The ‘Mayor of Rust’ Sets Sights on Washington

Mayor and unlikely candidate for U.S. Senate talks inequality, drug decriminalization, fracking, and trying to revive post-industrial Braddock, PA.

Mayor John Fetterman. Photo credit: Braddock website.

Why take the big leap from mayor of Braddock to U.S. Senator?

John Fetterman: Well, without a doubt, I’m jumping several spaces on the game board. But it comes from a desire to want to take on these really pressing issues of our time, and it affords a much bigger platform. And on a pragmatic level, we have a great state rep, and we have a great state Senator in my district, so I would never want to dislodge friends of mine that are doing a heck of a job. It affords the chance to take issues that I’ve been working on and caring about for the last 14 years, and taking them to a much — it’s the same game, just in a bigger stadium.

What are some of those issues?

JF: I would say inequality in all of its forms. Housing, income, opportunity, safety, healthcare. Even in our community, the quality of the air that we breathe. Gay rights, immigration, drug policy. Just to name a few.

What have you learned as mayor that you think might be useful in the U.S. Senate?

JF: I’ve learned that there’s a lot of people that are living in our state today that don’t get to take for granted a lot of things that I got to take for granted growing up, whether that was access to a quality education, whether that was access to a post-secondary education, whether that was access to graduate degrees, whether that’s access to even coming home and having your electricity and heat turned on. My positions on drug policy didn’t come from watching The Wire. I’ve actually been mayor of a small town, a community of color, what has happened with the War on Drugs. We as a country not only need to legalize marijuana, but we also need to start talking about decriminalizing [drugs in general]. I see it more as a health issue, not a criminal one. We are punishing people that are medicating themselves for some type of pain, be it physical, psychological, or emotional, and why would we want to criminalize that behavior? I’ve seen how it destroys lives, whether it’s through violence that the trade promotes, or whether it’s somebody overdosing in front of me. I’m here to tell people it doesn’t work. We’re only continuing to mutilate ourselves so long as we keep this in place. Immigration. My wife came from Brazil, she was brought here at age nine and lived many years in this country as an undocumented. So you have one half of the body politic referring to these people as animals and rapists and anchor babies, and talking about the 14th Amendment, and why we need to get rid of that, and that’s draconian, that’s un-American. And we need a humane, sensible immigration policy. My family would not exist if it wasn’t for immigration. At the end of the day, we’re all immigrants at one point in time. We either need to change what the Statue of Liberty says or we need to start moving.

Fetterman with wife Giselle and their children. Photo credit: Fetterman for U.S. Senate campaign video.

Are you at all concerned about having to deal with the dysfunction in D.C? You’ve had a reportedly rocky relationship with Braddock’s council.

JF: The headbutting with city council is long gone, and [those opponents have been] dispatched through the democratic process, so we have a really great progressive council moving now, and it’s been really great, and really helped accelerate the change in Braddock. I never pandered my constituents when I first ran for mayor. I immediately said ‘Braddock’s never going to be what it was. I’m not going to bring back 14 furniture stores that we had back in its heyday. And I’m not going to say to you or to anyone ‘Yeah, send me to Washington and I’m gonna go down there and kick some ass and change the whole culture overnight,’ because it just doesn’t work that way. But I do believe that through advocacy, through the bully pulpit that that office affords you, you can move the needle, you can help make changes, you can help enact legislation, particularly if you’re willing to do so in a pragmatic way, and that’s what I would plan to do if I was elected.

You’re clearly a serious proponent of marijuana legalization and drug decrim. There’s an ongoing, bi-partisan national dialogue happening around criminal justice reform. What are some other CJ reforms you would like to tackle as a Senator?

JF: Not to dodge your answer, but I think decriminalization is central to that, because if you decriminalize, you’re going to take care of a lot of the other issues that go along with it. A lot of these dates that have ended up on my arm [indicates tattoos on left arm] have been gang/drug related. We’ll never know unless we are a society brave enough to try [decriminalization]. Based on how it’s been working so far, I don’t know why there aren’t more people saying this. But it would have a profound impact on mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex as a whole.

And in terms of police reform, do you see any need for that? How’s your relationship with your police force?

JF: We’ve had the good fortune of being able to dramatically reduce crime. We’ve gone five and a half years without a murder. But we’ve also been able to do it without any complaints from the community, other than parking tickets (and the like). In an age of Ferguson and Sandra Bland and these other cases, to be able to — I consider myself pro-police but I also consider myself very much affirming that Black lives do matter. And they don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and that’s one of the things we’ve worked for, and tried to establish in Braddock.

Abandoned store, downtown Braddock. Photo credit: Braddock website.

Could you explain the spelling of ‘Braddocc’ (with two ‘c’s’)?

JF: When I first came into office, I was elected because of the vote of the young people that I work with. I helped get their GEDs. When I first arrived in town, I noticed that they would spell it that way, and that’s a reference to ‘Crip killer’, they turned the ‘k’ into a ‘c’. So during my campaign, I [used] ‘Vote John Mayor of Braddocc’ and ‘Vote John Mayor of Braddock’ the way it’s traditionally spelled, and the reason why I did that is because there are two Braddocks, and you have to acknowledge that. We have to acknowledge that here’s the Braddock that only young people know, the Braddock of despair and decline, and they grew up in an era when they never knew there were 14 furniture stores and three movie theaters. And I caught some flak for that because some people thought I was spelling it like a gangster. No, there are two Braddocks. And we need to bring them together and agree on the way to move forward, so that’s why I spelled that the way I did. Because ultimately I carry their flag, because they’re the ones that made the difference that I won by one vote that first election.

Pittsburgh City Paper described it as a homage to Braddock’s youth and disenfranchised.

JF: Right. It’s not a glorification of gang violence, or embracing gang violence. It’s a way of using the way they conceptualize Braddock and saying ‘Look, you have your Braddock, and other people have their Braddock.’ It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. We all need to be able to work together, and that’s what we’ve tried to do. Their story is as important as anyone else’s, and to marginalize it or to ignore it, you do so at its own peril. The community’s health and their own sense of possibility and what they can do with their lives.

Braddock Avenue, 2010. Photo credit: Braddock website.

You’re trying to rehabilitate the town as a hub for creatives. Is that your vision for job creation there?

JF: When you say ‘hub for creatives’ that invokes Richard Florida and all that bullshit. It’s not about that, it’s about finding out, identifying the people that want to be a part of what I would call an authentic community rebuilding experience. And we’ve had a diverse group of people take us up on that. And you know, some of them are creatives and some of them are just manufacturers. You know, we just opened our first brewery in town since 1939, you know? It’s the highest rated brewery in Pittsburgh now. We had a software company move in directly across the street from the steel mill. But at the same time, my wife runs the free store in town, which provides surplus goods, whether it’s food, diapers, clothing. We’ve eliminated food insecurity in town. A child never has to go without food, diapers, formula, any of these things. The key to redeveloping Braddock has always been a balanced approach. It’s not ‘let’s bring in the right people and move out the wrong people.’ We’re all in this together, and we need outsiders to move in and we need to take care of the people that are here now, because that’s the just and moral thing to do.

Switching gears. What’s your position on PA’s shale gas extraction?

JF: I’ve had the good fortune of meeting Josh Fox several times, and having conversations with him. He’s an incredibly great guy. I’ve enjoyed and watched Gasland several times, and like everybody else I’m sure was appalled when somebody can light their tap water on fire. In western PA, fracking is not going away. It’s there, and it’s as established as any other industry. But even with that being the case — they call PA the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. The fact that we don’t have the toughest and the strongest environmental regulations is a travesty. If we have this great natural resource, why aren’t we protecting our other natural resources in the process? It’s not like Shell and these other companies are going to say ‘Well, I don’t want your natural gas because I have to do it safely.’ It’s reprehensible. And the other thing about that that’s outrageous: If you’re working two jobs and buy food to take home to your family for dinner, you pay a tax on that. These companies aren’t paying a tax on extracting our natural resources. And I think those are the two things that, given that fracking is here to stay, is that A) it has to be done to the absolute highest standards and B) you pay tax on pizza, you pay tax on going to the movies, why wouldn’t you pay tax on extracting our Commonwealth’s natural resources?

Edgar Thompson Steel Plant. Photo credit: electriccaves.com

You were quoted as saying that the plant in Braddock is a polluter, but it’s also a fact of life. It’s not going to go away.

JF: Exactly. It has a role. Economists are famous for the saying ‘The optimal level of pollution is never zero’ because if there’s no economic output or activity, people aren’t able to sustain themselves. But the optimal level isn’t wholesale massive contamination of our groundwater and of our air. I will never succumb to this notion that there must be a choice made between jobs, the economy, and the environment. That’s a false choice and it’s always propped up by people that stand to gain financially by skirting environmental regulations.

Do you see scaling back fracking as necessary?

JF: Carbon caps equal hard hats. I’m a huge proponent of green energy, and what made me angry is that people make fun of solar, wind. You know, I had a Commodore 64, I got it for Christmas when I was 13 years old, and [people I knew] were like ‘let’s make fun of a computer, it’s never going to amount to anything.’ To ridicule a technology because it isn’t where it needs to be is small-minded and absurd, so why wouldn’t we want to diversify our energy portfolio — when steel workers got the logic, when they realized there are hundreds of moving parts to a windmill made out of steel, they recognized that it could be a good thing. So, it’s not lip service. We need a diverse energy portfolio, and if we’re going to invest in fracking, we also need to correspondingly invest in these other technologies as well, which are the future and which will also create jobs. Maybe a Commodore 64 isn’t where you need to be, but it’s going somewhere and it needs to be supported and subsidized the way everything else is that one day has become the standard.

Fetterman is holding a campaign event at Bob and Barbara’s Lounge tonight at 6pm.