Look at the guy pictured above. Is he (a) a bar bouncer, (b) a retired biker, or (c) a guy with a graduate degree from Harvard who’s running for the U.S. Senate?
Meet John Fetterman, mayor of the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and the newest candidate in the 2016 Democratic primary for Senate. He announced his candidacy Monday morning, and spent a few minutes on the phone with me.
Fetterman is a bona fide colorful character, a 6-foot-8-inch mountain of a man who has a tattoo of the town’s ZIP code on his left arm and the dates citizens of Braddock were murdered on his right arm.
Talk to him, and he sounds like the graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School he is.
“My issue has always been and will continue to be confronting this mass inequality we have in our nation,” he said.
Most of Braddock’s citizens are African-American and poor. Fetterman won his first primary election in 2006 by a single vote, and he went about advertising the city’s cheap real estate to potential homeowners and investors and developing strategies to fight crime.
“We developed an incredibly effective community policing model,” he said. “We went almost five and a half years without a homicide in town, while at the same time all but eliminating any kind of civilian complaints. I think that’s important to mention too, in the era of Ferguson and affirming that black lives matter.”
Braddock hasn’t been transformed into Silicon Valley, but Fetterman has recruited some new businesses and residents, and he thinks his record shows he understands the struggles of working Pennsylvanians.
His efforts have gotten national attention. He’s been profiled in the New York Times and The Atlantic, and has appeared twice on “The Colbert Report.”
About that look
I asked Fetterman about the challenges of running a statewide campaign. Will he put on a suit?
“I won’t,” he said. “That’s a campaign promise I intend to keep. One way or the other, the voters are going to get me, and I’m only going to be my true authentic self. I’m only going to speak the truth, and if voters appreciate it, great. If not, I would much rather let them know where I stand.”
His look, he said, “is not part of some shtick. It’s pretty simple. It’s just what works out here, and I couldn’t relate to anybody if I was trying to wear a suit and tie every day.”
The bald head he added, isn’t an affect. “It’s just acknowledging the genetics that are working against me,” he said.
Can he compete?Fetterman has an appealing pitch and is sure to get some media buzz. He reminds you of Jesse Ventura, the pro wrestler who was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998.
But there are some hard realities of running in Pennsylvania. It’s a huge state, and while getting the attention of journalists is nice, it’s not enough. To become known by enough voters quickly, you usually need millions of bucks worth of TV ads.
Conventional wisdom says it will be hard for an unknown like Fetterman to run with the two formidable candidates already in the race — former Delaware County Congressman Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty, until recently Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff.
Both have run statewide races in Pennsylvania. Sestak beat Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary, then lost to incumbent Republican Pat Toomey in the general. McGinty ran in last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.
It’s interesting, though, that Fetterman is getting help from Bill Hyers, who managed the winning campaigns of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
I spoke with Hyers, who says he’s working with Fetterman for free for now. They were introduced by Pat Millham, a western Pennsylvania political consultant who worked with Hyers on the Obama campaign.
Hyers, said yes, it will take money to win, but if you look at the presidential race you’ll see candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson that have managed to pull in some serious cash without a base of traditional political donors or a conventional fundraising effort.
And you could imagine Fetterman leveraging some of his national connections into contributions. Who knows? He’s getting in early enough to build something that might connect with small and medium donors. And in a multi-candidate field, funny things can happen.
Fetterman will be in Philadelphia Wednesday to raise a little money and meet the local media. They’ll have no choice but to look up to him.