate in this “all bets are off” year of 2015. He’s in NYC to do Chris Hayes’s show, talk to some local radio hosts, and do some small donor fundraising. (In that MSNBC interview, Hayes begins by noting, “You don’t look like a freak but you stand out in a crowd.”) Fetterman fills my Nation office with his 6’8” tattooed frame—as if his devotion to the town is literally written on his body. In fact, Fetterman shows me his tattoos on one arm of Braddock’s zip codes, on the other the dates marking murders of the town’s citizens during his time as mayor. We meet the very week Fetterman has announced his candidacy for the Senate.
It will be an uphill fight; in the Democratic primary, Fetterman faces established candidates like former Congressman Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty, a former chief of staff to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. But in this year of tumult and change, attention must be paid to insurgent candidates, running unconventional races. Here’s a slightly edited version of our conversation, held in The Nation offices on Friday, September 18th.
John Fetterman: I grew up in a conservative small town— York, PA—my family did all right. I grew up privileged. I went to college in Pennsylvania and played football for four years.
I left to go to business school in 1991. I was in my last semester of business school. My best friend was on his way to pick me up to go the gym and he was hit in the head in a car accident. That really rocked my world, because that was my first brush with death at that age. In a search for greater meaning, I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters in New Haven.
I was paired with a little boy who was 8 at the time whose father had just died of AIDS and his mother would die of AIDS about three or four weeks later. I had never seen anything like that. I had never seen that kind of disparity.
I became preoccupied with this concept of the random lottery of birth. Why was I born into this incredibly privileged and comfortable existence, and this child, through no fault of his own, was an AIDS orphan by 8 and a half, and was living in an incredibly dangerous section of New Haven? All of this, of course, eight blocks away from one of the world’s most elite universities.
So I quit my job and moved to Pittsburgh and I worked in AmeriCorps for two years in the Hill District. And the Hill District is—it’s kind of like—a junior Harlem if you will. It was a really important cultural center for African-Americans and a lot of jazz clubs. It was really a storied neighborhood. But even today—there’s incredible disparity.
I set up some of the first computer labs in the district and taught GED classes, typing, and Microsoft Office to mothers and fathers. Then, at that point, I went back to graduate school to get a public-policy degree. That’s when I went to Harvard—to really kind of fuse public policy, social work, and business together—something to confront this disparity—this inequality.
When I finished up at the Kennedy School I was offered the chance to start a GED program in a town called Braddock, Pennsylvania. Braddock is an incredibly storied and historic place. It’s where George Washington received his first combat experience in 1755. Then 120 years later Andrew Carnegie would change the world by opening his first steel mill that perfected the Bessemer process, which allowed steel to become super-strong and rigid—which gave rise to the buildings that many of us sit in and bridges, including the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the Silicon Valley of its day. No exaggeration. So it’s an incredibly unique community in the sense of its role in shaping so much of American history.