John Fetterman: The Giant Underdog

John Fetterman, the massive, brilliant mayor of the tiny borough of Braddock, is the most unconventional U.S. Senate candidate in Pennsylvania history.

Senate candidate and Braddock mayor John Fetterman. Photograph by Harry Giglio

Senate candidate and Braddock mayor John Fetterman. Photograph by Harry Giglio

Joe Magarac is a legendary figure in Western Pennsylvania folklore. First surfacing in 1930s tales told by immigrant steelworkers around Pittsburgh, Joe was born in an iron mine. He was made of steel and stood seven feet tall — an industrial Paul Bunyan.

Joe, who could do the work of nearly 30 men, would arrive out of nowhere in the nick of time to save steelworkers from accidents. In the end, according to legend, he either allowed himself to be melted down to provide the raw material for a new mill or sat down quietly in an abandoned plant, waiting for the furnace to burn again.

Drive into Braddock, Pennsylvania, from the southeast and you’ll immediately notice two landmarks in this small town just outside Pittsburgh. The first is the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, which is still operating on Braddock Avenue. The second is a statue of Joe Magarac — larger than legend, a 12-foot giant bending a rod of metal with his bare hands.

When I reach Braddock, another impressively large man is holding court just a few blocks from the statue. John Fetterman isn’t quite as huge as Joe, but at six-eight and 350 pounds, he dwarfs everyone else in town. He has tattoos on both his inner forearms. His large head is shaved clean, and he sports a goatee on his chin. Fetterman is a man you notice. His presence fills every room he’s in.

On this October morning, he’s doing his civic duty as mayor of this tiny town: officiating the marriage of a local couple. “There’s a lot of love in this house today,” he says, pointing to his wife Gisele, who’s chasing the youngest of their three kids, who zoom around the 20 or so guests gathered for the ceremony in Fetterman’s house, which isn’t a house at all, really, but a vast open space that was once a car dealership.

Fetterman, 46, moves in front of the couple to begin the ceremony. He’s dressed in a Dickies shirt, cargo shorts and black New Balance sneakers. This is his uniform, his navy blue suit. “I don’t look like a typical politician,” Fetterman said in September, when he announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. “I don’t even look like a typical person.”

Indeed, very little about Fetterman is typical. Despite his retired-professional-wrestler vibe, he’s a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and the son of a wealthy York family. He moved to Braddock in 2001 to start a GED program in a city where nearly half the adults lack high-school diplomas. He works academic jargon into most conversations. He talks passionately and convincingly about the need to address income inequality: “This shouldn’t be a matter of ideology. Every child in this country deserves to set out with a basic, equal footing.” He knows every curve of the SooperDooperLooper at Hersheypark, and every detail of the steel industry’s decline.

And he wants to be the next U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

Small-town mayors aren’t usually viable candidates for the Senate. But Fetterman is starting to look like one. He’s got a knack for attracting national media attention. He’s got a strong campaign team for the primary next April, with talented young operatives and an elite strategist in Bill Hyers, who got Bill de Blasio elected mayor of New York.

And a lot of people just instinctively like this massive, tatted guy who gets a charge out of the finer points of federal immigration policy. Fetterman has a knack for getting people to buy, literally, what he’s selling. He convinced a James Beard Award-nominated chef to build a restaurant in the front room of his house/car dealership. (Braddock is not, otherwise, fine-dining territory.) He got Google to fund a public wi-fi network on the main drag. Two Carnegie Mellon students were so entranced after a speech he gave at the university that they opened the Brew Gentlemen Beer Company on Braddock Avenue.

These are trying times for establishment politicians. Congress’s disapproval ratings are hovering near historic lows. In the Democratic presidential primary, socialist Bernie Sanders is giving ultra-Establishment Hillary Clinton no end of trouble, and the leading GOP presidential candidates include developer/showman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Fetterman is no Trump or Carson. Nor is he a Sanders, although the two share some policy views. But Fetterman does have this much in common with all three: Like them, he represents something completely different, something new.

FETTERMAN HAS INVITED me to spend a full day with him in Braddock — and I do mean full. He’s told me I can bunk at his place, which features a Dwell-worthy open-air layout and rustic design, as well as a photo of his half-naked pregnant wife next to the door.

Shortly after I arrive, I sit in on a rehearsal of a play at the under-construction black-box theater in his house. (Yes, it’s possible you’ll soon be able to get dinner and see a show at the mayor’s house.) The Fettermans recently hosted a performance of Small Engine Repair, a hot off-Broadway play from a few years back. The scene I watch is the show’s violent climax, which features a sexual assault. It occurs to me that most candidates for Senate are probably not hosting similar plays in their houses.

Not long after I arrive in Braddock, we shove off in Fetterman’s pickup for a day’s work. The actual duties of the mayor of Braddock — the job pays $150 a month — are mostly ceremonial, which is typical for small Pennsylvania towns. So Fetterman’s first stop isn’t town hall, but a Costco in Homestead, a couple boroughs over.

“Braddock used to have 14 furniture stores,” he says as we pass a building that once housed one of those stores; his nonprofit is redeveloping it now into loft apartments. “I want to bring Braddock back. I’m trying to bring Braddock back.”

At the Costco, Fetterman flings jumbo-sized bags of Hershey bars and Reese’s Cups into his cart. Eventually, he enlists me as a second cart-pusher. The candy is for Braddock’s annual Halloween party, to be held later that week.

This is the bread-and-butter of small-town politics, and it’s in stark contrast to the big leagues in which his rivals for the Democratic nomination operate. Katie McGinty, the St. Hubert’s grad who unsuccessfully ran for the gubernatorial nomination in 2014, quit her day job as Governor Tom Wolf’s chief of staff in order to run. Joe Sestak, the former Navy three-star admiral and Congressman, took a break from teaching at Carnegie Mellon to run (and, oddly enough, walk across the state). Waiting for the Democratic winner, of course, is whip-smart and long-experienced Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey.

And then there’s Fetterman, now loading candy into a second shopping cart.

The total comes to $535.17. Just after he pays, he’s recognized by the Costco door-checker. “Hey, you look like — ” she says, before realizing this giant in cargo shorts could be no one else. “Yes, that’s definitely you. You’re the mayor of Braddock. I’m going to vote for you for Senate!” She knows a lot about him. “I thought your TED talk was very inspiring. And when I found out where you went to school — where was it again? Now, now, don’t be shy.”

“Albright,” Fetterman replies. He got his undergrad degree from the college in Reading. “Okay, yes, Harvard. Hey, Albright’s a good school, too.”

Fetterman seems humbled, even embarrassed, by the attention. He should be used to it by now. Ever since he first won election as Braddock’s mayor in 2005, he’s made national headlines. He’s been on Colbert Report and all over national TV. He was featured in the Atlantic. The Guardian called him “the coolest mayor in America.” He spoke at the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival. He gave that TEDx talk, about the still-shaky renewal of Braddock. Levi’s used Braddock in an ad campaign. These stories were aggregated around the world.

Fetterman is an irresistible character, but his co-star has been the struggling town of Braddock itself. The 1920 census pegged the borough’s population at 20,879. At the 2010 Census, it was 2,159. That’s about a 90 percent decline. To put this in perspective, Camden has only lost 34 percent of its population.

But Braddock is far smaller. The town is .6 square miles — Camden is about 17 times larger. Like many Pittsburgh-area steel towns, it grew around a single plant. After Andrew Carnegie learned of the Bessemer process on a trip to Europe, he spent about $1.2 million to open Braddock’s plant in 1875. It became part of U.S. Steel in 1901, survived several threats of closure as the industry collapsed — in 1984, Merrill Lynch predicted it would close — and still operates today.

According to Fetterman, the plant employs about a thousand people, but many of the steelworkers don’t live in Braddock anymore. The 20,000-plus residents who once overstuffed the town have been displaced — by an expansion of the steel mill for wartime use, by the suburbanization of America and white flight. Braddock isn’t empty, but it has the look of a place that long ago saw its best days.

Before Fetterman was elected mayor (and, arguably, in the years since as well), Braddock wasn’t a town that attracted many residents with money and privilege. But Fetterman had plenty of both, and he chose Braddock.

He was born in Reading to teenage parents. Fetterman’s father, Karl, worked nights to put himself through college, then began working for Kling Bros., a York insurance agency. He did well. Karl Fetterman eventually bought the company, and many family members have worked there.

“I grew up in a conservative small town, and my family did all right,” John Fetterman says. “I grew up privileged. I went to college in Pennsylvania and played football for four years. I was in business school. Until later, I didn’t realize the reality of the disparity in this country.”

When Fetterman was in his last semester of business school, a friend crashed his car and died on the way to pick him up from the gym. “You’re thinking life goes on forever,” he says, “and you don’t have to confront your own mortality.” He decided business wasn’t for him.

Politics wasn’t either, at first. He joined Big Brothers Big Sisters in New Haven, Connecticut, and mentored a boy whose parents had both died of AIDS, months apart. “I became preoccupied with the concept of the random lottery of birth,” Fetterman said in an interview with the Nation. “Why was I born into this incredibly privileged and comfortable existence, and this child, through no fault of his own, was an AIDS orphan by eight and a half and was living in an incredibly dangerous section of New Haven? All of this, of course, eight blocks away from one of the world’s most elite universities.”

He began working in Pittsburgh with AmeriCorps, the federally funded community service organization. He left to attend the Kennedy School at Harvard, graduating with a master’s in public policy in 1999. He says he thought that with a degree from Harvard, he could really “fuse public policy, social work and business together” to address the inequality he saw.

Why Braddock? He says he was “attracted to it because of its malignant beauty,” which sounds like a line from a ruin-porn enthusiast. But Fetterman wasn’t in Braddock just to gawk at the decay. He moved there, quite deliberately, to Do Good Works. He started up the GED program, making his first home in an abandoned church that he later converted into a community center.

Fetterman says he didn’t intend to get into local politics. His GED students started lobbying him to run, and in 2005, he acquiesced. His students were his campaign team. “They would go out, and we’d knock on doors,” he says, “and people would say, ‘Wow, no one has ever knocked on our doors before elections before.’”

Weird things happen in small-town elections, and Fetterman’s door-to-door campaign made an impression on the few voters who cast ballots. The election-night vote count left Fetterman and rival Virginia Bunn tied, 148-148. There was a recount, and a review of provisional ballots. It broke Fetterman’s way. He became mayor by a single vote.

He tattooed the town’s zip code on his left arm, then began tattooing the dates of homicides in Braddock on his other. Though crime is down in the area — Fetterman says the police force, with the help of a grant for surveillance cameras, managed to shut down a corner notorious for drug sales and violence — he now has nine dates on his right arm.

What has gotten the most attention in his tenure, though, are his unorthodox ideas. Fetterman set up a website to advertise Braddock as an inexpensive option for what he then called “urban pioneers,” meaning artists, young people, and others with plenty of time and freedom but not much money. He offered free studio space to artists. He set up a nonprofit, called Braddock Redux and bankrolled in large part by his wealthy father, that began purchasing properties in town in the hope of redeveloping them for new uses. Gisele Fetterman opened something called the Free Store — it redistributes donated goods to needy neighbors — in a few shipping containers. And her art started popping up prominently around town.

All of this began to rub some people the wrong way. A New York Times magazine piece featured some of the detractors. The Times found a few newcomers — there aren’t actually all that many — who were unhappy, overwhelmed by the decrepit old houses they’d purchased. The story quoted Ella B. Jones, then the borough manager, who said Fetterman had pitched himself as a “great white hope,” an interloper. “Council makes the laws,” she said. “They do it all. They have the vote. They make the rules. And he doesn’t.”

Another complaint: Fetterman’s ideas are all very much his ideas. His foundation, funded in part by his family’s money, bought the furniture store on Braddock Avenue. He’s the one who decided the youth center should be in the former church where he once lived. He’s the one making these decisions, at times with little community input. His programs help scores of people in town, but they aren’t very democratic.

Another factor? In 2000, Braddock was about two-thirds African-American. And Fetterman — a resident for all of five years before he ran for mayor — is white.

Still, overall, Braddock residents think well of him. He’s won reelection twice, by huge margins. And Ella B. Jones, the borough manager who called him out in that Times piece, later pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $170,000 from the cash-strapped town.

Back at Costco, after buying the candy, Fetterman pulls his truck around to the rear of the store. He’s convinced the manager to let him pick up about-to-expire food from time to time that would otherwise get thrown out. He loads up the truck with doughnuts, rolls and cakes and heads back to Braddock.

THE MAYOR OF Braddock spends the rest of the day driving around town doing good deeds and favors, like an old-time political boss: dropping off the Costco food to hungry low-income families, checking up on residents of homes at risk of having their heat shut off. At one point he runs into an elderly woman walking down the road. He asks where she’s headed, and she tells him: to the bank, to cover the payment on her pay-as-you-go mobile phone. She wants to call her granddaughter. The bank is five miles away. Fetterman invites her into the truck, drives her to the bank, waits for her to deposit the money, then drives her home.

Fetterman tells me again that he doesn’t really consider himself a politician. “My office is more social justice, if anything,” he says. “It’s a platform to exercise my belief in social justice.” But he’s way more adept than most politicians at using the bully pulpit, and a Senate seat offers a vastly larger platform than does the office of a small-town mayor. Fetterman is a big man, and it’s looking very much like Braddock isn’t big enough for him anymore.

Published as “Giant Underdog” in the January 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.