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PA-Sen: Fetterman Makes the Personal Pitch

Fetterman PhotoThe Keystone Progress debate had just ended but John Fetterman was still eager to talk.

There hadn’t been a lot of actual debate up on the stage and I was searching for what truly distinguishes the three candidates. The Braddock Mayor was happy to comply.

As the ballroom emptied we sat at one of the round dining tables and talked for a half-hour about the debate, the race and the job.

It’s beyond cliche at this point to talk about Fetterman’s size but it’s impossible to ignore. For instance, just resting his arms on the table was enough to noticeably bend it. Perhaps intentionally, he is rather soft-spoken and seeks to draw people in rather than intimidate them.

In fact, several times during the course of our conversation people came up to shake his hand and tell him he’d done a good job.   

Campaign Fundraising

We started on the topic of fundraising, as I’ve always been interested in just how much time candidates, even self-proclaimed outsiders, have to devote to it.

“It’s just not dignified for candidates to do that, we’re not telemarketers,” Fetterman stated.

“If your average citizen could spend an afternoon doing call time, we would have a mass movement towards reforming,” he predicted. “The influence of money is toxic in American politics. Fundraising, between call time and everything else, is a significant expenditure of time and resources. I’m not a transactional person by nature.”

He said he has never felt pressured by anyone to support an issue in order to get a check but did reveal that he personally calls every donor to this campaign.

“It’s about showing gratitude for the money that you’ve parted with, I’ve never felt entitled to your money.”

Switching Offices

Being a small-town Mayor and U.S. Senator are two very different jobs. The former involves the hands-on attention Fetterman seems to relish while the latter requires a detached, bird’s-eye of politics and policy that doesn’t really jive with the candidate’s personality.

So I put the question to him point blank, why the Senate and why now?

“Because I’ve kind of bumped up against the limits of what I can accomplish as a small-time Mayor.”

He brought up the fact that there are three condemned bridges in his town and the difficulty he’s had bringing attention to that reality. As a Senator, the thinking goes, he would be in a better position to make those changes happen.

It was also at this point that Fetterman took his first subtle swipe at his opponents.

“I just feel like we need a candidate that doesn’t talk about people who you’ve met on a choreographed tour but people that you’ve actually met, lives that you changed. Not I will, but I have.”

Supreme Court

With the recent vacancy on the Supreme Court, I asked the Mayor who his favorite Supreme Court Justice was, not counting those currently there.

“Thurgood Marshall is always my hero. Do I have to explain Thurgood Marshall? He’s like Elvis.”

“The Court has lost its special place in society as an arbiter,” he continued. “That should be the one place we count on people to think of the country first.”

He once again sharply criticized the Citizens United decision.

“I don’t know how in this country we ever could’ve decided that money equals free speech.”


In the debate, all three candidates came out against the President’s Trans-Pacific Partnership. So I asked about TPP, NAFTA and why trade divides the Democratic Party?

“It’s one of the few areas where I’ve actually have ever disagreed with Barack Obama,” he responded. “I know he has his reasons but I can’t even speculate on what they are.”

I then transitioned to the argument that trade is a part of foreign policy and that the TPP is part of the Obama Administration’s “Asia Pivot” to gain allies and isolate China in the Pacific.

How should foreign policy implications be weighed against the impact on local communities?

“It’s all bait and switch, it’s all bait and switch,” he countered. “OK, all you need to do is buy this line and then it’s gonna be OK and you’ll see it’s gonna be fair trade. And it never happens, I guess theoretically that’s possible, but at the end of the day there isn’t one single instance where that’s true.

“So how do you get one that is true?” I interject.

“Until we actually hold China accountable and stop letting them run roughshod over our country it isn’t gonna change,” Fetterman answers.

At this point, he took out his iPhone to make a point.

“Why can’t we make iPhones in our country? Apple is sitting on hundreds of billions in profits, you’re telling me we couldn’t afford to pay American workers to make these products?”

“Until we get to that point, it’s all smoke and mirrors,” he went on. “Just another example of free trade that screws over the middle class. I’m not saying that as a Democrat or as a candidate, I’m saying that as someone who’s witnessed that in my community.”

I went at the question another way, asking how he would convince a Senator like Chuck Schumer to adopt his view.

“I would say, Chuck Schumer, why can’t these [iPhones] be made in America? Explain to me like I’m six years old, why this has to be made in China? I haven’t heard a good reason yet other than it cuts into Apple’s profits.”

Foreign Policy

When the topic turned to foreign policy, Fetterman grabbed an envelope he had brought on stage with him and pulled out a diagram on Syria.

Syria Fetterman“You’re telling me that anyone on the stage or anyone can navigate that?” he asked incredulously. “What we’ve done for the last fifteen years hasn’t worked and it’s created these kinds of issues right here.”

He cited the Iraq War as one of the reasons he supported Obama in 2008 and Bernie in 2016.

“I’ll pick good judgment, and being of a student history, over bad experience in that arena,” he explained. “If anyone pretends that they can figure this out, they’re lying. There needs to be a greater sense of humility, there needs to be a greater sense of restraint. We have to try diplomacy and we have to try standing down. It’s especially discouraging when you have the other major party’s policy of carpet bombing or ‘bombing the shit out of them’. What is that about, these are serious, serious issues and how is that working for us so far?”

“They use the phrase ‘boots on the ground’, that’s not your skin in the game,” Fetterman continued. “Those boots are people and why would we want to sacrifice anymore of our men and women to unwinnable wars that only create nightmare scenarios like this as a result.”   

Fetterman side-stepped my question about what committees he’d like to serve on, saying he didn’t want to get too far ahead of himself.

Instead, he pulled out another photo, this one of a child of a Syrian refugee being handed under a barbed wire fence.

“That’s the reason I’m running for the Senate,” he said in reference to the photo. “These are the issues that I want to champion, I don’t really care what committees I’m on. These are the things that are important to me and the issues that I what to talk about and underpin the campaign and are why I’m running.”

Glancing at that photo, it occurred to me that most of the opposition to bringing in refugees comes from small, economically disadvantaged towns. Cities exactly like Braddock.

“I haven’t encountered that quite frankly,” Fetterman responded when I pointed this out.

I went on to argue that economic stress can constrict the vision of those it affects. Fetterman implicitly conceded this attitude exists but insisted that it isn’t as powerful as one might think.

“I have yet to talk to an individual in my campaign, that when I talk to them one-on-one and I give my rationale for why I support admitting Syrian refugees, that they don’t concede ‘Wow, I never thought of it that way’. They think every person coming from there is a wannabe terrorist, and it’s gonna be jihad and it’s not true. To me this is the face of the Syrian crisis,” he stated while pointing to the photo.


Finally, we finished with what distinguishes him from his two Democratic opponents. For the first time all night, Fetterman really began to lay into McGinty and Sestak.

“Our experience doesn’t coming from stealing a story from someone I met on the campaign trail, it comes from working in these communities.”

“That’s what distinguishes me from the other two candidates in the race,” he continued. “Do you want somebody who is hands on, who believes and has fought his entire career against inequality? Or do you want a recycled candidate, who really doesn’t have a message, other than I want to win one office, I don’t care which one it is, I’ll just keeping running until I get lucky. That’s to me the core distinction here. You know, you’re not gonna see me crisscrossing the state for the next seven years if I don’t win.”

This statement was a clear critique of both McGinty, who ran for Governor in 2014, and Sestak, who infamously walked across the state last year. Fetterman made it clear that campaigning was a burden that kept him from his young family and not something he lived for.

In closing, I admitted that given the lack of real debate on the stage I wanted to get at the differences between the three. In response, Fetterman finished with an appeal that his background is what distinguishes him.

“Of course we’re Democrats and we’re gonna agree on labor unions and a women’s right to choose and a lot of these bedrock Democrat issues. But I think if you explore our biographies, our life stories, you’ll see important differences that would justify my campaign.”

“You can judge a person or a candidate by how they live their lives and what they fundamentally believe is important,” he concluded.

25 Responses

  1. I am actually from Braddock and know the mayor personally. He is the real deal. Look the Community met this tall man who looked like a motorcycle gang member. Yet we voted for him even though he did not come from poverty. He did not tell us what was best for us.
    Was he perfect no but no one is. He made a mistake with moving the bus stops. His constituents complained and he comprised with the bus company. We need politicians who listen to us.
    We also need a Senator who understands what it’s like living in a war zone. He understands and witnessed mothers losing their sons. He understands what it’s like hearing shots fired. This is every day life for John Fettetman.

  2. Derek, not 1 cm of flesh was exposed to determine the race, so race has nothing to do with it. But you already knew that since it’s all explained in the articles you just read if you honestly wanted to know rather than slinging mud.

    Fetterman heard gun shots and called 911 and pursued a man covered head to toe thought to have an assault rifle (just a few weeks after Sandy Hook) and stayed with him until police arrived. You, me, and anyone you’re voting for would having been hiding.

    That’s the kind of guy I want representing me.

  3. “I went at the question another way, asking how he would convince a Senator like Chuck Schumer to adopt his view.”

    For the record, chuck Schumer shares Fetterman’s point of view. Schumer voted against fast tracking the TPP and he opposes TPP.

  4. He sounds incredibly sincere and grounded, unlike the other two. He seems very intelligent based on this brief interview and certainly has the right intentions.

  5. Steve is simply another Bernie bro, infecting the party with his requirement of perfect progressivity. Like Bernie, Fetterman has passed no meaningful legislation and would be useless in congress. But Steve will rant and rave about what a hero he is.

  6. Steverino — I like Fetterman and he’s closer on the issues for me than either of the other two candidates. But I like beating Toomey even more, and he can’t do it. Fetterman isn’t ready for this job and voters aren’t ready for him.

    If the November ballot is headed by Hillary with McGinty the Dem candidate, we win both races. Anything else is just too close for comfort. There’s too much riding on the outcome to take that chance.

  7. Montco PA Dem, you wouldn’t have lasted a day in Braddock. Stick to your lily-white cul-de-sac with McGinty or Sestack in VA.

    Besides, that’s about as many votes as McGinty got when she ran for Gov even while taking HUGE six-figure contributions from the very same guy she fast tracked approval for his dirty coal plant before new EPA regs would have made it illegal.

    Although, I’m sure they don’t build dirty coal plants in your neck of the woods, so why would you care.

  8. Want to know how many votes it took to elect Fetterman mayor of Braddock in 2013?

    186. Yep, 186 votes buys a ticket into the PA Senate race.

  9. Ron, It’s pretty well documented that the McGinty campaign has been going negative behind the scenes shopping “negative” stories to donors and the media about Fetterman:

    Here’s a good article on how they’ve tried to smear Fetterman with dishonest information:

    I was talking to a Fetterman campaign staffer after the debate and she pointed out the tracker McGinty has following Fetterman around to his events. How sick is that?

    Regardless, pointing out easily verifiable facts isn’t going negative. I think Fetterman made a huge mistake at the debate not pointing out the hypocrisy of McGinty with her ties to gas and even worse, coal and the hundreds of thousands of dollars she has taken from them. How dare McGInty talk about Flint when she fast tracked approval for a dirty coal plant for a campaign supporter that would have spewed mercury into the air. At least you can avoid drinking the water.

  10. “I don’t know how in this country we ever could’ve decided that money equals free speech.”

    Um, it was established by Supreme Court precedent 40 YEARS AGO – not in Citizens’ United – that spending money is essential to disseminating speech and is thereby subject to the First Amendment. The dissenting Justices in Citizens’ United didn’t disagree that financial expenditures were tantamount to speech, but rather only on the extent to which such expenditures could be regulated.

    I might add that Fetterman’s “hero,” Justice Marshall, concurred with that very point 40 YEARS AGO.

  11. What REALLY makes John Fetterman a standout candidate for Pennsylvania’s next U.S. Senator? There are a number of things too numerous to mention, but here’s a few:

    1. He has demonstrated the ability to bring together the Braddock Borough council, community members, local small business owners, other government resources, and larger private sector resources to address the issues Braddock faces.

    2. In a community that can sniff out “fake” from a mile away, Mayor John keeps it real. He can’t help himself, it’s just in his nature to respect others, include them in the drive for progress in Braddock, and empower them to “build it back up”.

    3. Anyone who’s had even the briefest conversation with John has quickly realized that he’s the “salt of the earth”, or maybe even the iron ore that’s been purified into steel. In Braddock, he’s worked with the community to get through the many issues that face so many Pennsylvania towns that have been severely hurt by market forces not under their control. THIS is why he’s ready to take his knowledge and his talent and his experience and put it to work helping these other towns overcome their similar issues.

    One last point: Some may consider the leap from mayor to senator too much of a challenge. Some may advise that he work his way up the political ladder in order to be truly ready for the job. Frankly, there would be no better way to get gradually sucked into the politicians’ world of special interest campaign financing, laws written by lobbyists, and myriad other problems that the Citizens United Supreme Court decision has made worse. In short, it’s virtually guaranteed that any politician who follows that path will in time be swallowed up by the establishment blob that our federal government has become.

    Lucky for us, John is not a politician; he’s a public servant. We can count on him to steer clear of the blob, and keep it real.

  12. You would think that a guy a guy who became a small time mayor in a dirt poor town and turned it around the best he could, with no help from the state! Would be an ideal guy for the US Senate. The othershave not been in the bottom of the trenches helping the poor.

  13. dis guy runned for mayer of phily and lost big so moved a way and is mayer of a small city neer pitsberg,

  14. It would be interesting to hear how the idea of running first came to him. Who initiated the conversation? Who put him in touch with his campaign team?

  15. His response why he wants to jump from small town mayor to US Senate was disingenuous. Because he bumped up against the constraints of being a small town mayor, there’s nowhere else to go but Senate? Why not County Commissioner or whatever Allegheny County has these days? Why not PA State Rep or PA State Senator? Or even US House of Rep?

  16. I’m so disappointed in this guy going negative. I thought he was just like Bernie and energize the party but as soon as his fundraising stalled he went on the attack. Not what our party needs and not what I want to hear. I’ll settle for the other two.

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