Q & A: Braddock mayor John Fetterman


Theo Schwarz / Senior Staff Photographer

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman doesn’t think he’s an “anti-establishment” politician. But he does think it’s time for a change.

In his recent bid for the U.S. Senate, many of his supporters backed Senator Bernie Sanders, who gained popularity for pushing the democratic platform farther left. But Fetterman, who’s serving his third term as mayor, is adamant that his policy beliefs — community policing, legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage — are not radical, they’re just “common sense.”

He touted those views in his Senate bid earlier this year, but, like Sanders, fell short. Fetterman came in third in the primary race, losing to Gov. Tom Wolf’s former chief of staff, Katie McGinty.

As the nation heads into one of the most outrageous presidential races in recent history and the “Bernie or Bust” movement packs up their protest signs and starts pushing for third parties, Fetterman is once again focusing on his neighborhood.

Braddock, home of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and public library, sits only 10 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh. The town lost 90 percent of its population after Pittsburgh’s steel mills shut down, but has been in the process of reinventing itself over the past decade, due in large part to community programs spearheaded by Fetterman. Its blighted buildings are becoming art studios, while the young people of Braddock give back by tending to its urban farm.

Now, Fetterman is endorsing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and encouraging voters not to “throw away” their vote just to prove a point. The Pitt News sat down with Fetterman to discuss his experience as mayor and why he finds the presidential race “distressing.”

The Pitt News: What misconceptions do outsiders have of places like Braddock?

John Fetterman: “I think the largest misconception is is that it’s crime-ridden or it’s — you know — ‘dangerous,’ and statistically that’s just not the facts. We’re actually a very safe community and statistically safer than many neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. So I think that’s one of the things — although I think our reputation has changed over the years, but there are still some people that would be hesitant to go to a McKeesport or a Duquesne or a Homestead with the unfair assumption that somehow they’re going to be a victim of crime. But we haven’t suffered from that necessarily — events that we have, The Brew Gentlemen [Beer Co.], other things. We regularly draw a lot of people and there’s never a problem so it’s … unfounded but I would imagine that there are some people who still might have that misconception.”

TPN: How can the misconceptions that people have change?

JF: “They can change by proving them wrong and giving people a reason to come out to the town. Like, for example, the Brew Gentlemen are … young folks not much older than you guys that started a brewery out here, and every month they draw over 1,000 people during their food truck roundup. We’ve never had a problem, never even had so much as a scratched car door or something. So the more events that we have out here, and people can see it’s like ‘Wow, things really aren’t like I may be worried that they were.’ And again, I want to emphasize that’s a minority of people. But if you’re asking me to think what conceivable misconception there could be, I would say that that could be one of them. But the more events that we have, the more things that we do, the more reasons we can create for people to have a reason to come out, are more opportunities to let people know that for anyone that’s concerned, that their concerns are unfounded.”

TPN: What kind of opportunities exist for students to help build up communities like Braddock? What do you think public service should mean to young adults?

JF: “I’m not in the business of suggesting what public service means to young adults — it’s up to them what they think and what they find important. I know when I was an undergraduate, I wasn’t preoccupied with public service. And for some people, they never get bit by that need for public service. Whereas, I was in my early twenties when it happened. So I think the most important thing is, is that if anyone’s interested, I think AmeriCorps is a great way to kind of — cut your teeth on public service. And that’s how I did it and that’s how a lot of young people that are your age are doing it right now here in Braddock, managing our Braddock Youth Project and doing some other things. That’s the best way because it helps young people with their student loan debt, it provides some basic resources to kind of help them live, it allows them to kind of test-drive, if you will, what it’s like to work in a transformational … community like Braddock, and it’s not a long-term commitment.”

TPN: In the past several years, tensions between communities of color and government institutions have been at the forefront of the news. In 2016, what is it like being a white leader in a predominantly black neighborhood? Has your perspective changed over the last decade as Braddock’s mayor?

JF: “It hasn’t changed. It’s not like a race thing, I’m just mayor of the community. So it’s never been — there’s never been a preoccupation with race … I love my community, I want to make it better and I’ve been democratically elected now three times, so it’s not a race issue and never has felt like one. And my perspectives have evolved over the last 11 years, [but] I don’t think that they’ve evolved so much as my commitment has continued to deepen, and now my wife.

You know, when I started, I was single and a bachelor. And now, in 2016, I have a wife and three young children and my wife is doing great things for the community. So I think what’s evolved is my commitment to the community. It’s deepened even more over the last 11 years. I came to town 15 years ago in July, and … the evolution has been, again, a deepening of my commitment to the community.”

TPN: Just curious, what do you think Braddock might look like years from now — in 20 or — ?

JF: “I don’t know. I hope it continues to be a safer, more just, more prosperous place and that’s my goal. And whether I’m still living here — I hope to be still living here — I just want to create more economic development, more businesses, more quality of life, more security, more prosperity. So those are the things that I hope for and as I raise three young children here, I think that those — as long as no one loses their life to senseless violence, that’s to me the big thing. Like I don’t ever want any … whether it’s gun violence or what have you, it just — I just want to create a secure environment where people can live their lives however they define happiness for themselves.”

TPN: Have people taken more of an interest in Braddock since you ran?

JF: “We’ve always had an outside interest in Braddock. And that certainly has continued and that’s welcomed. The thing to me is, there are so many other communities that are so deserving across Pennsylvania, there’s this whole roster of cities that deserve more attention, more resources, more investment. And that’s really what my campaign was about. A lot of young people want to move to cool cities like Portland, [Oregon] or Seattle or San Francisco or Washington D.C., and if you want to work in Congress or for whatever, you know, I understand there’s some reason to say move to D.C. But I’ve always been a big proponent of Pittsburgh because you can own things here. You can participate here. It’s a great city and it has a lot of great amenities, but it also has a good, solid, blue-collar ethos and it’s not pretentious. You can get involved and there are a lot of opportunities. I’ve been a booster of Pittsburgh ever since I moved here 21 years ago to start my time in AmeriCorps.”

TPN: In the past few years and especially with the recent Smart City challenge that [Pittsburgh was] in, there’s been a lot of talk of how Pittsburgh’s been moving from a “steel city” to a “smart city.” Have you noticed those sort of changes in Braddock as well?

JF: “No, I mean, Pittsburgh hasn’t been a steel city for decades now. I live across the street from the only steel mill in the region. So if there was one major brewery in Milwaukee, you wouldn’t still say it’s the Beer Capital. Pittsburgh has long ago shed the reality that it was a steel city. In terms of a smart city, my God, we have the world’s finest software institute at Carnegie Mellon [University]. The University of Pittsburgh completed a $2 billion capital campaign. There’s so many wonderful things happening in academia here in Pittsburgh that I’ve never not considered it a smart city. I don’t think anybody that lives here would ever consider it the Steel City other than the Steelers and so forth. It just isn’t relevant. It hasn’t been relevant to this city’s core identity for 30 [or] 35 years. I wish it still were — [that] there was more manufacturing, there were more of these jobs. But the sad reality is that the region moved on and we’re ‘eds’ and ‘meds,’ so to speak. I do like to point out to people that Braddock has played a very important role in Pittsburgh’s overall revitalization because Google has their largest headquarters here outside of their home office in Pittsburgh, and I think that’s in large part — like Uber, these other companies — because of Carnegie Mellon and their robotics program and their software institute. And it’s like, ‘Where did Carnegie Mellon come from?’ Well, Andrew Carnegie. ‘Well, where did Andrew Carnegie make his money?’ Well, right across the street was his first steel mill.

So I think there’s a straight line that you could draw from across the street from my home to the new Bakery Square developments, in terms of that sacrifice that the working families of the city area paid. Now, I’m not suggesting that we should have our own West Elm or fancy-pants Anthropologie store or whatever, but I do think there should be less disparity between Bakery Square, and say, Braddock, that’s for sure. And I would love to — I would welcome an investment by Walnut Capital that has really taken the lead and built so much up in East Liberty to say, ‘Hey, let’s give something back to the town where it all started for Carnegie.’ But be that as it may, I think there aren’t enough people that acknowledge the sacrifices the working men and women in industry have made to help set the stage for Pittsburgh’s ongoing and evolving renaissance, so to speak.”

Kate Koenig / Senior Staff Photographer
Kate Koenig / Senior Staff Photographer

TPN: Switching topics to the election, you were on Team Bernie, but at the past Clinton rally in the David Lawrence Convention Center, you endorsed Hillary. Can you talk about that and what you think of the “Bernie or Bust” movement?

JF: “When you have a candidate like Donald Trump, I think you don’t have to look to your party or look to the candidate, you have to look to what’s right for your country and what’s right for your family. And Donald Trump is not a Mitt Romney, or Donald Trump is not a Marco Rubio who’s a rational actor whom I would disagree with on policy. But they’re not insane … irrational or … dangerous in that regard. It’s a much different environment now, today with Donald Trump. To the Bernie or Busters, I would empathize with the fact that they’re frustrated, but I would implore them to not throw their vote away in a swing state like Pennsylvania on a third party candidate. If you look at Jill Stein, not only is she supremely unqualified for the role, she’s never held elected office and if you actually drill down on some of her stated beliefs, they’re kind of out there. So … you’re actually supporting Trump by default. I would just beg anybody that’s in that situation to reconsider — because it’s destructive. You’re not teaching anybody a lesson … Donald Trump will not spark the next great liberal revolution. It’s very dangerous to this country, and I’m appalled that he’s actually in contention.

And, you know, the biggest single motivator for me in that sense is that I’m the father of three young children. As a good Democrat, I’m supporting our party’s nominee. As a good progressive, I’m supporting our party’s nominee. And as a father of three young children, there isn’t a choice but to support our nominee. It’s not a choice of the lesser of two evils. If you go to Jill Stein’s own Wikipedia page, she matches up 99 percent with Bernie, but Clinton matches up 91 percent, so you’re going to burn it all down for that eight percent where there’s not perfect alignment? And that’s the thing. I don’t think there [are] any candidate that can out-progressive me, you know, as mayor of a community of color, as mayor of the poorest community in Allegheny County. Marijuana legalization, a woman’s right to choose, immigration, Fight for 15, all of these positions that I took during my own campaign are good, solid, progressive positions. So this idea that you can’t support Hillary Clinton and be a true progressive, I just think is nonsensical.

If you live in New York or you live in Texas, and you want to make a statement, yeah, that’s fine. Vote your conscience if that’s what you must do. But if you’re living in a swing state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, we need all hands on deck … You have a responsibility as an informed, participating member of the electorate to vote against somebody like Donald Trump and to support an otherwise supremely qualified candidate for president. And this certainly isn’t the most important thing, but I think it is an important thing as well —  [Hillary is] the first woman candidate, and that’s very meaningful. It’s nice, it’s good for me to know that my daughter now can say, ‘Hey, I can run someday too.’ It’s not just all old white men. And it’s the same thing that Barack Obama did for African-Americans. [She] can be an avatar for what is capable and what’s possible in today’s America. The fact that anybody would throw their vote away or sit this one out is distressing to me and I would just urge them in the most empathic, humble way to reconsider.”

TPN: You mentioned your Senate race. You did better than many predicted. Were you surprised or do you think people underestimated you?

JF: “No, I always knew we were going to do well. We won Allegheny County and we got 20 percent statewide. We were outspent 15 to 1. We were starved off with resources and we still managed to capture a significant part of the vote. So the race went really well and I certainly have no regrets.”

TPN: Do you think in the coming years there will be a continuation of the sort of leftist, anti-establishment shift brought out by your own campaign and Sen. Sanders’s campaigns?

JF: “Let me take issue with the anti-establishment. I never positioned myself as anti-establishment. In fact, I was the only elected official in my race, I point out. Katie McGinty never held elected office and [Joe] Sestak’s only elected office was a term, I believe, in Congress before he started running. So this idea that I was anti-establishment — I just ran on what I felt were important, common sense issues whether that was a living wage, marijuana legalization, a Black Lives Matter kind of worldview, but also a community policing. All these different issues that I ran on never felt like they were radical or very leftist, they just felt like common sense to me. It’s like, what happens if you don’t embrace Black Lives Matter? Well, you look at what happens in Baltimore, at what happens in Chicago. I mean, that’s common sense. What happens when you pay people minimum wage or $9 an hour? They live in poverty and they have to survive on government benefits. Like, what happens when you criminalize marijuana? You needlessly entangle African-Americans more unfairly biased in the justice system for a substance that’s had zero overdoses in the past 40 years. So to me, these all felt like common sense approaches and I guess I got lumped into the outsider whatever just because of the way I look and dress. But nevertheless, I never at any point felt like it was like ‘Rahh, burn it down.’ It was just more like ‘Hey, we know that this doesn’t work. Let’s take a sensible, sane approach … maybe this could work because we know that it hasn’t worked before, the other way.’”

TPN: So do you think people are more so — like, my generation — are coming around to that sort of idea?

JF: “I hope so. I shook miles of humanity’s hands, whether it was at Temple [University] or whether it was here on college campuses and it was wonderful. It was so great to see so many young people so actively engaged. And I hope so, because if the stars align and I have the opportunity to run again, I certainly will because it was such an energizing [experience]. There needs to be, I think, that voice out there. I’m proud of the race that I won, I’m proud of the fact that I performed the first same-sex ceremony in Pennsylvania before it was even legal. And to me, marriage equality falls into that common sense realm. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to love who you want to love? Why shouldn’t women make the same amount of money that men make for the same job? I mean, none of these ideas should feel radical or should be radical. Or gun control, you know, if you’re on a terrorist watchlist, should you be able to buy an AR-15, you know? Should we take appropriate steps to keep handguns out of [the hands of] those that are mentally unstable or that have a history of domestic violence or are a convicted felon? That doesn’t seem like that should be a radical idea. So to me, I’ve had that label put on me, but I never felt that way because I just felt like I was campaigning for basic, common sense type of policies.”

TPN: Last question: why should people care about Braddock?

JF: “That’s like saying why should we care about black lives, you know? The question is upsetting. We should care about all communities. We should care about every member of society. We should value every member of society, we should value all these communities. And I think my answer would also be augmented by the reason that I just gave. It’s like, the sacrifice of communities like Braddock helped pave the way for the Googles and the Ubers and these other places that set up shop here. I think it’s self-evident why people should care about Braddock. And it’s self-evident why you should still care about McKeesport because a lot of people — thousands of people — still live here and it’s contributed so much to the region as a whole and no one deserves to be left behind. We all deserve to be equally valued.”