Fighting inequality is John Fetterman’s mission. Shown by the work shirts he frequently dons, this mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania has spent the past 10 years of his career applying a hands-on approach to building the recovering Pittsburgh suburb “back up.” Now, he’s entered the Democratic primary for United States Senate, hoping to get to work for Pennsylvanians on the federal level.
“I don’t consider myself a politician,” Fetterman told the crowd at a town-hall meeting he hosted at Slippery Rock University Monday night. “I consider myself a social worker who uses politics to achieve community goals.”
Fetterman said he first became aware of the “lottery of birth” when he joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and received an eight-year-old boy whose parents were dying of AIDS as his “little.”
“Why was I so lucky in life?” he asked. “The way I grew up, it was expected that I go to college. Why should this young boy have two dying parents and so fewer opportunities less than eight years into his life?”
This experience prompted Fetterman to peruse a graduate degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Public Policy, he said, and then enlist in AmeriCorps, a civil society program, which lead him to Braddock, where he started a GED program.
“I’ll never get used to the idea of an 18-year-old reading at a fifth grade level,” he said. “Every child deserves to start out with certain opportunities available to them.”
Fetterman said he decided to run for mayor when two of his GED students were gunned down and killed.
“I wanted to have an impact on the issues that weren’t being addressed,” he said. “I’d like to think I carry the same banner today as I did 10 years ago and that’s why I’m running for Senate.”
During the town-hall, Fetterman discussed a host of issues with those in attendance, ranging from education to foreign policy.
On education, he said he believes the United States should move from 12 years of guaranteed schooling to 16.
“I believe there should be free or drastically reduced tuition at public universities,” Fetterman said. “A tax on Wall Street would be one way to pay for this, but in this country we have always found ways to pay for the things we want and believe in.”
When discussing the minimum wage, Fetterman said he is a strong supporter of moving to a living wage of $15 an hour and that he believes paying workers less than that is “un-American.”
“We’re going to be paying for it somehow,” he said. “Prices might go up at Walmart, but, when their workers are paid a decent wage, they won’t be on public assistance or food stamps.”
When asked about healthcare, Fetterman called the Affordable Care Act a “great piece of legislation” and indicated that, without it, he and his wife would be uninsured.
“As a small town mayor, I don’t receive benefits,” he said. “I get a $150 paycheck once a month, but I don’t even keep that. I write it off to someone who needs it.”
Fetterman said he believes healthcare is a basic human right and that the Affordable Care Act’s future will be limited by Republicans who have voted 63 times to repeal the law without offering an alternative solution.
Speaking on immigration reform, Fetterman, whose wife was once an undocumented immigrant, said immigration is America’s backbone.
“I believe there should be a clear path to citizenship for the 11 million people who are in this country undocumented now,” he said. “Immigrants commit crimes at a drastically lower rate than the native-born population and they take on the jobs in this country that most people don’t want. It’s a myth that immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans.”
Fetterman said that when his wife’s family came to the United States, all they wanted was a better life.
“My mother-in-law worked 12 hours a day and never received any kind of government assistance,” he said. “The contribution that she’s made to this country has been an incredibly positive one.”
Fetterman said that those who argue for mass deportation and the elimination of birthright citizenship base their claims in fear and racism alone.
On the topic of violence, Fetterman, a gun owner, said he advocates for reasonable gun-control laws.
“If I were to sell you my car, I would have to show you my drivers license, proof of insurance and many other things, but if I were to sell you a 44-Magnum, you could hand me $150 in cash and I could say ‘here you go,'” he said. “I don’t think that should be legal.”
As mayor, Fetterman, who tattoos the dates of Braddock homicides on his arm, said he personally invests in the safety of his community.
“I patrol with my officers all the time and I pay out-of-pocket if I feel we need more patrol,” he said. “I’m proud to say Braddock hasn’t had a homicide in six and a half years.”
When discussing LGBT+ rights, Fetterman, who officiated one of Pennsylvania’s first same-sex marriages even before it was legal, said this minority group needs more legal protection.
“The second you let the country deviate from the idea that all people are created equal you run into trouble,” he said. “LGBT+ people are still victims of harassment, bullying and discrimination and I think that’s disgraceful and something we need to take up legislatively.”
Fetterman said he also believes legislation should be enacted to prevent gender and sexual identity from being an aspect of employment decisions and that banning same-sex adoption is based in prejudice rather than research.
Regarding the environment, Fetterman, who was selected by the Environmental Defense Fund in 2009 to push the idea of carbon caps, called the concept a “conservative” approach.
“The idea is that companies would have to buy permits on the amount of carbon they can release and they would have to trade if they needed to release more,” he said.
Moving to clean sources of energy would also be good for American businesses, Fetterman said, indicating that a windmill has 135 parts all of which could be made from American steel.
Fetterman addressed what he called “environmental racism,” in which multi-lane highways are more likely to be built through poor, African-American communities, rather than wealthier communities, and they result in higher asthma rates and pollution in the affected area.
“They tried to build one of these highways through my community and I found that appalling,” he said.
Discussing foreign policy, Fetterman said the United States should not put troops on the ground in response to the recent Paris attacks.
“Of the 143 people running for president on the Republican side, not one will stand up and say invading Iraq was a good idea,” he said. “I believe there are better ways of doing things.”
On the Senate race, Fetterman said many politicians act like telemarketers, spending hours on the phone asking people for money.
“I decry the transactional nature of what it costs to run for office,” he said. “I’ve raised more money than my opponents, but I’ve poured it back into my community rather than using it to run a political campaign.”
One member of the crowd asked why Fetterman would leave for the Senate if he was still needed in Braddock.
“I would never take a job in the public sector if I couldn’t call the people of Braddock my constituents,” he responded. “I can only do so much as a mayor, but a senator has a lot more power to get things done. I’m not moving anywhere, Braddock is where I intend to live the rest of my life.”