On a national level, John Fetterman is known for his shaved head, tattoos, intimidating glare and size. He’s also known for his fondness for wearing cargo shorts even in the dead of a western Pennsylvania winter.
Around these parts, though, he is the person who has carved out an unlikely political career by finding hope where others see only desperation.
Fetterman is the mayor of Braddock, a once-thriving steel town about ten miles up the brown-tinged waters of the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill here; in its heyday, more than 18,000 lived here. Today, that number is down to about 3,000 and by the time Fetterman arrived in 2001 to run a community program aimed at helping youth earn their GEDs, the city was in ruins—so bleak, in fact, that the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” was partially filmed in Braddock.
Yet, for Fetterman, it felt like home. Still does. He ran for mayor in 2005, won by a single vote, and despite a failed run for US Senate in 2016 and a current campaign for Lieutenant Governor, he says Braddock will always be home.
Such devotion—by Fetterman and his wife, Gisele—is paying off. New businesses have opened, including the Brew Gentlemen craft brewery, founded by college buddies Matt Katase and Asa Foster, as well as Superior Motors restaurant, the latest effort of acclaimed chef Kevin Sousa. Meanwhile, Gisele Fetterman spearheaded efforts to open a Free Store—where everything, literally, is free—and John Fetterman has secured government funding to further stimulate economic growth.
But it all started with Fetterman finding beauty in blight, plus a couple brewers who bought into that vision.
I was a freshman in college and it was a can of Milwaukee’s Best, and it was the worst shit I’ve ever drunk in my life.”
You’ve described Braddock as having a “malignant beauty.” What does that mean?
If you go to Rome or Greece, you don’t call the old buildings blight. Here, I call them Braddock’s ruins because it conveys a level of respect that something significant happened here. That’s how I’ve always felt about Braddock. One of the greatest industrialists that ever lived, Andrew Carnegie, started here. It’s a community that, even though there’s not much left, played an important role in the country’s development. Some people say, ‘well, that’s just blight.’ It’s not blight. It’s ruins. And it has a level of beauty that has always resonated with me.
Economists say that craft breweries opening in downtrodden areas can help kickstart a local economy. When you heard Brew Gentleman was interested in opening here, what were your thoughts?
I was enthusiastic. I never envisioned the kind of operation it ended up becoming. I thought it would mostly be a wholesale operation, and maybe people could come in and get growlers. But I never envisioned that you’d have the place packed on a Friday or Saturday night and it would be named Yelp’s best brewery in Pennsylvania. It would be enormously impressive if you were named best brewery in Pittsburgh, but to be the best in Pennsylvania, it speaks to their effort. Matt’s from Hawaii, Asa’s from Boston—they could have gone back to their respective communities, but they chose Braddock. I think that says a lot about them.
What’s your first beer-drinking memory?
I was a freshman in college and it was a can of Milwaukee’s Best, and it was the worst shit I’ve ever drunk in my life. I used to steal a sip or two of a Michelob if my dad had a Super Bowl party or whatever, but my first beer was when I was a freshman in college, and it wasn’t anything you’d want to relive.
What types of beer do you generally gravitate towards?
Lighter, more blonde beers. I’m not a heavy stout kind of drinker. My all-time favorite beer was [Brew Gentlemen’s Garden Party] cucumber wheat. It was just amazing.
So, I wrote questions about your tattoos and your size, but every article I’ve ever read about you opens with that, so I’m not going to.
Yeah -- six foot nine with the shaved head. I could pretend that it’s the first time anyone ever asked me.
No, I’m not doing it.
I appreciate that, by the way. Let me buy you a beer.
Who was the first politician to make you pay attention?
Barack Obama. He was still a U.S. Senator. At an event here in Pittsburgh, I walked back and got to shake his hand, and you could just feel—wow, this is something different. I ended up being one of his campaign surrogates in western Pa. in 2008 and I was honored that they selected me to be in the Pennsylvania electoral college. So, ceremoniously of course, I was able to elect the country’s first African American president.
You ran for US Senate in 2016 and surprised pundits by getting 20 percent of the Democratic primary vote without the party’s endorsement.
Actually, the party’s suppression.
Without much funding.
And without significant name recognition outside of the Pittsburgh region. What were your takeaways from that experience? Are you disappointed that you lost or happy you did so well?
Both. If we’d have gotten a few breaks, it could have ended differently, but at the end of the day to be outspent 15 to 1 and still do as well as we did and to carry Allegheny County by double digits, I can only feel nothing but gratitude to the voters.
You’ve been compared to Bernie Sanders politically. Do you think those comparisons are accurate?
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Burlington, Vermont (but) mayor of Burlington is much different than mayor of a community facing the kind of challenges we are. It’s hip to be progressive now, and I’m glad we are having these conversations, but this has always been my calling, the things I’ve dedicated my career to. Even though Sanders undeniably raised the visibility of these issues, his campaign had nothing to do with me. I’d never heard of Bernie Sanders until 2008 or 2009, so I kind of arrived at all of this long before I ever knew of a Bernie Sanders.
Everything good that’s happened in Braddock has always been a big fight, whether it’s getting the urgent care center back after the hospital closed, or bringing a business like this [brewery] into town.”
Now you’re running for lieutenant governor, which might be the most boring job in Pennsylvania politics. Some days, you end up sitting in a chair at the head of the Senate chamber long into the night—or even morning—telling a roomful of mostly white men when it's their turn to say what everybody already knows they're going to say about the fiscal code or whatever. What about this appeals to you?
(Laughs) Wow, at least it’s not a leading question...
I mean, a lot of people would ask the same question about what appeals to you to be mayor of Braddock. The most valuable thing with both of these offices is the platform and the bully pulpit it affords you. You can really make that office what you want it to be in terms of advocacy.
I reimagined what the office of mayor could be here, and my wife and I would very much like to do the same for lieutenant governor. I’ve also been very frank that I’m keeping my eye on down the road when (Republican Senator) Pat Toomey is up for reelection in 2022… I basically came to a crossroads: Do I do one more term here? Or do I run for a statewide office in hopes that I could make some important changes and exercise some leadership and then take on Pat Toomey? I decided that that’s the best way to serve for the next four years.
If elected, will you wear a suit?
Yeah, if need be. I always felt it would be really inappropriate, that I would look ridiculous walking around in a place like this in a suit. This isn’t a suit and tie kind of community. Even when it was prosperous it wasn’t a suit and tie community… This isn’t me saying, ‘you can take that suit and tie and stick it.’ It’s me saying: This is my authentic self. I don’t have a filter.
If you need to see me in a suit for whatever reason, that’s fine, but please don’t not vote for me because I don’t wear a suit. That doesn’t seem fair and I don’t see how a suit makes anyone smarter.
If you could take one person in the federal government out for a beer, who do you take, where do you take him or her, and what conversation do you have?
It wouldn’t be a Democrat. It’d be a Republican, and it’d be somebody like Ted Cruz where I would be like, ‘Where’s your compassion? Where’s your empathy?’ You can fill in the blank with any Republican. ‘How can you defend what’s going on in the country right now? We can disagree on tax policy or on certain defense issues, but why can’t we agree that what’s going on with our politics right now is damaging the republic? And is a big fat tax cut really worth it? How many yachts can you waterski behind?’
Everything good that’s happened in Braddock has always been a big fight, whether it’s getting the urgent care center back after the hospital closed, or bringing a business like this into town. So to take $1.4 trillion, knowing that it’s going to people that are already so far ahead, I would just ask, ‘Why? Is it worth it?’
I’d take him on a four-hour tour of the Mon Valley. I’d take him to McKeesport and Clairton and Monessen -- the places that are running out of hope. It’s like when an iceberg rips off from the shelf and you can’t bring it back -- it’s going to drift away, it’s going to melt away, and I fear that so many of these places are.
It’s too uneven (and) I don’t think that’s American. If it is, God help us.