Unorthodox mayor seeks upset in Pennsylvania Senate primary

Unorthodox mayor seeks upset in Pennsylvania Senate primary
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One of the country’s most unorthodox Senate candidates wears his town on his sleeve — or at least on his arms, in tattoos. 

On his left forearm: The ZIP code of the tiny suburban Pittsburgh town where he serves as mayor. On his right: A list of nine dates commemorating the killings of constituents while he has been in office.


At 6 feet 8 inches tall with a shaved head and a long goatee, John Fetterman wouldn’t look out of place at a biker bar. Instead, he’s launching a surprise primary election bid for one of the nation’s most competitive Senate seats against a former congressman and a governor’s aide.

“I’m certainly jumping a couple places on the game board,” he admitted in an interview with The Hill. “That’s not an opinion, that’s a reality,” 

“I have a perspective — this isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact — that is singularly unique to those in the primary with me.”

Fetterman is a Keystone State native who returned there after earning his master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

In 2001, he set up shop to start a GED program in Braddock, Pa., a once booming steel town where the population has dwindled over 50 years to around 2,000. Four years later, he won the mayor’s race by one vote and has held the post ever since.

“Work as a small-town mayor in a community that’s facing as many challenges as that is a really intense, hardcore proposition, and a lot of the solutions we’ve developed are deeply relevant and meaningful to other communities across Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said.

“With innovation, things are scalable. That’s the essence of our message on the campaign.”

Working to improve Braddock brought him national attention, with an article in The New York Times, an appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” and a Levi’s jeans ad. 

Through work as mayor and at his nonprofit, Braddock Redux, he has led a major reinvestment into the town and the creation of social programs there.

On the trail, he touts equality, environmental protection, gay rights, immigration and marijuana legalization as major campaign issues. While most of those are standard fare for Democratic candidates, the latter issue makes him stand out.

“I’ve been mayor of a town now for 10 years and I can definitively say the war on drugs doesn’t work. I come to this opinion not by watching ‘The Wire’ but actually seeing how it plays out in day-to-day existence,” he said.

“The gun control conversation is incomplete if you don’t talk about decriminalizing some of these drugs that lead to many more shooting deaths.”

Seven of the nine dates tattooed on his arm correspond to shooting deaths in Braddock during his time as mayor. A gun owner himself, Fetterman argues there are more responsible gun owners than those who believe any restriction is an affront to their rights.

“There has to be some measure of gun control, where we get around what’s the legislation that’s going to prevent the greatest number of deaths from these horrific mass shootings and make it happen.”

He’s also outspoken in support of comprehensive immigration reform. His wife’s family immigrated to America from Brazil and lived undocumented for years. 

Like most political unknowns, Fetterman starts the race with a significant fundraising disadvantage.

Another Democrat in the race, former Rep. Joe Sestak, who was the 2010 nominee and lost to Sen. Pat Toomey (R), hasn’t wowed as a fundraiser. He hasn’t reported his latest totals but ended the previous fundraising quarter with $2.1 million cash on hand after raising just about $1 million total for the first two quarters.

Toomey, on the other hand, had $8.3 million cash on hand after the second quarter.

Democratic angst over Sestak’s poor fundraising and fears that he couldn’t topple Toomey initiated an opening to Katie McGinty, a former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf. Her campaign said it raised more than $1 million in the two months since she announced her plans to run.

Fetterman entered the race in mid-September, six weeks after McGinty.

He says he raised about $170,000 in the two weeks before the fundraising quarter ended at the close of September. That’s a strong haul, but the campaign will have to keep up the pace in order to compete.

Terry Madonna, director for Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs, noted that any candidate without strong name recognition will have to spend a significant amount of money to compete, especially with the establishment split among the other two candidates.

“This is a television state; it’s a big media state. He needs a minimum of $5 million and probably closer to $10 [million.],” Madonna said of Fetterman. 

“Where does he get the money to compete if [voters] don’t know him? How can they vote for him? He’s not going to get the Democratic establishment behind him,” Madonna added.

It’s too early to tell whether Fetterman will gain traction as an alternative to Sestak and McGinty.

In a strong sign that he plans to mount a serious challenge, Fetterman has brought on a battle-tested team from Hilltop Public Solutions that includes Rebecca Katz, a former top aide to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D); and Bill Hyers, de Blasio’s former campaign manager.

Madonna, the pollster, plans to include Fetterman in an upcoming poll. That will serve as the first major test of the campaign’s top-line support.

But Fetterman notes recent polling shows the majority of voters haven’t even formulated an opinion about any candidate, so he believes enthusiasm for his grassroots campaign will be able to fill the “wide-open field.”

“Whoever wins the primary is going to have somebody spending $10 million to call you ‘Poopy Pants’ for months straight,” he said.

“That’s daunting, but that’s part of the broken system that is money in politics. If money is the only thing that matters, let’s just make the Koch brothers the supreme leaders and call it a day."

The Pennsylvania seat will be crucial to deciding Senate control in the next Congress, and Toomey is seen as one of the most vulnerable Republican senate incumbents because the state typically goes blue in presidential years. 

With Democrats needing to flip five seats for outright control of the body, outside money is likely to dominate the general election regardless of who wins the primary.

But before he even thinks about the rigors of a general election, Fetterman will have to vanquish his two better-known Democratic rivals.

“I know things are going to change, and they are going to get unpleasant or difficult at some point,” he said.

“But right now, people appreciate the message and they like somebody that looks more or dresses more like them or has a background in actually taking on these issues instead of talking about them.”