Protest: John Fetterman on Being Elected Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

Protest: John Fetterman on Being Elected Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania

"We just need to continually readjust and recalibrate in a much more fair, inclusive direction. I think what happened in Pennsylvania is pretty important and remarkable."

Jan 11, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Three of the most important things in politics are timing, having a good story, and personality. And money. Money's super important! But money can't buy It. I don't know where It comes from but I've covered the Fettermans for a few years and whatever It is, they have It. Some politicians and leaders have a certain nameless, formless power. It's like electricity. Only some politicians are conductors. Obama has It. So does Trump, in his way. All presidents in modern America have some version of It. Kamala Harris has It, Beto O'Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez do too. Out of the thousands of politicians in America only about a dozen have It.

It's a vibe that says they have a human heart but also live in the real world. They're not crazy or stupid. They're competent but also something else. They have an inherent generosity of spirit but they're realists. Given the opportunity, they can do good in the world and their elevation into higher office and greater positions of power is an objectively positive thing.

Not every politician intends to leave the world better than they found it. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat the most vulnerable, and Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor-elect, John Fetterman's actions speak volumes.

Over a decade after winning his first election by one vote for mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, John Fetterman defeated the incumbent Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack in the 2018 Democratic primary, and went on to win in the general election with Governor Wolf by the most votes for any gubernatorial ticket in the state's history. 

Politics can be one of the world's greatest equalizers. It's a complex but ultimately simple thing. You don't have to win the lottery, you just have to win people's heart. The people want someone real. Someone who tells them the truth. Or their own version of the truth. John Fetterman is a tough act to follow. He's a politician with a free spirit and a wild heart.

Sometimes it feels like this country is on the inside of a crisis and we can't see the full picture. But guided by service, after driving over 70,000 miles, and campaigning through all the counties in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, John Fetterman has a perspective few do and the chance to do great things for millions of people.  

I spoke to Lt. Governor-elect John Fetterman just after he resigned as mayor of Braddock, less than a week before Christmas and the day before the third government shutdown of the year. 

Steve King (Under the Radar): Who is going to take care of Braddock now that you'll be working in Harrisburg? 

John Fetterman: Well, I don't know who my successor is going to be, but I have faith in the wisdom of the voters and they had faith in me, and I'm certainly happy to return the favor and have faith in them to pick a good replacement. 

As mayor of Braddock and now Lt. Governor, you've gone from a town of 2,000 people to a position that took hundreds of thousands, millions of votes. How does it feel to go from being the mayor of a small town to being the second in charge of a state (commonwealth) as big as PA? 

I honestly couldn't imagine a better position to really inform anyone on how to really take a look at it because Braddock's challenges, Braddock's issues, Braddock's answers, are Pennsylvania's challenges and answers. Starting from a challenged place in Braddock and finding some momentum and some success in terms of public safety. I was just telling somebody, less than 10 years ago I was on The Colbert Report begging, pleading for a Subway sandwich shop because we didn't even have a place to eat in town. And eight years later we have five places, including the best brewery in Pennsylvania voted by Thrillist, and one of the best new restaurants to open in America in 2018 voted by Food & Wine Magazine. So, yeah it's really been... what's the Grateful Dead lyric? "What a long strange trip it's been." It's been really rewarding.

You had mentioned to the council that [your wife] Gisele could take over as interim-mayor of Braddock. 

No. That's a misinterpretation. The council had invited her to consider being interim-mayor, and there were a couple members on the council that objected to that process, which is ironic because those two very same members were appointed in the same manner. Gisele was fine with that and the topic hasn't come up since. I want to emphasize it was never Gisele's desire or strong intention. We had an invitation to consider it from some members on the council and it didn't work out. She's going to be the Second Lady of Pennsylvania. And, as you know, she's got a lot of issues and causes that she cares about, so we are scaling up to a much bigger platform. I think it has all worked out for the best. 

Is there a sort of tension between knowing she's the best person [for the job] and letting the town decide its own governance, for good or ill?

I never want to be one of those people who just can't let go of a place. It's always good to turn things over to new leadership, and that's what's happening here. They honored me by choosing me for four terms as mayor, and I know they're going to make the right choice going forward.

The appeal of a statewide power couple is still pretty cool and interesting.

Well, that is a power couple. At least there's a power spouse on her part. I'm still just me, but she's going to be Second Lady of Pennsylvania.

You and Gisele are remarkable people but also normal people. You've got three young children. Do you have staff or a team, and protective details now? How does it work?

I don't know exactly how that will work. The detail hasn't started yet but the only reason I agreed to it is because we have three young kids. If I was a bachelor and by myself, I would be fine if I were just on my own. But given that Gisele gets some real mean and racist kind of vitriol directed at her from an immigration standpoint, you just never know with some people. And after the Tree of Life Massacre, that really brought it home in terms of the kind of environment that's out there these days. 

What's it like to have your life change like this? Have you had time to reflect on it at all? 

I actually haven't had time to reflect. I hope to do a lot of that this week between Christmas and New Year's. Christmas is really special because of having three young kids. That's what I think really adds to this time of year. It's excitement and celebration. It's going to be a lot of processing and getting all of this together, and it's, like, truly a new chapter that's starting.

I imagine those realizations kind of come in waves. Like you get one and then you get another.

They absolutely do. It's kind of strange to no longer have the title that I did for the last 13 years of my life. It's like, that's it, and it's on to something next. It's all positive. It's all good and I know that I've left the office and the town in the best position possible, and I'm grateful to have been given the chance to do just that.

It's got to be overwhelming and surreal to a certain extent. What was it like returning to Braddock after the election? Did you have time to bask in the win and relax, or was it more about tying up loose ends and making sure the town is still secure and on the right path?

I really haven't had that opportunity yet. It's all been just taking care of business. I know it will be, but I haven't had the chance yet. I'm still deeply grateful to the voters and so humbled by the way the election went for Governor Wolf and I, but in terms of the reality of it and everything, it still hasn't really sunk in yet.

You've made a lot of sacrifices in order to serve the public and commonwealth; now you'll be moving away from your family and home for part of the year. How are you and the family handling the transition so far?

Gisele is an extraordinary partner and parent. We made it through a grueling statewide campaign last year, and the kids are straight-A students, very happy and well-adjusted. I make spending time with them a priority every chance I get, so it's worked out quite well. Not that I ever took it for granted. But the simple pleasure of being home to make them dinner and not have to drive to Erie for an event... as much as I enjoyed going to Erie and meeting the all voters there and talking about issues, it's nice to have a period of time now where I'm able to hang out with the kids. 

You and Governor Wolf have a slight difference of opinion in terms of marijuana legalization vs decriminalization. As head of the Board of Pardons, will you be pushing for some kind of relief in terms of non-violent marijuana convictions?

Governor Wolf always comes down on the right side of things. And he's open to different points of view and working to create a practical solution. I really want to emphasize this example: the American Medical Association-that's as strong a professional organization that exists, in terms of prestigesaid that Pennsylvania's response and handling of the opioid crisis is a national model. And that's an extraordinary thing right there. That's the kind of leadership that Governor Wolf has been exercising. And it just means that he's open to what I think are good core progressive, democratic solutions to a lot of these public policy problems. We have a Republicancontrolled legislature, and I look forward to creating as much common ground as we can, and as much give and take on our side and their side to get as much done as we possibly can.

You and Gisele have hosted Narcan training in you own home. You've seen what's ravaging the rest of America up close and personal. What else can PA do to combat the current opioid crisis?

They are distributing Narcan right now. They were overwhelmed by the demand, and I think things are going to continue to get better. Gisele and I toured a section of Philadelphia known as Kensington, and if that's not Ground Zero in America for opioid addiction I can't imagine what that place would be if it's not. Neither her or I had ever seen anything to that extreme. We've seen overdose victims. We've seen all kinds of tragedy. But what's still going on is remarkable, in the scope and intensity of that tragedy. It's something I want to be involved in and work on and with a partner like Governor Wolf who has exercised great leadership. I feel very honored to be in that place.

I've been to Kensington it's kind of like a lot of Baltimore in a way. 

Yeah, I thought I had seen a thing or two out here in the valleyand it's tough, make no mistakebut Kensington is especially tragic. Those are the kinds of communities that have always resonated deeply with Gisele and I and there's no accident that we both went on that tour.

With the Antwon Rose shooting by the East Pittsburgh Police, you dealt with the protests that accompany some higher profile extra-judicial police killings of unarmed black men in America. Except you knew him. He volunteered at the Freestore. He was in one of your past campaign ads. He wasn't just a name. He was a person and a fixture in you lives. What would you like to see PA do, or do better, at preventing this kind of thing? 

We have to make sure that every citizen has faith and trust in the police, and I've occupied a very unique place as head of a police department, but also representing a community of color, trying to make sure that you are able to formulate strategies that look out for public safety and it's in the public interest and it creates an environment where economic development can grow and continue but also understand that a police officer's most powerful weapon is his or her discretion.

I've only hired and worked with officers who understood that, and that split second for the officer who saw Antwone flee the scene had the discretion. "What do I do? Run away and arrest another day or do I put three in his back?" And that obviously was the fatal, tragic outcome of that event. I've always believed that discretion is such a powerful force. And if you look at so many of the other tragic outcomes, whether it's Sandra Bland, or Eric Garner...what they all have in common is if the officer involved had just exercised some discretion and said, "You know what? If you're selling cigarettes, I've got better things to do, next." Or "You didn't use your turn signal and I don't need to create a scene here, next." It could eliminate a lot of those situations.

My goal was that both sides can walk away with their dignity intact. I'm not saying it's always possible, but that's the goal. That's what you should aspire to. Not, "Hey, you didn't use your turn signal and pull over, and if I don't get 'yes, sir' or 'no, sir' then I'm going to start making things miserable. We can take this downtown." It just doesn't need to go that way. I've always believed that a community that doesn't trust its police force is a community that is less safe for the police officers who work there too.

During the campaign you said "Compassion is on the ballot, empathy is on the ballot." PA Republicans and Wagner's campaign said you were too wild and extreme, to which you said "My 'wild' ideas are that people with preexisting conditions should be able to buy insurance.... My 'wild' ideas are that I don't think we should be ripping apart immigrant families and placing children in cages. My 'wild' ideas are if you work 40 hours a week, you should be able to live in dignity." Why are all of these policies, positions that people across the political spectrum agree on, suddenly dangerous and too extreme for the country? When did that happen?

I don't think they are. I think the fact that Governor Wolf and I got more votes than any gubernatorial candidate team in the history of the state speaks to that. This is one of my criticisms of the media cycle, if you will. This is the state that, less than two years ago, went for Donald Trump, and we won by an enormous margin, and got more votes than anybody else in the history of Pennsylvania.

I always think results are much better than rhetoric. And there's a lot of cheap progressive rhetoric floating around out there right now. What's important is actually getting things done and having a track record of working to improve the lives of people and actually doing the work and not just showing up during a big election here like, "Hey, I'm for x, y, and z." Great, I'm glad, but where are you going with that? What's your plan to actually produce some results?

PA is made up of a lot of small, white, working class towns. You and Wolfe won by nearly 20 points, so you guys were able to do something that other Democrats have failed at in other places in the country. Since 2016, we've had countless articles written about how the white working class is fed up with DC and wants it to listen to them, but it turned out they didn't have very much to say.

There's an argument in our party, and I really felt it when I spoke at Netroots this past summer, where it's like, "If you voted for Donald Trump, then we're done with you, we're finished with you, and we need to build a new coalition and energize and activate people." And I'm like: two things can be true at the same time. I'm not willing to write off anyone because they voted for Donald Trump. If we are the party of second chances, looking to get people who have committed crimes out of prison, why would we write someone off that voted in a way that we find questionable or baffling? I'm not ready to do that.

It's always going to be every county and every vote for me. There's a moral imperative there. There's a practical imperative, and I refuse to write off anybody. There are persuadables. Look at a lot of these close races in Florida and Georgia. You have to reach out and work the people and the racism, the xenophobia, the homophobia, the nationalism, whatever...all of that has always been there, and it's always going to be there, but don't tell me that a county that went for Barack Obama by 10 points over John McCain in 2008 and then went plus 20 for Trump is all about racism. It's not. 

But does this overemphasis on white working class voters in the media not seem fundamentally unfair?

I don't think there is an overemphasis on white working-class voters. I don't like the term identity politics. Politics is always about each individual voter's identity and his or her dreams and his or her life experiences and so forth. I'm about what I run on and genuinely believe, and they happen to be solid progressive principles based in equity and the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people or policies that we should collectively pursue as a society.

That's classic egalitarianism. I don't understand how that has turned into evil, encroaching socialism.

No one's arguing that circumstances aren't more difficult for people and communities of color. I've represented a community of color the last four terms as mayor; I understand these structural issues. I understand how difficult it is. I understand what it means to say, "We matter." When I say places like Braddock matter it doesn't mean Upper St. Clair doesn't matter, or only Braddock matters. It means these places matter too. It's a very simple acknowledgement and understanding that everyone is deserving of opportunity, and every community is deserving of investments and resources and to not be abandoned to fall apart.

We've talked a lot about persuadable voters. The rich nearly destroyed the country, and  less than a decade later we elected a billionaire criminal, based mostly on frustration and white aggrievement. How do you reprogram these voters' values? Can you? Or do you just wait for them to realize they've been hustled?

I don't necessarily think that they ruined the country. We just need to continually readjust and recalibrate in a much more fair, inclusive direction. I think what happened in Pennsylvania is pretty important and remarkable. I campaigned on this, and now people are starting to say it with Pennsylvania in the blue column again. Trump, if he even makes it to 2020, has no path to 270, and I think people understand that this doesn't work and we need to make sure that we don't overreact. Remember, well over three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than they did for Donald Trump; it was 75,000 voters spread across three states that changed the course of this country.

It also happened because some people didn't think that their vote mattered, or some people said "Well, my person didn't win." Maybe you recall how frustrating it was for me to campaign for Hillary after being a Sanders person, where it was like "You know what? I'm not going to vote for her. They're both evil and the lesser of two evils doesn't exist." Not one person that thinks that has said "Yeah, I was right." There is a huge difference.

I said this on the campaign trail in the fall of 2016: if Donald Trump wins, they will keep the Senate, they will keep the House, and they'll pick at least two Supreme Court Justices (if not more). And here's what we as Democrats have to acknowledge right now, unless we're trying to pretend. The Republicans have already won. They enacted their dream tax package. They have a permanent conservative majority on the Supreme Court for the next 20 to 25 years. Anthony Kennedy just retired. He got on the court when I was a sophomore in college. Think about that. That's how long of a tail these judicial careers have.

Let's assume there's a progressive revolution in 2020 and we get huge majorities; where does every piece of legislation end up? That's my point. We have to acknowledge that as Democrats the damage that's been done and where we are and we have to do what we can to take things back on a practical and local level in the states. There's way too much emphasis just on the presidency. We have to, as a party, invest in controlling more statehouses. We got some good results in 2018 but we didn't get enough. I'm proud of the campaign Governor Wolf and I ran, and I'm proud of the results that we generated, especially in a state that Donald Trump carried less than two years ago.

Scott Wagner ran as a sort of proto-Trump. He talked about stomping on Gov. Wolf's face with golf shoes, you know, because that's the kind of thing tough guys say. I was kind of skeptical about the "Blue Wave" rhetoric, but it sure as hell looked like one in PA.

I don't think it was a Blue Wave. It was just, this is who we are, this is the record that we've managed to accomplish, and look at what happened. Senator Casey won and we won big. I have such admiration for Governor Wolf because he's not out there air-drumming at Whataburger. He's just getting things done. 

With the 2018 repudiation of Trump and Republicans in PA, is it back to being a blue state or it is still in flux?

I think it is back to being a blue state, but I think it's also a state where you better keep it that way. We're not New York or California. We're not Washington. Look at our congressional delegation: it's nine and nine, and anyone who's being honest (and I try to say this as a non-partisan), that's what Pennsylvania is. Nine and nine.

Now, as a partisan I wish it was twelve to six or whatever, but realistically, after being in every county across PA, we're a nine and nine state. That's the truth, and that's where we should be, and as long as you exercise good principled leadership and never forget about working union families as the base of the Democratic pyramid, and look out for fairness and equity for people of color and communities of color and speaking to issues that really matter and resonate to them; I think that is an unbreakable Democratic platform.

Republicans don't like even using the term "middle class." Democrats can't say it enough. What makes the middle class inherently more virtuous than the others to politicians? Is it just that they vote more?

I don't think that it's a matter of virtue. I don't know why anybody doesn't want better for anyone else who isn't doing as well as they are. Does that make sense? I'll never understand somebody who is like, "You work at Burger King so you deserve nine bucks an hour. You're only flipping burgers." Why wouldn't you want the people who are feeding you and making your sandwich to be able to live in dignity and be able to provide for their families? Why, if you're fixing cars or you're a mechanic, or you're an investment banker and you're making a million bucks a year...why wouldn't you want to make sure that a union steelworker has health insurance and can take care of their family? It doesn't come out of your pocket.

I want everybody to do as well as they possibly can. I don't get it. Wherever you are, there's always someone underneath you that could benefit from a policy, or group of policies and laws, that could make their lives a little better. I was lucky enough to go to college. I want everyone to have the opportunity to go to college. So why can't we make it more inclusive and more accessible to people? Not, "Well, I got my college degree and I don't care if you get a college degree." I don't understand that. I used this phrase a lot in both campaigns: "We're all better off when we're all better off."

Fascism, if it can be called that, in America has its roots in racism, selfishness, and fear.  That fear and racism is the consent of the white working class to allow the rich to rule everything. It's like that old Rage Against the Machine lyric "some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses." It's as though the working class is abandoning solidarity for the Vile Maxim, of "all for ourselves and nothing for other people." I don't know when that started. Was it Reagan? I'm not sure. When did that become the default for Americans?

It is undeniable that our bifurcated lives, whether you call it rural or urban or Fox News and Huffington Post or whatever, Drudge Report, it has an impact. We all have our own bubbles. If you want to stereotype your average Trump person or small town voter and they want to stereotype the latte liberals and Antifa or whatever you want to call it. I've seen it. I feel I'm uniquely qualified to comment on that because I've spoken in front of Democratic audiences all across Pennsylvania and I have to tell you, it doesn't get any more stark. Pennsylvania is a profoundly diverse state. You've got Centre City, Philadelphia, hard left, the most Democratic district in the country, I think. Like, it was plus 85 for Clinton. And then you have ruby red counties, and they might vote for Democrats in both counties, but what they believe is radically different. But what they all have in common is they're all good people. There's a lot more complicated nuanced than the stereotype of one half versus the other. We are much too quick to believe the worst about people that are different than us, even in the same party sometimes.

It feels, especially lately, like we're in a social experiment and we're seeing how much tension and anxiety people can live with.

Social media drives that. Twitter is not the real world. It can be a poison drip. The meanest, the most sarcastic, the most ironic, the most cutting, are the ones that are the most popular, and it becomes an Olympic event and it distorts and it's cruel. You can't sort anything out in 140 characters.

With Brexit, Russian interference in other western democracies...it feels like we may be at the outset of something really, really bad. Like pre-World War II stuff. Most people might not even know they're a part of it. How do you make that relatable to voters? Can you?

I would just say be responsible. I do my own homework. I don't say, "Well, I read that in someone's tweet so it must be true." I think the influence and sophistication of the Russian operation was grossly over exaggerated. Russia is a failed petro-state, you know? They're clinging to relevance, and whatever happened in 2016, whether they had a hand in it or otherwise, they sure are getting a lot more credit than they deserve one way or the other. We have to realize that you're always going to get emails from Nigerian princes that promise $25 million, and you want to believe that no one would be gullible enough to reply to that. There's always going to be that element. I think we're all responsible for unplugging and saying objectively, "I'm not going to base my whole world view on what I read on Facebook. It's really the responsibility of a voter to say, "hey, this is nonsense" or "this isn't reality." You have to be your own filter sometimes.

It's not as though Russia stole the election. They slightly tweaked and exacerbated what we were already doing to ourselves.

It's been a Cold War. When I was a kid it was Red Dawn. Remember that movie? Or Rocky IV. And now it's like going on Facebook pretending to be an angry conservative. It's kind of comical, in a sense, that we went from a paranoia that they were going to invade our country to now a troll farm in Russia messing with us online.

The 2016 election was the convergence of a lot of factors, and I don't think the Russian interference was a decisive one. That being said, reform the social media platforms. Have something minimal. You're not going to get rid of junk mail. You're always going to have some percentage of people who are going to be influenced by these kinds of mechanisms, and we all have to remind ourselves that you are a member of a participatory democracy, and that comes with a baseline of responsibility to educate yourself to a point where you're not actively having a knee-jerk reaction to everything. I'm much more concerned about our polarized media outlets like Fox News or Huffington Post, as opposed to some Russian troll farm. Now hacking votes is a different. We need to make our system fail safe in that regard.

I've worked with the public my whole life and it is genuinely a challenge to maintain my progressive values. I don't know how you do it.  How do you do it?

I personally think I've got a well-developed sense of what fairness looks like. Like universal pre-k: that gets us closer to fairness because children grow up and are born into homes with such different circumstances, I want to make sure that they have the opportunity to have a structured nurturing and supportive environment through universal pre-k. That's an example. I don't think that's progressive. Maybe it's progressive? I just think it's basic equity, and that's an argument I can make to a rock red conservative or an argument I can make to a hardcore progressive. I don't think that's radical. I think that's reasonable, whether you're in coal county Pennsylvania or in Kensington; I think it's true. Why wouldn't you want that for every child? I believe that every child deserves what I would want for my own.

You sent a pretty epic fundraising email in April. It was not the normal politician email. It described how you had been "sleepwalking" through life when a "friend was killed in a car accident. It laid bare the vulnerability of our existence, and it really rocked my world. I was obsessed by the idea that one could, on any given day, wake up, have breakfast, kiss one's family good-bye, and then disappear, forever. I decided that I wanted something good to come from this tragedy, so I left business school and joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of America." That, coupled with subsequent events in "Big Brothers Big Sisters" and in Braddock, turned you into a public servant that you are today. I've been wanting to ask about this for years. That one event changed the trajectory of your life. I'm wondering how recognizing mortality translated itself into serving others and then eventually representing them.

Well, with my own mortality, it was this idea that it was just a matter of a couple seconds difference that made that car accident that took my friend's life possible. It was just the random lottery of birth. How did I end up with two parents that love me and were able to support me and valued education and my Little Brother's parents both died before his 9th birthday from AIDS, one of the most horrific ways somebody can pass away. Especially in 1994. That was a gruesome death sentence. What's the difference? I couldn't explain it. I said, "You know what? For whatever reason, I've been very fortunate and I have a chance and I have a choice to make," and one of them was to pursue my own interest and make sure my life was as comfortable as possible or given that I have been the beneficiary of some unknown random roll of the cosmic dice can I spend my life working for the greater good to combat inequality? And I made the latter choice and haven't looked back since. It's been 25 years.

When does that service become political, and how does it pivot to where you're like "Okay, this has just turned into something else?" And then, how do you keep the focus on helping people as opposed to the normal dealmaking that goes on in politics?

The way I look at it is I'm a social worker who just accidentally ended up in elected office. That's what it is.

In four years, you've got a lot of options. You've never really taken your eyes off Pat Toomey. But in the meantime, what are the things you're most looking forward to pursuing as Lt. Governor?

I'm looking forward to working with Governor Wolf on pardons issues. In Pennsylvania, the only way you can commute a sentence or get a clean start is through the pardon process, and that's one thing that's entirely under my purview. I want to reform that in a manner so we can effectively have an audit every year so anyone who belongs in prison is there and anyone who doesn't has a chance to do what's best for them and society. Anyone who is not in prison but is constantly being damaged or harmed by their past records. If they've been making most of their second chance and take their lives to a new level and that's right for society, let's make that process available to them. It's far too rare right now. I want to see that process become much more efficient and effective. If I'm not able to do anything else as Lieutenant Governor, and if I'm able to leave that as a legacy, then it will affect the lives of thousands of people long after I'm gone. That's what I'm looking forward to.

John Fetterman will be sworn in as Lt. Governor of Pennsylvania on January 15, 2019. 

www.johnfetterman.com



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