The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Meet the Tattooed Populist Shaking Up Pennsylvania's Senate Race

John Fetterman, a man once dubbed America's "coolest mayor," is fighting to separate himself from the Democratic pack in Pennsylvania's Senate primary.
April 25, 2016, 6:45pm
John Fetterman standing in an abandoned home in Braddock. All photos by Gavin Jenkins

John Fetterman was mad. We were looking at dilapidated homes in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh suburb where he has been mayor since 2005—Fetterman estimated there are 450 of them between his town and the one just north. The figure seemed exaggerated until Fetterman turned his truck down a road where all but two houses were boarded up. "Gone," he said, shaking his arm at house after house. "Gone. Gone."

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All through Braddock, the streets are lined with houses swallowed by vines, with broken windows and unhinged doors. The town looks so post-apocalyptic that parts of the movie The Road were filmed here.

More depressing is the fact that since Fetterman, 46, became mayor, life in Braddock has actually improved: Crime rates have decreased, an urgent care center opened, and there's now a youth program. Last year, Fetterman entered Pennsylvania's 2016 Senate race, hoping his success in Braddock would standout in an unconventional election cycle. But heading into Tuesday's Democratic primary, the latest poll shows Fetterman trailing his opponents, former Pennsylvania US Representative Joe Sestak and environmentalist Katie McGinty, by double digits.

That poll, conducted by Franklin & Marshall College, also shows that 29 percent of the state's voters are still undecided. With so many votes up for grabs, Fetterman has tried to make the Senate primary about the soul of the Democratic Party—specifically, as it is determined by the establishment and its base.

But while he has endorsed Vermont's Independent Senator Bernie Sanders—a move that seems to put him to the left of both Sestak and McGinty—the candidates otherwise agree on nearly every issue. As a result, Fetterman has been using his biography to stand apart. Last month, he campaigned at establishment events held by the Erie County Democratic Women, the Northwest Democratic Alliance, and Butler County Democratic Party, hoping to change minds with his story.

When Fetterman took office, Braddock was one of the poorest towns in the state. The population had dropped dramatically over the course of the 20th century, from 20,000 in 1920 to under 2,700 in 2005. The Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill, had remained open, but that was about it—no restaurants, no grocery stores, not even a gas station remained in Braddock. Fetterman gained national attention by inviting people to move to the town in a feature for ReadyMade magazine, and he soon became a media darling, appearing on The Colbert Report and getting the title of America's "coolest mayor" by The Guardian.

Part of the appeal stems from Fetterman's appearance. Six-foot-eight and bald, with a goatee, tattoos, and a closet full of Dickies shirts, the man looks like a bounty hunter. It's part of his charisma, and he uses it on the campaign trail. "I wouldn't answer my door if I knocked on it," he joked at the Northwest Democratic Alliance meeting. "I don't look like a politician. I don't even look like a normal person."

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But while local Democrats admire Fetterman's blue-collar appeal, most admit they prefer a candidate with a more conventional résumé. Georgiann Kerr, chairwoman of the Butler County Democratic Committee, told me she wished Fetterman was running for a seat in the US House of Representatives instead of the Senate. "[Fetterman] and [McGinty] are going for the big thing. They're going for the whole ball of wax," she said. "Let's start out a little smaller."

Nationally, Democrats have a shot at taking back control of the Senate in November, and polls indicate that Pennsylvania Republican Senator Pat Toomey is beatable, despite leading in head-to-head polls against each Democratic primary candidate. Sestak, who lost to Toomey by two points in 2010, seems to have an ideal resume: a two-term Congressman who served as a three-star Admiral in the Navy, director of the Navy's Counter-Terrorism Unit, and director of defense policy under President Bill Clinton.

But the state's Democratic establishment has thrown its weight behind McGinty, who trails Sestak by six points in polls, despite receiving over 110 endorsements, including from President Barack Obama and local unions. A former chief of staff to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, McGinty has a solid record as an environmentalist, having served as secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection and an environmental adviser to Bill Clinton, as well as worked in the private energy sector. It's an appealing record in a state that is now the nation's second-largest natural gas producer. Plus, if she beats Toomey, McGinty would become the first woman ever elected to the US Senate from Pennsylvania.

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Although Sestak leads in the polls, there are rumors that the state's Democratic Establishment simply dislikes the frontrunner, who defeated Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic Senate primary, running over objections from the party establishment, before losing to Toomey in the general election.

When I asked him about this act of insubordination, Sestak framed it as a naval metaphor. "When a US Senator says, 'Sestak, whenever I tell you anything, the only answer is to be yes,' you sit there and kind of think about what if a sailor in the Navy ever heard some admiral say that to me when I was captain of a ship," Sestak said over the phone. "If the sailors heard me say 'yes,' my gosh, they'd never follow the captain into war because they'd know he was accountable to the admiral, not to the sailors."

The establishment's contempt for Sestak stretches to the local level. Before Fetterman spoke to the Erie County Democratic Women, John Savelli, a Democratic Committeeman in District 4-2, characterized Sestak as an all-around bad politician.

"I believe in the establishment," Savelli said. "The establishment works. You have to be able to listen to everybody and work with everybody, make compromises, and get things done. You can't go off on your own against everybody. The real problem is the outsiders, actually."

Fetterman speaking to the Erie County Democratic Women

Fetterman would point to Braddock's three condemned bridges and disagree with Savelli. As outsiders, he and Sestak have ganged up on McGinty in the primary race, hammering their mutual opponent over her relationship with the energy industry. Fetterman also likes to point out that, though she now supports raising the minimum wage to $15, she backed raising it to just $9 when she ran for governor back in 2014.

It's not like Fetterman is perfect. He hasn't always worked well with Braddock council members, for example. But he keeps hammering McGinty over minimum wage because his life's work has been trying to help people escape poverty, and because he believes the difference between $15 and $9 says a lot about where the Democrats are headed.

Follow Gavin Jenkins on Twitter.