After his stunning showing in the Democratic U.S. senate primary race — nearly edging out the 2010 nominee Joe Sestak and giving the winner Katie McGinty heartburn with no money, no name recognition and no establishment backing — he is also hard to forget.
State party Democrats admit privately that, in all likelihood, he would have beaten Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in the U.S. Senate race in November. Even some Republicans admit he could have won, or at least gotten closer than McGinty.
Fetterman, who lives in a converted Chevy car dealership in the town named after the famed British General Edward Braddock “is unbelievably authentic and has a great personal story,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican media consultant in Harrisburg Pennsylvania.
“He could have definitely given Toomey a run for his money,” Gerow said. “While I don’t agree with Fetterman on most issues, he has a core philosophy, and I can understand how that would be appealing to both Democrats, independents and some Republicans,” he said.
McGinty had everything in her favor going into the election; the seat was considered a winnable target for the Democrats, who hoped to regain their majority. She had President Obama’s backing, tons of money and the powerful former governor Ed Rendell as her campaign chairman.
McGinty fell to Toomey by nearly 2 percentage points winning only seven of Pennsylvania 67 counties
Fetterman is not bitter, but he does point out that McGinty did not even win her home county.
The former college linebacker and Harvard University grad is complex and hard to label. He disobeyed state law and performed the county’s first gay marriage. He also pulled a 20-guage shotgun when he thought someone was involved in a shooting in his neighborhood.
There are currently no options for him to run for office in the state. Despite the big midterm elections coming up in 2018, the seats he would be interested in running for already have incumbent Democrats looking to retain them.
Both Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf have indicated they will seek reelection. Despite his current status as a mayor, a leap for a congressional, or state legislative seat seems small for his potential. So Fetterman is left with nowhere to go.
Fetterman, 47, runs the small Rust Belt town like a family, firmly but with love. Last week he pulled a man out of a dumpster who was overdosing on heroin.
“His friends got scared when he started overdosing so they threw him in the dumpster, we caught wind of it, fished him out and gave him a dose of Narcan, it saved his life,” he said.
If you are driving through Braddock today you would think the town has hit rock bottom. And you would be wrong. Rock bottom happened a few years ago after this anti-hero from rural, conservative York Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in finance from Albright College a master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard University moved here to serve with AmeriCorps.
He fell in love with the majestic beauty of the town and the townspeople despite, the rampant societal decay, an affection that led him to run against the incumbent mayor in 2005.
He won by a single vote.
Then, the only hospital — and main employer — in town left. But he dug Braddock out of rock bottom. He fought and gained an urgent care center, 12 new small businesses and a world class brewery.
Fetterman is the poster-child of the promise of Generation-X. He did not enter politics because of political ambition and you will not find him office shopping around for somewhere to run.
His home is the former Superior Motors car dealership right across the street from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson works. There is even a cement ramp that runs through the middle of the dealership-turned-home where he lives with his wife Gisele and their three children.
Gisele is a native Brazilian. She was busy running the “Free Store” a mile down the road from their home; the store is housed in an old shipping container and staffed by locals, it provides food and clothing for people not only in Braddock, but for the whole county.
The Pepperidge Farms delivery truck had just dropped off two cases of food for the pantry on Thursday, much to the delight of everyone who was ‘shopping’ at the store.
“We need a better message,” says Fetterman of his party.
He recalls an interaction he had with a woman in a Mon Valley supermarket who was weighing which package of hotdogs to purchase for her home.
“I knew in my heart she was going to vote for Donald Trump, because he had found a way to cut through and reach voters like her who could barely afford a package of hotdogs, and we hadn’t,” he said.
“That voter should be in our wheelhouse,” he said after asking her who she was supporting for president. Her answer was, Trump.
“We have spent too much time in our urban planning to gentrify cities or create organic gardens in Portland and San Francisco. We’ve not spent time in cities like Youngstown, Ohio, Gary, Ind. or McKeesport, Pa.,” he said.
“Essentially we have been leaving too many people behind, the people who really need us,” he said.
Braddock’s population is down to 2,500 from it’s high of 20,000 in 1920. The U.S. Steel plant provides a great tax base for the town’s funds, but gone are the days when you saw men and women carrying their lunchboxes down the main drag walking to work.
Most people who work at the Braddock plant don’t live in Braddock. Instead, they headed to the suburbs, which is part of why the town is sprinkled with abandoned homes. When the town hit hard times and folks could not sell their homes they just left them and never looked back.
The town’s population is 80 percent African American, with an equal percentage living in poverty. Heroin is king here, not just for the addicted. Trafficking of the opioid in the streets is a big problem.
“It is the scourge of forgotten America. Just last week we had a father sitting in the driver’s seat of the car, with a baby in the back, the car in idle as he overdosed,” he said.
“We need to do a better job of understanding the problems facing our communities — get down in there and work with people, or we will continue to lose seats,” he said of Democrats.
“That was my message because I live it. I don’t just parachute into a town that has problems, I live it every day,” he said.
“Fetterman talks to people the way they talk to each other. You get the sense that he gives a damn. The problem is he is boxed out of” a race for higher office, said Dane Strother, a Washington-based Democratic strategist.
Democratic state party chairman Marcel Groen says Fetterman is a solid example of the kind of candidates the party needs to attract, “He has unlimited potential,” he said.
Fetterman gets the Trump voter because he comes from a family of Trump voters.
“I was running as a progressive Democrat for the U.S. Senate and my parents had a Trump sign in their yard,” he said of his Republican parents who still live in York.
“But it is also a strange time in American politics,” he said. “The daily outrages on social media have given me outrage fatigue,” he said.
“If Democrats are going to survive and flourish, it is not about going left or towards the middle, it is about offering voters something authentic, and real and aspirational. Something that they want to be part of that is bigger than themselves,” he said.
In the meantime he will still be in Braddock, making a difference any way he can.