Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET on March 11, 2020.
BRADDOCK, Pa.—John Fetterman didn’t grow up with anyone who had a biker-bar bouncer’s chin beard or who wore work shirts and shorts in February. He didn’t grow up committed to LGBTQ rights and legalizing marijuana and a living wage. The Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate didn’t grow up dreaming of being a senator, or expecting to fail an exercise at Harvard’s Kennedy School because he refused to present a solution for how best to cut Social Security. He certainly didn’t anticipate serving as a stand-in for the Big Show when the wrestler made an appearance here (though at 6 foot 8, Fetterman is actually a few inches taller than he is). Fetterman has a weird life. He chose it because of the very different life he was born into.
Fetterman grew up four hours away from Braddock, in York, Pennsylvania. His father, an insurance salesman turned executive, and his mother, who cared for Fetterman and his brother while they were young and later helped her husband at the business, covered the bulk of Fetterman’s expenses during the 14 years he served as mayor of Braddock—a job that comes with a monthly salary of about $150.
Now that Fetterman’s the front-runner in a Senate race that’s sure to be one of the biggest of 2022, skeptics and rivals are looking for his vulnerabilities. The obvious angle of attack, one that some of his foes have landed on already: What if Fetterman’s not the real deal? What if he’s just a trust-fund kid playing dress-up?
“I was an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy to two 19-year-olds that were casually dating, and my father was a union grocery worker at the ShopRite—and that’s what allowed my family to survive while he went to college,” Fetterman told me recently, sitting at home in Braddock. “I got lucky. The fact that, 52 years later, they are still together is a testament to just my good fortune, because statistically or actuarially or whatever, my life very likely would have turned out much differently. So I have always felt part of that duty and obligation to want to pay that forward and to contribute. And that was one of the deciding factors that brought me to Braddock. So it’s an unusual criticism where somebody would say, ‘He’s not from here.’ I’m like, ‘Well, of course I’m not.’”
[Michael Klarman: The Democrats’ last chance to save democracy]
Braddock is not even officially a town; it’s a borough, and it doesn’t seem like much more than one run-down street. A sign advertising the Future Home of Fancy Pants Popcorn hangs across the street from a run-down playground. Fetterman’s parents’ money helped furnish the hipster’s-paradise loft he now lives in with his family, an old car dealership’s converted top floor, stuffed with salvaged leather couches and a Super Pac-Man machine. One wall features could-have-been-shot-in-Kmart photos of his three kids, there’s a vista view of the steel-plant smokestacks across the street through the big windows, and two pregnancy photos of his naked wife hang on either side of the door. A wood stove heats the open space; a ring light illuminates the chair Fetterman uses for the cable-news appearances that have made him a nationally known MSNBC and Twitter sensation.
Fetterman has long been a low-key favorite of in-the-know Democrats. All the way back in 2009, he wowed Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, and later that year he was on the cover of The Atlantic’s 27 Brave Thinkers issue. (His wife, Gisele, brought out a copy in the middle of our interview with a devious smile; she wanted to embarrass him, she said.) More favorable coverage followed. He enticed Levi’s to set an ad campaign in Braddock, a majority-Black town gutted over the years by a collapsed economy that’s an 18-minute drive and approximately 20,000 conceptual miles from downtown Pittsburgh. Reporters began making pilgrimages to see the big man with the soft voice and bleeding heart who was standing up for the Rust Belt, and he gave them what they were looking for. Leading gawking tours in his truck of the mostly abandoned steel town, he’d talk about his dreams of revitalization and show off his forearm, which bears tattoos memorializing every homicide that happened here while he was mayor.
Now, though, Fetterman is tired of being reduced to the appealing oddball from Braddock. I wasn’t much interested in going on another truck tour with him, and he didn’t want to give me one, anyway. That’s all played out, he said.
I asked Fetterman which politician he models himself after. He doesn’t have a model, he told me. And although American politics has a history of funky facial hair that dates back to at least Martin Van Buren, there hasn’t ever been a statewide politician like Fetterman. It’s more than Fetterman’s appearance that makes him stand out in these days of sanded-down political personalities—his policy choices and his laid-back, full-of-curses way of speaking stand out too. He’s been simultaneously tagged as a radical left-winger by state Republicans and a worrisome sellout by some progressives. In his 2018 lieutenant-governor race, Fetterman was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, but not by the influential Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution, because he is open to fracking.
Fetterman formulates his ideology like this: “If Hobby Lobby is paying $15 an hour, how the fuck is that progressive to believe that people should be being paid $15 an hour? If South Dakota voted to legalize weed, how is that progressive to say, ‘Why are we ruining people’s criminal records for using a plant and saying no to billions in free revenue?’” And he’s fine with preaching heresies that most Democrats running in primaries would back away from. The Green New Deal, he said, is ridiculous for including a proposal that the country should move entirely to renewable fuels over just five years, given America’s energy needs and, as Texas demonstrated after last month’s storm, a power-grid infrastructure that already isn’t keeping up. “Republicans need to get honest about confronting climate, but Democrats need to get honest about energy,” Fetterman said. “We can’t say, ‘Science, science, science,’ and then say, ‘Except in unrealistic climate talking points.’”
As the Senate race intensifies, Fetterman will have to confront an incident from his past that could undermine the liberal-everyman authenticity he’s cultivated. In recent weeks, the lieutenant governor’s critics and rivals have drawn new attention to a 2013 episode in which he chased down a Black man and pointed a shotgun at him. They say Fetterman’s behavior was racist and reckless; he says it was a panicked attempt to fulfill his responsibility as Braddock’s chief law-enforcement officer. He acted, instead of simply calling the police, because he was frantic, he says. He thought there was going to be another school shooting, and he couldn’t have lived with himself if that had happened and he hadn’t done anything.
Here’s what the police report, written by the officers who arrived on the scene, says: “We noticed that in [Fetterman’s] right hand he was holding a black shotgun and his truck was parked in the middle of the street. He had with him a Black male.” The report identifies the man as Christopher Miyares, and notes that Fetterman was yelling about hearing gunshots in the area. (The report also states that two other people “heard several shots.”) “Fetterman continued to yell and state that he knows this male was shooting, but did not see Miyares holding a gun or shooting a gun.” The report notes that Miyares was wearing headphones and running clothes. He was upset, and said that he had seen fireworks in the sky as he was jogging. Later, Miyares said that Fetterman had pointed the shotgun at his chest. “Miyares was very cooperative but was upset Fetterman pulled a shotgun on him,” the police report says.
I was unable to reach Miyares for comment, but he gave his account of the incident on local news in 2013. “He jumped in his Ford F-150 and followed me into North Braddock and pulled a shotgun and aimed it at my chest,” Miyares told a TV reporter. He blamed the noise that Fetterman had heard on children in a nearby parking lot. “They were just shooting off bottle rockets.”
The way Fetterman tells the story, he was outside his home with his young son when he heard the unmistakable sound of gunshots. Almost without thinking, he rushed his son inside, then jumped in his pickup truck, speeding in the direction of the school, convinced another school shooting was coming. He had a shotgun under his seat, and he got it ready. He saw a man in a tracksuit running on the sidewalk, suspected him of the shooting, shouted at him to stop, and showed off his gun. He says he crouched down in the truck’s cabin as he poked the gun up, thinking, Please don’t let me die, terrified that the assault rifle he thought he heard would be turned on him. Police never found an assault rifle. Fetterman insists that he didn’t single the man out because he was Black: Miyares was the only man on the street and he had his hood up; Fetterman says he couldn’t tell the man’s race before he pointed his gun.
Fetterman was anxious about discussing the details with me, not because he’s apologetic, as some might make themselves out to be over an incident like this, but because he very much is not.
As he accused Miyares of lying about what happened in 2013, Fetterman repeatedly referenced that Miyares had been convicted of kidnapping for ransom and other unrelated charges in 2019 and is now in state prison.
“Why invent a story about fireworks or the details of our encounter unless you were either involved in it directly or were covering for somebody that was involved in that?” he said. At one point, Fetterman seemed to equate Miyares with his political opponents. “The voters of Pennsylvania are going to have to make a choice between somebody with a 26-year track record of working to advance the interests of marginalized communities over the word of somebody who attempted to impersonate an Uber driver and abduct a woman at knifepoint and terrorized her, and is currently in state prison,” he told me.
[Read: The failure that could haunt Democrats for a decade]
The renewed focus on the incident reflects how politics is changing. The episode was never a secret: Local TV aired segments with both Fetterman and Miyares. But Fetterman is now running for office amid new national attention on society’s treatment of Black Americans. Last year, a Republican congressional candidate tweeted a video from one of those 2013 interviews, adding, “Nothing says deescalation & service to the community quite like pulling a shotgun on an unarmed black jogger who’d done nothing wrong because you heard a loud noise & made certain assumptions.” Donald Trump Jr. retweeted it with “YIKES” and three siren emoji.
As Fetterman continues his Senate campaign, the shotgun episode is inevitably going to be part of many Americans’ introduction to him. When I started making calls for this story, one Democrat after another brought up what had happened with Miyares. One soon texted me a PDF of the police report.
Despite his worries going into our conversation, Fetterman snipped at me only once, when I asked how long he’d had the shotgun: “Not really sure why that’s relevant,” he said, explaining that he’d bought it a year earlier to protect his home. His tone was one of exasperation, not contrition. He pushed back on my suggestion that this story doesn’t align with the image he has cultivated, of a Paul Wellstone–meets–Paul Bunyan figure presiding over a collapsed mill town. The story fits his image perfectly, he insisted: He saw a problem and threw himself into trying to do something. He was reelected in a landslide in overwhelmingly Black Braddock a few months later.
The best way to understand him, Fetterman told me, is to see his life as split in two: “My life is broken down into pre–April 6, 1993, and post–April 6, 1993,” he explained. Until then, Fetterman was following a more conventional path, pursuing a master’s in business administration at the University of Connecticut. But that evening, one of Fetterman’s best friends was killed in a car accident on the way to pick him up. Grieving, Fetterman threw himself into a Big Brothers Big Sisters of America mentorship program in New Haven. He was matched with a boy named Nicky, whom he refers to as “my son,” though he has since had two sons of his own and a daughter. Tears welled up in his eyes when he talked about losing his friend, and again when he remembered meeting Nicky’s mother for the first time. She was dying of AIDS, and he hesitated to shake her hand, because he was uninformed about the virus and scared to touch her. “His mother was a cadaver, a literal cadaver,” he said. “And to be 8 years old, to watch your mother waste away like that, I can’t imagine that kind of trauma.”
Fetterman stayed close with Nicky, but working with Big Brothers catapulted him into a new life—into AmeriCorps, where he set up computer labs in Pittsburgh; into Harvard, for a master’s in public policy; into Braddock, where he got a job managing GED programs. In 2005, after two of his students were shot, he ran for mayor to make a point about gun violence; kids from his programs went door-to-door for him. He won by one vote. The rest of his story is biopic-ready too: The day he was sworn in, a man in town was murdered, and Fetterman began a tradition of getting the dates of every Braddock homicide during his years as mayor tattooed on his right arm. (Braddock’s zip code is on his left.) Fetterman met his wife, who was brought to America from Brazil as an undocumented child, after she saw a profile of him in a magazine hundreds of miles away, in New Jersey. She has thrown herself into the community right along with him, co-founding a “free store” of community resources and, since he became lieutenant governor, opening the pool of the official mansion, in Harrisburg, to neighborhood children.
“When I first met him, I thought, What is wrong with him? He stands out with his size, his demeanor, his dress,” says Lisa Freeman, who was a social worker in Braddock when Fetterman first arrived in town and during his early years as mayor. “Why does he stay in this hellhole? That’s what he loves, and that’s what he is.”
This is who he’s been for the 28 years since the accident, Fetterman insisted. He said he could give me proof, and he headed over to the other side of his loft. After popping open a plastic box near a built-in hot tub, he showed me shots from his job setting up the first community computer labs in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Then he went over to his Mac and pulled up a few more—pictures of him and Nicky from a few years after they met, then another showing the two of them smiling with a new baby, his oldest son, cradled in Gisele’s arms. In all the photos since his friend died and his life changed, he’s unmistakably the same guy, with the same shaved head, facial hair, and nowhere-near-Brooks Brothers wardrobe.
“We are running out of time to actually start getting things done for people [in a way] that matters,” he said. “In Pennsylvania, a few simple policy tweaks would generate billions of dollars to rebuild our infrastructure; create more jobs; help some of these struggling, small, rural communities; help some of the very business communities that [Republicans] purport to care for so much. It’s true in Washington too. Like how on earth can you make 180 grand as a senator with luxe health care and sit there and be like Nero, thumbs up or down, on paying someone a living wage? I don’t understand that.”
On paper, Fetterman doesn’t seem like the “right” candidate for next year’s Senate race—aside from the fact that he was elected statewide just three years ago. Democratic operatives in Washington, D.C., tend to be drawn to a certain type of person to run for the Senate: a clean-cut moderate—ideally a veteran—with a proven record of winning independent and Republican votes who’s relatively fresh to politics but has long ties to his community. In Pennsylvania, two potential Senate candidates fit that model: Representative Chrissy Houlahan, an Air Force captain who flipped a Republican seat near Philadelphia in 2018, and Representative Conor Lamb, a former marine and prosecutor who flipped a Republican district on the other side of Pittsburgh. Neither is running so far, but both have the potential to be strong candidates.
Right now, the only other declared candidate in the Democratic primary is State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, from North Philadelphia. Young, Black, and gay, he was an early endorser of Joe Biden. Kenyatta, who entered the race after Fetterman, is already backed by local and national teachers’ unions and the progressive Working Families Party. He and Fetterman have gotten along in the past: Last year, there was chatter about them teaming up as running mates if Fetterman decided to run for governor. Now Kenyatta may cut into the support Fetterman is counting on from the left.
Fetterman has already raised lots of money—$500,000 in just the first 72 hours he was in the race—in part as a power move to scare the opposition. “He’s doing everything right: raising money in small donations; he’s getting around the state; he’s employing his wife, who’s charming and bright and a great speaker,” says former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who wasn’t happy to see Fetterman run in the 2016 Senate primary against his own preferred candidate, in what was that year’s most complicated, divisive Democratic primary. “He’s the candidate to beat, no question.” A poll that circulated around Washington in February, in the weeks after the shotgun story resurfaced, showed that Fetterman didn’t take nearly the hit with voters that he did with the Twitterati. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who plays an active role in Democrats’ Senate-candidate recruitment, hasn’t weighed in yet. But for those who believe he’s still mad that Fetterman complicated the 2016 race, or who have noticed how unlike the usual Schumer candidate Fetterman is, I was assured that the Senate leader is interested only in expanding his party’s margins in the Senate. “A lot of activists think the party would hold grudges,” one person familiar with Schumer’s thinking told me, asking for anonymity to avoid seeming to favor Fetterman. “The only thing that counts is who’s the best candidate to win in November.”
Could the bruiser look or the Sanders associations cost Fetterman the suburban votes he needs to once again win statewide? He pointed out that, in the 2018 race, after he knocked out incumbent Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack in the primary, he and Governor Tom Wolf won 400,000 more votes than Wolf and Stack had in 2014. Knit together enough energized progressives, committed Black voters, and party agnostics who feel unheard, and you have the formula for winning, Fetterman argues. Politicians should try to give people what they want, he said—and in Pennsylvania, he added, people want a higher minimum wage and legal marijuana.
“One of the most vile things ever said about Pennsylvania is that it’s Pittsburgh [to the west], Alabama in the middle, and Philadelphia [to the east]. It’s just gross and it’s not true,” Fetterman said. The state has much more in common than urban-versus-rural debates would suggest. “You know what we have in common? Cameron County, the smallest county in Pennsylvania, has a Dollar General store. Drive a mile up the street [from his home], and there’s a Dollar General store here. That is the giant common thread running between: That’s where people get their basic sundries, and they both pay the same shitty wages to the same folks that work there. And it just shouldn’t have to be that way.”
The past few years have been strange for Pennsylvania Republicans. The moderates who once dominated the party—and in turn helped dominate the state—have faded from power, and Trumpists have largely taken their place. In 2016, the state went for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1988. Pat Toomey, the retiring senator whom Fetterman is hoping to replace, is one of the seven Republicans who voted for Donald Trump’s second impeachment, and the state Republican Party rebuked him for doing so last week. More Pennsylvanians have so far been charged in connection with the January 6 attack on the Capitol than residents from any other state. Depending on which professional Democrat you’re talking with, Fetterman is either the perfect candidate to take advantage of this chaos, because he’s so unusual, or the perfect candidate to flub the general election, because he’s too unusual.
[Read: How Pat Toomey became the face of the blue state GOP]
Lieutenant governors don’t have much power. Fetterman has hosted a series of town halls statewide in favor of legalizing marijuana, trolled Republicans in Harrisburg by hanging—and rehanging—flags promoting legalization and LGBTQ rights outside his office window, and used his role as the chair of the state Board of Pardons to get qualified Pennsylvanians out of prison. That last bullet on his résumé could prove a liability, but he said it fits who he is. “You’ve seen Shawshank Redemption? If you think Morgan Freeman should have died in prison, then you should vote for the other person. If you think that people can change ... and, if they’ve grown and they’ve expressed contrition or regret, that they should be given a chance, then you should vote for me.”
Imagine Fetterman lumbering around—because at his size, he’s always lumbering—in the Senate. Why does he think being a senator is the right path for him?
“I don’t,” he said. “I just know it’s mine.”