What’s Next for John Fetterman?

The Braddock mayor talks with us about his impressive 20-percent showing in the Senate primary — and why he's disappointed Bernie Sanders didn't support him.

John Fetterman, Braddock mayor

Photo | Dan McQuade

I texted my girlfriend while working on an election story Tuesday night. “Who’d you vote for in the Senate race?” I asked her. Her reply was quick: “John Fetterman, because you slept over his house.”

An unconventional reason to vote for a candidate for senate, but a real one: Last year, I hung out with Fetterman for a profile I did of the Braddock mayor. He’d recently launched a longshot Senate campaign, and I spent more than a day with him. We loaded up on candy for the town’s upcoming Halloween party, picked up food at Costco to deliver to needy people in town and, at night, schmoozed at a swanky political fundraiser an hour away. And, yes, I slept over his house — an old car dealership in Braddock that now houses Mayor John, his wife Gisele and their three children. Fetterman was a gracious host, and gave me more access than pretty much anyone I’d ever profiled. (To be fair, I did help him out a bit with shopping and food delivery. “I joked after you left,” Fetterman told me today, “man, we really put his ass to work!”)

I figured the mayor of a small steel town in western Pennsylvania didn’t have much of a chance in the race for U.S. Senate. Indeed, he didn’t win the Democratic primary on Tuesday: Katie McGinty did. But he put up a good fight: McGinty won with 43 percent of the vote, Joe Sestak got 33 percent and Fetterman ended up with 20 percent.

That’s not bad for a guy running his first statewide campaign, a guy with very little name recognition outside political wonk circles when he launched his bid for mayor in September, a guy who didn’t have the same amount of money to spend on TV ads the top two candidates did.

I chatted with Fetterman, back home in Braddock, today on the phone to get a sense of the campaign, what’s next for him, and if he was disappointed he didn’t get to campaign with Bernie Sanders.

How do you feel about Tuesday’s results?

For not winning, I feel great. To pull in 20 percent of the vote with as little money as we had with absolute zero on September 14th, I can only be grateful. My overriding emotion in all of it is just gratitude. I’m just grateful to all our supporters. I got such an incredibly warm welcome in Philadelphia and on the eastern part of the state. It was just a great experience. I have no regrets whatsoever. I don’t want to sound corny, but that’s really honestly how I feel. I had so many great events in Fishtown, several events in Philly and outside of Philly, and they were all great events. The people were wonderful.

Did the campaign go how you expected?

The only thing that caught us by surprise, truthfully, was the extent to which the establishment went in for McGinty’s campaign. I knew they were going to get endorsements and the labor unions but when they rolled out Obama and they rolled out $4.5 million dollars [in ads], I was like, “Whoa.” I don’t think anybody expected that.

That was the one variable there. I don’t see how that would have been surmountable. To carpet-bomb the Philly airwaves with Barack Obama saying “Vote McGinty,” I don’t know how anyone would have been able to overcome that as a candidate unless they had the same kind of resources.

When you look at how much they spent per vote, I think our calculations had them somewhere around $14 per vote, and Sestak was at $10 per vote. We came in right around $2 per vote. That says it right there.

Are you happy to be back in Braddock?

I did a Costco pick-up today. Life is back to normal in the sense that I get to see my kids, and I get to tuck them in. That’s another lasting thing: I’ll never take for granted tucking them in. Not that I never took it for granted, but I just learned to appreciate that every single night that I’m able to do that. That was another lesson from running.

It’s bittersweet. We broke down the campaign office in town today and took a bunch of the stuff to The Free Store. The race ended beautifully, short of winning it. To leave everything on the field like that and have have a body of ads that really captured the essence of what we [were] campaigning on, and a great series of debates, and a giant social media presence starting from zero. I can only feel grateful for the whole process.

You had to do a lot of face-to-face campaigning. What part of your message, or your story, did you find voters responded to most?

I just think the story. This is a straight-up authenticity play. I’m not a predictable politician. I don’t have a driver, and this is how I dress. I played it straightforward.

To be sure, in some cases my appearance hurt me. But, on balance, it was a great icebreaker. People appreciated that there was no space between the candidate and the person. That’s what they communicated to me. They really appreciated me being straight-up. If you ask a question, I answer it. If you want to get ahold of me, call me. I never played any games or minced word or spun an answers.

We had more than one columnist in Philly lament that Bernie Sanders didn’t campaign with you. Are you disappointed you didn’t get to campaign with him, a man you supported for president?

I would never throw Bernie under the bus, but I’m disappointed that we didn’t hook up — because I think we could have won. If Bernie could have hooked up, the synergy and the grassroots nature of our campaigns, we could have won the race. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t.

He lost Allegheny County and I carried Allegheny County. I can’t speak to why the Sanders campaign didn’t hook up, but I have no regrets. That was my candidate, and it still is.

But it’s disappointing. I thought we would have made a great team. You saw what my town looks like: We’re a town that was obliterated by free trade and unfair trade practices and jobs that don’t pay living wages. I just think it would have been the perfect fit. But for whatever reason, the Sanders campaign thought otherwise and we never got a chance to see where we could go with it.

What’s next for you besides being mayor?

Braddock and my family. In a practical sense, I’m going to take a real vacation and go to the beach — my wife and I, our eighth anniversary is in June. I’m looking forward to things like that.

I really don’t know in terms of professionally other than doing what I do, and doing what I love to do in town. Who knows?

I’m just grateful. We had a nice thank you/goodbye message on Facebook that has 3,000 shares and comments. And no trolls! I don’t want to sound like Lou Gehrig where I’m like, “I’m the luckiest man” — especially since I didn’t win the race. But it’s honestly how I feel.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.