On Nov. 14, just a week after he was re-elected mayor of Braddock for a third time and more than a year after ending his failed bid for U.S. Senate, John Fetterman went back to the campaign trail.
In a theater inside the converted Chevy dealership that doubles as his home, Fetterman gathered a group of supporters and media to confirm what many had already known: He was running again for higher office, this time for the commonwealth’s lieutenant governorship.
On Tuesday, Fetterman won the Democratic primary in that race, making Mike Stack the first incumbent LG to lose in a primary, ever, and beating four opponents in total, two of them more heavily funded. Fetterman also still plans to run for Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey’s seat in 2022.
Fetterman rose to prominence as the mayor of Braddock, the decimated steel town about a dozen miles upstream of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela that’s home to 2,000 people. In campaigns for Senate and most recently lieutenant governor, Braddock remained as central a character as Fetterman himself, symbolizing a uniquely American decay and the sort of place that politicians — Fetterman included — vow will no longer be forgotten.
And as much as the borough has come to symbolize his philosophical approach — consider it his political “Rosebud,” if you will — for the rest of world, Fetterman is Braddock. For years he’s been the face of it, the voice, the mascot, the harbinger of sometimes controversial change, and the progressive populist baked into almost every outsider’s mention of the place.
So what happens if he’s gone?
Well, Fetterman said he isn’t going anywhere, even if he wins with Gov. Tom Wolf in the fall. He said he plans to keep Braddock as his base of operations while commuting to Harrisburg and traveling to the rest of the state as needed. It’s unclear what exactly that arrangement would look like or how it might work.
Pennsylvania political historian Terry Madonna said he’s never heard of such a thing. Asked if the governor has any misgivings, Wolf’s reelection campaign said in an email, “Governor Wolf lives in his own home in York rather than in the Governor’s residence. He doesn’t have concerns about this.”
One thing is for certain, Fetterman would no longer be mayor of Braddock if he and Wolf beat Republican candidates Scott Wagner and running mate Jeff Bartos in November.
“Understand that the role of mayor in a borough or municipality is very different than the role of mayor in a large city,” said Braddock Borough Council President Tina Doose. “Because the truth of the matter is that the role of mayor in a small town like this is to be the face and voice of the community, and John has elevated the role of mayor.”
She added, “John has a narrative to sell, and people like that narrative.”
Doose credited this hook and the media interest it’s inspired with helping to attract new attention and new businesses to Braddock, which has happened in a real and, for some, uncomfortable way during his decade-plus tenure. In that time, Braddock added a high-end restaurant, a craft beer pub, a screenprinting store, and there are plans for a coffee shop.
It’s also added new housing, senior housing, parks, The Free Store and a new urgent-care center that filled a void left by the shuttering of a local hospital five years ago. Fetterman was first elected mayor in 2005 and has since touted reductions in crime and, in particular, a five-year stretch without a homicide.
For all these reasons, Braddock has, at times, been held up as a symbol of the Rust Belt renaissance.
“If people are looking for hope, it’s here,” Sabina Deitrick, an urban studies expert at the University of Pittsburgh, told the New York Times nearly a decade ago. “You can have a decent economy over a long period of restructuring.”
Of course, in Braddock that restructuring is far from complete.
“Resurgence or rebound might be an overstatement,” Deitrick told The Incline this week. “Its economic condition is still dire.”
The borough remains in Act 47, a state program for financially distressed municipalities, as it has been since 1988. But it now has an exit plan, Doose explained.
Braddock’s median household income was $24,226 in 2015, less than half the state average, but up from $18,473 in 2000. The estimated per capita income in Braddock, meanwhile, was down to $12,453 in 2015 from $13,135 in 2000. The per capita income in Pittsburgh was $50,622 in 2015, up from $30,695 in 2000.
Some Braddock residents stuck it out, weathering the steel crisis of the ‘80s and the plant closures that followed. They stayed during the ensuing years, when most fled, when crime rates rose and Braddock’s aesthetic could be described as post-apocalyptic.
“I remember, 15 years ago, going to a borough council meeting there and giving an elderly lady a ride home after,” said Jason Togyer, a communications manager with the Mon Valley Initiative. “And I drove down her block and all of the houses on her block were boarded up and empty except hers. Her house was immaculate, and that’s the kind of people who kept it from bottoming out entirely and who have been the backbone that the town has sort of grown back on. And so our challenge is to make sure these people who’ve been in Braddock all their lives, who were there during the bad times, get to share in it as things become good again.”
Critics say Braddock’s momentum — as nascent as it may be — has so far failed to lift all boats, and they wonder if this was all just a stepping stone for Fetterman.
He strongly disagrees.
Walk down Braddock Avenue, the central thoroughfare running through the town’s 0.6-square-mile spread, and almost everyone has a thought on the mayor.
As with any politician, there are those who question Fetterman’s motives and those who celebrate his accomplishments. There are those who resent his woebegone portrayals of Braddock and those who see them as a means of drawing eyeballs to a place that for so long remained invisible.
In conversations with more than a dozen people on the streets of Braddock during Fetterman’s LG campaign, responses to questions about the mayor and his bid ran the gamut from “Let him go” to “We like his wife better” to “He’s doing great.”
“I think he’s good, and I think he’s been doing more than most to revitalize the area,” said Denita Parrish. “I’m not a current resident of Braddock, but I used to live here, and there’s a difference now, you see more life on [Braddock Avenue], more business on the avenue. As far as him trying to obtain higher political stature, I say go for it. We need people like him that care about the community in a higher office.”
At Hocky Brothers Auto Parts on Braddock Avenue, a “Fetterman for Lieutenant Governor” sign hung in the window before stacks of boxed supplies and cans of paint. Employee Jeff Couch, who stood behind the register, said he’s lived in Braddock for 12 or 13 years and worked there for almost three decades.
Couch said of the borough under Fetterman, “It’s getting better, a lot better. All the buildings were run down and now people are moving in.”
A few doors down at Al’s Market, owner Al Handza echoed this, adding, “He’s been very good for Braddock. I support [his campaign for lieutenant governor], and so do the people that come in here.”
It was a similar response at Ink Division, a custom T-shirt printing shop where workers, when asked about Fetterman’s latest campaign, said, simply, “We’re all happy about it. We’re pulling for him.”
Others were less charitable.
“I think his agenda is the advancement of his political career, not for Braddock but for his personal political career,” said Corvelle Mack, who lives in neighboring Rankin.
Jeff Walker, who said he lives in Braddock, said that while he recognizes there are positive changes occurring there, he questions the extent of their reach.
“A lot of businesses have been reconstructed, this town is becoming reconstructed under his leadership, but I’m seeing a lot of white businesses, not black, you know, that’s the thing. I don’t understand that, because it’s a predominantly black community and I don’t see any black people owning businesses,” Walker said. “Not everyone’s benefitting, but some people are, and I guess that’s just how it goes.”
Fetterman points out that there are black-owned businesses in Braddock and new ones at that. Furthermore, he said that in rebuilding a community as thoroughly gutted as this one, you’d be insane to turn down anyone looking to invest — white or otherwise.
“From my perspective, we’ve had a lot of new businesses come to Braddock, and they all pay taxes and add to the tax base,” Fetterman argued.
Part of the skepticism aimed his way may have to do with the fact that Fetterman is a white mayor in a majority black town. It may also have to do with the fact that he’s not originally from Braddock, although he’s lived here for the better part of two decades. (Fetterman, like Gov. Wolf, is a native of York County, despite his “Made in Braddock” campaign slogan.)
Others have taken issue with his “grandstanding” and dire depictions of life in the borough, which media outlets have showered with as many gloomy adjectives as the English language affords — even a profile of Fetterman’s stylish downtown loft by Design*Sponge described Braddock as a steel town-turned-“poor, violent ghost town.”
Fetterman was also accused in 2009 of “neglecting some of his duties as mayor after he turned over administration of the police department, a duty typically held by the mayor, to the police chief,” the Post-Gazette reported.
It could also be that the restaurants and brewpubs themselves represent a specific kind of change, one created with someone else — and someone else’s money — in mind.
Like Walker, these critics see more white-owned and white-patronized businesses in a majority black town and wonder: “Where is this going?”
And therein lies the dilemma: Can Braddock really rebuild itself without looking outward? The answer is almost certainly no. Can it then look outward without pissing off some of the people who already live there? Not likely.
And furthermore, what happens if the public face of that rebuilding effort takes a new job?
Doose said the tracks are already being laid and that the work will continue under borough council and community leaders. Whether the same amount of people on the outside will be watching, however, remains to be seen.
“I think everyone does something for a reason,” Denita Parrish said of Fetterman. “You know what I mean? I think he had a good motivation to revitalize this community, and now he may have his sights set on something bigger, which is fine. I don’t have a problem with someone moving on. I think he’s done what he could. I think he could do more for this community, but he may feel like he can do more for our country or even our state by moving on to a higher office. I don’t have a problem with it at all.”
There is no doubt that Braddock is changing — slowly.
The estimated median home value was $32,069 in 2016, up from $20,400 in 2000. As of the last census, the unemployment rate was still higher than state and national averages. (Between 2011 and 2015, on the heels of the Great Recession, the average unemployment rate for Braddock was 15.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)
Mack said: “Why would you put a five-star restaurant in this town when there’s people here who can’t afford to go to your five-star restaurant? You’re bringing people from the outside in, but the people who live here and were born and raised here in the community can’t afford to go there.”
He points out that Braddock continues to lack a supermarket.
Mack lives in Rankin, a similarly depressed town bordering Braddock, and has worked in Braddock for years. To be clear, when Mack talks about “outsiders,” he’s not talking about border crossers from Rankin, he’s talking about people coming from farther away — the more affluent locales of Pittsburgh’s East End and beyond.
Fetterman has been quick to push back. He said Superior Motors, the fine-dining restaurant alluded to by Mack, and the place where Fetterman held his election night party this week, offers vouchers allowing community members who couldn’t otherwise afford it to dine there. The restaurant is located in the same building as Fetterman’s home, a building he owns. Fetterman offers the space to Superior Motors rent free, and the restaurant — one of Food & Wine’s Best of 2018 — uses the Rooney Rule when filling open positions, meaning they look locally first for minority applicants.
Superior Motors employs 30 people, about 35 percent of them Braddock natives, according to the Post-Gazette.
“I moved here out of straight love,” chef and owner Kevin Sousa told Eater in 2017. “We want to be a part of something special.”
Five years earlier, Sousa told the PG, “Braddock gives me the vibe. It’s on the cusp of something. It’s where Lawrenceville was 15 years ago.”
Unlike Lawrenceville, East Liberty or other Pittsburgh neighborhoods gripped by more profound shifts, Fetterman said Braddock’s problem was never people being squeezed out and still isn’t — it was people leaving on their own and never coming back.
“We’ve never displaced anybody,” he said. “Anybody.”
Instead, Fetterman said his goal has been to give them a reason to stay.
“When I took office, we didn’t have a single functioning playground or community center or quality youth program,” Fetterman told The Incline. “We were not a safe community. We didn’t have a Free Store or 412 Food Rescue program [both founded by wife Gisele] that eliminated food insecurity in our community. We didn’t have a restaurant or a place to eat in our community, and now we have several. You can find a detractor of mine in Braddock for sure, but I don’t think it’s fair or reflective of the truth or reality of the situation.”
Fetterman bristles a bit at this point, saying he’s lived in Braddock, fallen in love with it, raised a family here — his children attend a private school in Pittsburgh — and advocated for it relentlessly. It stings to hear someone question his motives.
He continued: “From my perspective there isn’t one single metric or way that Braddock isn’t better than it was 12 years ago. The greatest proof that I have the community’s support is being democratically elected four times. If someone’s not impressed by that, I don’t have anything else to offer.”
Just to recap: Under Fetterman, median home values and median household incomes have risen, while crime and per capita income have decreased. Almost a third of borough residents continue to live below the poverty line and unemployment has remained high.
It’s important to note that there are other forces at play, too: Groups like the Mon Valley Initiative, a non-profit comprised of 10 regional Community Development Corporations, and a host of organizations working to lure businesses to Braddock or any number of similarly dimmed rivertowns up and down the Monongahela Valley, often with offers of low-interest loans. Turns out it takes a village to rebuild one.
Within that ecosystem, Fetterman’s role has certainly been unique. He put a face to those efforts and a name.
“The good thing with John is that he brought national attention to a place that hadn’t received national attention since the ‘80s when all the mills closed,” Deitrick said.
“No one in America cared about Braddock till John.”
The LG job comes with a $162,373 salary, making it the highest paid lieutenant governorship in the country. As a part-time mayor, Fetterman earns $150 a month, though he says he declines the salary and turns it over to local charities instead.
Fetterman, who has credited support from his parents, the owners of an insurance company in York, with allowing he, his wife and their children to “live at a frugal middle-class level,” has not said whether he’d turn down the LG’s salary if elected.
A statement from Governor Wolf’s re-election campaign said Wolf “looks forward to working with John Fetterman in order to move Pennsylvania forward,” adding, “Like Governor Wolf, John is committed to investing in education and workforce development to make sure we are competitive in the 21st century workforce, increasing opportunities for seniors to stay in their homes as they age, and making sure Pennsylvanians have access to quality, affordable healthcare.”
Until then, he remains a part-time mayor with a full-time campaign schedule, one that regularly takes him to far flung corners of the state. He estimates he covered 40,000 miles during this last primary campaign.
Asked if this perpetual campaigning has come at the expense of his mayoral duties, Doose said no and pointed back to the mayor’s largely ceremonial role. (The mayor does represent the tie-breaking vote when the six-member council deadlocks.)
“Some people expect different things from a local mayor,” Doose told The Incline, “but he’s done a good job at what he’s elected to do.”
“And the fact that businesses have come to Braddock and have been interested in our community because of his voice and presence, a whole lot of people can try to put a negative spin on that, but I don’t.”
As for a possible replacement for Fetterman if he wins the LG race, Doose said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” A new mayor would be appointed by borough council.
In the meantime, Fetterman insists he’ll be maintaining his presence.
“If I’m lucky enough to be chosen, I think Braddock’s momentum will continue to expand because I’m not really going anywhere.”
He says that if elected LG, his platform to advocate for Braddock and places like it in Pennsylvania — there are more than you may realize — will only grow.
“I wouldn’t view it as the rails are going to come off,” Deitrick said of Braddock without Fetterman in the mayor’s office. “I think after 25 years things are finally moving forward.”
What that movement will mean or look like long term remains a question mark, though.
In Braddock, the past is prologue and the future still unwritten.