BRADDOCK, Pa. ― John Fetterman has no shortage of fans in the small steel town where he served as mayor for 13 years.
The Democratic Senate nominee’s most dedicated supporters often have stories of his gallantry.
When Marcie Gans was fired from a home health aide job a few years ago, she fell $1,200 behind on her mortgage. To avoid foreclosure, Gans began selling her worldly possessions in a yard sale.
Gans invited Fetterman to check out her sale items, but he offered to lend her the money, rather than purchase items he didn’t need. Months later, having recovered financially, Gans tried to pay Fetterman back. He refused.
“He said, ‘It’s nobody’s business, but I live off a big trust fund, and I help other people with it. And I appreciate you. Help somebody with your money,’” Gans recalled. “That’s the type of person he is!”
(Fetterman does not technically have a trust fund, but his parents’ insurance industry fortune heavily subsidized his work in Braddock.)
Denise McClinton, a resident of neighboring Rankin, remembers Fetterman’s work helping her children graduate from high school and get jobs while he was running a program for high school dropouts prior to becoming mayor. “He did more than anybody else would for them.”
Rodney Surratt, who owns a small landscaping business in Braddock, credits Fetterman with giving him paid work to beautify the town. “He got my vote ― I wish I could vote again and again.”
After more than three terms as mayor, Fetterman was elected lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 2018. He now faces Republican Mehmet Oz in the U.S. Senate contest.
Fetterman’s tenure as Braddock mayor has been a cornerstone of his pitch for higher office. He promises to champion Pennsylvania’s forgotten cities and towns because, he says, he already has the experience of reviving a borough that much of the state had written off as irreparable.
Fetterman used his family wealth to found a nonprofit, Braddock Redux, that circumvented the local government to buy up and revive abandoned properties that could then be leveraged for additional private and public investment. The result is a revived downtown artery, Braddock Avenue; the arrival of popular community services like the Free Store erected by Fetterman’s wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman; and a national interest in the town that has even lured new employers.
“There has been some change since he was here,” Hope Pickens, who grew up in neighboring North Braddock, said after Sunday services at the Holliday Memorial AME Zion Church in Braddock on Oct. 16. “There’s light and traffic and people moving around, and you can go shopping and go into a store.”
But some residents say that Fetterman generated more hype for his achievements than they deserved, especially given the persistence of poverty and crime in the town.
“The gentrification that you see around has never really reached the people, so that there are people here who are still struggling while there are businesses that are thriving,” said Demetrius Baldwin, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant who grew up in Braddock and still lives here.
Doing ‘A Lot In A Short Time’
Growing up, Annette Baldwin, 84, remembers Braddock Avenue as a bustling strip of commercial activity. There were three movie theaters, “shoe stores galore,” and plenty of places to dine and enjoy an adult beverage. On at least one occasion, Frank Sinatra performed at one of the night clubs, according to Baldwin, a retired school district secretary and Democratic Party activist.
“Everybody came to Braddock because it was here,” Baldwin, who is Demetrius’s grandmother, told HuffPost over coffee after services at the Holliday Memorial AME Zion Church.
Braddock thrived for so many years as a hub for neighboring boroughs along the Monongahela River ― a region known locally as the “Mon Valley” ― thanks to its central place in the steel industry. In 1875, Andrew Carnegie chose Braddock as the site for his Edgar Thomson Plant, his first steel mill.
As the steel industry declined, Braddock’s fortunes fell as well, first gradually and then precipitously, in 1978, when the Carrie Blast Furnaces in neighboring Rankin ceased operation.
Braddock is now home to just over 1,700 residents ― down from its peak of nearly 21,000 in 1920. About 70% of the town’s residents are Black descendants of Southerners who migrated north for opportunity in the early and middle 20th century. The plumes of smoke that emerge periodically from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Plant, which operates with a fraction of the workforce it once employed, are the last living remnant of Braddock’s storied industrial past.
It was this Braddock where Fetterman arrived in 2001 in the hopes of helping disadvantaged kids. He started a GED program for the community’s high school dropouts.
Fetterman, a conspicuously tall white man from central Pennsylvania, encountered his fair share of skepticism.
“When he first came here, he came kind of with a black cloud,” recalled Lisa Baldwin, an Allegheny County employee and real estate broker, who was also at Holliday Memorial AME Zion Church. (Lisa is Annette’s daughter, and Demetrius’ mother.)
“This is a Black town,” she said. “And so here’s another white male coming into our town ― like, ‘Who is this?’”
But Fetterman slowly won residents over through his dedication to the young people and his use of his family’s insurance industry fortune to host giveaways of Christmas gifts, school supplies and bicycles for Braddock’s children.
When two of Fetterman’s GED students were gunned down, Fetterman decided to run for mayor in 2005. He ended up surpassing Virginia Bunn by one vote in the Democratic primary. (Both candidates outperformed incumbent Mayor Pauline Abdullah.)
The structure of Braddock’s borough government does not give mayors much power beyond overseeing the police department and breaking tie votes on the council.
Once elected, Fetterman nonetheless came into conflict with members of Braddock’s political establishment, who saw him as a self-interested white interloper.
Rather than work with them, he used his Braddock Redux nonprofit, erected with his share of the family fortune, to circumvent them. The nonprofit would buy up properties that were either abandoned or in disrepair and use them to subsidize private development or turn them into community spaces.
Some locals resented that Fetterman’s plans were not the product of a democratic process.
For example, in 2009, Fetterman agreed to let Levi’s Jeans film some TV ads in the town that made the town’s decaying infrastructure seem like an exciting frontier of American reinvention. Rather than pay the borough government for the privilege of filming, Levi’s contributed more than $1 million to Fetterman’s nonprofit. The money went toward the funding of a community farm, the town library and the renovation of an old church that opened as a community center in 2010.
“There was no community discussion of where that million dollars was going to go,” said Tony Buba, a filmmaker who grew up in Braddock and now lives in neighboring Braddock Hills. More community input might have prompted Fetterman to prioritize making the building accessible for people with disabilities over restoring the old church’s stained-glass windows, Buba lamented.
In fact, local Braddock government agencies solicited community input for the church renovation plan beginning in 2004, though it is unclear how much influence community stakeholders had once the Levi’s money came in.
The building does lack complete wheelchair accessibility and is undergoing additional renovations to become more wheelchair accessible.
Regardless, many residents of Braddock say that improvements in the town’s infrastructure would not have occurred without Fetterman’s leadership, including his willingness to work around the borough council for the sake of efficiency.
Referring to the members of the borough council during Fetterman’s early years as mayor, Gans said, “These are people who finally got on council and did nothing ― nothing!”
The community center is now home to Aunt Cheryl’s Café, a lunch spot that opened in 2016. Cheryl Johnson, a former Braddock resident who now lives in Penn Hills, would not be able to sustain the business without the discounted rent she receives from Fetterman’s nonprofit, which still owns the community center building. For several years prior, Fetterman had allowed her to use the space free.
“He’s done a lot in a short time,” Johnson said.
‘A Really Loving, Supportive And Dignified Space’
Walking down Braddock Avenue, there’s now an Italian restaurant at the entrance to town and a boutique brewery farther down.
The old Ohringer Building, a shuttered furniture store with a classic neon sign, has become housing for artists, with a gallery on the ground floor. The building that once housed Hollander’s drug store has become the Hollander Project, a co-working space and business incubator founded by Fetterman’s wife, Gisele.
And, of course, even Fetterman’s harshest critics admit that the Free Store ― another Gisele brainchild ― is one of the lasting achievements of Fetterman’s mayoralty. The store, housed in recycled shipping containers, is a depot of donated clothing and other household items ― from dog food to baby formula ― that provides all comers a chance to walk away with whatever necessities catch their eye, free of charge.
When HuffPost visited the Free Store on Oct. 18, there was a line of people waiting outside on an unusually cold day to peruse the day’s offerings as Gisele Fetterman and other volunteers organized the items and tended to customers.
Following her husband’s nearly fatal stroke in May, Gisele campaigned in his stead while he recovered for a few months and she continues to engage with the press frequently on behalf of the Senate campaign.
In an interview just outside of the store, Gisele, an immigrant from Brazil, told HuffPost that she came up with the idea to start the Free Store in 2012 because when she first arrived in the United States, she had been a “dumpster diver” and “curbside shopper.”
“I just knew that that could help so many other people as well,” she said. “So I wanted to create a space where all that can happen and be a really loving, supportive and dignified space.”
For Terrance Murtaza, a retired school bus monitor, who walked away with several items, the Free Store also provided an essential gathering place. And while the facility is Gisele’s brainchild, Murtaza identified it as a part of her husband’s legacy as well.
“He accomplished a sense of unity within the community where people can come out and not only come to the Free Store, but they can come out and help each other and they can also see exactly what’s going on with people, how bad things are for them, especially older people,” he said.
Other Fetterman family projects have elicited a rockier reception. In 2013, Fetterman began collaborating with star chef Kevin Sousa to launch what, at the time, would have been Braddock’s only sit-down restaurant. He agreed to give Sousa free use of part of a former Superior Motors car dealership for the business. (Fetterman and his family live in a separate part of the shuttered car dealership compound.)
After several delays, the restaurant, simply named Superior Motors, got up and running in 2017. Sousa, who agreed to train and employ Braddock residents, served small and pricey haute-cuisine dishes that catered mostly to more affluent diners from outside of the borough.
Braddock residents were entitled to a 50% discount on every dish, but few Braddockites who spoke to HuffPost seemed aware of that.
“Superior Motors was a failure,” said Shayla Wolford, who works at Aunt Cheryl’s Café and was otherwise extremely positive about Fetterman’s tenure. “People that live here can’t afford it.”
Amid the strain of a COVID-19-related closure, Sousa severed ties to the restaurant in August 2021. Despite some indications from the project’s investors that the restaurant would reopen in a new form, nothing has yet taken shape.
The Credit – And The Results
Starting around 2009, Fetterman began getting national attention for his work in Braddock.
Rolling Stone called him the “mayor of hell.” The New York Times used the gentler moniker “Mayor of Rust.” And The Atlantic hailed Fetterman’s “record of success in revitalizing Braddock.”
The magazine profiles, along with some TV segments, tended to exhibit a kind of lurid fascination with Fetterman, a 6-foot-8 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of governance who wore Carhartt and Dickies apparel because he was a man of the people. Fetterman’s forearm tattoos, with Braddock’s ZIP code and the dates of violent deaths that occurred on his watch as mayor, also figure prominently in those accounts.
“The audience was enchanted,” the Times wrote of the reception to a speech Fetterman delivered at the 2010 Aspen Ideas Festival. “Here was a guy in biker boots bringing the Park Slope (Aspen, Marin, Portland, Santa Fe) ethos — organic produce, art installations, an outdoor bread oven — to the disenfranchised.”
Fetterman’s aesthetic and knack for public relations were unique. But in some ways, he was simply taking a trendy model of local governance in post-industrial towns to new heights.
In the absence of a national economic development strategy for struggling municipalities or the ability to deficit-spend their way onto sounder fiscal footing, cities and towns are forced to compete with one another for corporate investment or financing from nonprofit benefactors.
“That’s the menu of options that Fetterman or anyone else in his situation has at their disposal,” said David A. Banks, a lecturer in geography and planning at the University at Albany.
That predicament is especially acute in the Mon Valley, where there are myriad small and impoverished municipalities that sustain their own public services rather than pooling their resources for maximum efficiency.
Fetterman himself acknowledged the reality of courting philanthropists with whatever tools he had.
Praising Levi’s for its contribution to Braddock through his nonprofit following the filming of their TV ads, Fetterman told NPR in 2010, “If someone wants to give me $100 million, I’ll kiss their ass and call it ice cream.”
“These small towns’ only competitive advantage that can’t be outsourced is fundamentally their own history and identity,” said Banks, author of the forthcoming book “The City Authentic,” which examines how cities commodify their history to woo young professionals. “Braddock being very central to the history of manufacturing, and specifically steel, in the United States, Fetterman found a way to both turn that into a positive by taking that history and making it a theme that artists and restaurateurs could use to do the things they’re already doing.”
But if Fetterman was simply playing the hand he was dealt as mayor of a troubled small town, the criticism his approach elicited is also a common reaction to these public relations-fueled development strategies.
Part of the strategy of attracting private or nonprofit investment in a town like Braddock is to play up its mystique in the press and paint a picture of the town in the imagination of investors, nonprofit donors and prospective newcomers that is not necessarily the same as the reality experienced by longtime residents.
“Any mayor in these sorts of situations will always take more credit than they’re due. It’s part of the job,” Banks said. “A lot of it is faking it ’til you make it.”
Rev. Vincent Martin, the pastor of Holliday Memorial AME Zion Church and a resident of Pittsburgh, described having mixed feelings about the credit that Fetterman received for his mayoralty. He suggested that Fetterman’s identity as a white man had helped draw attention to Braddock that it had not previously received. That was ultimately a positive thing, even if the reasons for it were unfair, according to Martin.
“There’ve been workers and people trying to do things, but it never broke through until he became the face of that thing and that became a point of recognition for the outside,” Martin said.
Years after his mayoralty, though, some Braddock residents told HuffPost that they tire of media outlets continuing to depict Fetterman as a larger-than-life white rescuer.
“A reporter asked me, ‘What is it like to be rescued?’” said Chardae Jones, who succeeded Fetterman as mayor of Braddock from 2019 to 2021 and is supporting his bid for Senate.
“They were serious,” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘Have you ever seen the interior of Braddock? Because it’s like ‘The Twilight Zone.’ It’s been the same forever.’”
Indeed, even as Braddock Avenue became a livelier thoroughfare for commerce under Fetterman’s leadership, the town’s progress on core human-development indices has been mixed at best.
Braddock’s population declined from more than 2,000 people in 2010 to just over 1,700 people in 2018, the last year of Fetterman’s tenure as mayor.
Over that same period, the percentage of people in the town with incomes below the federal poverty level declined modestly, according to census data. But when the poverty rate drops from 37.4% in 2010 to 35.7% in 2018, economic hardship remains so prevalent that some residents do not see much progress.
“He didn’t have to live here in Braddock. Why would he come slumming if he didn’t have an interest in us?”
– Marcie Gans, retired home health aide
“Nothing’s been done. There’s been no jobs created. It’s not safe,” said Isaac Bunn, founder of the nonprofit Braddock Inclusion Project and son of the late Virginia Bunn, whom Fetterman defeated by one vote in his first mayoral race. “The only ones who’ve benefited from him being a famous politician on the backs of saving the Black community is him and his family and his nonprofit. Other than that, nothing really tangibly has been done.”
In her interview with HuffPost, Gisele Barreto Fetterman mocked the idea that her husband had moved to Braddock in 2001 with a scheme to leverage his work there into a career in higher office.
“Four terms he spent as mayor ― that was his long-term plan, right? He came here to teach GED so that one day he could run for lieutenant governor,” she mused sarcastically. “I think it’s important to look at who the critics are and what their motives are, but it’s a free country.”
Fetterman’s many defenders also note that the Fetterman family decided to stay in Braddock in 2019, rather than move into the lieutenant governor’s mansion in Harrisburg. Gisele also spearheaded an effort to open the mansion’s pool up to the broader public.
“He never left,” observed Annette Baldwin.
The Fetterman family’s commitment to the town is simply something that cannot be faked, according to Gans.
“Why would he pick us? He didn’t have to live here in Braddock,” she recalled replying to Fetterman’s skeptics on the borough council. “Why would he come slumming if he didn’t have an interest in us?”
‘Running On My Record On Crime’
Fetterman has touted his success in reducing violent crime in Braddock more than any other aspect of his 13-year tenure as mayor.
From the moment Oz, his Republican Senate opponent, began accusing him of trying to free too many convicted criminals as chair of Pennsylvania’s board of pardons, Fetterman shot back with TV ads recounting how two of his GED students’ murders inspired him to run for mayor in the first place.
“I worked side by side with the police, showed up at crime scenes,” Fetterman says in one 30-second spot. “We did whatever it took to fund our police ― and stopped gun deaths for five years.”
Braddock indeed went more than five years, from 2008 to 2013, without a murder in its boundaries.
“I am a Democrat that is running on my record on crime,” Fetterman has taken to saying in his stump speech.
Today, when asked about Fetterman’s public safety legacy, people living in and around Braddock focus on the same tattoos marking local deaths that have become an indelible part of his national image.
Some Braddock residents told HuffPost that they fondly remember Fetterman’s efforts to make the town safer simply through his constant presence on the town’s streets.
“He just did the work,” Shayla Wolford said. “He was out here all the time ― crime scenes, things like that, funerals ― he was there. He tried to make everybody else care.”
But Fetterman’s zeal for reducing violence in Braddock led to the biggest scandal of his political career.
While standing outside with his son on a late afternoon in January 2013, Fetterman heard what he describes as a “crushing burst of gunfire” coming from an area known as a hub for gun violence. Spotting a man jogging nearby with a face mask, Fetterman, armed with a shotgun, pursued him in his pickup truck and detained him until the police arrived. The man, Christopher Miyares, was Black and turned out to simply be jogging, unarmed.
Miyares claimed that Fetterman pointed the shotgun at his chest, but Fetterman denied it. Fetterman has refused to apologize for his actions, claiming that he was trying to faithfully execute his duties as mayor and that due to Miyares’ attire, which concealed most of his skin, he was unaware of Miyares’ race when he decided to pursue him.
“I made a split-second decision to call 911, get my son to safety and intercept an individual, the only individual out running from where the gunfire came, and intercept him until our first responders arrived as Braddock’s chief law enforcement officer and as the mayor,” Fetterman said in a Democratic primary debate in April, shortly before his stroke.
Most people with whom HuffPost spoke in Braddock were either ambivalent about the 2013 incident or outright sympathetic to Fetterman.
Lisa Baldwin characterized herself as “right in the middle” between his critics and his fiercest defenders.
“I understood why he did it, but at the same time, had it been a white guy, would you have done it?” she wondered. “Because that’s always in the back of our minds.”
Gans believes that Fetterman responded reasonably.
“If I couldn’t take the crime … and I live way up on the border [of town], how do you think he felt, and he had young kids?” asked Gans.
But Chartia Worlds, Miyares’ sister, is still angry about the incident ― and Fetterman’s response to it.
“The problem is, he didn’t get in any trouble,” she told HuffPost. “He didn’t apologize.”
Worlds, a food service worker, grew up in Braddock but now lives with her kids in neighboring Turtle Creek. She still frequents the Free Store from time to time and describes Gisele as “lovely.”
Worlds is not sure she can bring herself to vote for Fetterman, though. If she does cast a ballot for him, she won’t do it enthusiastically.
“You just pick the lesser of two evils,” she said. “That’s how I feel.”