WILKES-BARRE — John Fetterman changed his life after his best friend was killed in an automobile accident, and for the last 11 years, he has been trying to change the town of Braddock, where he serves as mayor.
And now, Fetterman, 46, wants to change the way Congress works.
Fetterman is one of three declared candidates for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. He is running against Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty. The primary winner will then square off against Republican incumbent Pat Toomey of Zionsville in November.
Fetterman stopped at the Times Leader Thursday to talk about his campaign and what he brings to the table. An imposing figure — he’s 6-foot-8, weighs about 350 pounds, shaves his head and displays several tattoos — Fetterman grew up in York in a conservative family. He said his dad “did well for himself” and Fetterman never had to worry about the world around him.
“I’m either recognized or I get ‘Oh my goodness,’” Fetterman said. “Last week in Philadelphia, two people asked for my autograph and two others crossed the street because I intimidated them.”
Fetterman said he is who he is. He said he doesn’t have “movie star looks.” He said he shaves his head because he doesn’t have much hair to grow.
“It’s just who I am,” he said.
But it was that seminal moment in Fetterman’s life when his friend, Eric, was killed that gave him focus.
“I guess you could call it a quarter-life crisis,” Fetterman said.
It was 1993 and Fetterman was just out of Albright College. He got involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, throwing himself into the program. He mentored his “little,” an 8-year-old boy who had lost his father to AIDS and whose mother was battling the disease. Before she died, Fetterman promised here he would continue to look out for her son. The boy graduated from college some 15 years later.
“It made me question why I was so lucky in life,” Fetterman said. “And here was this little boy who was an AIDS orphan before his ninth birthday.”
Fetterman intends to address the “inequality” he sees in the world. He wants to help struggling families so they don’t have to worry about being able to pay their utility bills or buy food. He said getting a good education shouldn’t depend on what zip code you live in.
“Braddock has no wealthy section,” Fetterman said, noting that the town has lost 90 percent of its population. “But if you live in Mt. Lebanon, your kids will go to the best schools in the state. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Fetterman went on to quit his job and join AmeriCorps’ second class. For two years, he served in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District, where he helped set up the first computer labs in the neighborhood and taught GED classes to young mothers and fathers.
Fetterman went back to school, earning a master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he focused on finding solutions in social work, business, and public policy to confront urban challenges and economic inequality.
He returned to Braddock to start a GED program in what was once a booming steel town where Andrew Carnegie established his first mill. In 2001, Braddock was one of the poorest and most troubled communities in the commonwealth, facing steep population decline and high rates of poverty. Fetterman said he has seen a recent increase in the town’s population.
“People are locating here who would never have considered Braddock as their residence,” he said.
When he ran for mayor in 2005, Fetterman managed to win the crowded primary by a single vote. He was unopposed in the general election.
“There are no Republicans in Braddock,” he said. “Only when my parents visit.”
According to his website, over the last 10 years as mayor, Fetterman said the cycle of violence in Braddock has been broken. On his inside right forearm, Fetterman has the dates of gun-related violent deaths in Braddock. He points to the nearly 5½ year gap when no lives were taken. On his left arm, the Braddock zip code is tattooed.
Fetterman has been shown as running third in the Democratic race, but he said there is “no clear front-runner.” He said Sestak has been in the race for years and McGinty has former Gov. Ed Rendell as her campaign manager and the endorsement of current Gov. Tom Wolf. He said with his limited resources, he is pleased with being close in the race. He said a targeted media plan and a grassroots campaign will elevate his candidacy.
Fetterman and his wife, Gisele, and their three children Karl, 6, Gracie 4, and August, 20 months, live in a restored car dealership in Braddock with the family bulldog, Dave.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.