Lieutenant Governor-elect John Fetterman walks the Westmoreland Heritage Trail in Trafford with his sons Karl, 9, right, Aug 4 on Tuesday 8 January 2019.. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)
Lieutenant Governor-elect John Fetterman consummates a marriage between Brittni Biddle and Dominic Shuck of White Oak at the home of Mr. Fetterman in Braddock on Friday, December 21, 2018. (Alexandra Wimley/Post Gazette)
John Fetterman, the tall, tattooed former mayor of Braddock, abandoned his comfortable beginnings and traditional clerical career to champion social equality.
Before sunrise in December, an unusually tall man, dressed in gym shorts despite the 30-degree temperature, walks a few miles along the Great Allegheny Passage Trail, close to the waterfront.
Most of those days he was alone in the dark, immersed in turn-of-the-20th century grunge or heavy metal rock playing in his headphones, the same music he loved as a young man, ready to take it out into the world to create world. , an insurance agency or other. business environment.
But this morning, a month before he was sworn in as lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, 49, reflected on one of the rarest trips taken by a Pennsylvania citizen elected to state office. Fetterman, who was Braddock's mayor for 13 years, is on the cusp of transitioning from leading a city struggling to revitalize itself from just 2,000 residents to serving 12.8 million citizens.
The daily pre-dawn walk, part of a healthier lifestyle that has shed about 300 pounds from Fetterman's still imposing 6-foot height over the past 14 months, served as one of a series of interviews in which most of the the formative events of his life have been recorded.
These include the death of a best friend in their 20s; Caring for an orphaned and disadvantaged young person until adulthood; social work with young people in underprivileged communities that I had never visited; win your first election by one vote; attracting a lot of media attention to a small-town official; and marry a Brazilian immigrant who found out about Mr. Fetterman 2000 miles away after reading an article in an obscure magazine.
Lieutenant Governor-elect John Fetterman speaks to Charles Prodanovich of Trafford, who recognized him while walking the Westmoreland Heritage Trail in Trafford on Tuesday 8 January 2019. (Alexandra Wimley/Post Gazette)
Put them together, and Mr. Fetterman shrugs as he acknowledges that his rise to Pennsylvania's second elected office still lacks a simple explanation. And if fate had altered any of the above — for example, another young couple on the Big Brothers Big Sisters show, a Braddock voter who didn't make it to the 2005 election — another post that caught his wife-to-be's attention awoke. - He doubts he's getting ready to be sworn in as Deputy Governor Tom Wolf at the State Capitol on Tuesday.
"I'm as surprised as anyone at how it worked out," said the man believed to be America's highest-ranking, shaven-headed public servant, whether a left-wing Democrat like himself, a traditional Republican like his parents, or something like. 🇧🇷 Most.
Fetterman's unconventional appearance, which includes symbolic arm tattoos and casual clothing like some elected officials, has been widely covered in national newspapers and magazines. But what is readily visible is just a rare side to a man who declares he is happy to spend the next four years supporting Wolf's agenda, which largely mirrors his own but which he has distinct hopes will have an impact. bigger than that.
a comfortable start
In the first half of his life, Fetterman had little contact with poor people, minorities, immigrants or liberal crusaders, as he has become today.
Springettsbury, the York suburb where he grew up, has an average household income almost two and a half times that of Braddock. The community poverty rate in central Pennsylvania is four times lower, and African Americans make up one in 10 residents, rather than Braddock's two in three. It's in an area dominated by conservative Republicans, although Fetterman's childhood home is just a few miles from where Wolf lived for many years.
Mr. Fetterman describes a happy middle-class childhood, sheltered from all difficulties. The family was led by a hard-working father who became a partner in a York insurance company. Financial success has allowed Karl Fetterman to support the oldest of his four children in a variety of ways, which is notable as the new Lieutenant Governor has not had a traditional job or salary in over a decade. (Braddock's mayoral office, which Fetterman resigned from Dec. 21, pays $150 a month.) Karl Fetterman has supported his son's living expenses for years and generously supports his national campaigns and charitable organizations in Braddock.
John Fetterman in York, Pennsylvania, 1989. (Photo courtesy of John Fetterman)
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mr. Fetterman was his 7-inch growth spurt as a sophomore in high school. This led to him becoming a defensive and offensive forward on football teams at York Central High School and Albright College, Reading.
Otherwise, he was on a similar business path to his father, only perhaps destined for greater success were it not for two life-changing events. In the first, when Fetterman was about to complete an MBA from the University of Connecticut in 1993, his 27-year-old best friend died in a car accident while he was picking him up to work out at the gym. 🇧🇷
"It was hard to get out of there because it was so sudden and random," said Fetterman. "With this notion that at that age you can wake up in the morning, have breakfast and say goodbye to your family, not knowing that you have 15 minutes before you are kicked out of this world."
Pondering his purpose in life at the time led him to volunteer with New Haven's Big Brothers Big Sisters program. He was dating Nicky Santana, an 8-year-old boy from a low-income Puerto Rican family whose father died of AIDS and whose mother was terminally ill. She begged Mr. Fetterman to look after his son's education.
It is common for Big Brothers Big Sisters relationships to be short-term, especially when one partner moves away, as Mr. Fetterman did after a year together. However, Mr. Santana credits his older brother with advocacy and longtime support that got him through boarding school in New Hampshire and Washington & Jefferson College. Mr. Fetterman gave them hope and personal financial support from the moment they met, walking through the boy's poor neighborhood to buy candy.
"I get goosebumps just talking about what he's done for me," said Santana, who is now 33 and works at a New Haven nonprofit that helps people with disabilities. "He had no connection with me. I kept a promise to my mother, but he had no reason to. He just invested in my future and helped me become a better person because we had this mission together."
The effort Fetterman put into this relationship arguably foreshadowed his involvement in Braddock and politics, causes with a future that initially may have seemed as bleak as Nicky Santana's.
do social work
When Mr. Fetterman took care of his little brother for the first time, he had a great job for his age while wearing a suit every day in the New Haven office of Chubb, one of the world's leading insurance companies. Hundreds of other candidates, he says, have applied for his position in risk management. In 1995, he left the company to become a social worker based on his experiences with Nicky.
"It opened up a whole realm of inequality that I never quite understood existed and how it was pervasive," he said. "I couldn't stop worrying about the random lottery of births. I thought about my own childhood and how I got the MBA and security and freedom and flexibility and how this poor boy lost his parents before he was nine years old.
Mr. Fetterman gave up everything he had prepared for and accepted an AmeriCorps service job at the Hill House Association in Pittsburgh. GED preparation for disadvantaged young parents who are high school dropouts. Prior to that, he had no connection to his new city. His family was quite shocked.
"I had what I thought was a dream job, dealing with things I'll never see: big national accounts," recalled Karl Fetterman. "He said he was doing community work in Pittsburgh. I shut up. I was baffled, but I also loved that he gave up that job and a lot of money to do something for people."
AmeriCorps is a federally sponsored short-term program for participants, but provides subsequent financial support for graduate school. After two years in the Hill District, Mr. Fetterman spent the next two years earning a master's in public policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and then indulged in the young man's unstable cliché of "find yourselfsomething like that,” says Fetterman, now embarrassed.
John Fetterman, right, addresses supporters at his election observation party as his wife Gisele hugs their longtime friend Jovan Villars, 36, of Swissvale, Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Barebones Black Box Theater in Braddock. (Stephanie Strasbourg/Post-Gazette)
All of which led to him finding a job similar to The Hill in 2001, only this time in Braddock. He led the launch of the Allegheny County-sponsored Braddock Out-of-School Youth Program, which prepared high school dropouts for GED tests, job searches, and additional life skills.
One of the first participants, Jovan Villars, remembers that in a small classroom in Braddock's Ohringer building, Mr. Fetterman provided a 'safe haven' for young adults escaping trouble at home or on the street.
By this time, Fetterman's hair loss had led the once-bearded man to routinely shave his head. Combined with his size, he openly admits this can lead some people to see him as an intimidating and even frightening "skinhead biker".
He didn't want to convince his young charges in Braddock with that look. Instead, says Villars, Fetterman got to know the participants at their level, helped set up interviews, communicated their struggles and offered hands-on help. His demeanor is typically down-to-earth and understated, with a dry sense of humor, in contrast to the sociable stereotype of the big man.
Fetterman also typically wore jeans or cargo shorts, dark sneakers, and Dickies work shirts, an outfit not unlike that of contestants on the show. He has appeared in the same guise ever since, including during his national election campaigns.
"He was just relatable, one of the nicest, most humble guys I've ever met," said Villars. While Fetterman's race and background were different from most competitors, “it wasn't like he was a fish out of water. He was very fluid and able to navigate because he already had a model of what he had done with Big Brothers Big Sisters and AmeriCorps and Hill House.
Mr. Fetterman held this position for six years. By this time, he had found another calling in Braddock.
no longer apolitical
Aside from serving what he considers an immemorial term as Albright's class president, Fetterman's disinterest in elections was such that he doesn't remember voting until he was 30. But in 2005, after working in Braddock for four years and living there for two, Fetterman ran for mayor.
He didn't expect to win, he says, but simply wanted to draw more attention to the violence affecting youth in the community. In a three-way Democratic primary, he won by one vote. And this was also a provisional ballot paper that could only be registered the day after the election, as the right to vote had to be confirmed.
"It's a story I still tell to this day on the campaign trail to anyone who says, 'My vote doesn't count' or 'Why should I vote?'" says Fetterman. "I think a lot about that day and what would have happened if just one person had said it didn't matter."
In strongly Democratic Braddock, a primary victory is equivalent to an election, and Fetterman was re-elected by comfortable margins to three straight terms. However, serving as district mayor is not like being mayor of Pittsburgh: a city manager oversees city affairs and the district council prepares the budget.
The mayor is primarily responsible for overseeing the police department, but the chief of police directs it on a day-to-day basis. Mr. Fetterman worked with Braddock bosses on community policing initiatives to improve relations with predominantly African American citizens, but his tenure drew more attention to attempts to rescue the community from post-industrial despair. While there isn't much a city mayor can do alone, Mr. Fetterman has built helpful partnerships with foundations, corporations and other agencies outside of Braddock.
Collaborations brought additions such as acclaimed restaurants and bars; new housing; an urgent care center to replace the UPMC Braddock, which closed in 2010 despite protests from Fetterman and others; urban farms run by teenagers; and a community center created out of a ramshackle church renovated by Fetterman's nonprofit, Braddock Redux.
His efforts have been recognized in profiles in The New York Times, Rolling Stone and other national publications. The Guardian called him "America's coolest mayor". He guest-starred twice on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, and studio audiences laughed in 2009 when he explained that the mere addition of a Subway sandwich shop (it didn't work) would have been a huge improvement over Braddock at the time. 🇧🇷 Levi's took notice and made the town's bleak appearance the focus of a national advertising campaign, in which Fetterman agreed to donate more than $1 million to the community center project.
Along the way, some local snipers noticed that Mr. Fetterman was getting a lot of personal credit for Braddock's transition as there was still work to be done. Some black critics suggested that the effort focused more on white newcomers or visitors than on longtime residents.
Mr. Fetterman makes no apologies, emphasizing that his efforts have never created the kind of gentrification that alienates people. In his limited capacity as mayor, he said, he was simply looking for innovative ways to rebuild a community that had lost 90% of its population and most of its commerce and reputation over decades.
“What matters most is the pulpit of intimidation and the ability to direct attention and resources to the people, places and projects needed,” he said.
But after resigning Dec. 21, he said his greatest satisfaction came not from reform efforts but from the years Braddock was murder-free. At the same time, he was more concerned about the 10 murders that had occurred in his 13 years.
The first nine are indelibly marked by dates tattooed on his right arm (his left forearm bears the postal code 15104 Braddock). The first date is 1/16/06, which was Martin Luther King Jr. that year. Fetterman, who has been in the job for two weeks, led dozens of volunteers on a holiday cleanup project at the future community center. That night, he was called to the police scene where a pizza delivery boy had been mugged and shot in the head. The devastated new mayor got the tattoo days later.
John Fetterman's tattoos show dates of murders in Braddock when he was mayor.
"I thought, 'This is a day I'm going to remember for the rest of my life, something I'm going to take with me,' and this man's life mattered and will be quickly forgotten by the news and public headlines, and maybe people are thinking about that. Braddock, what did you expect, but I just wanted to get the date and put it in there.
And it did the same in a Lawrenceville tattoo parlor with the most murders, except the last one in June, when it was consumed by the campaign.
An unusual love story
If he wanted a more positive date in ink, Mr. Fetterman would add 9-6-08 to note when he became a husband and knew he was going to be a father.
It's been 10 months since ex Gisele Almeida picked up a magazine called ReadyMade while killing time in the lobby of a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. On page 68, he read a story, "Captain of Industry: One Man's Mission to Save Braddock," which showed a tall, balding man in shorts leaning against a Lincoln Town Car in front of a dilapidated building. She tore up the article.
Future Gisele Fetterman, now 36, was struck by how similar Braddock's efforts were to her own efforts in Newark, New Jersey. This was not her original home. She was from Rio de Janeiro, whose mother fled the violence there and ended up in New York with 7-year-old Gisele and a son as undocumented aliens.
Eventually, the family would receive legal immigration status. Mrs. Fetterman, now a US citizen, became a nutritionist and focused on hunger relief projects. Intrigued by Braddock's article, she wrote to Mr. Fetterman, expressing an interest in visiting the community to see how the work was being done.
He called with an invitation. He spent 24 hours in Braddock in October 2007. They recognized each other as kindred spirits. He visited her in New Jersey. you fell in love He moved to Braddock the following May. They eloped to Burlington, Vermont in August. She took a pregnancy test on her wedding night. it was positive
"It was like a big red day being married and then finding out you're going to be a dad, all within five hours," says Mr. Fetterman, still in awe of that and the rest of the story. — her family's immigration saga, the random magazine article, her handwritten letter, her 355-mile trip to a gross-picture town where she didn't know anyone.
When she asked someone at a gas station a few miles away how she was going to get to Braddock on that first trip, Fetterman recalled, "He said, 'Why do you want to go?leaves' I thought, what am I getting myself into? But adventure is in my blood."
At the end of the day she met Mr. Fetterman, she curled up on a sofa at his house instead of using the hotel room she had booked miles away. She was among dozens of people invited by the mayor to a reception that night, following a performance by the Quantum Theater at the nearby Braddock Carnegie Library. She felt comfortable spending the night "platonic" after a late night conversation.
"I just remember thinking he was a really nice person," he said of his first impression. "I just think there's an uncompromising authenticity to it."
The couple live in a loft in a former Chevrolet dealership with large windows overlooking the Edgar Thomson Steel Works and now have three children, ages 9 and 4. And Mrs. Fetterman has become a force in her own right and is a co-founder of 412 Food Rescue. , which distributes usable food to hungry families that would otherwise be thrown away, and the establishment of the Braddock Free Store, which provides a variety of surplus and donated goods to those in need.
Tried to strengthen its role
Fetterman's first campaign for public office, the first sign that he had ambitions beyond Braddock, came in 2016, when he ran for Republican Pat Toomey in the US Senate. He finished third in the four-way Democratic primary and received 20% of the vote.
Although he received less than half the votes of party candidate Katie McGinty, who would lose to Toomey, Fetterman was encouraged by his demise due to his relative lack of funding and notoriety.
That set up last year's run for lieutenant governor, in which he sailed to the nomination ahead of four other Democrats, including incumbent Mike Stack, whom Wolf fought early in his first term. As with the unsuccessful Senate election, Fetterman benefited from being the only candidate from western Pennsylvania. He also campaigned vigorously in rural counties across the state, he emphasized, and believes many voters were drawn to his Braddock story and progressive platform, particularly in response to Donald Trump's 2016 victory in Pennsylvania and the far right.
Fetterman has long supported legalized marijuana use and a $15 minimum wage, stricter gun control measures (although he owns guns) and other policies that skew more among leftist parties than centrist ones. years ago. He was the first in western Pennsylvania to perform same-sex marriages. His new chief of staff will be Bobby Maggio, a 26-year-old gay man who ran Fetterman's last campaign.
"The Democratic Party has changed and evolved on the issues that have always concerned me," said Fetterman. “Everyone is progressive now. ... There is a growing wave and momentum to recognize the gravity of inequality in our country.
This last point, stemming from his relationship with Nicky Santana, is what most motivates him to fight for a higher position. Fetterman resents the idea that the lieutenant governor is a low-value, low-impact post, even though he is legally obligated only to chair the Senate, the Parole Committee and the Pennsylvania Board of Emergency Management.
He intends for the Board of Pardons to reduce Pennsylvania's prison population by releasing more inmates who warrant a chance in the community. Overall, he hopes that his positive relationship and shared views with Mr. Wolf bring him more responsibility than is typical of the office. At the end of four years, Fetterman hopes to have a track record that puts him in a good position to run again for Toomey's Senate seat, if he so chooses.
JJ Balaban, a Philadelphia-based campaign adviser who is used to working for Democrats, including many in Pennsylvania but not Fetterman, said the new lieutenant governor could face an interesting test, since no one in that position has been a senator or governor-elect in Pennsylvania since the 1960s
"Even for someone as distinguished as John Fetterman, you might find that the office isn't as good a home base as you might think," Balaban said. “The challenge with being Lieutenant Governor is that you basically have minimal power and authority. ... Your power comes mainly from what the governor allows you to do. That said, it's clearly a bigger foundation to be mayor of Braddock."
In addition to a larger base, there is a larger salary. Fetterman will earn $166,300 annually as the nation's highest paid lieutenant governor. His father's allowances, which brought the Fettermans a middle-class life, are no longer needed.
However, Fetterman will not be moving his family into the state-provided mansion that Stack has occupied in suburban Harrisburg. He calls Braddock his permanent home and commutes a few days a week in his black pickup truck to his brother Gregg's residence in the state capital.
And, just as he did with Chubb half a lifetime ago, Mr. Fetterman plans to wear a suit while performing his state duties. Just don't expect him to get rid of his bradock tattoos.
Gary Rotstein:email@example.com 412-263-1255.
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