Mayor John Fetterman, 21st century politician

Everything you’re ever going to read about John Fetterman always starts the same way: that he’s the 6’8”, tattooed, bearded, biker/wrestler-looking mayor of the small, gritty, old steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. That he has the dates of each of the murders committed in town on his watch tattooed on one arm and Braddock’s zip code on the other. What you might not know is that he has a Masters in public policy from Harvard, he’s recently launched a run for the senate, that he’s within striking distance of sitting PA Senator Pat Toomey, and that he’s done it all by wrenching Braddock back from the brink of oblivion and transforming it into a kind of positive, non-violent fight club for social justice and public service, free-to-all, with only one rule: tell everybody.

To understand John Fetterman you have to fully comprehend the devastation of Braddock. Contrary to the current political climate in this country that suggests style equals substance, there has been something revolutionary happening in Mayor Fetterman’s town. In Braddock, substance is still substance.

Braddock is ten miles outside of Pittsburgh. Developed in the 1870s for workers in Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, Braddock was once a bustling metropolis of 20,000 people, all squeezed into less than one square mile, with dozens of restaurants, tailors, barbers and real estate businesses. The thousands of tons of steel churned out of Braddock were used to build the greatest skyscrapers and cities in America. Later, much of the town’s steel was used in World War II. When people talk about “Real America,” they’re talking about Braddock. It was the heart of the Rust Belt before there was even an American car industry.

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In the 1970s, steel plants in the area began to close, and by the 2000s Braddock was a shadow of its former self. With 90% of the town’s population gone, the number of businesses dropped to nearly zero, with the bulk of its structures, including storefronts and homes, left to decay, vacant and shuttered. In that vacuum a virulent drug trade persisted. The population now hovers around 2,000, with 30% unemployment, home prices around $5,000, and a median household income of $17,000. Braddock is a town composed of the bottom 1%, dotted with buildings that collapse during thunderstorms, which are then fenced off until emergency demolition funds can be appropriated. The film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic book “The Road” was filmed there. Enough said.

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John Fetterman grew up in a well-off family in York, PA. Tired of “sleepwalking through life,” Fetterman joined Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and upon seeing firsthand the economic chasm between himself and an orphan of parents with AIDS, he quit business school, and moved to Pittsburgh to work for AmeriCorps. Increasingly haunted by the inequality he witnessed, Fetterman came to Braddock in 2001 after Harvard, as a computer lab Program Director, helping residents get their GEDs. Within two weeks of being in Braddock, two of his students were murdered. In 2005, Fetterman won his first election by one vote. Since then he has won reelection with overwhelming majorities.

Again, two weeks after being inaugurated, the first murder of Fetterman’s tenure took place. The victim was a pizza delivery driver with a young family. He had just entered office but, as he says, that first murder officially made Fetterman the mayor. Since then, with the tireless help of his wife, Gisele Fetterman, the man who prefers to be known as “Mayor John” hasn’t overseen any great leaps forward, but he has presided over Braddock’s steady and incremental climb back into the light. Through youth employment projects, public/private building repurposing partnerships, public art displays, and a new business outreach based on low overhead, Braddock is on its way to resembling something close to a town again. After the local non-profit hospital gave up on the town and left Braddock, Fetterman was able to help open the best urgent care clinic in the state. Additionally, the Carnegie Free Library of Braddock has been named a National Historical Landmark, and murals now dot the blighted rows of vacant buildings.

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Looking to expand his bully pulpit into national politics, Fetterman is running an insurgent campaign against two establishment democratic candidates hoping to take on Senator Pat Toomey in 2016. He’s the new Paul Wellstone of the Rust Belt, part of the next generation of democratic candidates not particularly interested in party orthodoxy, talking points, or polling; only in what he perceives as fair and just and in the vein of real grassroots public service. Like Braddock, victory for Fetterman is far from guaranteed, but for now, he is moving in the right direction.