2018 Election: Braddock Mayor John Fetterman on Running for Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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2018 Election: Braddock Mayor John Fetterman on Running for Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor

"We need a candidate who can bring those persuadable voters back to the party."

Mar 28, 2018 John Fetterman Bookmark and Share

Ordinarily the Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania would be a sleeper race. It’s the definition of a sleeper political race. But these are no ordinary times. Why does this matter in 2018? Well, the current Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, Mike Stack, is a bit of a mess. He has endured so many scandals you’d think he’s a member of the Trump Administration. He’s wasted state money, and berated and verbally abused his employees. He even insulted his own boss, Governor Tom Wolfe.

Here’s the thing. Pennsylvania is one of those states where the Governor and Lt. Governor technically run on separate tickets. They can coordinate and endorse each other but they are separate. And because Stack has been rightly hung out to dry by the PA Democratic Party, a bevy of challengers are competing to unseat him on the May 15th Democratic primary.

Into this vacuum steps Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, progressive champion, and former 2016 Senate candidate. Fetterman’s record in Braddock speaks for itself, as does his proven statewide viability by being outspent by his Democratic opponents by fifteen to one and still notching 20% of the 2016 primary vote. His is a story of hardwon incremental progress, not unlike the United States itself; full of adversity, steely hope, teeth-clenched resolve, and a refusal to accept the circumstances time has handed him. In a political party where everyone is trying to prove how woke they are, Fetterman was woke before there even was such a word. Before Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Me Too, John Fetterman was there, on the ground of a town left behind by capitalist America. He was doing it a decade before most progressives ever heard of Bernie Sanders. And he’s in a state that’s key to breaking Donald Trump’s back.

It’s clear that something inside the Democratic Party has snapped. Together in 2018, Democrats aren’t forming so much a Blue Wave but a stampede. After years of watching their ranks hollowed out on the state level, there’s no second string. Fetterman is the epitome of what will be the Democrats’ new A-Team. When the country is failing, he’s the cheatsheet.

Steve King (Under The Radar): PA is a big state (commonwealth) made up of small communities. It’s a microcosm of the country. It’s got large urban centers on either side and some very rural, conservative areas in between. It just barely went for the president in the last election. As you campaign and drive across the state, what are the biggest differences you’re seeing, and how do you plan to bridge that urban/rural divide?

Mayor John Fetterman: Sure. I think the Conor Lamb race in PA-18 was interesting because our campaign was closely involved and we did a lot of “get out the vote,” and we were involved in it from the very beginning. That race really symbolized sticking to core Democratic principles while also embracing an understanding that pragmatism isn’t a bad thing. It’s not selling out. We got some pushback that people were disappointed in Conor Lamb for not having a hard left progressive take on certain issues, and I’m like, “Look, you have Rick Saccone who’s going to vote with Donald Trump 90% of the time vs Conor Lamb who’d vote against Trump 80% to 90% of the time, at least.” I think we have to be a little more flexible and understand that Democrats can always have core principles that we would never go against, but at the same time we have to recognize there are some districts that, unless you want to run a purely quixotic race, you’re going to have to make some concessions against the ideal progressive kind of candidate.

In respect to us, that’s how we’ve always run. I think we have a strong base with young, urban progressives, and the fact that we’re from western Pennsylvania and we’re from older communities that have suffered so much and been through a lot and have gotten endorsements from the United States Steelworkers, the persuadable voters, the people who could come back to the Democratic Party in 2018, I think we’re uniquely situated to bring them back. Pennsylvania went red by a margin of 44,000 votes. That means that the margins are slim and it also means that you really need to have enough of an appeal to bring those people back instead of saying “Well, if they voted for Trump once, I’m done with them.” I think that’s the wrong approach for Democrats to take. There are still a lot of good, solid, persuadable voters that just need to be reached out to, that need to be addressed, and we have to acknowledge that we could have and should have done more as Democrats in the past in a lot of these communities.

How do you see the president’s steel tariffs impacting Braddock?

The steel industry, as everybody knows, has been under a lot of strain and it’s been in decline. And I know the steelworkers; I live across the street from a mill and I’m proud to have their endorsement. They were grateful that someone was taking some action against some of these unfair trade practices. From a political standpoint, it was a shrewd and calculated move by Trump. I don’t think it comes from a place where he really cares about these places or people; it was about mixing up the race in PA-18, and Trump has no realistic path to 270 without Pennsylvania. It’s worth noting that he announced his reelection campaign in western Pennsylvania. He’s going to bring a lot of different noise and outreach to Pennsylvania because he sees that as critical, along with Ohio, in getting reelected. I think there’s going to be a lot of rhetoric and attention paid. But do I think he ever had a moment when he cared about communities like mine or Monessen, McKeesport, or Glassport, or these other places out west that have suffered so much? That’s just not the case.

A lot of people in PA wonder why they even have a Lieutenant Governor. It’s been called a largely ceremonial position, and it’s not like there’s much need to break a lot of ties in a State Senate that’s been dominated by Republicans. You’re an easygoing but naturally restless person. It’s hard to see you languishing in a job with not a whole lot to do. You’ve said you will make the office of Lt. Governor a more “ambulatory” job. How will you go about that?

It’s actually really important. It’s like the Vice President of Pennsylvania. That can range from Dan Quayle to Dick Cheney. It’s a reflection of who’s actually in the office and I think it’s a reflection of the working relationship you have with the Governor. People have said the same thing about being a small town mayor of Braddock. “Who cares about these places? What can you do with an office there?” Well, nothing had been done with it before and we kind of flipped that on its head and we’ve been able to build a movement and get a level of exposure, not only for the community, but the issues that are facing communities like this all across the state and the country. I think the office has a great deal of potential and great deal of importance.

It seems like you do more in Braddock than you would as Lt. Governor. You’ve said you’ll stay based in Braddock and won’t live in the Lt Governor’s mansion. Everyone kind of hates the Lt. Governors mansion. Why not just sell it? Can you imagine if the state sold it and let Gisele do something with the money?

It’s an asset of the commonwealth that shouldn’t be used to house the Lt. Governor. That’s just my opinion. I don’t feel like it’s appropriate. I think it’s excessive. It certainly doesn’t fall within the scope of what I feel is acceptable for public service, certainly not myself. Our ethos, our spirit, is always going to be in a place like Braddock. I planted my flag there for the last 17 years and that’s not going to change regardless of the office that I hold. It’s an issue that has an element of symbolism but it’s a practical issue as well. It’s just a silly expenditure that really shouldn’t exist in my opinion.

How close is Braddock to getting the permits and requirements for medical marijuana growers?

We weren’t selected in the first round. It was a real let down. It would have been an amazing addition to our community. We’re optimistic because the demand is so strong that the dispensaries that are open can’t keep it actually stocked. So we believe there’s going to be another round of licenses granted and we’re hopeful that we will get the second round because we have the ideal location, we have all the zoning, we have unanimous local support. We believe we have the strongest application. It’s something that we would like to see come to Braddock. My wife has her medical marijuana card. It’s helping her with her chronic back pain from an accident years ago. Pennsylvanians have embraced medical marijuana; I campaigned with it in 2016. We need to go full Colorado in Pennsylvania, and take marijuana out of the shadows and tax it and regulate it from a reactional standpoint as well.

PA Lt. Governor oversees the Board of Pardons. Given your history and approach to criminal justice, what are your plans for this aspect of the job?

It’s another reason I think the office of Lt. Governor is extremely important. It can help set the tone. I’ve really admired the steps Philidelphia is taking to just make common sense reforms to the criminal justice system, whether it’s throwing out marijuana possession cases or getting rid of cash bail on certain charges. There’s an understanding that our best interests aren’t in warehousing people. You have to break the cycle that’s led to incarceration. I think coming from a community of color where this is a major issue and concern has informed me to be an ideal head of the Board of Pardons in that regard. I’d want to streamline the process to make sure that as many Pennsylvanians who are deserving of that specific kind of relief are able to get it as efficiently as possible.

You’re kind of the frontrunner since you got in this race. Ed Rendell has endorsed you. He’s a pretty big kingmaker.

Yeah, and Mayor Peduto of Pittsburgh and the United States Steelworkers. We have two and half times the number of supporters as the incumbent; we had a really strong performance in 2016. The race has been going great. We won every debate, every poll. In terms of social media, we dwarfed all of the others combined in terms of their online presence. We’re the only campaign running a true statewide race, in that we’re holding events in Center City, Philly, and Sharon, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, and later on we have an event in northeast Pennsylvania, which is as far north as you can go. We’ve got small dollar donors. It’s been nice to get out there. The circumstances were very different in 2016.

Rendell has said you’re “the archetype of a Trump-Democratic voter” except that you have a master’s from Harvard. He said “We should be using candidates like John in Pennsylvania all the time.” Have party bosses basically acknowledged that they got it wrong and that they should have backed you in 2016?

It was a strange year and I don’t have any kind of lingering issues with 2016. I’m grateful for everyone’s support, and Governor Rendell has been so great. He’s said publically a couple times that our result in 2016 was the most remarkable thing he’s seen in state politics in 30 years, and I think that speaks to how we’ve adhered to core Democratic principles in places in Pennsylvania where they just need someone to champion their cause. We have crossover appeal. We have demonstrated that in terms of our own race, but also in helping out with Conor Lamb’s race too. He won by 600 votes, so the margins are going to be tight. There’s so much at stake in this governor’s race that we can’t leave anyone behind. We need a candidate who can bring those persuadable voters back to the party in the current Pennsylvania race.

With DACA and Dreamers being treated as hostages by the current administration, and that weekend shutdown Democrats pulled earlier in the year, I can’t imagine you have many kind words for anyone involved. What are your thoughts on DACA now, and who, if anyone, has handled it best?

There’s a detention facility in Reading, Pennsylvania that locks up whole families. We are never more un-American than when we’re persecuting those who we don’t consider “American” enough, especially Dreamers. If you came here as a baby, being held legally accountable for something like that is so profoundly un-American, and it’s not within our national self-interests. These folks make us so much better off. They are pursuing college, they’re in the military, they’re adding to our economy. They’re vilified and then they’re treated like hostages and bargaining chips. It’s profoundly un-American.

We’ve been talking about this for like three years now.

And let me just say I’m proud of the fact that I haven’t changed any of my issues from when I ran last time. I wasn’t like “Oh, I wish I wasn’t so pro-immigrant. I wish I wasn’t so pro-criminal justice reform. I wish I wasn’t so into income inequality.” You know? I think our party is moving in the right direction on these things, and you see what Donald Trump is about and you see what his party wants to do. If you want to call it “progressive,” so be it. I just call it evidenced-based public policy that leads to a greater level of good for everyone. I don’t understand why people would not be cool to Dreamers, or common sense gun control legislation, or climate change, or say nine dollars an hour is perfectly acceptable to raise a family and support yourself on. For me, this is like the law of gravity. Why are we arguing about these things in 2018? Why can’t we collectively agree that these kinds of policies need to change for the greater collective good?

Your public life has kind of grown well beyond Braddock. Is there any internal tension between the home you love and the possibilities and opportunities that exist outside of the town? Is it like one of those relationships where the thing you love has given you everything but it’s also holding you back in a certain way?

No. I’ve said this publicly and I’ll say it again: the greatest public honor I’ll ever receive was being elected to four terms as mayor of Braddock. This is a community that I wasn’t born in, I didn’t grow up in, it’s 80% African American, and the fact that these constituents have paid me the honor of electing me is something I’ll never take for granted. It’s something I’ll take with me always, and it’s that flag but I’ll continue to carry if I am elected Lt. Governor, or beyond or whatever. These kinds of places and the people who live there and their interests and their future matter a great deal, and they haven’t been getting the kind of attention or resources that they deserve. That’s what my whole professional career has been about, and that’s what this race has been about, and if I’m lucky to become Lt. Governor, I’ll keep pushing that until the voters tell me not to anymore.

2018 could be a another wave election. Midterms have become these repudiations of whoever the president is and they can sweep people into office. Say you win this race. Judging from the calendar and the way midterms move and swell against presidents, is your political future and success not intrinsically tied to Trump’s in some way? The better he does, the better you will do in the midterms that follow. If he wins in 2020, you’d have a better chance at what you might choose to do in 2022. If he loses, there could be another wave in the 2022 midterms that might not necessarily be kind to you.

I’m not worried. I’m not looking at the chessboard that far down the road. What’s best for the country is the only thing I’m interested in. If the voters decide that’s me, great; if it’s not me, that’s fine too. I don’t know, but I think a majority of Pennsylvanians will agree with me more than with Donald Trump and Scott Wagner, who’s running for Governor. They pose a serious existential threat to a lot of the policies the Democrats hold dear: a union’s right to organize, a woman’s right to choose, environmental issues, taxation issues, infrastructure issues, Medicare, Medicaid, all that. From my perspective that’s the only thing that matters to me. We are proud of our progressive results and our positions, but also you have to be pragmatic. You need a candidate who can bring back those persuadables that left us in 2016. And don’t underestimate Trump. In PA he pulled in a gigantic airplane hangar full of supporters on short notice and he had to turn a thousand people away. So this idea that Trump’s finished or doesn’t have the same kind of juice that he did… I certainly haven’t seen that in my part of the state, that’s for sure.

I keep coming back to wondering if we got it wrong in 2016. Is Trump just kind of like gangster rap in the ‘90s, where a big segment of the country is just scared by something they don’t understand? Is that what happened to the liberal establishment?

No. I think Democrats were scared of Mitt Romney in 2012 and and now he’s like an uncle. I joke with people like, “Who’s relieved that Mitt Romney is running for Senate? Like we finally got a not-crazy Republican.” Remember the 47% quote that helped bring him down? Just think: Donald Trump is being sued by porn stars, and there’s the Russia thing. It’s extraordinary times that we’re living in. Donald Trump has altered the DNA of the American political system in ways that we can’t even predict or know right now. I can’t even imagine the tour bus full of Democratic candidates who are going to be running for president in 2020 who have no business doing so, and that’s unfortunate because it’s not a job for celebrities. It’s a job for serious, qualified individuals who are willing to restore much of the honor and decency that the current president has ripped away from the office.

When did conservatives become the counterculture and liberals the establishment? We’re all sitting here aghast at the things that are going on. Somehow we turned into the straight-laced squares. When and how did this happen? It’s insane.

I mean, it’s curious. Trump’s most strident supporters are evangelicals. This man lived his life by everything I understand to be the exact opposite of the life of Jesus. I’m not worried about the unpersuadables. These are people who are the very worst element, who refused to condemn Charlottesville, that are nationalists, or racist, or xenophobic; all of those people who are the worst of our political instincts as a country have always been a part of the hardcore Republican base. It will always be that way but there are an enormous number of people who voted for Barack Obama by substantial margins over a war hero in 2008 and a fairly moderate Republican in 2012.

We need to recalibrate and just understand that we can be principled, but we can’t be fixated on one specific issue, and just because I may not agree with a candidate across the board, that somehow that doesn’t make that candidate unworthy of my support and it sure doesn’t mean that I can throw my vote away on a third-party candidate like Jill Stein. If me being successfully elected would require me to turn my back on LGBTQ rights, it’s not my time. If it will require me to turn my back on what I know about immigration and my own family story, it would not be my time. If I had to say “You know what? $11.35 an hour is fine with me,” it’s not my time. If I have to say, “Yeah, the NRA is not so bad,” it’s just not my time. There are certain principles that I just would never violate. It’s not that critical to me that I hold office and run on something that I believe is fundamentally untrue.

I keep coming back to that level of pragmatism like we saw in PA-18, and that’ something for PA Democratic voters to decide. I took some flack when I was proudly out in front for Hillary, after Bernie Sanders; then I took some flack from people who said Conor Lamb is just a Republican and I’m like, “No, he’s not. I know Conor. He’s a full-throated supporter of unions. He’s a supporter of many Democratic principles that you and I would agree on, and no matter what, he’s going to be infinitely better than a Rick Saccone, and you have a responsibility to participate and support the best candidate that we can get elected in this current race, and not sit this one out.” We saw what happened in 2016 in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and we can’t let that happen in 2018.

We’ve talked about this before, but I think the base of the Democratic Party has finally moved passed the Clinton vs. Sanders blame game and is more animated now by their mutual antipathy for Trump. If you look at Democrats’ victories last year in Virginia and then in PA-18, it’s in the air. It seems like negative partisanship has finally reached the Democrats with this virulently anti-Trump base. I just can’t help but wonder: are we becoming the reactionary left? Are we becoming a sort of Tea Party?

I don’t think so. I think there’s always going to be more conservative Democrats, and there’s always going to be a hard left, and I think both sides need to understand that we can campaign, we can primary, we can figure this out, but whoever wins, he or she deserves our full support. Republicans win if they divide us and start having us fixate on “Well, Bernie didn’t win and I’m out” or “Hillary didn’t win and I’m going to throw my vote away or I’m not going to vote.” It’s just very dangerous and destructive. Conor Lamb won by 600 votes out of well over 200,000 cast. I sounded the alarm in 2016 before the election, like “This is going to be close” and we need all the people we can get. I’m never going to stop saying that and the persuadable voters out there need to be reached out to because they will be the margin of difference in many of the races in these battleground states.

You’ve said “rhetoric is good, results are even better,” and that “progressive is a label that found me.” What kind of results are we going to get with a base that’s not that dissimilar from the Tea Party activists of 2010? It could find a whole lot of people who could endanger the party, alienate the rest of the country, and allow Trump to slither through reelection.

I think primaries make for better candidates, whoever wins. I think that’s good. I’m encouraged by the sheer number of people running. I’m encouraged by the number of women running. I’m encouraged by the level of energy. In 2016, you had 30 people show up at a meeting and now you can’t even find a parking space in 2018. It’s undeniable that Donald Trump has completely upended the set of circumstances. There’s going to be a lot of energy and it’s mostly being directed into positive channels, but there’s certainly going to be a faction where there’s no flexibility. I would really love a hard left progressive to win in West Virginia, but I’ll take Joe Manchin because West Virginia voted 70/30 for Trump. And that’s where we need to draw the line. We want the most progressive candidate that can win in this district and be okay with them.

You said in one of the debates that “you can’t really compromise with crazy” and that “you can’t compromise on certain issues like marriage equality, climate change, or racial criminal justice.” You called compromise “antiquated” and have said that, “nowadays the opposition increasingly is our enemy and it’s the enemy of a free and just society.” But you’ve also said, I feel like we’re evenly divided between ‘Screw ‘em, they’re all racists, we’ll find a new path’ and ‘many of these folks voted for Obama… they’re not out there burning crosses and going to Klan rallies.’” How do you square those two approaches in your race for Lt. Governor?

We have to hit as hard as it’s going to take to get them to realize that they’ve got to compromise and we’ve got to move forward. When they tried to redistrict the Pennsylvania map, it would have been 10 Republicans and eight Democrats, which is fair, because that’s what it should have been, and the Republicans are howling and taking us to court, and that’s crazy. They don’t want 10 seats. They don’t want what’s fair. They want it all and we can’t accept it, and that’s what I mean when I say you can’t compromise with that kind of crazy. We can’t ease up on that. But if you want to talk steel tariffs or infrastructure projects, take your pick. There’s got to be some middle ground on some issues, but if their approach is “deport every Dreamer,” then no. I’ll never compromise. That’s crazy. That’s cruel. That’s un-American. Increasingly, there are few moderate Republicans out there. It’s uncharted territory.

What do you love most about politics?

It’s the one true opportunity you that have to help people in a way that can extend and have far-reaching ramifications. I’ve always said this, but I’m simply a social worker who chose elected office. It wasn’t something that I ever planned or expected. It’s the same thing here. The only reason I’m in this is because I want to continue to make the world just a little bit better in our own way, and showcase my wife’s story and all the great things she’s done and all the things that I think are possible if we’re able to get to this next platform as Lt. Governor. People have called my own community a “shithole.” People have said “Why mayor? Why do you want to be mayor?” Because we’ve turned it into a platform with a level of advocacy and worked at getting the message out about the plight of these communities. And to be able to do that from this level is important, and it’s why I’m running for this office.


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