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John Fetterman: Pennsylvania Democrats’ tattooed rising star, explained

He’s a Bernie Sanders-endorsed steel town mayor who might be Pennsylvania’s next lieutenant governor.

John Fetterman is now the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor.
John Fetterman is now the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Two days ago, John Fetterman was the mayor of a 2,000-person western Pennsylvania Rust Belt town, running in a hotly contested primary for statewide office. Today he’s the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

Fetterman, 48, is unmistakable: 6-foot-8, with a goatee and tattoos. And he dealt incumbent Democrat Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, an established name in Pennsylvania Democratic Party politics, a major upset Tuesday night. He also happens to have the backing of Bernie Sanders.

Fetterman drew 40 percent of the vote to clinch the nomination, emerging from a crowded field of four Democrats who were challenging Stack. The incumbent lieutenant governor has been mired in several scandals over excessive spending and mistreatment of staff, and failed to even gain incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s endorsement. Stack ended the night in third place, becoming the first lieutenant governor in modern Pennsylvania history to lose a primary reelection race.

Fetterman is now Wolf’s running mate, and the two will face Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner and real estate executive Jeff Bartos in November.

Fetterman’s rise has caught the nation’s eye. Over the past decade, he has made it in and out of national headlines — and Colbert Report appearances — as the Harvard University graduate who made it his mission to breathe life back into the predominantly black steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. But in the context of this midterm election cycle, Fetterman is almost a caricature of the 2016 presidential election postmortem.

“John Fetterman being the first person in Pennsylvania history to defeat a sitting Lt. Gov in a primary seems to obliterate the ‘Bernie-endorsed candidates can’t win’ fiction,” David Sirota, a prominent progressive commentator, tweeted.

But as stylistically different as Fetterman is to his running mate, there’s not a lot of daylight between the two on policy.

Fetterman is suddenly a rising star in Democratic politics

John Fetterman has Baddock, Pennsylvania’s zip code tattooed on his arm.
John Fetterman has Braddock, Pennsylvania’s zip code tattooed on his arm.
AP Photo/Andrew Rush

Fetterman’s career in politics is atypical. After graduating college, he followed his father’s path into the insurance business, but the death of a friend made him reconsider his career. He began working with Big Brothers Big Sisters, quit the insurance gig, and joined AmeriCorps, moving to Pittsburgh.

He went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for a master’s degree in public policy and settled in Braddock, a town that had gone from holding 20,000 people and part of Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire to a population of just over 2,000, with unemployment at three times the state average. The town has been ravaged by drug abuse and a homicide rate in the double digits.

Fetterman won the Braddock mayoral election in 2005 by one vote. Four years later, he won in a landslide and appeared The Colbert Report, explaining the five dates tattooed on his arm to Stephen Colbert on national television. Each one represented a murder that had occurred in his town under his leadership.

“After they ask me, ‘Are you a professional wrestler?’ they say, ‘Hey, I saw you on Colbert,’” Fetterman told Colbert in his second appearance on the news satire show in 2009, fielding jokes about his hulking size. In that interview, Colbert asked him if he was seeking higher office. Fetterman gave a decisive no. “I’m here to stay,” he said.

But by 2016, he had changed his mind and tried to bring his don’t-leave-small-towns-behind mentality to the halls of the US Senate. It was a long shot and ultimately unsuccessful, but in the process, he became acquainted with the workings of Washington’s Democratic establishment.

According to the Huffington Post, Fetterman said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm for Senate Democrats, promised his campaign it would stay out of the primary, only to contribute more than $1 million to Fetterman’s opponent Katie McGinty. McGinty went on to win the nomination, only to fall short against Republican Sen. Pat Toomey that November. But in a competitive four-way primary, competing against well-known Pennsylvania Democrats, Fetterman managed to pick up 20 percent of the vote, an early sign that he would be back.

This year, he had more national support with Bernie Sanders’s endorsement, and his aspirations to win statewide came to fruition in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.

Fetterman bills himself as a true progressive. Is he?

Fetterman’s rise hasn’t been without some pushback. He’s a self-proclaimed progressive, but those on the left haven’t always been so sure of him.

Fetterman made clear that his positions on the environment are outweighed by his desire to bring work to his town, a trade-off he said Democrats have to make to protect the working class. He defended supporting a fracking proposal in his own town for that reason.

“We’re Democrats. We are supposed to look after working-class families,” he said in the Post. “If the [steel] mill that wants to do this goes under, that’s 3,000 jobs lost. All they need to do is drill two wells.”

The position didn’t stop Sanders from supporting him, however, chalking it up to a difference of opinion. Nor did a 2013 story of Fetterman responding to the sound of gunfire by his house by confronting a black jogger with his own rifle. Nina Ahmad, who came in second in Tuesday night’s race, used the story to warn against implicit bias. And the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out that news of that incident kept away key endorsements, like Sanders’s, in 2016. Not this year.

As Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained, Fetterman’s and Ahmad’s candidacies in some ways are “avatars of competing visions of the future of the Democratic Party, with Fetterman emblematic of a back-to-the-future drive to connect with the white working class and Ahmad representing a vision of a diverse party firmly grounded in the classes of professionals and social service providers.”

Either way, as Yglesias writes, the lieutenant governor’s office itself is “not particularly powerful or significant, but it does provide a statewide platform from which to run for higher office, either governor or senator.”

And it’s clear Fetterman has been pegged as the progressive politician who can get elected.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Fetterman are in a good position going into Election Day

Gov. Tom Wolf and John Fetterman are now on a ticket to keep Pennsylvania’s governors mansion blue.
Wolf and Fetterman are now on a ticket to keep Pennsylvania’s governor’s mansion blue.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic and Matt Rourke

In appearance alone, Wolf — more an academic than a rabble-rouser — and Fetterman couldn’t be an odder duo. But on policy, they find common ground. As the American Prospect’s Rachel Cohen explained, Wolf put his progressive politics on display early when he was elected in 2014. He expanded Medicaid, and much more, she writes:

Wolf also signed a series of executive orders for political appointees and state workers, banning gifts to state officials and requiring that all state contracts with private-sector providers go through a bidding process. He declared a moratorium on the death penalty, granting temporary reprieves to 180 inmates on death row as a state task force formally reviews the policy. He also raised the minimum wage — mostly for state janitorial workers and part-time clerical staff — increasing their pay from $7.25 to $10.15 per hour. And in the wake of North Carolina’s passing a law that stripped rights from gay and transgender people, Wolf issued a pair of executive orders that expanded protections against discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. He wanted “to show the world that Pennsylvania is a welcoming place for everyone.”

Fetterman stands for many of the same policies. He wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 and pass gun reforms, and supports Medicare-for-all. And with all of it comes more of a voice for the “forgotten cities across Pennsylvania” message. He says he stands for “evidence-based public policies that benefit the most people possible.”

And together, they are going into the general election in a good position. Despite a tenure that has been defined by a budget battle with Pennsylvania’s GOP-led statehouse, Wolf’s approval rating sits at 45 percent and his disapproval at 39 percent. The Cook Political Report says the race is in Wolf’s favor, as does the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

In a year expected to show extremely high voter enthusiasm among Democrats, and with a progressive ticket that on its face appears to be a response to the Democratic intraparty fight in 2016, the Wolf-Fetterman ticket is going into November on a seemingly strong foot.

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