Running Outside the Box

Nov 24, 2015
1:46 PM
John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, PA, is running for the U.S. Senate (

John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, PA, is running for the U.S. Senate (

The first thing most people notice about John Fetterman is his size. At 6’8″ and 320 pounds, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania towers over nearly everybody. But this big mayor of a small town has even bigger plans: he wants to be Pennsylvania’s next senator.

To win the Democratic nomination and challenge incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey, Mayor Fetterman will first have to defeat a couple of names as big as him. Former Congressman Joe Sestak ran for Senate in 2010, but lost to Toomey by two percent. Katie McGinty served as secretary of environmental protection under Governor Ed Rendell and was current Governor Tom Wolf’s chief of staff during the first half of this year.

For his part, Fetterman is touting his record as an on-the-ground organizer of people and resources. After receiving a degree in finance from Albright College, the death of his best friend at the age of 23 led Fetterman to leave UConn’s business school and start on a lifelong path of public service. He joined the New Haven chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, where he was paired with an eight-year-old boy whose father had just died of AIDS, a disease which would also claim the boy’s mother only a month later. It was an experience that, Fetterman says, introduced him to the “idea of the random lottery of birth.”

Fetterman moved to Pittsburgh and joined AmeriCorps, the federal program focused on community service. He worked in the Hill District, Pittsburgh’s historic Black community, teaching GED classes and office skills. After two years, and wanting to expand his opportunities to serve, Fetterman returned to graduate school, this time at the Harvard Kennedy School, receiving a master’s degree in public policy in 1999. Then came Braddock.

You wouldn’t know it now, but the town of Braddock was one of the epicenters of America’s Second Industrial Revolution. It was here, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River, that Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill in 1872, which still operates today (and across from which Mayor Fetterman lives in a renovated car dealership). At the height of the steel industry during the 1920s, Braddock was home to over 20,000 people. Today, its population is only about one-tenth of that.

Still with AmeriCorps, Fetterman arrived in Braddock in 2001 and set up a GED program. Then, in his never-ending quest to find new ways to do more, he decided to run for mayor. He was elected in 2005 by a single vote and has been mayor ever since.

Along with his size, Fetterman’s also known for the tattoos prominently displayed on his forearms. On his left arm, Braddock’s zip code (15104); on his right, the nine dates on which residents were killed during his time in office.

As if that weren’t enough, there is yet one more detail about Fetterman that makes him an unusual candidate for the U.S. Senate: his wife Gisele, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and came to the United States at the age of eight, lived as an undocumented immigrant.

On Monday his campaign released a video in which Fetterman presents his wife’s story and his views on immigration.

I spoke with the mayor and Senate candidate by phone this morning to discuss the current state of immigrant rights and immigration reform, and what he as a U.S. senator would do to bring about a change that is long overdue.

Pennsylvania isn’t a border state. It has a little less than 800,000 Latinos. Four percent of eligible voters are Latino. So why make the immigration issue part of your campaign?

Because it’s the right thing to do. If I want to give an analogy, it’s that Pennsylvania isn’t what I would call a really progressive hotbed for LGBT rights, but I also performed a same-sex marriage before it was legal [in Pennsylvania] back in 2013, and I did that because it’s the right thing to do. Even though Pennsylvania, as you pointed out, isn’t immigration heavy, our country is immigration heavy, and it’s an important issue. My wife’s origin story presents a true face of what immigration is in this country, as opposed to the horrid things that a political party in this country is saying about Syrian refugees.

Speaking of your wife’s story, I know that your wife Gisele came here when she was eight years old. She was born in Rio de Janeiro. She was undocumented for a time. Did she overstay her visa like so many people do, and how did she fix her status?

The family deliberately overstayed their visa, and they moved to the United States. They were fleeing a violent and kind of unstable situation, and Gisele’s mother took her and her brother to this country.

And how did she fix her status?

She got married. I’m not her first marriage. She married at a younger age, and it didn’t work out. But that put her on the path to getting her green card.

The mayor's wife, Gisele, was born in Rio de Janeiro and lived as an undocumented youth after coming to the United States at the age of 8 (

The mayor’s wife, Gisele, was born in Rio de Janeiro and lived as an undocumented youth after coming to the United States at the age of 8 (

So what is your view on President Obama’s use of his executive powers to protect undocumented children and their parents? And do you support the DREAM Act?

Oh, without a doubt. I applaud the president for taking the actions that he’s able to through executive authority, and the DREAM Act– This is what I don’t get: even if you are a Tea Partier, the DREAM Act is just American. It’s like, why wouldn’t you want to give people the best chances that they can [have] to succeed and to not punish people that were brought here as a child? I mean, to be held accountable for the actions when you’re eight years old, that’s un-American. It’s ridiculous. The DREAM Act is the bare minimum of what would construe a decent and fair immigration response in this country. I support it.

In 2009 and 2010, Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and had President Obama in the White House. Yet they failed to pass anything on immigration front. That kind of burned a lot of immigration supporters. And then, in 2014, a compromise in the House fell through at the last minute. So what kind of things would you do as a senator to change the history of immigration reform in Congress?

Well, I would say: use the bully pulpit, and use the example of my family as a bully pulpit to drive that issue home. You know, all senators have their issues that they care about because they’ve been steeped in that — whether it’s financial regulation, whether it’s unfair trade, or whatever’s touched their lives, special education, or what have you — and immigration is one of those issues. There needs to be a more forceful advocacy pushback on the Democratic side, and I very much want to join that chorus.

And speaking of pushback, obviously a number of candidates running for office in 2016, especially on the Republican side, are coming down really hard on immigration, specifically Donald Trump describing immigrants as “rapists” and saying that, as president, he would build a huge wall–

It’s unprecedented. You know, it used to be at least they would try to hide their xenophobia and racism, but now it’s actually celebrated. And the more outrageous things you can say, the better. To me, winning isn’t everything. If I had to renounce a little five-year-old orphan boy from Syria being denied admittance to win this race, I would much rather fall on my sword and be on the right side of history and decency. The rhetoric that’s coming out of the other side is a disgrace. And, like I said, that’s why I’m making immigration such an issue, because I’ve been disappointed by the lack of forceful pushback from our side.

You kind of touched on it, but Gov. Tom Wolf has stated clearly that Pennsylvania will continue to accept Syrian refugees. Of course, more than half of the states’ governors have said they will refuse to take in any more. What’s your view on that?

Again, it’s the difference of being on the right and wrong side of history, you know? The analogous [scenario is] the way we turned away Jewish immigrants that were fleeing the Holocaust, and you look how shameful those villains look now in history, where they turned away boats of people that were just trying to escape it. It was the same thing. If you go back and study it, it was based on the same kind of prejudice and racism, or this ridiculous fear. Of course, it was completely unfounded. And, again, immigration is what makes the country great, it’s what makes the country grow, and to turn your back on the ideals that are at the core of the American experience, what does that say about us as a country?

People have such short memories. They forget that Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian father, and these same people who are denying the Syrian refugees were celebrating him after his death.

I couldn’t agree more. And I don’t know if you saw the teaser on immigration, I am proud and grateful, you know– I was asked on national television, if you saw the Chris Hayes interview

Yeah, I saw that.

He asked me about my wife staying here illegally, and I was like, “I’m so glad she did.” I’m not aware of a single elected official or candidate who would ever say something like that, because that’s my reality. And I can only run on my reality and my truth, and that’s where my family came from. That’s what I’m going to run on, because it’s the right thing to do. I didn’t poll test it, I didn’t focus group it, I didn’t do anything. It was just: is this the right thing or the wrong thing? And I went from there.

As mayor, with your work in Braddock, you’ve been doing a lot of work with environmental protection and socioeconomic inequality. As you said, you’re a strong proponent of marriage equality and ending the War on Drugs and the prison-industrial complex. So, besides the immigration issue, there’s a lot there progressive-wise. But why should the Latinos of Pennsylvania vote for John Fetterman?

Because I’ve taken on the issues I think would be the most meaningful to bring a quality of life for them. You know, you have Latinos living in Hazleton, for example, where their mayor campaigned on the whole issue, and, again, it’s the same kind of xenophobia and demagoguery and playing to the lowest common denominator. I want to play to the highest common denominator, and that’s really what my campaign is about, you know? I can’t live on $8.50 an hour. Can you? So why are political parties saying, that’s okay, we don’t need to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour? You take any of these issues, and it’s like, this is why I support it.

I don’t know why it’s considered progressive or liberal. I just think it’s fair. It’s like: Can you live of $9 an hour? Well, of course not. Can you take care of your family on $9 an hour? Well, of course not. Should you go to jail if you use marijuana? Well, of course not. Has our War on Drugs worked? Well, of course not. Has our Middle East policy of the last 15 years worked? Well, of course not. So to me this is like, well, it hasn’t worked, so let’s try something that will work. And I never understood why it’s considered progressive. To me it’s almost like a law of nature. If you drop something, it falls to the ground; there’s gravity. If you pay somebody $8.50 an hour, you know they can’t pay to take care of themselves and their family. So what happens? We still pay for it as a society. Why not do it the right way and give people a living wage?


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.