Many years ago, then-Braddock mayor John Fetterman turned up unexpectedly at a constituent’s address carrying a wood-burning stove and heaved it into her home, recalls Pennsylvania resident and illustrator Kevin McCloskley.
Fetterman at the time was striving to attract residents to the blighted steel town and told this particular newcomer, one of McCloskey's family friends, that he couldn’t let her freeze during the winter.
Recalling the incident amid Fetterman's run for Pennsylvania's open Senate seat, the artist recently hopped on Facebook and casually posted the story and his illustration of the stove-toting mayor. Within a few hours, it had gone viral, getting shared thousands of times on social media.
“If I knew the post would go so viral, I would’ve drawn a better portrait,” McCloskey said.
But the anecdote and image encapsulate two qualities that people who know Fetterman, now lieutenant governor, often mention: First, he has no problem taking matters into his own hands. And second, the tattooed politician — who said his face is used in national inherent bias training and that people often peg him as a skinhead or criminal — is good at drawing attention.
The 53-year-old Democrat’s ability to strike a chord served him well as an emerging politician and could be all the more important now that he’s embroiled in a fierce U.S. Senate race against Republican celebrity physician Mehmet Oz, a fight he's waging while recovering from the life-threatening stroke he suffered in May.
Though Fetterman alone enters the running with elected experience, the roles he’s occupied have come with very little formal authority attached. Still, political observers say, his willingness to flout convention and knack for brand-building have helped him rise to fame anyway — and could offer clues about how he’d lead if he wins the seat that will help determine the Senate's partisan balance.
As mayor of a struggling borough less than 10 miles from Pittsburgh, he presented a comeback narrative that landed him several spots on the "Colbert Report" and encouraged businesses to invest in Braddock. News outlets seemed to love the images of the goateed, 6-foot-8-inch mayor looming over Braddock's post-apocalyptic landscape, a smoke-belching steel mill in the background.
Years later, he grew a national profile from the generally sleepy lieutenant governor’s office.
“A lot of elected officials don’t do anything with the power that they actually have,” Democratic political strategist Joe Corrigan said. “The ones who are really successful take power that exists because of vacuums and make it their own.”
Fetterman returns to Senate campaign trail during rally at the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie
Pursuit of power isn't always a recipe for making friends and allies, though.
Fetterman’s critics say he’s sought out the limelight rather than sharing it and fault him for barreling forward as a loner on projects when listening would’ve helped him accomplish more.
People who worked with the lieutenant governor on Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons described him as forceful and sometimes bullying as he pushed to grant clemency to individuals he believed should get a second chance, the Philadelphia Inquirer has reported.
And Chardaé Jones, who served as Braddock mayor after Fetterman, has her doubts about the lasting value of his hard-charging, individualistic leadership style in her community.
“I think he was eager to make things happen,” Jones said of his work in Braddock. “And he might not have had the foresight to think about the future.”
Leaving the 'comfortable, conservative' York bubble
It was more than 20 years ago, in a small office festooned with Christmas lights and a poster from the gangster film "Scarface," that Fetterman started a GED program in Braddock and began building relationships in the community he'd later lead, local resident Lisa Franklin-Robinson recalls.
The poster was captioned with the words, "the world is yours," a message that Franklin-Robinson felt was critical for the town's young people, who had long been denied access to resources and opportunities.
Fetterman had arrived fresh off earning his master's degree in public policy at Harvard University, intent on finding a path in life that deviated from what he calls the “comfortable, conservative York bubble” of his upbringing.
Fetterman’s world had turned upside-down a few years earlier, when his best friend died in a car crash on the way to pick him up. And his perspective shifted again after he joined Big Brothers Big Sisters and began mentoring an 8-year-old boy whose father had died from AIDS and who was also losing his mother from the disease.
Life was a “random lottery of birth,” he concluded, realizing he was no longer comfortable becoming a suit-and-tie worker in a financial institution and needed to find a different purpose for his future. He taught GED classes in Pittsburgh for a while, and in 2001, started a program in Braddock.
Despite the fact that Fetterman was an outsider, young people in Braddock warmed to him, said Tina Doose, a former borough councilwoman.
He was tattooed and edgy. When he bought a warehouse and converted it into his home, he invited young people to graffiti the interior.
At the suggestion of the young people he knew, Fetterman ran for Braddock mayor, an office with little power and barely any salary. He won his first election by a single vote and got a chance to put his vision for a Braddock renaissance into practice.
Fetterman is known sometimes as a 'lone ranger'
Soon enough, he was delivering TED Talks about his ideas for revitalizing the town and appearing on "The Colbert Report," while national publications began writing about his work and his gritty persona in equal measure. The Rolling Stone profile of Fetterman was headlined, “The Mayor of Hell.”
The mayor’s vision drew in attorney and investor Gregg Kander, who’s since helped open a Michelin-starred restaurant in a former car dealership and led a project to convert a historic furniture store building into affordable art apartments.
The town also caught the notice of Levi's, which shot an ad campaign in Braddock and — at Fetterman’s insistence — used local residents as models. Because of the partnership, the jeans company chipped in about $1 million to help open a community center in Braddock.
Doose, who served for years on the council while Fetterman was mayor, said his white privilege and his advanced degree were factors in his success in bringing publicity to the blighted. Still, she's glad it worked.
“I could stand on a building and scream 'til I was blue in the face, and Levi Strauss wasn't gonna give me a million dollars. He was an educated white guy, Harvard grad. Yes, that resonated," said Doose, who is Black.
But people who worked with Fetterman in Braddock said his single-minded drive in pursuit of his goals sometimes cut other people out of the equation.
His relationship with the city council was frosty during his time as mayor, and he rarely attended council meetings. Former Borough Manager Ella Jones accused him of acting like the "great white hope" in the majority-Black town and trying to use the community as a stepping stone for his own ambitions.
Fetterman found ways to circumvent city officials after starting a nonprofit, Braddock Redux, which at first ran mainly on money donated by his family. He accepted the Levi's donation through the nonprofit so he could move forward with the community center project with fewer political roadblocks, but some raised concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability in the process, the New York Times has reported.
Doose said Fetterman was just trying to get things accomplished during a period of turmoil in the borough government. Council meetings were so tense Doose said she would've skipped them along with Fetterman if she'd had the option. Jones was ultimately charged with embezzling municipal funds.
Lisa Freeman, who was a social worker in Braddock while Fetterman was mayor, said his passion was for making progress in the community even when he had to do it alone — and while he was responsive, he also wasn't a hand-holder or prone to micromanaging.
"When people say he's not a team player, I would say he's not a team player in the way that insecure people would want a team player," she said.
Fetterman's approach could also be a function of his personality; Doose characterizes him as a "lone ranger."
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Jones, who was Braddock’s mayor until last year, said Fetterman has felt remote to her even though she spent a couple years living just a few doors down from him. She believes Fetterman genuinely cares about the community and is acting with good intentions. She just wishes she saw more of him off-camera.
“It’d be cool if he showed up once in a blue moon to community things,” she said.
Fetterman's wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, described her husband as "uncomfortably shy" and said he actually hates being in the limelight he so often attracts. Unlike many politicians, she said, "I think he goes through a mental exercise to really be able to put himself out there that way."
But Gisele Fetterman said she sees this reserved quality as a strength, not a weakness, because it's so rare in someone seeking elected office.
"Politicians want to be in the front of every photo. John is in the back row of every photo since kindergarten because he's so tall," she said. "And so, he makes room for others."
Fetterman has a reputation for bucking authority
Fetterman was again able to play with the conventions of an elected post in 2019 after becoming lieutenant governor, another office that came with little formal authority or responsibility.
The Democrat has said one of his primary reasons for pursuing the job of lieutenant governor was so he could chair the state’s board of pardons.
Since Fetterman started leading the board, the number of pardons and life-sentence commutations recommended by the panel has shot up. His involvement went beyond just board meetings and votes, though; Fetterman pushed to eliminate fees to apply for clemency and with Gov. Tom Wolf instituted a fast-track pardon process for people convicted of a marijuana offense.
He made it a personal mission to secure a pardon for a barbershop owner whose story he heard while Braddock mayor and has even hired some of the individuals who have received clemency.
That includes Lee and Dennis "Freedom" Horton, brothers who were released from prison last year after the pardons board recommended clemency for them and the governor commuted their life sentences.
The brothers spent nearly three decades in prison for a 1993 robbery and murder they maintained they did not commit. For years, they'd fought to return home, all while becoming mentors and role models within prison. Even the corrections administrators implored the board for their release.
They said Fetterman began advocating for them without even being asked — and refused to give up until they were free.
"He could have walked away like any other person," said Lee Horton, who now works with his brother on Fetterman's campaign. "I get a little emotional talking about it sometimes, because he did something for us that pretty much saved our lives."
Sean Damon, organizing director of the Amistad Law Project, cautions that Fetterman doesn't deserve sole credit for changes to the state's pardon system; the process had already been undergoing a "sea change" thanks to years of advocacy by people serving sentences and their families, and everyone from the governor to state correctional officials were part of this shift, he said. But Fetterman's contribution was significant, Damon acknowledged.
"His role on the board was courageous," he said. "He really stepped out to advocate and do the right thing in a number of cases of people who otherwise would've died in prison at great expense to Pennsylvania taxpayers."
As in Braddock, Fetterman's approach rankled some of those who worked with him as lieutenant governor. The Inquirer has reported that Fetterman at one point threatened to run in the gubernatorial primary against Attorney General Josh Shapiro, another member of the pardons board, unless more clemency cases moved forward. (Shapiro's spokesperson said that never happened.)
Corrigan, the Democratic strategist, believes Fetterman also ruffled feathers in the Pennsylvania Senate, over which the lieutenant governor presides, because he has little patience for pomp and feel-good gestures.
“He doesn’t want to just do the procedural f***ery that the Democrats and Republicans both do to score cheap points,” Corrigan said. “Doing things that are tokens or just for show is really important in politics. Symbolism is important. Which maybe he doesn’t quite subscribe to that theory. He’s a guy who wants to do stuff.”
This predilection dates back to his time as Braddock mayor, when he established a sometimes controversial pattern of taking matters into his own hands.
Democrats and Republicans alike have criticized him for pulling a shotgun on an unarmed Black jogger in Braddock in 2013. Fetterman, who said he'd heard gunshots and wanted to detain the man until police arrived, didn't offer an apology even when he was pressed for one during this year's primary. He has said he was not aware of the man's race at the time of the incident.
In 2010, the mayor was arrested after refusing to leave private property while staging a one-man rally to demand an urgent care center in Braddock. And he also flouted state laws banning gay marriage by officiating a string of same-sex marriages.
As lieutenant governor, Fetterman hung LGBTQ rights and cannabis flags over his office balcony at the Capitol, and after the state Legislature outlawed the display, he simply swapped out the original banners with bigger ones.
And instead of moving into the lieutenant governor’s mansion, he decided to keep his family in Braddock. He and Gisele Fetterman ended up opening the mansion’s pool to the public, saying all Pennsylvania's children should have the opportunity to swim in the summer.
Wharton School marketing professor Cait Lamberton said Fetterman's unconventional style has helped him maintain a sense of warmth even as he’s accumulated power and fame.
For instance, she said many politicians struggle when they’re sharing family photos, posting pictures of kids who look like “they came from central casting.” The Fetterman family, on the other hand, comes across as unique.
The kids sometimes look distracted in family photos, their dogs are often tumbling around on someone’s lap and Gisele Fetterman amuses herself by arranging pictures that cut her 6-foot, 8-inch husband’s head out of the frame. Fetterman largely rejects dress suits and has practically made a uniform out of hoodie-and-shorts combos, which he wears even in the bitter cold.
His campaign messaging and expletive-peppered press releases are equally unvarnished, laying into Fetterman's political foes as "simps" or worse.
This everyman imageenables Fetterman to connect with Pennsylvania’s white working class voters, even as Oz's campaign tries to portray him as a left-wing radical, according to Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College.
Others see Fetterman's grittiness and refusal to conform as one of his biggest potential liabilities as a candidate, possibly turning off more traditional voters, says Republican strategist Vince Galko.
“Pennsylvanians are like, ‘Come on, man. You’re lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. You’re going to meet the president of the United States, and you're wearing cutoff shorts and a hoodie? Like, Pennsylvania deserves a little bit better than that,'” he said.
Braddock residents hope businesses boom and new ones appear
Jones, the former Braddock mayor, said Fetterman undeniably brought publicity to the community and to himself; after all, his skill in garnering attention catapulted him from a tiny borough to national fame. But some of the projects and initiatives he started in the town have fizzled over time, she said.
Her town’s population has continued to decline, slipping by about 400 people since 2010, according to the 2020 census.
Superior Motors, the fine-dining restaurant that Kander helped establish, closed its doors at the beginning of the pandemic. Kander says the chef has moved on to other ventures and doesn’t plan on returning.
And Jones says Braddock’s community center has been largely out of commission for the last few years while under renovation to upgrade it and make it accessible to people with disabilities.
She gives Fetterman credit for working to tear down dilapidated buildings but says now Braddock is full of vacant lots, and there's a sore need for people to buy and redevelop these empty spaces.
“It feels like we’ve been stuck in the Twilight Zone,” she said.
Even if Fetterman’s roles have given him little opportunity to push massive policy changes, Doose and Franklin-Robinson say his talent for casting the spotlight on certain issues is itself valuable.
In the last 10 years, Franklin-Robinson notes, a brewery has opened in Braddock. A software company has established an office in the borough, giving new life to a historic church and synagogue, and a company called Fifth Season recently built a vertical indoor farm growing lettuce, spinach and other greens.
Franklin-Robinson, director at the recently formed Mon Metro Chamber of Commerce, which covers Braddock, said those changes give her hope.
Similarly, much of Fetterman's work on the board of pardons was personal and incremental — not the sweeping systemic overhaul that many criminal justice advocates would like to see. And yet, opening up the clemency process could help pave the way for broader changes, Damon of the Amistad Law Project said.
And if Fetterman is elected, his supporters are counting on him to pull off what he did as an obscure mayor who somehow landed spots on the "Colbert Report" and Rachel Maddow's show. In other words, Franklin-Robinson said, they’re looking for him to do the improbable.
"The role of mayor in a borough is limited. John expanded that role," she said. "He drew national attention to Braddock through many different media venues, as a historical town that was worth preserving."
Borick said he thinks that’s the promise embedded in Fetterman’s campaign — that though he's not an experienced legislator or even a traditional politician, he would bring a spirit of innovation to the Senate.
“I think what he's claiming both explicitly and maybe implicitly is that he will be an entrepreneur in the Senate,” the professor said. “And find paths to make things happen.”