Rust Belt mayor barrels into PA Senate race with a big heart for immigration
To evening strollers on South Street last night, John Fetterman could have passed for the bouncer outside Bob and Barbara’s.
Few would peg the 6-foot-8, heavily tattooed man as the political type. But for the last ten years, Fetterman has been the mayor of Braddock, Pa., a small and poor borough of 2,100 people just east of Pittsburgh. On Monday night, Fetterman was in Philly to meet and greet voters for his next political effort — a recently announced bid for the U.S. Senate.
Some critics are already predicting that he’s just the man to shake things up against incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey. After winning the mayor’s race ten years ago by a single vote, the Harvard-educated former Americorps worker brought national media attention to Braddock’s post-industrial plight, and won the overwhelming support of his constituency through his unconventionally hands-on governing approach.
Fetterman, 46, sat with AL DÍA in the Philadelphia dive bar prior to the event to talk about his homicide tattoos, common decency, and an issue that might surprise many as close to his heart — immigration.
In a 2011 appearance on the Colbert Report, you implied you had no interest in running for higher office, saying“I have the greatest job ever and I’m here to stay.” What made you change your mind?
I’m as surprised as anybody to find myself in this position. Everything just kind of came together. Entrenched inequality and the other issues that I care deeply about and that I’ve been working on for the last ten years [in Braddock], this is a chance to try it on a bigger platform.
Braddock is a small municipality with a population of just over 2,000. Do you feel qualified to take on the whole commonwealth now?
Though it’s a small town, the issues that we’ve confronted are the same issues that are going on all across the commonwealth. Same game, bigger stadium. When you’re in a small town like [Braddock], you don’t have layers of bureaucracy, you don’t have staff. You have to face the issues head-on, and in some cases entirely on your own. I think that makes me uniquely qualified in the slate of candidates that have addressed these issues — whether it’s in education, healthcare, or public safety.
A CNN reporter casually suggested that your senatorial bid is just “[capitalizing] on the wave of supporters for outsider candidates this cycle” such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. What would you say to that? Is there any appetite for “unconventional” candidates?
I missed that one. But no, it’s not bandwagon. I’ve been working on these issues for the last 20 years. People want authentic candidates. They’ve always wanted that.
You have an interesting personal connection to the issue of immigration. Could you tell us more about it?
My wife is Brazilian. Her mother brought her here when she was nine. She was fleeing a dangerous and unstable situation in Brazil, and she lived many years as an undocumented person. She cleaned houses. She worked her ass off for 10 to 12 hours a day. She paid her taxes and never got any government assistance.
We have half of the political process essentially saying these terrible things about immigrants. But we have the real immigrant story in our family. It is, I think, the more accurate reality of immigration today.
So what could you do as a senator to move beyond the current narrative and actually talk about real immigration reform in this country?
For one thing, you can have an important voice in the overall national conversation. I don’t think there is enough people on the reasonable side that want to work on immigration, and stand up for people who only want a better situation for their families and themselves.
What can you do? You can work with the president, who right now is attempting to institute reform. And you can help change the conversation and the tone.
People have confused rhetoric and politics with governance. There needs to be a solution. These people are not going away. It’s cost prohibitive. And we’re better than that as a country to have some kind of mass roundup [for deportation]. That’s not practical. So why not have a sensible conversation where we can enact compassionate, humane immigration reform? I want to be a voice for that in the Democratic party.
And what about turning the hearts of those who are cold towards immigration?
You have this really hardline rhetoric, and you can’t reach everybody. But I think my family’s story can reach a critical mass to say that, look, this is who you’re hurting. These are the people who come to your country looking for a better life. It’s an important conversation and one that I’m proud to have.
If we in this country aren’t ready for it, or they’re not ready for me in Pennsylvania because of that issue, than I’d rather have them not vote for me. This is something that I believe in, and I couldn’t go against that just to get a check or a vote.
Do you think Pennsylvania could be a radical or progressive reformer for certain nationally pressing issues like immigration?
No one’s saying radical. This is common sense reform, whether it’s with immigration or climate change or drug policy. I worked with the Environmental Defense Fund to enact carbon cap legislation. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary. I don’t think same-sex marriage is revolutionary. I think that’s common sense, and it’s just basic decency. I think humane immigration is basic decency. Combatting climate through tradable permits, which is a conservative concept that worked so well with lead and sulfur with acid rain, this isn't revolutionary. This is a common sense approach.
Do you see yourself as someone who could work well even with a Republican-controlled legislate?
I would hope so, because that's democracy in this country. The only time it breaks down is when you start to lose it, break down, and start talking in these really nasty terms like anchor babies. Look at the refugee crisis in Europe. That wrenching picture of that little boy that drowned. I have a son that same age. And I’m like, if that doesn’t move you then I don’t want your vote.
There’s a village in Lebanon that has welcomed more Syrian refugees than the entire United States. How do you feel about what we’ve done as a nation to help this crisis?
We have to do more. You think of the resources, the dollars, the so-called “blood and treasure” that this country has marshaled to effectively blown up and attack various governments and regimes in the Middle East...Why not dedicate a tiny fraction of that and be a beacon of decency? Why not take a leadership position on this and help these folks resettle?
Let’s talk about the homicide tattoos. On your right arm, you have nine dates tattooed — each one representing the date of a homicide that happened in Braddock since you’ve been mayor. Does these act as a physical reminder for you to do your job better?
At one point in time, we went almost five-and-a-half years without [a homicide] in town. The last one [the date says May, 2016] was domestic. A woman stabbed her boyfriend. They had been up drinking most of the night, and it just...ended that way. Each one of these is a terrible story that had a horrible ending. In a lot of cases, that person needs to be remembered. For me, I’ve been at every one of these scenes. I’ve seen it up close, horrible things. It stays with me psychologically and it stays with me physically.
When you see this up close and personal, it takes on a whole new meaning. It’s not sitting at home watching The First 48, or reading a report that you get on your desk as mayor of a big city. This is a level of intimacy that bigger city mayors either can’t have or...just aren’t that hands on.