In one of the most-watched U.S. Senate races in the country, three Pennsylvania Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. Over the next few weeks we’ll speak with all three candidates: Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, former Congressman Joe Sestak and former Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Katie McGinty.
Since he entered the race for Senate last September, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman estimates he has put 26,000 miles on his truck traversing the state to reach voters. There’s no “Fetterman Express” tour bus; he drives his own truck to campaign events across the state (and yes, he does most of the driving himself). This week, that meant departing the eastern corner of the state late one evening to arrive at an event in the Pittsburgh area the following morning.
“The reception has been great,” Fetterman says. “We’re so grateful to have so many people.”
A large number of those campaign events are house parties, thrown by volunteers who want to meet the populist mayor of one of the state’s least affluent communities. And Fetterman says what he hears from residents across the state is a deep anxiety about issues rooted in economic inequality.
“I think our biggest problem is that we have so many cities in dire circumstances,” Fetterman says. “What’s going to save Monessen? What’s going to save McKeesport? What’s going to save Chester, Sharon? Fill in the blanks in these communities all across Pennsylvania.”
A native of York, Fetterman holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Albright College and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. He came to Braddock in 2001 as an AmeriCorps volunteer and has been the Mon Valley town’s mayor since 2005. And it’s that experience that makes Fetterman believe he should represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate.
“I don’t know what the exact answer is, but I’d like to believe that someone who’s been mayor of a community like my own, that has issues and suffered greatly at the hands of free trade, with industrialization and redlining would know better than somebody living in a million-plus home in a prosperous suburb.”
Fetterman’s living room has large picture windows with an unobstructed view of the Thomson Works steel mill across the street. He worries about the 600 jobs at that plant, given the difficult economic situation of U.S. Steel. And that’s why he opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, one of the few areas where he disagrees with President Barack Obama.
“How much longer can we keep absorbing these huge losses?” he asks.
Much has been made of Fetterman’s appearance; one forearm bears a tattoo of Braddock’s zip code, the other has the dates of each of Braddock’s homicides since he took office in 2005. His signature outfit consists of a casual shirt and cargo pants. And at 6 foot 8, he would likely be the tallest U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania history if he won the election.
“I am a curiosity,” he says matter-of-factly. When people ask him when he’ll discard his cargo shorts for a suit, Fetterman says it doesn’t bother him. “I respond to that in the most genuine way I can: I’m not measuring drapes and looking at paint chips for my new office. Right now I’m focused on the race, and our opponents and getting our message out there, and being as honest and authentic as I can.”
And, Fetterman points to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom he has endorsed for the Democratic nomination for President, as another example of a candidate who doesn’t quite look the part.
Fetterman’s views are very simpatico with Sanders’ especially when he’s talking about jobs. “A steel mill job is just as important as a banking job, so let’s equally protect them,” Fetterman says. “At the end of the day, everyone deserves access to a job. And if you’re working full-time, you deserve to be able to take care of yourself.”
His positions on other issues are closely aligned with Sanders’ as well: Fetterman supports same-sex marriage, officiating one of the first same-sex marriage ceremonies in Pennsylvania. He’s pro-marijuana legalization, and is a gun owner who supports some measure of gun control.
But the Braddock mayor has other factors besides his appearance which make him an unlikely contender for the nomination. He’s under no illusion that he can easily carry the Philadelphia area, with two opponents who hail from the eastern half of the state. His campaign does not have nearly as much money as McGinty’s or Sestak’s. According to OpenSecrets.org, as of Dec. 31, he had raised just shy of $327,000, compared to McGinty’s $1.99 million and Sestak’s $4.1 million (all three totals are dwarfed by Toomey’s war chest of $17 million).
And despite his many hours on the road, Fetterman still struggles with name recognition outside the Pittsburgh region. A Harper poll conducted March 1 and 2 among 662 likely Pennsylvania voters found 57 percent were “not sure” when asked their opinion of Fetterman.
But he’s aware that the nomination is an uphill battle, and says he’s appreciative of every contribution his campaign receives: He calls donors personally to thank them. “People are usually surprised to get that phone call, and sometimes they don’t believe it’s me,” he says with a chuckle. “If someone gives me $250, that’s a lot of money. You deserve to be thanked for that.”
As realistic as he is about his chances in the race, Fetterman has a pragmatic, if more optimistic view about Braddock and its future. He says while the community may have turned a corner, with new businesses like The Brew Gentlemen and Studebaker Metals moving in and thriving, there’s still a long way to go.
“Our destiny is not to be the next Lawrenceville,” he says, referring to the trendy Pittsburgh neighborhood. “Our mandate is to be more safe, more accessible and more prosperous than we were last year. The most important metric to me is whether people in our community feel safe. Everything else is second fiddle to that.”
As for his future, if he wins the nomination and beats Toomey, Fetterman says he will continue to live in Braddock. He says the toughest part of the campaign by far has been the time away from his wife Gisele and their three kids, Karl, Gracie and August.
“They’ve been great, and all the kids are wearing Bernie Sanders buttons on their backpacks,” he says proudly. But he says missing things like August’s first haircut has been harder than he ever could have imagined.
If his bid for Senate is unsuccessful, Fetterman says he doesn’t plan to seek any other elected office. “This is the only platform I’d be willing to trade my current job for,” he says. “I didn’t want to be that guy in the retirement home and look back and say ‘oh, if I had only stepped up in 2016.’”