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Meet 350 Pounds of Attitude and A Big Heart: John Fetterman’s Vision for Braddock, Pennsylvania

July 19, 2010
Updated August 10, 2015

Several years ago I watched a fascinating segment on CBS Sunday Morning dealing with urban renewal. What was especially captivating was that the focus of the story was a hulking, well-educated guy who has dedicated the past many years to helping lift up a decimated Pennsylvania town.

Meet John Fetterman, the 350 pound, six foot six mayor of Braddock.

As with anyone who has initiated and practiced grassroots leadership, you’ll find both admirers and detractors. However, the lens through which I approach this post is leadership. I’ve tried to stay away from some of the innuendo that has followed Fetterman.

So what’s so special about Braddock, Pennsylvania? There are hundreds of cities and towns across America that have been absolutely creamed over the past quarter century by the offshoring of manufacturing. The “Rust Belt” is not some abstract concept that a policy wonk dreamed up in Washington, D.C. It’s real and visceral, and I’d note that it’s appalling that a national government would let its citizens suffer the way they have, all for the alleged purpose of ostensibly increasing a country’s economic well-being through free trade.

Sure, I’m a long-practicing economist who believes in capitalism and free and FAIR trade, not the kind of contrived free trade pushed by multinational corporations, who long ago lost their national allegiances. Economist David Ricardo would roll over in his grave if we were to see how his theory of comparative advantage has been so manipulated by economists, policy wonks and a host of others with hidden agenda.

Some of you may recall a book called The Road. A movie followed. To vividly illustrate an apocalyptic future, Braddock, Pennsylvania, was chosen. In watching the CBS show and in viewing photos of the town as it currently stands, I was absolutely shocked that this town is in the United States of America. I’ve personally seen run-down communities in northern New York State, Indiana, Vermont, New Hampshire and eastern Maine, but Braddock is a special case. There are no service outlets available; people must drive (assuming they have cars) into the city.

A once vibrant town, Braddock is located in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Named after General Edward Braddock who crossed the Monongahela River in 1755, the town was first settled in 1742, followed by a visit by George Washington in the mid 1750s. The Whiskey Rebellion took place in 1794, and then in 1850 the first industrial facility opened–a barrel plant.

The Edgar Thomson Steel Works opened in 1873, with successive developments: the Carnegie Library of Braddock was created in 1887, the national steelworker strike occurred in 1919 (same year as the Winnipeg general strike), the 1950s-60s experienced the peak of Braddock’s population (around 20,000) and industrial growth, the steel industry went into decline in the 1970s, and by 1990 the town’s population was under 5,000. By 2000 the population was under 3,000. Since 2001 the town’s decimation continues.

header Viewing the CBS video of Braddock as it is today was shocking. I’ve never seen a town so wasted. It’s actually unbelievable that a town in this state could even sustain the smallest of a population, but it’s especially immoral that it exists in the United States of America, the beacon of hope and opportunity.

And then someone rode in on the proverbial white horse.

I cannot and will not question John Fetterman’s motives for his tireless efforts to help pull up Braddock by the bootstraps. This is an intelligent and charismatic man who could be doing something else somewhere else in America. That he would choose to focus his efforts on a community that could be deemed the walking dead is a fascinating story in leadership, self-empowerment and citizen engagement. Some of the townspeople have criticized him for his motives, including subtle allegations of reverse racism and paternalism. Such is the nature of municipal politics.

John Fetterman originates from York, Pennsylvania. He played football as a tackle and attended Harvard University where he earned a Masters degree in public policy. In 2001 he moved to Braddock to work with Americorps, a federal program created by President Clinton in 1993, whose mandate includes community development. Fetterman’s focus was helping youth obtain their GED; his passion for youth remains strong .

Captured by the town’s beauty and challenges he ran for mayor in 2005, winning by one vote. Though his municipal salary is in the $30,000 range, his financial investments in Braddock have come from his family’s wealth. For example, he purchased a church just prior to its demolition, living in the basement for several months. He later bought a warehouse and moved into that. Subsequently, he purchased a variety of housing, offering cheap or free housing to townspeople. Fetterman’s worked at attracting artists to Braddock through cheap rents, etc. as part of the town’s revitalization.

John Fetterman He wears as a daily reminder tattoos on his right arm of the dates of youth murdered in Braddock. Accompanying these tattoos is the zip code of Braddock, 15104, on his left arm.

Watching Fetterman being interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning didn’t show any signs of ego, just a guy who’s intensely focused on helping a community get back on its feet. Yes, he’s been revered by the US media, with some calling him America’s coolest mayor. But remember, the media has the attention span of a budgie. What’s most important is the positive effect this one individual, who has his gifts and warts like the rest of rest, is having on one small decimated American town that is on the verge of death.

I’ve lived in big cities, small cities, towns and in rural areas. While I’ve never experienced the type of festering urban decay that Fetterman has faced, I can relate to the resistance and hostility with which he has had to contend. When someone from “away” arrives with good intentions the reaction is often suspicion with some residents. “What’s this guy want? Who does he think he is?”

Never question a person’s motives. Maybe his or her judgement, but never why they’re attempting to introduce something new or different. In the case of Braddock, it is perplexing John Fetterman would encounter a degree of resistance. Remember, this community was the walking dead, the most extreme example of how an American town went from former vibrancy to numbness, the stench of its imminent death omnipresent.

If there were ever an instance of the dire need for citizen engagement, this is it. If America (and Canada to a lesser degree) is to effectively address the monumental challenges facing small towns as a consequence of globalization, then citizens have to engage for effective resolution to their problems and challenges. Questioning motives, fearing change and shunning possibilities will lead to eventual oblivion.

The world needs more John Fettermans–warts and all.


Values are like horizons. You never get there. You just keep walking towards them.
– Karen Brugler, Lutheran General Health System.


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Jim Grand Manan FBTake a moment to meet Jim.

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