John Fetterman, a Democratic rising star, says he’s just being honest

  • John Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock, was elected lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 2018, beating out better funded opponents.
  • Fetterman has taken an oft-overlooked post and made it his bully pulpit, using the office to advocate for criminal justice reform, including the legalization of marijuana.
  • In an interview with Business Insider, he discussed the outgoing president’s allegations of voter fraud, saying the only two he’s been able to find are cases of people who voted for Trump.
  • “The fact that they both happen to be Trump voters is funny, but it’s immaterial because it demonstrates that, one, how rare it is, but also how hard it is to commit voter fraud,” he said.
  • He is often discussed as a potential candidate for governor or US Senate, with elections for both taking place in 2022. He says he’s undecided on his next steps.
  • “I truthfully don’t know,” he told me, “but tell your friends in Philadelphia that Sheetz is much better than Wawa and that the Steelers are much better than the Eagles.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

John Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock, was elected lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 2018, beating out better-funded opponents.

He is not a democratic socialist, although he was a big supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, and he doesn’t even like the label of “progressive.” John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Democratic lieutenant governor who lives in a remodeled Chevy dealership, believes his politics can best be described as honesty — honesty about the world in which billionaires receive tax cuts while working-class wages stagnate.

“If you’re willing to argue that $7.25 cents an hour is an appropriate or fair minimum wage, then you’re a liar. It’s outrageous. It’s despicable,” Fetterman said in an interview with Business Insider, referring to a federal minimum wage that hasn’t been raised since the last recession in 2009. “It condemns people to a life below poverty-line subsistence. It’s deeply un-American. It’s deeply unfair.”

“That’s not ‘progressive,'” Fetterman maintained. “That’s the f—ing truth.”

There are several reasons why Fetterman is probably the first lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania that anyone outside the state could recognize. For one, he is physically hard to miss, standing at 6’8″. He has also used the oft-anonymous position as a bully pulpit, typified by his displaying two flags outside his office in the state capitol of Harrisburg promoting two causes that are important to him: LGBTQ+ rights and marijuana, which he would have like to have legalized yesterday. (The state’s Republican legislature, peeved by the display, recently voted to have the flags removed.)

He takes his official duties seriously. If something were to happen to Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, he would be the man in charge. And as chairman of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, he has also has the ability to influence whether a person should be judged by the worst thing they ever did or given another chance at life.

“This idea that you can’t ever achieve forgiveness or redemption I think is flawed,” Fetterman said. With the exception of truly heinous crimes, “you should be able to work your way back.”

He pointed to the case of Corry Sanders, who in 2016 won a seat on the city council of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, about a half-hour outside Pittsburgh. Though he was democratically elected by his peers, “he was denied [his seat] because he had a drug conviction from 25 years ago. And that’s outrageous. That’s crazy.”

Last year, Fetterman, who championed Sanders’ case before taking office in 2018, and every other member of the state’s parole board voted to pardon him for that crime. “That’s what I’m talking about: this idea that people are not the sum total of one bad decision,” he said. “I think that’s what needs to be inculcated more deeply in our criminal justice conversation.”

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A large art piece featuring neon to simulate a steel pour (the building is next to the Edgar Thompson steel mill) glows on the side the the old Superior Motors Building in Braddock, Pennsylvania. The building now houses the Superior Motors restaurant, a playhouse and the residence of former Mayor John Fetterman.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images


Criminal justice and police reform are why the 51-year-old Fetterman, a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who served in Pittsburgh as a member of AmeriCorps, went from being largely apolitical, if not unconscientious, to the mayor of Braddock. In 2005, he won the election by a single vote, going on to lead the majority-Black town of some 2,000 people in Allegheny County for the next 12 years. He worked, in particular, on gun violence and police brutality, gaining national attention for his efforts to attract creatives to a town that, like others in Pennsylvania, has been economically distressed ever since the collapse of the steel industry.

That’s how Fetterman, who has tattoos marking each date there was a homicide in Braddock during his mayorship, met his wife and Pennsylvania’s second lady, Gisele. A formerly undocumented immigrant from Brazil who grew up in New York City, she read an article about Fetterman’s efforts to revitalize the town, which produced some of the steel used in the Brooklyn Bridge, and decided to check it out herself.

“At the time I was working out of Newark on food justice and access issues. I arrived and @JohnFetterman fell MADLY in love with me,” she recently posted on Twitter.

In October, the mother of three had something far less heart-warming to share on social media. While out shopping for groceries in her new hometown, a woman in the parking lot harangued her, calling her “the n-word that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman married,” per CNN

“Even though I’m 38, and I’m second lady, and I have a family and career, I was immediately again a scared 9-year-old undocumented little girl at that grocery line,” she told the network.

Her experience, as an immigrant who has witnessed xenophobia in the land of opportunity, has informed her husband’s politics. In a joint op-ed published earlier in 2020, the second couple discussed immigration as an issue of both morality and justice. “[W]e see our current immigration system, especially under this administration, as part of America’s historic legacy of criminalizing Black, brown, and indigenous bodies for reasons that are arbitrary and capricious at best, and fueled by fear and hate at worst.”

Fetterman has been in the national spotlight more recently not because of his work on criminal justice or his tenure in Braddock, however, but because of President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud in the state, which he lost by more than 80,000 votes. On MSNBC earlier this month, Fetterman described Trump as just “one more Internet troll,” albeit one with the nuclear codes and a team of lawyers willing to submit glorified versions of his tweets as lawsuits.

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John Fetterman speaks with supporters during a campaign stop at the Interstate Drafthouse in Philadelphia during his 2016 run for the Democratic Party’s nomination for US Senate.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call


Those lawsuits are “an insult to litigation and lawyers everywhere,” Fetterman said. “As soon as they were heard, they were shut down, dismissed, even ridiculed.”

Is it a joke, though, when the incumbent president of the United States and leading members of his party seek to delegitimize a democratic outcome of an election?

“I don’t think there’s going to be any lasting harm,” Fetterman said. He thinks Trump’s supporters will eventually accept the results. “I’m not saying we’re all gonna come together, but there isn’t one person that genuinely believes Hugo Chavez — who I think died in 2013 — was part of a conspiracy to steal the 2020 Pennsylvania election,” he said, referring to a harebrained theory promoted by one-time Trump lawyer Sidney Powell. “No one believes that.”

Like the outgoing president, Fetterman is an avid user of Twitter; he started posting again about two minutes after finishing this interview. But he is far more likely to post a GIF from “The Simpsons” than an all-caps, late-night rant. And instead of internet bullying, he likes to lightheartedly mock his political opponents. When his Texas counterpart offered a $1 million reward for evidence of voter fraud, Fetterman eagerly took him on the offer, citing the two cases known to exist in Pennsylvania, both involving Trump voters.

 

 

“My dude owes me $2 million,” Fetterman said. “The fact that they both happen to be Trump voters is funny, but it’s immaterial because it demonstrates that, one, how rare it is, but also how hard it is to commit voter fraud.”

“It’s so funny, it’s sad that this guy put out a national call to pay for [evidence of] voter fraud,” he added. “You know, let me see it. He hasn’t paid a dime.”

It’s not all trolling of the other side, though. In 2018, during his run for lieutenant governor, Fetterman campaigned on remembering, and reminding other politicians, what life is like in Pennsylvania’s “forgotten cities” — ones that in many cases tilted Trump the past two elections after previously being white working-class strongholds for the Democrats.

“If we’re going to reverse the fortunes of not only our party but, most importantly, communities and regions, [we need to be] reinvesting and acknowledging that these places deserve to be championed,” Fetterman said. He doesn’t think most Trump voters, or at least not all, are a lost cause.

“There’s certainly unreachable people,” he said. The thing, he believes, is that Trump is actually an effective demagogue. “I think it’s people reacting to a level of authenticity or rawness,” he said. “You’re not going to convince me that Pennsylvania changed radically from Barack Obama,” who twice won the state, “to Donald Trump.”

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John Fetterman strikes up a conversation at a diner in the depressed steel town of Clairton, Pennsylvania.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images


Enough voters switched to Biden to turn the state blue once more. But Trump, he thinks, is not going to go gently into that good night.

“He’s gonna run, 100% he’s going to run,” Fetterman said. “He is going to start running the minute he leaves the White House and he is untethered from, you know, whatever responsibilities of the presidency,” he said. “The idea that he is going to learn how to paint or [start] a philanthropic endeavor or whatever — it’s like, no.”

Before 2024, however, is 2022: that’s when Pennsylvania will have an open US Senate seat up for grabs, vacated by Republican Pat Toomey. Fetterman, in 2016, sought the Democratic nomination to run against Toomey. Is he still eyeing the seat today — or might he look to succeed Gov. Wolf, who will be term-limited the same year?

“I truthfully don’t know,” he said, “but tell your friends in Philadelphia that Sheetz is much better than Wawa and that the Steelers are much better than the Eagles.”

Fetterman, however, quickly followed his inflammatory comments with the diplomacy he would need to win votes in the state’s southeastern quadrant if he ran for statewide office.

“I love Gritty,” he said of the Philadelphia Flyers’ unexpectedly viral mascot. “How could you not love Gritty? I love cheesesteaks and truly love Philadelphia.”

Knocking the southeast’s convenience stores is just good fun, he maintains — the sort of thing, unlike politics, where one can get in a heated debate that does not end in a fistfight (usually).

Though a native of York, in central Pennsylvania, “I’m a Western PA guy,” Fetterman said, “and I definitely love to make fun of the Steelers being undefeated whereas the Eagles, I’ll just say, are not. I’ll just leave it at that. They are not undefeated.”

Have a news tip? Email this reporter, a one-time Philadelphian and Wawa evangelist: [email protected]

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