Fetterman speaks about Senate campaign at CMU

The most surprising thing about John Fetterman is not the fact that he’s a 6’8” tattooed, Dickie-wearing politician who campaigns in local pubs; it’s his candid, laid-back, yet focused attitude.

John Fetterman, the Mayor of Braddock, PA and now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, spoke about his experiences in public service to an eager crowd this past November 4. Heinz College’s Politics & Public Policy Club hosted the event in Hamburg Hall.

Fetterman led a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle while growing up in York, PA. “I’m 46 years old. The first half of my life, I basically sleepwalked through it,” Fetterman said. The mayor had no real interest in politics or public affairs until he was a young adult.

When he was 23 years old, Fetterman’s best friend at the time died on the way to pick him up to go to the gym. For the first time, Fetterman encountered loss and life’s inevitable unfairness. “I barely graduated,” said Fetterman. “I kept it together, but I really started looking around for something that had more meaning than what business school had at that point.”

Fetterman joined Big Brothers and Big Sisters, where he was paired with an 8 year-old boy whose father and mother lost their lives to AIDS. Again, Fetterman saw suffering and inequality on levels he had never been exposed to before.

“I had never been confronted with this idea that right in front of me that this existed in this country, that there were AIDS orphans in this country. Let alone living 6 blocks from one of the most elite universities, which was Yale,” he told the audience. “So I decided I couldn’t continue doing what I was doing...I was struggling with this idea that how can I best spend my career confronting this inequality? I didn’t know what that looked like. I didn’t know where I was going to go. I was just a guy that had his worldview kind of shattered and I was trying to figure out where it should go.”

Fetterman moved to Pittsburgh as a member of the newly-formed AmeriCorps program. He worked at the Hill Home in the Hill District, where he organized GED classes and created the community’s first computer labs. Fetterman then attended Harvard’s Kennedy School, where he earned a graduate degree in public policy.

In 2001, he moved to Braddock, PA to teach GED classes. Braddock, Pennsylvania is a small town to the east of Pittsburgh. Braddock was once at the height of Pittsburgh’s prosperity, having been home to some of the city’s largest steel mills. With the collapse of the steel industry, more than 90% of its residents fled the community. Since then, Braddock has struggled with access to economic opportunities, socio-political inequality, and failing infrastructure.

“It was everything I hoped it would be,” Fetterman said about moving to Braddock.”It was very gratifying, it was satisfying. I helped young people get their GEDs, and it was going along pretty swimmingly. And then two of my students got gunned down. And I reached that fork in the road where it was like, I need to do something about this.” After four years of volunteering, Fetterman ran for mayor of Braddock in 2005.

Fetterman’s GED students helped him garner support in the largely African-American community of Braddock. “Much to my surprise, they rallied around me,” he said. With his students, Fetterman went door-to-door to speak to Braddock’s citizens. In the end, Fetterman won by one provisional ballot.

During the ten years since Fetterman took office, Braddock has slowly rebuilt itself with community-based development. With Fetterman’s guidance, this new era of reinvention has seen Braddock establish a new community center, support its local Carnegie library, create the urban gardens of Braddock Farms, and open an art gallery. Carnegie Mellon alumni started their Brew Gentlemen Beer Company in Braddock, and one of Pittsburgh’s most buzzed-about chefs Kevin Sousa will soon be opening his new restaurant General Motors in Braddock.

When asked if Braddock is experiencing gentrification, Fetterman described Braddock’s openness to all types of development. “From that point on, we always embraced this idea of balance,” he said. “We couldn’t open up an art gallery unless we opened up basketball courts. We couldn’t bring in a higher-end restaurant without opening up a community center.”

The mayor credits his commitment to involving community members with the development as a means to achieving this balance. Braddock resident Diana Bulawsky expressed her support for Fetterman: “John wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s very committed. As a Braddock resident for 62 years, I couldn’t have asked for or picked a better mayor. John is awesome. He’s my rock.”

Another integral part of Braddock’s revival was the complete overhaul of its police force. Fetterman and Braddock’s Police Chief instituted a complete overhaul of the law enforcement: they fired officers, established new training methods, and installed cameras throughout the community. “When it comes to bad cops, everyone knows who they are,” Fetterman said. “You have to get creative with the ways you get rid of them...We have an amazing police chief who sees things the same way. Black lives matter, but it’s always been that way for us. Ten years ago that’s what it was about.” For five straight years, no murders occurred in Braddock.

Now, Mayor Fetterman is campaigning for the U.S. Senate. His primary issues are inequality, climate change, immigration, and the legalization of marijuana. He explained, “The core of my campaign is confronting inequality, and taking a stand against that; whether that’s in education, whether that’s in income, whether that’s in wealth, even in the quality of the air we breathe…I’m the 1%. But it’s the bottom 1%. This campaign is strictly built on the working poor and the middle class, the segments of society that really have been left behind, and really have been screwed over by the way the economy is rigged in this country.” Fetterman is a tireless advocate for a $15 minimum wage, which he thinks can help directly combat economic inequality.

Fetterman believes the majority of crime in his community is fueled by drugs. The mayor referenced one young marijuana dealer who was shot for carrying drugs, and says that crime in general could be reduced if marijuana were to be legalized. “Our state is sending people to jail for five, ten, fifteen years for selling a product that you could go to Colorado and load up your trunk with. That is insane,” he told the audience. “We’ve got budget problems, and we’re paying $35 grant to lock up a guy who’s selling marijuana. Meanwhile, we’re not taxing something that would bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, and reduce crime.”

Fetterman went on to explain his pro-immigration stance, which has largely been influenced by the experiences of his Brazilian-American wife, who was once an illegal immigrant herself.

When asked about student loan debt and the rising cost of college tuition, Fetterman stated that his long-term goal is to help make public colleges and universities completely free.

Many audience members expressed concern over Braddock’s future if Fetterman is to be elected Senator. Yet the mayor suggested he’d be able to help the community even more if he were to become senator, saying, “I’m going to live in Braddock for the rest of my life. I’m not going anywhere. As a mayor, I could stand out there with a bullhorn and say “Fix these bridges” and it’ll be like “Oh isn’t that nice, John’s lost his mind.” But if I’m a United States Senator and I call a press conference and I say “We’ve gotta fix these bridges,” - that’s the reason that I’m running.”

Throughout his talk, Fetterman urged the young audience to consider dedicating their life to public service. “What’s gonna save McKeesport, Pennsylvania?,” he challenged them. “What’s gonna happen to this whole class of cities that isn’t attracting young, ambitious and accomplished people? And it’s only going to increase the level of disparity in this country...You really should be of service if you can.”

Members of the audience weighed in on Fetterman’s speech. Senior double major in creative & professional writing and ethics Emmett Eldred admired Fetterman’s hands-on approach: “I don't think Fetterman is the most experienced candidate in the race, especially when it comes to national security and foreign policy. However, I also think he is the most experienced candidate at representing constituents, having served elected office for ten years. He is also the only candidate that I think truly understands inequality not as an abstract concept but as a concrete fact of life that devastates millions of people. I want a candidate who understands the problems that the lower and middle class experience, and I think he understands those problems better than any other candidate, because that is his day-to-day context.”