John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, used his unorthodox image and personality to chart an unlikely path from mayor of little Braddock to the Democratic nominee for the US Senate in one of the nation’s most important races.
Fetterman, 53, has long received national attention for his time as mayor of a small Rust Belt town outside Pittsburgh. It was introduced in A rolling stone and a Levi’s ad campaign, garnering attention in part for its work to revive a struggling steel town, but also for its working-class style, with tattoos and a goatee, and its blunt, sometimes crude behavior.
His offbeat approach, often marked by sarcastic trolling on Twitter, swearing on the news or jokes about Sheetz and WaWa, have built a national following as Fetterman presents himself as an antidote to typical, corny politics.
He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2016. But in his second run, he breezed through the Democratic primary, easily defeating some notable challengers and winning every district in the state, combining liberal policies with populist rhetoric and a promise to compete in rural , working… class districts that Democrats have abandoned in recent years.
But Fetterman’s bid for the Democratic nomination and much of his general election campaign were overshadowed by a stroke he suffered just days before the May 17 primary. Fetterman, whose campaign initially downplayed the weight, later said he nearly died and his recovery took him out of the campaign for months.
By mid-August, he was back on the campaign trail, slowly building his schedule. He says he is healthy, apart from some auditory processing problems and occasionally stumbling over his words, and has done some one-on-one interviews with journalists, but his public appearances remain relatively low-key.
Despite his working-class persona, shaped in part by his signature outfit of gym shorts and a hoodie, Fetterman grew up wealthy. His father is an insurance executive who supported his campaigns and provided personal financial support well into Fetterman’s 40s. The family’s help helped Fetterman stay afloat while earning $150 a month as Braddock’s mayor. He said their generosity allowed him to devote himself to public service, though Republicans say it shows his blue-collar image is a facade.
Fetterman was all set to join the family insurance business until a close friend of his died in a car accident on his way to pick Fetterman up in 1993. He cites that incident as a turning point.
“If it was just a few minutes later, I would have been in the car with him,” Fetterman said. “I started looking at the world differently and wanted to go back.”
Fetterman joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and soon quit her job and moved to Pittsburgh, where she worked for AmeriCorps. He teaches GED classes in nearby Braddock, a town of about 2,000. After two of his students were shot and killed, he decided to run for mayor.
He won the three-man race by one vote and was re-elected twice, serving as mayor for 13 years. He still lives in Braddock in a converted car dealership with his wife Giselle and their three children.
Fetterman clashed with some local elected officials who felt he was getting too much credit for progress in the black city.
In 2016, Fetterman ran for the Senate. Little known and underfunded, he finished third in the Democratic primary.
He ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 and won. He has used the job that comes with limited power to advocate for marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform. He chairs the state Board of Pardons and has led the panel through more clemency hearings than have been heard since the 1970s.
Fetterman began his tenure as lieutenant governor with a marijuana listening tour and unfurled a marijuana leaf flag from the balcony of his office at the state Capitol.
Fetterman often rails against economic inequality, what he calls a low minimum wage and poor housing and health care systems. He called for raising the minimum wage as well as ending the Senate filibuster, the rule that requires a 60-vote majority for the most significant legislation. He has changed on some issues, including fracking, which he now largely supports.
As chairman of the Board of Pardons, which oversees applications for pardons and pardons, Fetterman helped increase the number of applications coming into the office by waiving fees and making it easier to apply. During his tenure, applications increased by 104% and the number of pardons granted increased by 64%. The sentences of about 40 people who were serving life sentences were commuted, a huge increase over previous administrations.
Fetterman’s campaign advertised more than 330,000 individual donors, often donating small amounts, as evidence of broad local support across the country.
While relatively few elected Pennsylvania Democrats supported Fetterman in the primary — a product, they say, of his refusal to engage in the usual political niceties — the national party is heavily invested in his success in the general election.
A long-ago incident sometimes overshadows his campaign.
In 2013, Fetterman chased a man and pulled a shotgun on him because he believed the man he turned out to be. black jogger involved in shooting. Fetterman has long defended his actions, saying he heard gunfire nearby and did it for a split second decision to act, as Braddock’s then-mayor and chief law enforcement officer, in what he said was an “active shooter situation.”
» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about the 2013 John Fetterman jogging accident
An officer who responded to reports of a shooting searched the man, Christopher Miyares, and found him to be unarmed, according to a 2013 police report.
Miyares disputed part of Fetterman’s account when asked by The Inquirer in April 2021.
The incident did little to delay Fetterman in the Democratic primary, but now Republicans are raising the issue themselves, including in television ads.