Mayor John Fetterman and the Democrats’ best hope

Democrats have been in a perpetual meltdown since the election as they face the daunting task of how to confront Donald Trump. Complacency and rot exists within the tired, old, aimless Democratic Party. Operatives are scouring the country looking for up-and-coming candidates for higher office with no long-term strategy in place. They need someone who can speak to the middle class without coming off like a lecturing professor.

With the election of Trump, American voters no longer see holding high public office or a position in Washington as a prerequisite for the presidency. If anything, it’s a liability. Think of all those things and try to picture the right person.

It seems to many like an insurmountable feat, but there may be a big solution standing right in front of the Democrats. He’s tattooed, about 6’8, and hard to miss. There are no longer any rules in presidential politics, and in four years, the national mood may be less “Wolf of Wall Street” and more “It’s A Wonderful Life.” America will be so sick of loudmouthed New York billionaires and conservative giveaways that a progressive small town mayor from the heartland may just be the ticket. It’s so crazy it just might might work.

Braddock’s Mayor John Fetterman, 47, who ran an insurgent and ill-fated campaign for Pennsylvania senate in 2016, isn’t about to run for president anytime soon, nor is the party about to wake up and recognize it should be led by someone outside of Washington, but it behooves them to listen to the reluctant leader all the same. Long-term demographic changes may yet save the Democrats, but they need to defeat Trump now, and a Rust Belt pivot is exactly what they need. Everything else is secondary.

I spoke to Fetterman earlier this month while the Democrats met for their annual retreats and DNC race forums, where they desperately fumbled in the dark for anything that might still make them relevant.

Steve King: After this election, Democrats are kind of starting at zero. They’re in the worst hole they’ve been in since the ’30s. When you became mayor, Braddock was basically at zero. What would you say to not only the dejected masses of liberals, but everyday Americans who have been so depressed by this last election?

Mayor John Fetterman: It’s important that you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. I’m a big proponent of the Democrats having that kind of “Fight Club” mentality, that it’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything, and I think the Democratic Party is at that moment. The leadership doesn’t share that sentiment. I don’t know why we’re taking marching orders from Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer. Those are folks who are responsible for the ruinous outcome that we had last fall. The party just needs to take inventory and realize that this country chose a failed game show host to be president, and we need a gut-check so we can start to evaluate why that happened and what we need to do moving forward.

There’s an example where I’ve taken people all over western Pennsylvania into grocery stores in some of these communities and say, “Look at that woman there. She’s buying a pack of hot dogs for $1.50. That should be a solid Democratic voter.” But if you went up to her and asked her, she’d say she’s voting for Donald Trump, and I’ve never been proven wrong. So we need to get back in touch with this constituency that gave Obama a chance in 2008 and 2012, and then said, you know what, “We’re going to do something different.” The party has an exciting opportunity to rewire itself and rebuild itself, and we have to acknowledge our failures and how we have absolutely no power. We can’t stop any of his appointments. We can’t stop anything. The Democratic Party should be honest with people, in that we have no power right now in large part because of choices we’ve made as a party.

SK: Both you and Trump have compared the infrastructure in places like Braddock to third-world countries. Are there parts of Trump’s agenda that could benefit your town? How do you see the Trump administration impacting Braddock?

JF: If you have to say anything kind about an enemy or your political adversary, if I’m being completely fair, he hasn’t gotten any credit in progressive and liberal circles for killing TPP. That was a one-off for him. You and I spoke several times during the election. How big of an issue was it? In the top three, five whatever in terms of issues, in your opinion, was TPP?

SK: Not big to coastal elites, certainly.

JF: But to a lot of people in labor it was huge. So much so that Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, who would literally write a book on free trade, reversed himself. This is something that isn’t getting as much traction as I think it should. Trump single-handedly took the Republican Party from free traders and turned it into party of protectionists. And that’s good for certain constituencies in the Democratic Party. They’re not dumb. They’ve made significant inroads. They’re eating off our plate, and 2020 is going to be a challenge as a result of some of those things. So when he starts talking infrastructure, that’s going to resonate out here. And it’s not because they’re burning crosses in their front yard and wearing white hoods. It’s because they’ve seen their communities and ways of life just completely fall apart over the last 30 to 40 years.

SK: Trump’s inaugural address was about “America First” and the forgotten man and woman. He talked about closed factories marking America like tombstones. That had to mean something to you as the mayor of Braddock. Does anything he has said speak to you personally?

JF: There’s absolutely nothing about Trump that speaks to me personally. I say that sincerely, because I don’t believe there’s any sincerity in him. I think he, or his advisers, realized that to create a path they had to peel off a segment of society. This is a billionaire who’s never given a shit about the less fortunate. He goes home and sits on a solid gold toilet and owns golf courses. Yet he was able to successfully cast himself as a populist, and what does that say about our party, that we allowed him to do it? That’s the great tragedy.

I had a few campaign events in a town called Monessen, here in southwestern PA. Nobody ever goes there. The last time it played a role of significance was 1960, and he had an event there this past June, and that was an alarm bell that went off. It was a very large rally and it brought out thousands of people. That was the first time when I realized this is going to be close and we’re in trouble here.

SK: You were sounding the alarm all year. You told me that after the primaries were over and after all those signs got taken down, the Trump signs were still there.

JF: They are. Right now progressive and liberals are mad and they’re fuming and they’re venting and I understand that, but at the end of the day we elected Donald Trump. And I mean we the Democratic Party, because we had the Jill Stein-ers or the people who said, “Well, I’m too cool to vote in this election. They’re both lousy.” I would beg people and say, “I was a Berner. I get it. I understand. I don’t like these emails. But they are being leaked in order to manipulate you into a decision that is going to seriously damage the country.”

If you look at 74,000 votes spread across three large states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and you’re talking about .00005 of the voting public decided it out of 136 million votes. It didn’t take a lot. And now we’re in a place where we have Trump doing and saying things that have literally shocked the world.

I warn people everyday that they’re going to get burned out from outrage fatigue. We’re two, three weeks into it? Dude, we’ve got four years, minimum. If you don’t handle it the right way, and if we don’t heal the rift in our own party that’s getting worse, not better, but worse, that’s going to allow Trump to slip by for a second term.

SK: After the election you kind of went off on Twitter, basically saying that leftists and Jill Stein supporters cost Democrats the election. You said, I’m paraphrasing, Trump should nominate Jill Stein for Ambassador to Portlandia, and that third party voters cost Clinton the election in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. These people called you a “shill” and a “sell-out.” And they did that after Sanders dropped out and when you campaigned for Clinton. What would you say to them now?

JF: I would say let’s not let it happen again, you know? If it makes you feel better to tweet at me and call me a “shill” when I’ve spent 16 years working for $100 a month in a broken town, if you think that makes me a shill, I don’t care, but don’t let us elect Trump again. I was the only senate candidate that endorsed Bernie Sanders, and Sanders ended up endorsing Clinton. And I said “Look, You don’t have to love Clinton, but you should be scared enough of Trump to not sit this one out.” When I went off on that Twitter rant I was angry. I’m still angry. Because you have people saying “Oh, it doesn’t matter. They’re both terrible,” and I’m looking at them now and they’re outraged and heartbroken and I’m like “This is what happens.” We are responsible for that, and that’s the greatest tragedy of all. Trump didn’t beat us. We beat ourselves and let him slip by with the slimmest of margins.

SK: Trump isn’t a normal Republican. He’s not a conservative. He’s a populist, but his cabinet and policies so far have been like capitalism on steroids. The president is historically unpopular already. He barely won the election, has no mandate, and is still governing and acting as if it’s this great Republican victory. How do Democrats counter this and turn things around into an effective response?

JF: He’s acting that way because, even though he lost the popular vote, who cares? I think the Atlanta Falcons had more yards rushed than the Patriots, but who’s got the Super Bowl ring? That’s the only thing that matters. They may not have the mandate of the voters, but they have the ability, statutorily, to behave as if they do, because they’ve got the presidency, the senate, the house, and they’re gonna get rid of the filibuster whether it’s piecemeal or in wholesale. They’re going to implement some of the worst legislation we have ever seen. And then, whether they win in 2020 or not, you’re going to have a Supreme Court stacked for the next 25 to 30 years that will lean conservative to kill any progressive reform or law that any future progressive administration could enact.

SK: You’ve told me in the past that we need to listen and acknowledge the other side. How do we do that in this case? How do we work with an admitted sexual predator and probable Russian stooge? How do we work with that?

JF: When I say, “Listen to the other side,” it’s really “listen to your fellow countrymen who were so hopeless that they gave this guy a chance.” In terms of Trump, I’ll never have anything in common with him. It’s so beyond the pale we have forgotten what kind of territory we’re in. When he brags about grabbing a woman’s privates, whether he’s showering praise on Russia and Vladimir Putin, or he’s tweeting out and taunting Arnold Schwarzenegger for ratings on “Celebrity Apprentice,” things that you didn’t think were possible are now, so it’s a lost cause when it comes to that.

It needs to teach progressives, or if you’re more moderate, that we need to never let this happen again. And we have to solve the rift in our party. We have a Clinton/Sanders proxy war that’s getting worse because we have a segment of Democrats who are like, “Never again, because Bernie would have won,” and if you look at the candidates who are out there, it’s going to be very divisive and acrimonious, and Trump’s going to be able to present a united front. Despite the craziness he’s displayed so far, Democrats need to get their shit together if we’re gonna be a force in 2020. You and I may be appalled at what Trump has said and done, but the people who voted for him are eating this up with a spoon.

SK: Should the party go hard left like everyone seems to want, or should it do what Rahm Emanuel has said and moderate and find candidates who can win in conservative districts?

JF: Rahm Emanuel is someone we should never listen to, because whether you’re a pragmatist or purist you have to be effective, and if you look at the kind of shape Chicago is in, I don’t know why anyone would ever listen to what Rahm Emanuel says.

SK: Because he gave Democrats the last majority back in 2006.

JF: You may be giving him way too much credit. I wouldn’t hold him up as a paragon of virtue when you see what he’s done with the Laquan McDonald video. I don’t care what he says. I’m not going to pay any attention to it. That being said: Do we go left? I think we do need to go left, but we need to emphasize, like I did in my own race, that these aren’t left-wing, crazy ideas. These are ideas that are supported by a majority of people. And we need effective messengers who can communicate that. I never got pushback on a living wage or reasonable gun control, or humane immigration, because the vast majority supports these kinds of policies. You’ve got to run toward the roar and fight for things you believe in and say “That’s where I stand.”

SK: Last year you said there was no danger in Sanders, but it feels like the primary got out of control and led to the kneecapping and ankle-biting of the Clinton campaign. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sanders people said, “Well, she can’t win in the fall,” but then they’re the ones who didn’t vote for her. So how do you fix that? Is there something wrong within the party, or was it just that the candidates weren’t as perfect last time as compared to Obama?

JF: Bernie was my candidate. Bernie didn’t win, largely fair and square. I know there were some thumbs on the scale from Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, but what did Bernie in was African-American voters in southern states that allowed Clinton to pull ahead in the math. So I respect the will of the voters and African-American voters who went for Hillary. By and large it was a fair primary. There was some question-sharing and some of that stuff in the emails, but there was no manipulation or hacks or anything like that. It was the minority that set Clinton apart. Now, given the fact that Clinton wasn’t my chosen candidate at first, she was still light years away from a candidate like Trump. And we have to agree as a party, whether we go left or more center, we can’t be sore losers and we can’t be purists. That’s what cost us the race this time. I hope we got the memo. Bad things happen if you sit this thing out.

SK: You won Allegheny County. Sanders didn’t. This kind of blows the whole “Bernie would have won” thing out of the water for me. It’s apples and oranges, but still. You won western PA, an area Sanders should have won easily. Sanders didn’t win it the primary and Clinton didn’t it in the fall. He won Wisconsin, barely won Michigan, and got stomped in Pennsylvania. Isn’t the whole “Bernie would have won” stuff just fantasy backseat driving?

JF: I don’t want to make it sound harsh. I love what Bernie did for the party. Bernie got us back to where we need to be, which is talking about economic inequality and what we want our country to look like 30 years from now. The issues he brought up were inspiring and heartening, but we have to respect the process. And when you look at the things that made the difference, it was African-Americans. I’m not in a position where I can say their votes shouldn’t have mattered. They overwhelmingly backed Clinton, and the mistake we made as a party is not getting behind our nominee. And if that nominee isn’t perfect for you, that’s ok. Don’t stay home, because look at what happened.

Could Bernie have won? Who knows. I just understood from the very beginning that this would be a terribly close race, and I know that Clinton at her core is a good Democrat, and we agree on nine out of 10 things. I call Jill Stein a menu without a restaurant. She says all these great things but she had no idea, no place, no ability, no experience and never won an election in her life. Purity tests never help. You want a candidate who is as close to your ideals as you’re going to get, but at the end of the day there are two choices. One of those choices is going to give you most of what you want, and the other could maybe start a nuclear war. Which one are you going to pick? And sadly, enough people said “screw it.” There’s not a day that goes by when it doesn’t break my heart.

SK: The party leadership has been hollowed out because of the events of last year. Tom Perez is a good man, but he’s stale has never won a race. Pete Buttigieg is fairly unknown, but exciting. Keith Ellison really is the pick to rally around. He’s the only one with charisma and vision. And he already has the backing of the bosses and stars of the party. I wonder if it plays right into Trump’s hands. Is it smart to make a black Muslim congressman the leader of the party when we have a president who just won an election based almost entirely on demagoguery and racism? Won’t his faith and past associations make Ellison an easy mark? But, because of last year’s DNC hacks, it’s a small thing that can go a long way toward quieting the restive, impossible-to-please Sanders wing. Where do you stand on the race?

JF: They’re all acceptable in my eyes. I’ll be honest, I don’t think it matters. It’s all backroom, inside-baseball stuff. In terms of the getting Democrats together and involved, energy and voter engagement, Trump is doing that for us every day. From my standpoint, me personally, I’m a fan of Mayor Pete. I really appreciate what he stands for. I respect the fact that a gay man got himself elected in a town like South Bend, Indiana, that was struggling economically. He’s willing to get his hands dirty. But Keith Ellison is a good guy. Tom Perez isn’t a bad guy either. The message has to get out though, that we can go at each other brutally in a primary, and we will in 2020. I can feel it coming, but we’ve got to knock it off when the voters decide. There’s got to be a coming together, and there can’t be any drop off because the stakes are way too high. Trump is what could happen if you let the wolves in. Whatever Donald Trump does to minorities, to women, to world peace and prosperity, happened because 74,000 Americans sat this one out in three states that they shouldn’t have. That’s the only reason. Trump did not win this election, Democrats let him win.

SK: 2020 is basically the Democrats’ last stand. It’s win or die.

JF: People need to get out of their own bubbles. You’ve got to read Drudge. You’ve got to watch Fox News. You might find it repellent. You have to understand these people are not monsters. They’re not terrible people. Yes, there’s some white nationalism in Trump’s base, but they’re not the reason he won. There are people who voted for him because they hated Clinton, but there are also people who voted for Trump who voted for Obama twice. Trump won by big margins in little places. And if we continue to believe that all Trump voters are terrible, racist people, then guess what? They’re going to hunker down and swing for the fences in 2020 too.

The defacto leader of the party is the person who wins the Democratic primary in 2020. We have a handful of prominent Democrats and there is no centralized leadership right now, and none of that is going to change until there is an election in 2020, when people throw their hats in the ring and vetting occurs. Then and only then will we have a party leader, and we have to get behind him or her. If they’re a moderate corporatist or a leftist progressive, we have to get behind that side as well. What is America going to look like with eight years of Trump? If that can’t get you to hold your nose and vote for a Democrat that might not agree with you on everything lockstep, then you should go have your head examined.

SK: Democrats have won the popular vote in six out of seven of the last presidential elections. Things aren’t as bad as they look. Parties taking a beating when they control the presidency is a cyclical thing. It’s also normal to lose the presidency after two terms, but there is a realignment taking place in the Midwest and Southwest, between urban, suburban, and rural voters. What can Democrats do to rebuild?

JF: They have to start seeing new opportunities in emerging states like Georgia and Arizona. We need to look at why Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin when this man has never shown even a germ of concern for the least fortunate members of society. People wanted change, and so far he is changing things and he’s going to be very formidable in 2020, assuming he doesn’t have some catastrophic impeachable offense. All this other stuff right now is playing well to his base and we ignore that at our peril. And we need to stop losing our collective shit every time he says something. We need to buckle down for 2020, because that’s the only time it’s going to change.

We can have a million protests, a million hashtags, but the reality is it’s not going to change the power structure. I don’t agree with you. The party is in shambles. We’ll never get anything passed legislatively until we have the house and senate, and based on the structure of the senate it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to happen again. And even if we do, you’re going to have the blue dog groups that are Democrats in name only.

We’re through the looking glass here. What value has conventional wisdom played since November 8? All these pundits are talking like they didn’t miss it. So what does 2018 look like? No one knows. It’s not like you can even take an educated guess with this stuff.

Democrats are motivated to vote, but I’ll guarantee you, so are Republicans. I don’t think we’re going to lose our shirts but the hashtag resistance is centered in hardcore blue areas anyway. You can run up the popular vote as much as you want, but again, it’s big margins in small places. That’s why Trump won. Do you think Republicans are going to give that up without a fight? Trump illuminated a path when no one said he had one. So now that they know what the path is, you’re telling me they’re not going to shoot everything they have at Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in 2018 and 2020?

SK: Obama was a once in a lifetime politician. Trump might be one too. With no Clinton or Obama, the party is leaderless. Where does it go from here? Harry Reid has said the the 2020 field looks like an “old folks home.” Pelosi says Democrats need someone who’s “gutted a deer.” Who do you see leading the party forward?

JF: I honestly don’t know. I think we have one more bitter civil war, and I hope whoever emerges from that will enjoy 100 percent enthusiastic support of our party. That’s the only way we beat Trump in 2020. I know we need to have it out as a party one more time, because there’s too many hurt feelings and too many people saying “Sanders would have won” or blah blah blah. I hope whoever the leadership is, that we’re all committed to coming together and kicking the tar out of Trump. That’s the only way we’re gonna win. I expect it to be absolutely brutal. You’re gonna have a corporatist Democrat like a Booker and you’re going to have the progressive like Warren, and it’s going to be bitter and vicious. If I was the head of the DNC I’d say “We’re going to have one more fair fight and come together when it’s over, because look at what it cost our country.” Again, I’m not mad at Trump or Trump voters, I’m mad at Democrats who sat this one out or threw their vote away on a clown like Stein, because those are the people who delivered this great country of ours into the hands of a failed game show host.

SK: Warren looks like the leader of the resistance right now. Kirsten Gillibrand, Booker, Andrew Cuomo, Kamala Harris are all probably running next time. Joe Biden is still out there. Al Franken and Mark Cuban’s names keep popping up. Even Mark Zuckerberg has made some political moves. But none of them can make the claim to Black Lives Matter and the Sanders revolution. None have won Allegheny County by big numbers. None can speak directly and effectively to the working class whites that the party needs to win back.

Personalities matter more in presidential elections than they do at any other time. Trump has broken the presidential race wide open in that he had no prior public service experience. Voters are willing to overlook some inexperience for a person with authenticity and a compelling personality. You see where I’m going with this?

JF: No. No. No. No.

SK: You went to Harvard for public policy. You’ve been in office since 2005. Trump could be president for eight years and still not have the public service record that you do. You’re not getting any younger. Why don’t you run for president?

JF: I’m flattered, but no. It’s very frustrating to me that Betsy DeVos got confirmed by one vote, because that vote would have been mine. If I had made it through the primary I would have beaten Pat Toomey and I would have been the “No” vote that kept Betsy DeVos out of her office. It just shows that one vote matters.

SK: What if we don’t have this war that you’re talking about, and what if you run for president?

JF: All this bitterness still remains, and until we have it out in grand style, and decide where we want to go as a party, it’s going to happen again, and I’m not optimistic that we can do that because we have the same actors involved who don’t believe they did anything wrong or that there even is a crisis in the Democratic Party.

Until we heal the rift in our party, we’re damaged and we’re vulnerable, and the thing that scares me is if Donald Trump ever smartens up and stops tweeting at Nordstrom and stops doing crazy stuff, then we really are in trouble.

We have to acknowledge the inequality in society and we have to stop pretending that a lot of the leadership of the Democratic Party really cares about doing something about it. You need to fix what’s wrong in western Pennsylvania and Ohio because it’s the right and moral thing, and that’s what Democrats do, not necessarily because we can’t win a race without it. If I had won I could look at it differently. No one’s going to vote for a small town mayor.

SK: They voted for a reality show host.

JF: That’s flattering. Sanders brought out what I think is really important: inequality and fixing what has gone wrong with a large segment in our society. I understand there are times when we have to be pragmatic, but I’d rather figure out how we can be principled and pragmatic than just pragmatic because pragmatism isn’t going to carry the day against someone like Trump in 2020. I would welcome a Zuckerberg, I’ve got to be honest with you, even though he’s says he’s not going to run.

SK: Well, everyone says that right up until the point that they announce they running.

[screen shot: John Fetterman]