John Fetterman’s New Fight

John Fetterman
The new lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania has his work cut out for him. Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

John Fetterman has a lot of practice with out-of-town visitors carrying notebooks, so when I park near his home — a modern-looking building whose third floor Fetterman expanded with a pair of shipping containers — across the street from the vast, grey steel works, just down the hill from the railroad tracks, past the NOTICE: MORE HUGS NEEDED street sign — late on a recent freezing Thursday morning, he’s got an explanation of the place ready.

Yes, this home, where he lives with his wife and three young kids, is a refurbished car dealership, he explains, letting me inside. He gives me a second to take in not only the cavernous space, but Fetterman himself — all bald-but-beanie-wearing, goateed, tattooed, hyper-progressive, super earnest, 6-foot-8-but-lost-a-ton-of-weight-recently of him. Yes, the Edgar Thomson Steel Works just over there is still operating, but with only about a tenth of the roughly 5,000 jobs it once had, he says, pushing up the perpetually rolled-up sleeves on his grey work shirt.

And yes, he’s got plenty of time for me: He just left his job as the mayor of Braddock, this town of about 2,000 outside of Pittsburgh, and he still has a few days before he’s sworn in as one of the most liberal statewide officials anywhere, in the state that formed the cornerstone of Donald Trump’s 2016 win — as Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor.

Which is good, because Fetterman wants to show me around, like he’s being doing for visitors for years. (He does it “for one, and only one, reason,” he says. “It calls attention to these communities, and that’s really it. I always have to marry that to the Number One, cardinal rule of politics, or any industry: You never get high on your own supply. It’s never about you, it’s about the situations on the ground.”)

We head out back, get in his big, black Ford pickup, and drive south, toward the areas that he thinks need his help, which he thinks other politicians — especially other Democrats — have chosen to ignore.

I’ve caught Fetterman just as he’s putting the finishing touches on his plans for the new gig. This 49-year-old giant with two graduate degrees, known for his liberal positions and his embrace of deeply conservative pockets of the state — this convenient avatar of industrial decline and attempted revitalization for over a decade’s worth of news profiles — has been ironing out how, exactly, he’s going to serve in what has conventionally been a notoriously bureaucratic and behind-the-scenes role after failing in his long-shot 2016 U.S. Senate bid. He’ll be working under an eminently un-flashy governor, commuting three hours from home (he refused the official LG residence in Harrisburg), and hoping his work proves enough to make sure Trump can’t win Pennsylvania again — and therefore can’t be re-elected — in 2020.

The ride to nearby McKeesport is about 15 minutes long, but we’re barely in the car before Fetterman says he wants to transform the Lieutenant Governor’s role, making it much more visible and public-facing. He wants to keep popping up in places like Braddock, the largely African-American town where he was mayor for 12 years, and McKeesport, which have both seen enormous population and economic declines with the steel industry’s dwindling here. He’s also going to be in more rural (and whiter, and Republican-stacked) areas, like the ones Trump won easily while running for president. Part of his role will be to hear what locals say they need, like more broadband access, and part of it will be aiming to bring outside attention, investment and development to these places, like he’s tried to do in Braddock, where he’s also drawn notice for inviting artists to help rejuvenate the town.

Fetterman, who grew up in York, Pennsylvania and landed in the Pittsburgh area in 2001 as part of Americorps and a program to help locals get GED’s, won his first mayoral race by one vote, and has long supported raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, and implementing a single-payer healthcare program. He officiated the region’s first same-sex marriage, before it was legal. He also drew headlines across the state for repeatedly taking his progressive message to the heart of Trump Country during his Bernie Sanders-endorsed campaign last year against Democratic incumbent Mike Stack, a Philadelphian. (Governor Tom Wolf had soured on Stack, and Fetterman won a five-way primary.) His first major initiative, announced shortly after I visited, will be to hit all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties on a listening tour to hear residents’ thoughts on marijuana legalization.

“First and foremost, there’s a moral obligation, and a duty, in terms of, ‘Look, this is our platform, this is what we believe, this is what our party’s all about.’ I think that’s the first order. And also, from a strategic standpoint, this idea where the thinking is, ‘Well, County X will never be blue, why are you wasting your time?’ That’s the wrong question. It’s all about margins in a lot of these places, and there’s been a tremendous amount of atrophy.” He often sounds exasperated when talking about national politics, which he nonetheless brings up relentlessly, and points back to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “She never went to those places, and I would say this: I would never vote for a candidate or a party that won’t even come to where I live, to meet with me.”

After rolling through a nearly empty downtown drag, we park in an abandoned lot across from a cluster of homes that appears completely left to ruin, and Fetterman steps out of the car to survey, and show off, the scene. The population of cities like this one have been declining for decades, but some of these two-story houses are freshly boarded up, and others look like they were abandoned overnight. One has collapsed in on itself, and as we walk away from one home after checking out the inside, and look out at another that’s missing a wall, Fetterman pauses to make sure I know he’s never been in that one before, he just chooses them at random when he heads over here with visitors — there are so many examples of derelict homes that he doesn’t need to cherry-pick. Surrounded by this devastation, he offers no easy answers, though he repeatedly returns to the theme of strengthening unions to protect jobs, and mumbles that people here have bigger things to worry about than a wall on the southern border.

It’s going to start snowing soon, but Fetterman is still just in his rolled-up shirt, and he’s trying to make a point about why he’s so intent on ensuring he can still visit communities like this one in his new job.

He’s well aware of all the backlash to the overwrought post-2016 punditry about the importance of forgotten Rust Belt voters who flocked to Trump, but he doesn’t want his party swinging too hard the other way. “There’s a kind of elitism [when] people in a party sneer at going to an Applebee’s or an Olive Garden or fill-in-the-blank. But just understanding what life looks like on the ground matters. They’re not reading Ezra Klein! They’ve got things going on! Politics is important to them in terms of who can impact their daily life, so who can blame them? If there’s only one side showing up, talking to them?”

“I’ve wanted to be at least one voice saying, Can we win as a party with a whole new coalition? Well, why would we want to find out?!,” he says, dismissing the idea that Democrats would be wise to abandon Trump-voting white voters altogether, so they can focus on deepening support among their base in cities and suburbs. “Our party is the party of second chances,” he continues. “And if we can forgive someone who’s committed a crime, why can’t we, quote, forgive someone who voted for Donald Trump? And let me say: That’s not a popular choice in some circles in the party.”

He’s got more to show me, and it’s another 15 minutes down to Clairton. Back to the truck, where he’s still musing about Trump.

Days away from assuming the job that will give him his biggest platform ever, Fetterman says he’s increasingly confident that as long as he and his party keep up their outreach, the president can’t win again.

“At least in Pennsylvania, there’s two keys: organized labor and communities of color. Those are the two things that will make his re-election impossible in Pennsylvania. And one of the things that undercut us in 2016 is union rank and file were like, ‘Hey!’” — here, he mocks perking up, as if in approval of an imagined Trump in front of him — “But I think now, more of them understand the union way of life is completely on the line, and at stake here.”

He continues, thinking back to the reaction he got when he campaigned in a small county with just 700 registered Democrats last year.

“People said, ‘Why would you go there?’ And I said, ‘Because I want them all.’” A factory in the distance caught Fetterman’s eye: A flame coming from one of its towers looked too large, he said, too uncontrolled.

A day before I arrived in Allegheny County, its health department issued an air quality advisory for the region. Sulfur dioxide pollution standards kept being violated following a Christmas-Eve fire at the Clairton Coke Works, and Fetterman now wants to go to the source. Pulling up by a small burger spot beside the sprawling campus, he sighs that it’s not always easy to convince people here to listen to Democrats anymore, because of the perception that the national party would like to shut down places like this and try to retrain the workers for something else. The restaurant has signs supporting the local United Steelworkers union chapter in the window.

“You’re never going to hear me calling for the elimination of the union way of life for 3,000 families. Our party will really, truly have lost its way if we ever get to a place like that. That’s not to say I don’t care about the environment and clean air — of course I do. I have three small children who live across from the mill. But the idea, ‘Ok, go learn coding and get a job at Google’ is not only condescending, but it’s not reflective of the situation on the ground.”

Positions like this have caused some on the left to regard Fetterman with a measure of caution: He came under fire in 2018 for supporting a pair of fracking wells to conserve jobs, even after voicing opposition to fracking previously. He’s also been tagged locally with the accusation that he’s become a credit-seeking celebrity (he’s been a media darling for years, scoring features in the Times magazine, the Atlantic, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, spending time with Stephen Colbert and Anthony Bourdain … ) while Braddock is still struggling, and during his tenure as mayor he often clashed with the town council. But Fetterman, who once thought he would pursue social work, and who’s careful not to cast himself as any kind of savior, tries not to engage these criticisms in public, instead pivoting to the importance of spreading knowledge the region’s struggle and story.

He orders a cheeseburger with extra pickles (when we eat, he’ll leave the bun untouched) and assures me the tension between strict environmental standards and industrial job hubs like the one a few feet away is navigable. He reminds me that Wolf had been in the area just two days earlier to unveil the first Pennsylvania-wide targets for axing greenhouse gas emissions, through an executive order to state agencies. For many, of course, it’s not. That’s why his apparent reversal on fracking was so controversial, especially in the age in which policy proposals like the Green New Deal are ascendant on the left.

Sitting across from me, his forearm tattoos are exposed. On the right, he’s got Braddock’s 15104 ZIP code. On the left are the dates of the deaths due to violence in town during his mayoral tenure. There are nine dates, and crime has been down there in recent years — the last one is from 2015. But there’s a tenth he hasn’t gotten; it happened when he was out campaigning last summer.

A few days later, my phone buzzed to let me know I had a text, and within seconds I had a call, too. Fetterman was on the other line, and before I had a chance to ask what was up, he told me he’d texted me a selfie he’d just taken.

He was at a rest stop halfway between Braddock and Harrisburg, he said, on his way to the inauguration. He’d be sworn in the next day, and a guy in a United Steelworkers t-shirt had recognized him and asked him for a picture.

There wasn’t much more to the story, but there he was, smiling in his beanie and grey shirt with his long arm around a grinning steelworker in Bedford. A few days later, Fetterman would be wearing that same Dickies shirt when he sat for his official government portrait. “This is what it’s all about!” he said.

John Fetterman’s New Fight