Tall Order: An Interview with John Fetterman
For most Pittsburghers, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman needs no introduction. Since taking office in 2006 (after knocking on doors and winning the election by a single vote), he has worked to revitalize the Mon-Valley town that, like many others, withered in the wake of the steel industry. His efforts have drawn the attention of The Nightly Show, The Colbert Report, CNN, The New York Times, The Nation, and The Guardian, to name a few, and he has given a TED talk about reinventing legacy communities like Braddock.
This past September, Fetterman launched a bid for U.S. Senate, seeking the democratic nomination in a field that includes former U.S. congressman Joe Sestak, and Katie McGinty, who formerly served as chief of staff for PA Governor Tom Wolf. Republican incumbent Pat Toomey will also run for re-election.
Earlier this month, Fetterman publicly endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, saying he is best fit to address social and economic inequality.
Fetterman, who holds a finance degree from Albright and master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, first came to Braddock in 2001 with AmeriCorps and quickly fell in love with the community. (He grew up in York, PA, which he has described as a privileged upbringing in a conservative, small town.)
A key element of Fetterman’s strategy to revitalize Braddock was supporting arts and youth programs. Braddock’s cheap housing attracted DIY artists, and Fetterman attributes much of the town’s rebirth to artists’ tendency to “see value and uniqueness in things that others don’t.”
We caught up with Fetterman last week to talk about the intersection of art, politics and community-building ahead of an unconventional campaign fundraiser he has coming up at Spirit on Saturday, Jan. 30. Project Progress will feature 15 local bands and more than 100 visual artists who will donate work to a raffle.
Oh—and, before we begin, you should know that the guy’s 6’8”, 350 pounds (which no media outlet will let you forget). He shaves his head and wears a goatee. His entire wardrobe consists of the same short-sleeved, black work shirt, which leaves visible the tattoos that line his inner forearms: on the left, Braddock’s zip code; on the right, the dates of nine homicides that have occurred during his time there.
Nak You Out: With your time in Braddock, starting in 2005, supporting and building youth and arts programs was sort of part of the new era you ushered in. Can you talk about what role art played in strengthening Braddock?
John Fetterman: You can’t begin to strengthen your economy and the overall vitality of your community without the arts. The arts are an incredibly vital component to any revitalization strategy. And when you’re dealing with a case as severe as Braddock, it is that much more important. You know, one of the great things about artists is that they’re able to conceive and see things differently than other people would. And when you have a town that nine out of 10 people moved out of, I mean, that kind of gift or that kind of vision is invaluable. And that’s why I have such an appreciation for artists. I appreciate their courage. I appreciate the way they see the world differently, their creativity. And it’s also an element of jealousy, too, because unfortunately I was born devoid of any kind of artistic talent.
NYO: In a New York Times article, you said, “We use art to combat the dark side of capitalism.”
JF: Exactly. What better way to reconceptualize something than with art. It’s an incredibly valuable and organic. For me, it’s impossible to overstate how critical the arts are. I’m not talking—I mean, I love the symphony, and it’s great—but I’m not talking about that kind of art. I’m talking about the kind of people who moved to Braddock here, or take on communities that have been kind of written off or whatever. They see value and uniqueness in things that others don’t.
NYO: That New York Times article was a big article for you, and also probably the biggest example of people kind of being critical of your tenure in Braddock. Some people who were critical might say, “What difference does a couple dozen poor artists moving into an already-poor community—what difference is that going to make?” What do you say to those people?
JF: It has made an important difference, and nowhere was it said that that was the only part of the strategy. Again, that article is five years old, and the woman who wrote that article had a negative agenda and an axe to grind. And even then, she couldn’t find anyone really that objected. It was like, “Oh, let’s find three people that don’t like John, and let’s get them on the record.” Everything that’s happened in Braddock has always come from an organic place. People moving here—there’s never been a “Hey, move to Braddock!” It’s been, “If you want to be part of something unique and different and authentic, great.” If anyone’s critical of it, it’s like, how’s the view from the cheap seats?
NYO: On the flip side, you’ve certainly received a lot of media attention both locally and nationally that’s been very positive and has portrayed positively the work that you’ve done in Braddock. On a personal level, how does it feel to be in the spotlight like that?
JF: It doesn’t mean anything to me. The only thing that matters is my community getting better every year. The answer thus far has been yes, and that’s really all I can ask for. The amount of media has only been—if it’s dignified and useful for Braddock, the exposure, then we do it. If not, I don’t have any interest in that. I’ve been pitched a couple dozen reality shows over the years, and things of that nature, and there’s just no dignity and no upside for Braddock in that. That’s really the only thing that ever mattered.
NYO: You have a fundraiser coming up at Spirit on Saturday, January 30. That’s going to be an evening featuring local bands and artists. How did that come about, and why did you choose to do a local music and art show as part of a campaign fundraiser?
JF: It all just came together. These are my people. These are people that I appreciate everything about them. How great is it that [Spirit] has been repurposed like that? I was just there last week for a Burghers for Bernie debate-watching event, and it’s just wonderful the way that building’s been repurposed and turned into something that continues to drive cultural and civic issues after the [Moose Lodge] itself closed. It’s a great metaphor for Braddock or any of these Mon Valley towns. You know, there can always be a next act for someone or something. The fact that we get to have this amazing campaign event there, and we get to have all these great bands and artists involved, it’s just impossible to overstate, for me, what it means to have their support. And it also affirms to me all the things that I have cared about and embraced during my time here in Braddock.
NYO: Onto your U.S. Senate race and the financial challenges you face being sort of an alternative candidate. You told CNN, “We’re going to be out-fundraised, quite frankly.” Is it possible to close the gap financially with fundraisers like the one coming up, or is this a thing that’s more about building relationships for you?
JF: No—it actually can help close the gap … I’d much rather try to have a fundraiser that [only] raises X number of dollars but have 500 people come out and all of them vote than get a couple checks for $2,700 from some corporate donor that’s only doing it for their own special, vested interests. To me, that’s what’s so amazing about it. It’s money raised honorably; it’s money raised without an expectation of quid pro quo; it’s money raised by the voters themselves. And I think that’s the way it should be.
NYO: Being a voice for working class people—and not a representative of big money—seems pretty central to your agenda. Going up against candidates who are raising a lot more money than you, how do you plan to compete against those candidates?
JF: We’ve already been competing with those candidates … We’re competing and we’re running up against one candidate who’s been campaigning for the last seven years, and the other one ran for governor in 2014. At the end of the day, I’ve been mayor of Braddock for the past seven years, and I’m the only candidate in the race who has a day job. We’re starting from a distinct disadvantage, but I think we’ve closed that gap, and the response and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
NYO: You’ve come out publicly in support of Bernie Sanders and last week even spoke at a debate-watching party that was organized by Burghers for Bernie. Tell me a little bit about your support for Bernie? How would you explain that to an undecided voter?
JF: I would explain it to the undecided voter by saying that in 2008 I supported Barack Obama for president. I think I was the only elected official in Western PA to endorse Barack Obama in 2008, and I did it then because I believed he was the right candidate for the job. And I did it in 2016, because I believe Bernie is the right candidate for the job. I can’t apologize for believing what I believe. Personally, I would rather know where you come from and know what you believe, instead of having someone pander or say what you want to hear … Who I endorse for president is a reflection of his values and [compatibility] with our campaign’s values and caring about issues and really just telling the truth about the way things are. It was an easy endorsement for me, just like in 2008 to endorse the president.
NYO: During your time in Braddock, you’ve been seen as a real salt-of-the-earth, hands-on mayor—someone who gets out into the community. Say that you are elected to Congress; will you miss that kind of hands-on work? Or more importantly, how can you bring some of that leadership style to Congress?
JF: Of course I would miss it, but I’m not going anywhere. I’m not planning to move out of Braddock. I’m planning to live where I live. And in terms of being able to be a champion for Braddock, I will be able to be a much bigger champion for Braddock but also a bigger champion for the Mon Valley, whether it’s McKeesport, or whether it’s Pittsburgh, or Johnstown—any legacy city across Pennsylvania. And that’s ultimately why I’m running. I’ve heard people say you govern the way you campaign, and I campaign in a very down-to-earth—you know, “Hey, here’s my number. Call me. Tweet at me. Hit me up on Facebook.” I’m accessible. And if you want to know what I think, just ask me. My campaign hasn’t been any different than my time in Braddock, and if I’m lucky enough to be voted in by the people of Pennsylvania, I’m not going to be any different as their senator. I’ll just have a bigger platform to advocate for the things I’ve been talking about out on the campaign trail.
NYO: We’ve talked about you not being a traditional candidate for Senate. Some people sort of joke sometimes that maybe the only shirt you have is the short-sleeved black one that you’re often pictured in.
JF: Actually, it’s not a joke. It’s true! That’s the only shirt I have. I’m not even joking. I mean, I have lots of them, but that’s the only kind of shirt that I have.
JF: No, it’s not going to change. It’s who I am and what I believe, and I’m not trying to make a statement other than, “This is who I am.” So, I don’t anticipate that to change, but at the same time, I’m not thinking about what I’m going to wear when I’m senator. You know, I’m not measuring the drapes just yet. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. But this is who I am.
NYO: I feel like every news article I read about you, pretty much your size and your tattoos are mentioned right up front, whether in the headline or the first few sentences.
JF: And my shaved head, yeah.
NYO: Does that ever bother you?
JF: No, it doesn’t. Long ago, I owned my appearance. It’s like—I’m never going to be a matinee idol. I’m never going to be a Calvin Klein underwear model. And it is what it is. If people remember me better because of the way I look or whatever, then that’s great. It doesn’t faze me; it doesn’t bother me. I love when people are like, “Hey, can I get a selfie with you?” It’s great. I’ve got a beautiful family and a job that I love, and I’m balanced. My appearance is my appearance, and I’m OK with that.
NYO: We started the interview out by talking about art and its role, on a very local level, in building community—particularly with artists in Braddock. Let’s widen that scope, now. How does art or how can art help shape the national or even the global conversation and environment?
JF: A certain book can actually transform the way people think. Or a movie. How many times has there been a war picture that has captured everything? Art consistently has changed the discourse on things. So, yeah, it’s such a vital thing that we encourage. You look at the crisis in education, where I think there’s been too much focus on STEM, where it’s, like, a music class can save a child. Or an art class can inspire a child. Creativity is one of those things that is such a valuable trait that we as a society should encourage. Unfortunately, too often it’s one of the first things on the school-budget chopping block, and I think that’s a real shame. Of course, math and science are important, but arts and that kind of creativity—that kind of looking at the world differently—I think are equally as important if not maybe even a little more so.
NYO: Who are some of your favorite Pittsburgh artists?
JF: I love Phat Man Dee. I love Joe Grushecky, Bastard Bearded Irishmen, The Beagle Brothers. There are a lot of great local people. Patrick Jordan is a good friend of mine. I mean, I have my own black box theater in the lower level of my building, my home where I live. I live across the way from Unsmoke art gallery. I love the Mattress Factory. There’s just so many great arts organizations and artists and bands, and I’m just constantly gratified and amazed. Bands gave up their night before Thanksgiving to perform at [the Fetterman-organized event] Friendsgiving over in the Southside. Again, those are the kinds of fundraisers that matter. Those are the kinds of things that make me feel grateful for having their support.
NYO: Looking forward, where do you see Braddock in 10 years?
JF: I don’t know. My goal for Braddock is: Are things better for everybody this year than they were last year? And we’ve been lucky to say that’s been true every year for the last 10 years. So, for the next 10 years, I just want things to continue to get better. I don’t know what that looks like. Just today, literally three hours ago, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of the [Allegheny Health Network] urgent-care center. When the [UPMC] hospital closed, they wrote us off and said, “Hey, best of luck.” No healthcare—and now we have an amazing urgent-care center that has literally saved people’s lives. We have been very blessed in terms of the amount of opportunities and exposure that have come our way. And if I’m lucky enough to win this election, I really believe that Braddock will be in a much, much better place 10 years from now because I’ll be able to champion Braddock and other communities like it that really deserve to continue to have reinvestment.
NYO: What are some of the most important issue that you would like to tackle on a national level?
JF: That’s easy: Living wage of $15, War on Drugs, mass incarceration, immigration, women’s right to choose, marijuana legalization. I mean, there’s just any number of issues that are just so critical. LGBT rights. I performed the first same-sex wedding as an elected official in Pennsylvania. I don’t see these as really liberal or radical positions. To me, they’ve always seemed like common sense. You know, every climate scientist in the world thinks it’s an issue; why don’t we do something about it? Nobody can live off of $9 an hour and take care of their family, so why don’t we pay people a wage so they’re able to take care of their families? Women have to have control over their reproductive rights; why are we still debating this in 2016? … I don’t get these things. Gun control. Why, if you’re on a no-fly list, should you be able to buy an AR-15? There’s a lot of things that are driven by money and politics. Citizen’s United is just, I think, the single greatest threat to democracy—this idea that corporations are people and that money is the equivalent of free speech. It’s destructive and it’s really corroding our democracy.