Democracy & Government

Meet the Rust-Belt Populist Who Wants to Be Pennsylvania’s Next Senator

John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, wants to fight for “legacy communities” and the soul of the Democratic Party.

Meet the Rust-Belt Populist Who Wants to Be PA's Next Senator

John Fetterman. (Photo courtesy of Fetterman for Senate)

EDITOR’S NOTE: As many experts have observed, this year’s presidential election could come down to a battle for votes Democrats used to take for granted.

Donald Trump is making an overt play for the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” blue collar voters whose defection three decades ago shook up the national political landscape and stoked the Reagan revolution. It’s no accident that Hillary Clinton’s first post-convention foray was into once reliably Democratic steel and coal country. Now, as then, the issues facing these voters are job and income security in a changing world. Only now, those concerns are being felt by far more than the steelworkers and their families whom Ronald Reagan wooed in 1980.

America’s deindustrialized heartland embodies one of the challenges reshaping the nation’s politics: The disappearance of the middle class and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. That’s why is paying particular attention to these communities this year, focusing on their issues and giving voice to the people who live there. You can read more of our collection here.)

This post originally appeared at In These Times.

John Fetterman, 46, has served as mayor of the hardscrabble Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock for over a decade. His tattoos (of the town’s zip code and the dates of its most recent murders) and his stature (nearly 7 feet) have drawn more attention than his politics. Re-elected twice by huge margins after winning his first run by one vote, the “coolest mayor in America,” as the Guardian dubbed him, is now vying with establishment Democrats for a US Senate seat. While still an under-funded underdog, Fetterman is polling competitively: In head-to-head match-ups in October, he trailed Republican incumbent Pat Toomey by 7 points and his Democratic competitors trailed Toomey by 7 and 3.

Fetterman, who is white, has led the charge to revitalize the mostly black Braddock, which was abandoned by industry in the 1970s. Nearly 40 percent of its households now fall below the poverty line. Except for its racial demographics, Braddock is typical of the struggling Rust Belt towns that may prove pivotal in this election. Some of Donald Trump’s biggest rallies have been staged in these “legacy communities,” drawing supporters still reeling from the Recession. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is hoping to rally the working class against the corporate interests that have deserted it. Like Sanders, Fetterman is in a battle for both the Democratic nomination and the soul of the party. Can he win over his state’s infamously conservative, mostly white center, by wooing the rural working-class voters that have fled the Democratic Party in droves? In These Times talked with Fetterman about Bernie, Braddock and 2016.

Why run for Senate?

When I was running a great GED program and enjoying a lot of success, two of my students were gunned down a couple weeks apart. And I couldn’t change that as a program director, so I ran for mayor. Now I want to have an impact the direction of this country that I can’t have as a mayor of a small community. The country needs a champion for the forgotten legacy cities. You see the horror that’s emerging in Flint, Michigan. Well, Braddock was no different. Every community needs a champion, and I want to be the champion for legacy cities like my own.

Between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, this election season seems to be breaking every rule political scientists have written. Why do you think that is?

People are tired of prepackaged things. They want to go to a real restaurant, not TGI Fridays. Most political candidates are like TGI Fridays — franchises of what the party wants them to be. But we’re coming out with an authentic product. I’m coming from a community from the fringe of society that’s been written off. So we’re reminding Democratic voters what the party should stand for, what we with Democratic principles should fight for.

Braddock is close to 80 percent African-American, but in running for state-wide of office, you’re talking with working-class whites the Democratic Party lost to the GOP. How can Democrats win them back?

Republicans contact me all the time saying, “Look, I may not agree with everything you’re saying, but I’m changing my registration to vote for you because I respect what you do.” In Pennsylvania, you either live in a legacy city, used to live in one or still have family there. We want to see these cities succeed. Why have we squandered trillions of dollars on unsuccessful interventions in the Middle East yet let our communities fall into despair?

Do you see your campaign as an effort to change the Democratic Party?

My campaign is to promote what I see as its core values. Goldman Sachs is never going to pay me $200,000 for an hour-long speech. But if they did, I’d say I’m going to bring Wall Street excess to heel. There needs to be congruity in the mission, values and principles that we’re willing to fight for. That’s why I endorsed Bernie Sanders.

Donald Trump’s slogan is “Make America Great Again.” Is there an alternative narrative that you’d like to advance?

My campaign has released a one-sentence press release calling Donald Trump a “jagoff ,” which is Western Pennsylvania for jerk. Populism has a dark side and Donald Trump is mining that for all it’s worth by saying reprehensible things about Muslims, about immigrants, about you name it. If you get to live vicariously through that and cheer him on, I don’t expect to get your vote, and frankly, I don’t want it.

Do you describe yourself as populist?

I would describe myself as a realist. It’s real that you can’t live off $9 an hour. Climate change is real. I think we can all agree that you shouldn’t hear gunshots at night. I don’t call that populist. It’s just the commonsense characteristics of a compassionate democracy.

How did you come to your political beliefs, and to Braddock?

I grew up in York, in a conservative Republican household. I joke that I hope I’m the first Democrat that my family votes for. I was really on that same conservative path. Then, in my second semester of business school in 1993, my friend was killed in a car accident. That really rocked my world. I had never experienced a proximity to death quite like that. I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters in New Haven, Connecticut, and was paired up with an 8-year-old boy whose father had just died of AIDS. His mother was succumbing to AIDS as well, and she died three or four weeks later. All this happened six blocks away from Yale, one of the world’s most prestigious universities. That tore me up. I had never seen such disparity and inequality. So I joined AmeriCorps to teach GED classes, and worked in Pittsburgh for two years before going to Harvard for graduate school. When I came back, I was offered the chance to start a program to help get young people back on track. That’s how I ended up in Braddock in 2001.

How has Braddock changed and why?

Braddock, founded in 1755, was where the French and Indian War started, and where George Washington received his first combat experience. It is also where Andrew Carnegie started his steel mill, and perfected the Bessemer process that made steel extra strong. Braddock was the Silicon Valley of its day: prosperous and vital to national interests. Fast forward again, and it’s essentially been torn apart by large macro forces like deindustrialization, globalization, free trade and suburbanization. That’s what we’ve been pushing back against.

What have you accomplished?

We’ve gone five-and-a-half years without a murder. We eliminated the extreme violence that was endemic to the community, through a community policing model that doesn’t generate civilian complaints or allegations of abuse. After the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center closed its hospital in town, we opened an urgent care center and restored affordable healthcare to our citizens. We’ve also been able to attract small businesses back.

What about gun control? Many people in Pennsylvania like having guns.

I’m one of them. I’m a gun owner. I’ve gone deer hunting since I was a teenager. But why should you be able to buy an AR-15 if you’re on a no-fly list? It’s the money. Gun control is a money and politics issue. I support the steps the president has taken recently. What’s horrible is that he has to go at it alone.

How do you hope to get money out of politics?

Repeal Citizens United. Billionaires and millionaires literally make candidates jump like dogs through flaming hoops. You have candidates for president doing tricks for the Koch brothers, saying, “Please, please pick me.”

I imagine that you’re not getting big checks from corporations.

We’re not rolling around in $2,700 checks. But why should a young mother’s vote in Braddock mean less because she can only give $10? If you’re rich, you can drive a nicer car and live in a nicer house. But you shouldn’t be able to shop for candidates.

Do you campaign differently based on where you are in the state?

It’s a misconception that there are no Democrats in conservative parts of Pennsylvania. They might be outnumbered, but they’re there. We’ve gotten warm receptions in center-city Philadelphia, as well as Carlisle and Doylestown. We’ve been campaigning on an authentic message.

Kate Aronoff

Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the 2016 election and the politics of climate change. Follow her on Twitter: @KateAronoff