The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ballad of Big John Fetterman: Democrats yearned for a folk hero. But will they vote for one?

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman at the Carrie Furnaces, a former steel mill near Braddock that's now open for tours. Marketing the history of the steel culture to outsiders has been part of the plan to revive the area. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

BRADDOCK, Pa. — This is the tale of Big John Fetterman, the giant who lives in an abandoned car dealership beside a steel mill.

He’s 6-8, arms covered in ink, head as bald as a wrecking ball. When he strolls through town, everyone knows his name: the boys from the foundry, the brewers, the carpenters.

He’s the mayor of this crumpled industrial mecca, a walking folk hero, half Pete Seeger, half Metallica. The kind of anti-politician a Democratic wizard might conjure to grab the dispossessed Americans who tipped the 2016 election to President Trump.

He’s brought artists to this town east of Pittsburgh , fed the hungry from the bed of his pickup truck and, perhaps most important to his political fame, been a progressive since before Bernie Sanders became a household name.

And, now, he’s Pennsylvania’s Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

The problem with being a political folk hero is that you’re bound to disappoint people. Fetterman is not a man out of time. He belongs to 2018, a year that has made at least one truth truer than it was before: No reality can ever quite live up to a myth.

Today, under a new statewide spotlight, Fetterman has had his progressive bona fides questioned, he says, for the first time in his career. He’s been called a centrist and a “fracker.” A Democrat berated Fetterman’s mother-in-law while she was cutting her hedges, Fetterman said, just for having his sign in her yard.

“It’s been surreal,” Fetterman said. “I don’t know if it’s just anger at Trump that gets misdirected at fellow Democrats, but if there’s the slightest deviation, suddenly you’re suspect.”

The questions raised are existential.

Should Democrats be focusing on winnable Trump voters in Pennsylvania, rallying the base on the coasts or trying to do both at the same time? How far left can the Sanders wing drag the conversation, and how pure do you have to be to qualify as a true progressive?

At a moment when the Democratic Party is struggling to figure out what it needs to be, Fetterman’s candidacy has become a colossal microcosm situated smack dab in the center of a political identity crisis.

A question of credentials

On a recent dreary Tuesday, Fetterman sat at a greasy-spoon lunch spot peeling the bun off his burger and scrolling through a Google search that nagged at him.

He’d lost 120 pounds in recent months — by cutting grains and sugars from his diet — but that wasn’t the transformation that diminished him to some.

“Look at this,” he said, shaking his head at a long list of articles. “John Fetterman fracking.”

In 2016, when Fetterman was an outsider candidate for the U.S. Senate, he cast himself as an ardent opponent of fracking, the controversial gas-extraction method.

Between then and now, Fetterman’s stance has become more nuanced. As a candidate for lieutenant governor, he voiced support for two fracking wells that he said would save 3,000 steel jobs in the area.

Fetterman, 48, has been a progressive all his life: pro-marijuana before it was mainstream; risked impeachment from his mayoral office by officiating a same-sex wedding before it was legal; supports single-payer health care.

And so, when Fetterman beat the incumbent lieutenant governor in May’s primary and joined his party’s ticket alongside Gov. Tom Wolf, his victory was widely heralded as a win for the left.

“I think that a strong lieutenant governor, in contact with working people throughout the state, can play an important role bringing about the political revolution that I think needs to take place,” Sanders, the senator from Vermont who held rallies for Fetterman in the primary, said in an interview. “And John is exactly the kind of champion of progressive values who can do that.”

But other liberals say Big John wasn’t the folk hero they’d been waiting for. Our Revolution, a political organization started by supporters of Sanders’s presidential campaign, declined to back him.

“We don’t know why Sanders endorsed him,” said Adam Shuck, a member of Our Revolution’s Pittsburgh chapter.

Shuck said Fetterman came to the local chapter seeking an endorsement but wouldn’t identify as a “socialist.” He’d thrown support to centrist candidates. He’s a gun owner. And, the group decided, Fetterman had been flimsy on fracking.

“I was progressive enough for a Sanders endorsement, [but] not the organization? It’s extraordinary,” Fetterman said. “I’m not pro-fracking. But sometimes there’s got to be some pragmatism.”

Fetterman sighed, still scrolling through articles on his phone.

His eyes darted to the door of the restaurant as a young man walked in, covered from hard hat to work boot in black grime. He’d come from the steel mill across the street to satisfy a craving for mint chocolate chip ice cream, which he wolfed down at a nearby booth.

“I mean, look at that,” Fetterman said, his voice low. “You think he’s going to be able to be a computer coder? If those two wells make sure he keeps his job and I lose my progressive bona fides . . . so be it.”

Attempts to 'Save Braddock'

Fetterman is a man of differing impulses.

He wants to protect the environment but also good-paying union jobs. He thinks Trump is a “jagoff” — Pittsburgh lingo for a jerk — but says he’d be willing to work with him. He’s a big man who sometimes looks like he’s trying to disappear in a room, a politician who avoids eye contact and appears allergic to schmoozing. He graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government but made his home in a town that couldn’t be more different from Cambridge, Mass.

Fetterman grew up wealthy in York, Pa., and moved to Braddock to do work for AmeriCorps in 2001. He loved what he called the “malignant beauty” of the run-down steel town and by 2005 had been elected mayor — by one vote — on the promise to help return some of its former glory.

This was a town where Andrew Carnegie built one of his first steel mills and first public libraries (there used to be a bathhouse in the library basement, so mill workers could clean up before perusing the stacks). In the 1920s, Braddock had more than 20,000 residents. Today, it’s a tenth of that.

“There have been all kinds of attempts to ‘Save Braddock,’ ” said Tony Buba, a filmmaker from Braddock who has been documenting the town for decades.

There was the drive-in furniture store that would jump-start the economy. Then there was the attempt to make Braddock the “frozen-food capital of the world.” And now, Buba said, there’s Fetterman: a mayor who hoped to transform the town through sheer personality. He helped bring in artists, a world-class restaurant, a brewery. He promised to have the date of every murder under his watch tattooed on his forearm.

In his first eight years in office, he got nine tattoos. Zero in the past three.

In the process, Fetterman has garnered plenty of attention. A 2009 New York Times Magazine profile earned him a guest spot on “The Colbert Report.” Last year, Anthony Bourdain dined with him at Braddock’s hot new restaurant, Superior Motors.

The fame led to a wife. In 2007, Gisele Almeida, once an undocumented immigrant from Brazil living in Newark, read an article about a man trying to save a struggling steel town. Moved, she wrote him a letter and received an invitation to visit.

One year later, they were married. Today, they live in a soaring, lofted home that once housed one of the country’s first indoor Chevy dealerships, which they’ve decorated in industrial chic and filled with three children.

But this image of being a savior also drew skepticism.

“He’s this big presence, and everyone thinks he’s John Wayne,” Buba said. “It’s not that simple.”

Buba acknowledges that violence in Braddock is down, but the population is still hovering around 2,000. And while the average income has grown, it still leaves a lot to be desired, at under $25,000 per household. What good is a fancy place to eat in town, Buba asks, if hardly anyone there can afford it?

“I never said I could save Braddock,” Fetterman said. “It’s not about me. It was never even just about Braddock. It was a metaphor. Places like this matter.”

A consequential speech

Donald Trump understood the metaphor.

In late June 2016, the New York billionaire rolled his motorcade through the Pennsylvania town of Monessen on his way to a rally at the local aluminum plant.

Fetterman didn’t believe it at first.

“Either they’re onto something,” he texted his former campaign manager who had gone on to work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, “or they’ve completely lost their minds.”

He couldn’t think of any high-profile politicians who had come to the area since the days of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, who once squared off for a debate in McKeesport.

Fetterman’s own campaign in the area had recently ended, having already lost his bid for the U.S. Senate. Like Trump, he had run as an outsider.

“They laughed at him,” said Rebecca Katz, a communications consultant for Fetterman. “The Democratic Party . . . only thought about who could bring in the biggest checks, and he didn’t look the part so was disregarded.”

Instead, the party lined up behind Katie McGinty, the state’s former environmental protection secretary.

Fetterman lost the primary but surprised a lot of people by getting 20 percent of the vote and winning Allegheny County, his home. McGinty lost in the general.

Out of the race, Fetterman decided to help Clinton however he could, speaking alongside her at a raucous Pittsburgh rally. He would have taken her around the surrounding towns, too, had she asked.

But instead, here was Trump, giving a speech in front of a pile of recycled aluminum, speaking about the “forgotten” workers in left-behind towns.

Fetterman — who said he showed up to the rally only to be turned away by campaign staff who recognized him — would come to believe that this was the moment Trump started winning over voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

“The speech changed the course of the election, the course of history,” he said.

Among the remains

When Big John has a visitor, he heads up into the hills.

He slouches into a black pickup and drives into the towns surrounding Braddock, the places that never had a mayor quite like him. That’s where the abandoned houses are left to crumble.

He’s done this tour dozens of times, for anyone who asks, but there are so many bombed-out houses to choose from that he’s never had to go back to the same one twice.

“Fetterman is the guy who watches the inauguration and nods his head when the president talks about ‘American carnage,’ ” said Salena Zito, a friend of Fetterman’s from the area and author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.” “It’s in his back yard.”

Fetterman’s job is now to bring his back yard to Harrisburg, to represent areas like this on the gubernatorial ticket. After Trump, Fetterman suddenly didn’t seem like such an odd choice. He was just “the type of Democrat our state and our party need right now,” former governor Ed Rendell said in a 2017 endorsement.

“He’s got a future that’s bigger than lieutenant governor,” said Sanders.

“He’s got an authenticity that both parties are looking for,” said Zito.

Everyone, in other words, wants a folk hero.

“I agree he has that image,” said Jeff Bartos, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. “But if this race comes down to who is the real common man, we feel good.”

Bartos points out that it’s Scott Wagner, the Republican nominee for governor, who grew up on a farm, shoveled manure for his first job and — unlike the Democrats with their fancy Ivy League degrees — never graduated from college.

Ivy League or not, Fetterman looked at home driving through the town of McKeesport in his black work shirt and jeans. After puttering through the hills, he pulled over at a dead end and walked into a dying house. He quietly took stock of a former living room in disarray: clothes strewn across the floor, a photo of a baby in her Sunday best, a piano crumbling in the corner.

“Someone loved that piano,” he said. “Then, they just disappeared.”

He crunched through the house, noting the yellowing paint peeling off the walls, and ducking to avoid a rusty nail in a door frame. He left quietly to poke around a house next door, a census-taker of the missing. This is what happens to places when no one is looking out for them.

A car pulled up alongside, and a man with a white beard lowered his window.

“Hey,” he said. “Thank you for what you’re doing. I’m a pastor who was called here for the same reason you were. You’re that politician, right? I’m sorry to use that word.”

“Well,” the giant said to the preacher. “I don’t necessarily call myself one . . . but, yeah, I guess I am. I’m John Fetterman, the candidate for lieutenant governor.”