This Tattooed, Head-shaven, Straight-talking Mayor Wants to Be the Next Senator From Pennsylvania

This Tattooed, Head-shaven, Straight-talking Mayor Wants to Be the Next Senator From Pennsylvania

This Tattooed, Head-shaven, Straight-talking Mayor Wants to Be the Next Senator From Pennsylvania

John Fetterman talks inequality, immigration, drug legalization, same-sex marriage, “bittergate,” and how to revive post-industrial America.


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.

I started working there for four years, running this program, and really enjoying it. But I started bumping up against the limit of what I wanted to do. I decided at that point to run for mayor, and I started that campaign with the help of my students. They were—I’ve learned the term now—they were my “validators.” They would go out, and we’d knock on doors, and people would say, “Wow, no one has ever knocked on our doors before elections before.” One of the things that struck me at the time was that if I didn’t know me, I wouldn’t open the doors for them [Laughs].

I hadn’t even been living in town that long. People were just really interested. Long story short: I won that first election by one vote.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Tell me more about Braddock—where is it heading, what’s its trajectory?

The trajectory—well, it was one of the most important centers for commerce in western Pennsylvania. But since the middle of the last century, it lost close to 90 percent of its population. Socioeconomically—after Hurricane Katrina—I compared it to the Ninth Ward. It’s very similar.

So hit hard in the last 40 years?

Yeah, torn apart. Globalization. Suburbanization. Deindustrialization. And, I won that election by one vote. That one vote was a provisional ballot that somebody cast even after being told they weren’t allowed to vote. Nearly 40 percent of its people live below the poverty line.

I carried the flag of the young people. I took off in early 2006, and it’s been a great 10-year run of working in statistically one of the poorest communities in the commonwealth.

Was it a Democratic constituency?

Yes, it’s overwhelmingly African-American—probably about 80 percent African-American—the white segment of the population is traditionally people who have lived there their whole lives.

Families for generations—they’ve seen Braddock when it had the density of Brooklyn.

And now it’s been hollowed out.

It’s a steel town. In fact, I lived directly across the street from the last functioning steel mill in Pittsburgh. I joke, it would be like the last brewery in Milwaukee. It’s something that defined that half of the state and defined Pittsburgh. That’s really the last vestige of steel production in the Pittsburgh area.

You’ve been mayor since 2006?

Yes, January 2006.

For the last decade, it’s been a time of tumult and change—

Yeah, absolutely. And the different issues that we’ve confronted in Braddock on a small scale are the different issues that we’re dealing with on a national scale. Just like when I bumped up against limits the last time—wanting to have a bigger platform for the issues that I care about, that’s really my justification for running this time around.

It might sound schmaltzy, but I have the best job in the world. I love being mayor and everything that goes along with that. I’m carrying that same flag and these same issues that I was in 2005, looking to expand the “bully pulpit,” for a lack of a better phrase, that my office had afforded and that this office has to offer.

What have been the key issues and principles of your work as mayor?

There’s been so many: economic inequality, trying to attract and bring in new business, public safety—Braddock was perceived as one of the two areas in the Pittsburgh areas that you really avoided—we enjoyed a lot of success with bringing crime down, we went five and a half years without a loss of life in our community, but we did it without getting any police complaints or anything like that. I tell people I’m pro-police but I’m also very pro–Black Lives Matter. They can’t be mutually exclusive. I could introduce you to police officers that if you could bottle what they have, we would have never had a Ferguson and some of these other situations. Even air quality: In the Monongahela Valley, which Braddock is a part, just six or seven miles down is literally the most toxic air in America. It’s a known carcinogen—that’s the Environmental Protection Agency saying that—not just my opinion.

Just inequality at every different level: housing, air, education, public safety, income, and healthcare. You probably wouldn’t have heard of it in New York. There’s an enormous nonprofit, UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and they are a behemoth. I think they’re a $11 billion, $12 billion nonprofit that runs hospitals. One of the last crown jewels of Braddock was that we had one of the best hospitals. In 2009 they called me up and said “we’re gone, we’re outta here.” They made plans to build a beautiful $300 million—

They took to a town that’s much wealthier… whiter. It sparked this incredible struggle with this massive multibillion-dollar nonprofit that’s supposed to care. Obviously, you’re not going to make money providing healthcare to a poor community. But you have that responsibility. Why wouldn’t you want to take that on? So finally we were able to work with another nonprofit, Highmark. Now we have the finest urgent-care center in the state in our community.

You were at the front lines of negotiating and bringing that about?

Exactly. UPMC told me to get bent. They were just like, “I’m not having it. Sorry.” Again, this is a rounding error for them. I mean look, I understand if the hospital days are gone, put in an urgent care center. That saves people’s lives. They just weren’t having it. I don’t understand. Their CEO Jeffery Romoff earns $6 million. I was like how many yachts can you water-ski behind? Why can’t you just put in an urgent-care center? They wouldn’t. But we were able to partner with another large nonprofit [Highmark], and it’s literally saved lives. Where people come up saying, “I don’t feel very well,” they hook them up and they call them an ambulance right away.

Even things I never had to worry about growing up, like getting people’s gas turned back on, electricity, water, turned back on. The level of disparity that I think many Americans don’t realize truly exists. I was one of them before I had my experience. So my time as mayor has really run the gamut in terms of the issues that we’ve tackled.

I am also a success story for the Affordable Care Act. As a small-town mayor, my wife and I didn’t have health insurance, after it was passed, we bought our policies on the exchange. About six months later, my wife took a step wrong and she shattered a bone in her foot. That would have wiped us out. Financially. We probably wouldn’t even have gotten the care, the surgery, the rehabilitation, I’m just so grateful for those kinds of changes. I remark that we’re the one percent, but truly the bottom 1 percent.

We write a lot about the need for clear air, tacking climate crisis. But as mayor of Braddock and a possibly future senator from Pennsylvania how do you reconcile clear air and water,the urgency of addressing the climate crisis and ensuring your people have jobs?

Let me share an anecdote. In 2009, I was selected by the Environmental Defense Fund to be the face of the carbon caps. To really push to pass carbon caps. The slogan was: “carbon caps equal hard hats.” We did a series of videos where I insisted that the people in the videos—we partnered with the Blue Green Alliance, which are people in the steel mills, and the environmental Sierra Club—we featured all steel workers that had been laid off and our tag line was that there are 187 moving parts in a windmill that are made of steel. I could literally see the light bulbs go on in these guys, because they weren’t like tree-hugger Subaru-driving kind of guys. I said look a windmill and they were like “Yeah! Yeah.” By the end of the campaign they were like “I ain’t no goddamn tree-hugger, but I get this now. I really do.” I helped translate that for people that are naturally turned off by the term “environmentalist” or whatever.

Fracking is a huge issue in PA. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Josh Fox. I’ve seen Gas Land multiple times. The reality is that fracking is here to stay in southwestern PA. My issue with it is two-fold: Why wouldn’t Pennsylvania want to have the strictest and best environmental standards? I grew up with pictures of things like love canal and things like that. Why not have the best environmental regulations? And also tax, if a family buys a pizza on a Saturday night, they pay tax on it. Yet these companies aren’t paying any taxes on extracting our natural resources. To me, with fracking as entrenched as it is, those are my two main inflexible points. Look we need to tax and we have to have three times the most stringent environmental regulations than we have today. It’s so pervasive, we run the risk of contaminating our ground water.

People, they get it. There is a tide. Listen, our air is never going to be as clean as Portland, Oregon. There is always going to be that trade-off. People understand, when you put it in better terms, that this is very important. Everyone I know believes in climate change. It’s something that we as a country have to address. I think that we have to bring it over in a way that (and put it in terms)—like the steel workers for example—they like their pick-up trucks and are put off by what they perceive as pretentious environmentalists—and put it in terms that they understand it.There’s also a segment of people that ridicule solar energy. They say things like, “Oh, that can’t even power this.” But again, that’s like making fun of the microprocessor in 1983. You know it’s like—

“It’s coming!”

Yeah, like “it’s coming.” Why not invest in these things? You have no idea how it could transform society someday.

I don’t need to tell you this, but we’re in a time when conventional status quo politics isn’t cutting it and people are rejecting the status quo. Do you see your campaign as an insurgent one?

I don’t see it as an insurgency. I see it as: “This who I am.” I can’t sugarcoat what happened to my community. I dress the way I dress, I speak the way I speak. I’m not focus-grouped, I’m not poll-tested, or anything like that. I see it as, we have a story and it will either resonate or it won’t. The bottom line, for me anyways, is if every person in my campaign and everyone that I can think of, makes middle-class families the center for why they are doing it and their concern. We have 14 years of working at the most grassroots of levels dealing with these issues. People in our state are going to have to decide, wherever you live, who has the best understanding of the issues that are facing me every day and the community that I live in. That’s the first thing that’s going to win the primary.

How do you see your road to victory?

I see the path as getting out there and sharing the story. There are things that I can leverage. People don’t expect a 6’8,9 guy with tattoos to be running for the US Senate. I get some attention there that I wouldn’t have if I was a more conventional candidate. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. I genuinely believe my chances of winning here are better than when I ran for mayor of Braddock and won in 2005, because the odds there—I lived there for a year and a half. I’m white in a majority African-American community. There were a lot of differences and barriers, but at the end of the day people just wanted change. People wanted to see things get better.

I don’t even consider myself a politician in that sense. My office is more social justice if anything. It’s a platform to exercise my belief in social justice.

You see that best achieved through electoral politics?

I do.

What are some key issues you’re focused on?

I’m pro legalizing marijuana, but I go even further than some of my colleagues because I’m for decriminalizing across the board. I see it as a public-health issue, not a criminal issue. I’ve seen first hand for the last 14 years the effects it has on families, I’ve seen people overdosing—

Is there a meth crisis in the state?

Heroin has claimed, as far as I know, at least 36 lives this year in overdoses. I’ve seen three people who’ve overdosed get the shard of the narc in their arms and it’s jarring. There was a huge car accident in front of our home earlier this summer. They shot up in a parking lot and crashed. It hasn’t worked. This isn’t me. It’s not my opinion. It’s a fact.

The War on Drugs?

The War on Drugs, yes, the War on Drugs. If we start treating it as a public-health issue, with more compassion, without the criminal element, I think it’ll be a lot better for this society and a lot of these other issues like violence and public safety are also going to improve as a result, and we’ll also be taking a big step in taking down the prison-industrial complex.

There are a lot of different entry points that the War on Drugs has. Whether you’re using, whether you commit crimes to keep your self using, whether you’re defending your turf with violence. There’s just so many wires it’s like the Gordian knot there. Once it’s cut, I think you’re going to find that it’ll transform society. So many of the issues that we have in our community are tied to that. I know it hasn’t worked. I’ve seen it for 14 years. I don’t know if it’s an unpopular view or a popular view, but it’s the truth. That’s what I’m going to say and that’ll consistently be my message.

I know you don’t consider yourself a politician, but are there people on the scene who you find are doing some of the work that you believe in? Other senators or mayors?

Well, I’m a huge fan of our president. I was the only mayor in western PA to be all in for the president. I was one of the two or three that were advisers during “Bittergate.” Do you remember people in small towns clinging to guns and religion?

The anger that triggered was crazy. I was in the first electoral college for Barack Obama in Pennsylvania. I’ve always been—I was a surrogate in western PA in 2012. Because I’ve seen the job that he’s done and I hold him in incredibly high regard.

Just talking Bittergate. On guns. Bernie Sanders has come under some fire for his position, but my sense is that these are regional issues—

Yeah, it is very different. I own guns. As a teenager we’d go deer hunting. As far as gun legislation and control goes, on my arm there are dates when people of my community have been killed. Seven of those 9 dates are gun related. If there is ever a piece of legislation that would have prevented those, that would have been what I immediately advocate that we sign into law. When you see the effects of that up close and personal. What upsets me about gun control, I don’t see it as science based. Instead of just trying to explore political points, we need an evidence/sciences based policy. Instead of this reactionary politics where people say, “Hey, we’ve had a mass-shooting, now let’s talk about this.” It should be a bipartisan issue as well. Nobody wants—I don’t mean to be graphic—but until you see someone with their brains blown out you don’t get the urgency of it and the appropriateness of it. And how important it is to get it right, because you’re probably only going to get one bite of that apple.

If you go to the senate, there are issues that you may or may not have had the chance to grapple with, like the Iran deal, issues of war and peace.

A couple thoughts on that. We’ve had 13 or 14 years of “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass—and I’m all out of bubblegum.” How has that worked out for us? It really hasn’t. The Dean of the Kennedy School when I was there was a man named Joseph Nye. His big thing was “soft power.” I think America never fully exercised its soft power like it should have. I also had the privilege of meeting Robert McNamara when I was there. He was on his tour of “the argument without end.” This whole idea that the Vietnam War could have been prevented if we had known what was really going on and what they were thinking. I’m haunted by that concept.

Think of all the issues that we as a country are locked up in. This important legacy that I think has been lost in this cacophony of “let’s go blow more stuff up” is that it may not have to be that way. What a great tragedy it would be if it could be avoided if you understand the situation on the ground, if you actually talk to people before you push the button.

In these last weeks, we’ve heard hate and vitriol about immigrants. How do you think about America’s history with immigration?

I wouldn’t have a family if it wasn’t for immigration. My wife was born in Brazil, and her family fled a very dangerous and violent situation in Brazil. She came to this country at 9 and lived for many years undocumented. Her mother cleaned homes and they scraped by any way they could. They never took public assistance or anything like that. It’s a part of the American success story. Yet, you have half the body politic talking about the 14th Amendment and anchor babies, and “they’re murderers and rapists” and such. It’s outrageous. We need a compassionate response to immigration reform.

Is this something you deal with as a mayor?

We don’t have immigration issues in Braddock proper, but my wife and her family, and all the people they knew growing up. These are just people that wanted something better for themselves and that comes back to refugees as well. Everyone has seen that heart-breaking picture of that man carrying that boy that drowned. My son’s that age. How hard is your heart that if you could see an image like that and still say that we can’t do anything to help these refugees. The fierce rhetoric coming from the right, the harshness, the hard heartedness of it—it goes against basic decency. I’m proud of the way that immigration has touched my life. I would never shy away from that and I don’t care what the politics of it say. If that matters to you and you choose not to vote for me, I don’t want your vote. If you think that it’s okay that a 6-year-old boy drowns in the ocean and you don’t want to do anything about it, I don’t want your vote.

Who are your “validators” in this campaign?

My validators are the people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. We had a spectacular launch event. I live in an old car dealership across the street from the Edgar Thompson steel plant. We had our launch event on the roof where they use to park cars in the 20s and 30s. We had all these people, I joked to my wife that it’s a wonderful life. Where everybody shows up and they say, “You did this or you did that.” Honestly, I was just blown away, because I hadn’t seen some of these people in years. The best part of it for me is that those original people that voted for me and made the difference in 2005, came out ten years later to be like, “You got this! We’re behind you 150 percent.” I have the same validators as I did back in 2005.

A technocratic question, forgive me— what’s your name recognition?

Honestly, I don’t know. But anecdotally, on the turnpike when we stop to get gas in PA, seven people stopped me and said, “Can I take a selfie?” or “You go!” or “I gotchu”—

That’s because you’re on social media?

Yeah, honestly, it’s also my appearance. I look like an old washed-up professional wrestler. Without a doubt, if there is an upside to looking like me, it’s that people will recognize me in public sooner than they would a traditional candidate.

All I have is this story. All I have is what I am and what I believe in. I would never not be who I am.

It’s a moment when people want someone who is comfortable in his or her own skin. To be authentic.

Here’s my take on this —if that’s not compatible with you then I’m not going to take your vote. I’ve been hearing from Republicans, “I’m a life-long Republican, but I just respect what you do,” because in Pennsylvania either you live in a community that people feel like their best days are behind them, you use to live in a community like that and moved, or you have your parents or other relatives that live in these kinds of communities. I feel like those are my people. That’s who I really represent.

It also seems like this is a moment when people feel displaced, and in such times people have a sense of hope or one of fear. My sense is you’re speaking to the hope.

I described it when I took office—it’s a line I stole from a movie—“it’s time to either get busy living or get busy dying.” People understand that. I wouldn’t blame anybody if they gave up. Particularly in a community that has suffered as much as Braddock. But the lesson for me from Braddock is that no community deserves to be abandoned. No one deserves to be left by the side of the road. For example, I have two graduate degrees and zero student load debt and that’s not fair. Where as a kid in my community didn’t even graduate from high school. That’s un-American and it’s not sustainable. For me to be walking around with two graduate degrees and so many other people don’t even get the chance to attend community college. It’s not like if we expand community colleges they’re going to kick in my door and come steal my diplomas. It’s this weird mentality that runs in circles where it’s like, “You’re taking from me in order to make more opportunities for others.” It’s that same false choice where people think they have to choose between the environment and jobs. That’s not true either.

People get it but then they’re often manipulated—

Absolutely, you call it the low-information voters. To me that is the single biggest problem in American politics other than money. People have conflated rhetoric and politics with governance. When you lose the ability to fashion laws and remember that it’s about governance. They’re making fun of people’s appearances now in debates. I’m like, what’s next? The head to the turnbuckle or the rake to the eyes?

Let them make fun of you.

Yeah, well.

Will there be debates?

I would hope so… but it hasn’t been decided yet.

In terms of money in politics, are you doing a small donor campaign?

Yeah, we just launched on Monday. So we’re just fresh into that hunt. It’s a sad commentary, but money is important. Politics should be a competition of ideas and stories. But money is a sad reality. We’re going after small donors, because there’s not a lot of $2,700 checks in my line of work. I can’t do anything for these people except help get them some clothes or get their gas turned back on. It’s not like I can just make a few phone calls and get these big donors. But we get a lot of support coming in online on social media and taking advantage of our story.

You’re going to do some media here today?

I think we’re going to do Chris Hayes today.

Chris Hayes, right. He was our great Washington editor, you know.

Oh, I know.

He was sinfully young. We miss him.

Well, let me just end by repeating what I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: You cannot sugarcoat what happened to my community any more than you can sugarcoat myself. The story that I have is the story that I have. It’s not going to change in response to polls or opinion. It is what it is. The last thing—and also gay rights. I was the only official in Pennsylvania. I did the first same-sex wedding before it was “technically” legal. There was a registrar in Montgomery county that started issuing marriage licenses. It’s absurd that you could oppose two people that love each other from—the amount of grief and relief that came over them when I solemnized those first weddings. Couple’s been together for 29 years. They had to live through this maze of legal agreements so they can see their spouse if they get sick. All of this ridiculousness. I told this story to a reporter where people were like, “You’re going to get in trouble.” Tom Corbett, the governor at the time, took a shot. I said, “Look, if you wanna come send the gay police out, that’s fine. But I’m not going to stop doing this.” I cringe when I say the term same-sex marriage, because the term should just be marriage. How that takes away from your marriage to allow two people of the same-sex to love each other and build a life together, it’s truly perverse. I was quite frankly disappointed in my other elected officials who didn’t want to touch that. Even the mayor of New Hope wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t touch it. Gutless. It’s disappointing.

If I see something wrong, I’m going to do something about it.

Another one of the great mysteries of mine is why can’t we all agree on birth control? Why is there a segment of our society that opposes abortion and also opposes birth control? We have to be real about it. Either we can deal with it as adults or pretend like a purity ring is going to change it. Why you would want to take away women’s access to that and healthcare? All the other important things that occur there. And shut the government down. It gets back to rhetoric and politics instead of actual governance. To create more of what you decry is insane. It shouldn’t be a political issue, it should be a common-sense issue. I remember what it was like to be hormonal when I was 17. Why can’t we just have these conversations about sex ed and have everybody realize that this is a grown-up thing with grown-up consequences and you need to take the appropriate steps?

I don’t want to be senator if I don’t espouse positions that are not my authentic own.

I have a wonderful job already. I have a great family. I’m never moving out of Braddock, so I can’t lose. If people in Pennsylvania want to give me that bigger platform, so to speak, then I’m going to do everything that I promised I’m going to do.

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