John Fetterman

Rust Belt Populism

Air Date: July 15, 2017

John Fetterman, Mayor of Braddock, PA, discusses authentic solutions to serve the public.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. In a move universally derided in world capitals, president Trump veered the United States in the direction of xenophobia, nativism, isolation, with his decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord. But in doing so, the Trump administration appealed to his hardline, Breitbart reading base, and also doubled down on its rhetoric of populism, a disdain for cosmopolitanism, vouching for Pittsburgh, and not Paris. Even as his billionaire cabinet rules the day, it’s this paradox of populism, in fact grounded in a crude exploitation of the worker, a cult-like emotional connection that ignores the reality of policies and their consequences for America, that’s so concerning today. That’s why I invited here the Mayor of Rust, John Fetterman, of Braddock Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, an edgy and brave new thinker whose service has inspired revival in the heartland. Facing off against the establishment Democratic candidates in 2016, Fetterman unsuccessfully sought the senate nomination in a three person, competitive race. Donald Trump has mined the dark side of populism, and Bernie Sanders has mined the aspirational side, but it’s that that’s the common thread, Fetterman reflected last year, and I welcome the Mayor today.

FETTERMAN: It’s great to be here.

HEFFNER: Thank you for being here. It, it is that paradox of, of populism today…

FETTERMAN: Sure…

HEFFNER: That the most visible embodiment of it is denying people a living, a living wage…

FETTERMAN: Sure, yeah, yeah. It uh, cruelty is the new black uh, in a lot of conservative circles and, and the, the Ossoff race in Atlanta, uh, area, the uh, the GOP candidate was quoted as saying, I, I don’t believe in a living wage. And it’s, it’s staggering in its, in its nonchalance, basically. Um, uh, and, and from my perspective, you know, the message that I tried in my election was, is that, we’re all better off when we’re all better off, and uh, you can’t, you know when I would ask folks, you know, can you raise a family and support yourself on nine dollars an hour, I’ve never had anyone raise their hand. Uh, and I don’t know why that’s a controversial or, you know, leftist kind of concept, this idea that if you work hard and work forty hours a week that you, you know, should be able to take care of yourself and yours…

HEFFNER: I think so too. The first thing I wanted to mention in, in our discussion is just, the chicken’s coming home to roost, and boy do they have Avian influenza…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Here in Kansas, the, the reality being austerity, a scorched earth…

FETTERMAN: Yep.

HEFFNER: Torching of the public education system is an example of uh, as you say, an aw-shucks nonchalance. Tax cuts, you know, are gonna raise the standard of living, are going to improve people’s lives, and in Kansas, what’s the matter with Kansas? Well, they’re bankrupt, and they’re bankrupting their children, and to me, that’s, that’s a great starting point for you, as a mayor…
FETTERMAN: Yep.

HEFFNER: Or for a new populist wave to take shape. I don’t know if you see it that way.

FETTERMAN: Yeah, well, and I mean and it’s interesting how Kansas is reversing those, override, overrode his veto. And this idea that um, you can tax cut for the rich your way to prosperity has been disproven over and over again. Um, and it’s, it’s uh, it’s the Lucy and the football, you know, and Charlie Brown. You know, they keep bringing it back, hoping that it’s going to work this time. And time and time again, it’s proven that it doesn’t work, and I return back to this, to that axiom of, we’re all better off when we’re all better off. And it, it’s like, we’re not, it’s, we’re still paying for it as a society. If we shortchange our children, if we don’t have universal pre-K, if we pay eight, nine dollars an hour, you know, you’re going to pay, you know, for food stamps. You’re going to pay more in, in housing. You’re going to pay more in, in correctional costs down the road. It, it uh, there’s no cheap way to run, you know, this, this government, and the way that is the most inclusive, the way that um, creates the greatest benefit, is been proven to show that, you know, again, we’re all better off when we’re all made better off.

HEFFNER: Right, and you were describing, for our viewers the background here is that a two-term governor decided to tax cut his way to prosperity…

FETTERMAN: Yeah…

HEFFNER: Except it was to depression, and the Republican legislature has now…

FETTERMAN: Uh, overridden…

HEFFNER: It was so…

FETTERMAN: It was so bad, it, you know, they actually voted to override, ride that, and that’s, that’s a staggering statement, and it comes as a surprise to nobody, because they were constantly warned throughout the, his, his tenure, that this isn’t working, the deficits are increasing. It, it just um, uh, they, they had plenty of time to avert that iceberg, but that’s where they’re at. And it’s, its’ another lesson that I hope, you know, will be embraced on the right. But I don’t have a lot of confidence that ultimately it will.

HEFFNER: Well, when you take, if you do, and I’m sure you fly out of Pittsburgh sometimes, but when you take that regional Amtrak from Penn station to Pittsburgh, and you basically go from Philly through the state, and…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And you see uh, the blue-collar voter…

FETTERMAN: Yep.

HEFFNER: You, you see the everyday American in any variety of professions, not necessarily miners, um, these are workers of all colors and creeds, when, when you take that ride now, what, what are you thinking about.

FETTERMAN: I, I, I’m just thinking about how the, that, you know, we in Pennsylvania um, are, are at a real critical tipping point in, in our state. Um, you know, we went red for the first time since 1988. And we went red because a lot of long-term Democratic voters finally in, in areas, you know, outside of my community in Western Pennsylvania said, hey, you know, why not give this guy a try? Um, I, I was actually at his rally in Western Pennsylvania, in a small steel town called Monessen last, well actually, almost a month, a year ago to the date. And here is Donald Trump in a depressed steel town, struggling for its very survival, and they’re cheering for a billionaire, you know that um, purchases Chinese steel, that stiffs his contractors. And, and it, it struck me just, I said, either he’s lost it, or he, you know, has figured something out that we don’t fully yet realize. And I look at that as the turning point in the 2016 election where, um, I don’t know if it was analytics or just instinct. But they were able to carve a path, by bringing in disaffected Democrats that have watched their way of life and their community, and um, and their, their, their social welfare, just erode over the last thirty or forty years. And they decided to take a chance on somebody like Donald Trump.

HEFFNER: It, it doesn’t seem to me, not to be too hopeless, that there is any accountability from those voters who see the appointment, as I said in the intro, of a billionaire cabinet…

FETTERMAN: Yep.

HEFFNER: And policies that ostensibly are not going to be beneficial. So, so what’s the way forward?

FETTERMAN: The, the way forward for the Democrats you know, in my, in my own humble estimation is…

HEFFNER: And for Americans…

FETTERMAN: Yeah, well, you know, I mean…

HEFFNER: Right?

FETTERMAN: It, you know, I don’t think anything’s going to change much in the 2018 election. Um, and when I was campaigning as a surrogate for, for Hilary Clinton and, and also uh Katie McGinty, um, I was just warning people like, look, you can’t let this happen, because you’re gonna, they’re gonna run the table, if you let Donald Trump uh, sneak in. And you already have a Supreme Court justice appointed, and you’re probably going to have one more. And that alone will shape the con, a conservative agenda throughout America for the next thirty years. You know, we as Democrats have to focus on getting 2020, and we have to heal the rift, I believe that exists strongly between Clinton and Sanders camp, and also a new emerging rift where, do we make a sustained outreach to disaffected Democrats and Trump voters? Or do we just say, you know, that’s treason, it’s unforgivable, we’re going to write you off, we’re going to find a new path? And I’m for the former of course. Um, and until we do, we run the risk of becoming disorganized and, and kind of going after our own, and the purity tests that could conceivably give him four more years.

HEFFNER: Why do you have such, seemingly little faith in 2018.

FETTERMAN: Um, I, I, I just get the sense that um, of course, there could be some Russian bombshell, or some kind of thing of that nature, but uh, people are clamoring uh, on the left for impeachment, impeachment. It’s like, well then that just gets Mike Pence. OK, and Mike Pence is the, you know, conservative, organized, I mean like, in fact, in some ways, you know, he’s the GOP’s ideal standard bearer. So this notion that we can, um, you know, take everything back in 2018, if Trump is impeached or what have you, I think is, is uh, just flat out wrong.

HEFFNER: But what is your experience in Braddock. How does that inform the way you appeal to the, not the dark side of populism…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.
HEFFNER: But, but the better angels of populism…

FETTERMAN: Sure.

HEFFNER: The humanitarian potential…

FETTERMAN: Sure.

HEFFNER: Of populism?

FETTERMAN: I, I, I’ve always tried to live in an authentic manner. Um, and you take, uh, you know, whatever, whatever, uh, topic it is, say living wage. It’s like, I have, you know, I got my start teaching, helping young people get their GEDs. And I know firsthand what a job making $15 an hour can do for a family. And when you actually talk to people one on one and say, uh, you know, do you really think it’s fair to pay somebody $8.50 an hour that works 40 hours, and they still live in poverty? And, you know, they, they’ll admit it. There’s too much tribalism when it comes to that. Same with um, immigration. My wife, um, was, was a dreamer. You know, she came from Brazil, and this idea that we’re going to um, you know, like she has made this world such a better place. And when they meet her it’s, you know, oh, I didn’t mean, really, that’s what immigrants are really like? So, this, you know, demonstrating that, you know, we’re, we’re living through an authentic uh, you know, this is our lives. You know my wife is a dreamer. We live in one of the poorest communities in, in the state, and we want to move the community and the region, um, forward in a way that is conducive to everyone’s welfare, not this idea that we’re going to um, um, be able to tax cut our way, you know, to the one percent.

HEFFNER: How did you find that message in the neighborhoods surrounding Braddock in the, across Pennsylvania? How did you find it to resonate or not resonate
in, what, what was a very polarized moment?

FETTERMAN: Sure. It, it was incredibly polarizing. And, and, uh, you know, I would, you know, I was a surrogate, and I would go to these events, and I would talk to union presidents and, and they were sweating it. They were like, you know, we’re, we’re fully behind secretary Clinton, but it’s like, you know, two thirds of our, our people are going to, are voting for Donald Trump and it’s, it was an extraordinary moment that happened in American politics. They found a way where they, nobody thought that there was a path. And we as Democrats have to get that back. We have to do a better job. And, and I hate to say this, but in some cases, I would never consider voting for Donald Trump, and I find a lot of his policies abhorrent, but we have let vast swaths of Pennsylvania and Ohio down. And are, they’re desperate…

HEFFNER: Right.

FETTERMAN: And we, we helped foment the level of, of desperation and economic insecurity. We’ve played a role in that. So, you know, we have to take some ownership in that as well too. And from a moral and social justice standpoint, you know, we have to invest in these kinds of places. And that’s consistently been my message, it’s not about Braddock. It’s not about me. It’s about, you know, this whole roster of communities in my state and in Ohio that need this kind of reinvestment, that need this kind of attention. And without it, what’s it going to look like ten years from now, fifteen years, twenty years from now? Um, and, and I see people disparaging or making fun of, making light of the coal industry. And it’s like, coal isn’t a growth industry. I mean I understand that, but it helped build the United States. It still powers, uh, a lot of our electrical grid and, and we have to understand these communities. That’s all they have. And if you say, well Arby’s has more employees than the coal industry like was reported in the Washington Post, you, you know like, Democrats gleefully proclaiming coal’s demise, isn’t a way to win back, you know, middle America that way. It’s, it’s, we want to reinvest in you, we want to make sure your communities are better off. We want to, we understand that we have to do better for you, instead of just proclaiming that you guys are, are over and it’s like, good luck with that.

HEFFNER: The, the infusion, or the so called infusion of, um, coal and related energy jobs, that’s, that’s been grossly exaggerated, the extent to which Trump’s election has fostered a new wave of economic revival.

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And I’m not purporting to know or suggest, mayor, that green jobs are the answer in these communities, but, what…

FETTERMAN: They’re not necessarily, they’re not the answer. The answer is, is, we want to reinvest in these place, we want to make sure…

HEFFNER: Right.

FETTERMAN: These folks have basic resources. Otherwise, you’ve seen the unraveling that occurs, whether it’s the opioid crisis, whether it’s, you know, my community lost 90 percent of its population. You know these are significant and staggering, um, you know, social problems that are occurring all across, you know, Western Pennsylvania and throughout Ohio, and up until 2016, a lot of these uh, it wasn’t brought front and center, and Trump’s ascension has brought a lot of this idea that it’s like, wow, you know, you know uh, what did we miss here, and why did these good people decide to vote for a guy that goes home and uses a solid gold toilet that pretends to be for the working families.

HEFFNER: Right. When is enough enough for small-town America to recognize um, that yes the Democrats have just as much failed them in many instances…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Including president Obama. You used the word security, economic security…

FETTERMAN: Yep.

HEFFNER: The question of that is really, that was not secured. Economic stability, in the wake of the recession might have been secured through the Obama presidency, but the Obama presidency did not radically alter the socio-economic landscape enough for people to feel like they were now…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Part of the equation. So, my question is, looking to 2018 and 2020, if there is no major revival or refurbished airports, infrastructure, roads, won’t there be a recognition that this was just all a hoax.

FETTERMAN: You, you mean, Donald Trump…

HEFFNER: The, the Donald…

FETTERMAN: Yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: Donald Trump’s, when he would say, we’re broken, and in many instances was right about infrastructure…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.
HEFFNER: If folks in, in Braddock and across suburban and rural Pennsylvania see it’s same old, same old, it’s not touching me, won’t, won’t there be a recognition that this was just…

FETTERMAN: And a rejection of Trump and, and, I, I…

HEFFNER: Is that plausible?

FETTERMAN: I don’t, I don’t, I don’t necessarily see that. You know, um, um, after he withdrew from Paris, uh, there was, you know, wholesale outrage on the left. And, and my position was, I mean, like, this wasn’t like from a tortured, fevered brow, he came, you know, it’s just like, this was politics, this was 2020. This is, I mean like, Ohio and Pennsylvania I consider are the Boardwalk and Park Place of, of uh, American politics. You can win monopoly without those two, but it’s a heck of a lot…

HEFFNER: [LAUGHTER]

FETTERMAN: Harder. And uh, no one predicts Ohio’s coming back. So, Pennsylvania is an incredibly important state, and it’s no accident that, um, a lot of the things that he’s doing and saying, play well to his base. And, and um, and this idea that um, that he wants to be a consensus, you know, Trump didn’t run to the center. He ran to his base. And you know, there aren’t Democrats now that are thinking, hmm, you know, I didn’t vote for him in 2016, but I wanna give him a try. He’s, he’s only getting more and more attractive to his base, and less and less attractive to the people that already voted for other candidates, so…

HEFFNER: Or might not have voted at all…

FETTERMAN: Or might not have voted at all…
HEFFNER: Assuming…

FETTERMAN: Yeah, so whether Trump has a path or not to 2020, nobody knows. That’s a lifetime away. But if he does have a path, it’s going to run through Ohio and Pennsylvania for sure. And, and he’s going to do everything he can to preserve that, and that people in those communities, um, that voted for him, I think, at least thus far, I mean we’re only five months into it, thus far are not shaken of their support and, and belief that Donald, like, there was a sign in Trump country that we pass all the time, saying, you know, 2017, Donald Trump kicking ASS, not kissing. And there’s that sense that there’s still a lot of yard signs, there’s still a lot of support. And, and uh, I mean theoretically anything’s possible but um, uh, his constituency in Western Pennsylvania is not up in arms right now saying, oh my god, what have we done? It’s, you know, you know, you got get him, you know.

HEFFNER: And that is partly the choreography of the D.C….

FETTERMAN: Exactly…

HEFFNER: Swamp in, in…

FETTERMAN: It’s all professional wrestling.

HEFFNER: Right.

FETTERMAN: You know.

HEFFNER: When I asked you before how, what’s the way forward, I mean it, to what extent was this racialized? To what extent was it cultural and to what extent, does it matter if you, if you make, if you create a local airport or improve a…

FETTERMAN: Sure.
HEFFNER: A road or bridge, are, if, if people aren’t gonna respond to that…

FETTERMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: They’re going to stay in their shells…

FETTERMAN: Sure. Well, I mean uh, I, I think the way, the way forward is we do need to in-, invest in our infrastructure, but we need structural things to happen in our economy, like a living wage, for example, that we’re going to reinvest in these aging and, and distressed communities like my own, like Youngstown, like all these other places. Um, and…

HEFFNER: Have you seen signs of that happening since…

FETTERMAN: Well…

HEFFNER: Trump’s election.

FETTERMAN: I haven’t. And, and, and uh, his budget talks about cutting back the community development block grants, which is the lifeblood of communities like mine where, where private dollars will only follow public dollars. So, he hasn’t taken any concrete steps, with the exception of killing, uh, the TPP, uh, to uh, warrant any kind of enthusiasm or, wow, this guy really is going to be looking out for us. Um, and not that I ever expected that but um, I think, moving forward, um, it’s, it’s going to come down to uh, a lot of show, like, I’m going to pretend I saved a thousand jobs at Carrier. I mean, look, read Drudge Report everyday, and that’s what his supporters are thinking, because that’s where most of those uh, supporters, you know, get their source. Know what, you know, the Democrats think. you know, we’re in a HuffPost, Drudge world, and we don’t get out of our silos, and that’s a criticism of the left, as much as it is of the right.
And, you know, you know, if you’re, you know, barely getting by, and you’re having trouble at home, and you know, you’re kids aren’t doing well at school, you don’t sit down at your kitchen table and evaluate, you know, you know infrastructure versus, you know, how much does racial resentment play into it…

HEFFNER: [LAUGHTER]

FETTERMAN: It’s just this visceral reaction you get watching the news, you know, going online, and it’s, it’s hard to quantify. And um, you know, it’s always played a role in, in Republican politics. But in this particular case, you know, something really unique happened, and we as Democrats have to understand that, and, and we can never let it happen again, and if we do, we only ultimately have ourselves to blame for it.

HEFFNER: You’ve been Mayor since 2006, you were recently reelected, what is your vision in this environment, where mayors and county executives really have to take charge…

FETTERMAN: Yeah…

HEFFNER: With an austerity budget that may replicate the Kansas experience on a national scale.

FETTERMAN: Sure. Well, our way forward has always been what it, it always has been. Is that we, we are building ourselves back from the brink. And twelve years into this, you know, we have some, some momentum. But, if you drove through Braddock, you know, this afternoon, you would still see a community steeped in, still a lot of issues. And, and it certainly will need to go on long after I’m gone, uh, to, to do that. And those, there are so many communities like that in my state. And, and that’s a big reason why I ran. And, and if we don’t get serious about reinvesting in our communities and our infrastructure, and making sure that if you are working, you can support your family in a dignified manner, if we don’t invest in education, um, early childhood education, healthcare, these kinds of things, um, the, the fabric’s gonna continue to, to, to tear, and um, uh, Pennsylvania is going to continue to accrue this, this growing roster of communities that are in trouble.

HEFFNER: What has improved since ’06, and what work remains.

FETTERMAN: Well, you know, most every metric’s improved in my community in 2006, and we’re, we’re waiting now to hear if we got uh, a medical marijuana growing facility in uh, in, in our community. And that would be a real game changer. Uh, medical marijuana has only recently gone legal in our state, so we put in an application for that. That would be significant. Um, we were coming back from not even having a restaurant in our community, to now we will have three before the summer is out, uh, open. So, you know, we’re building back from a very fundamental level of, of, near extinction. Uh, and you have other communities, you know, uh, falling behind. So, um, Trump would have his work cut out for him, um, in western Pennsylvania or in Ohio if he were earnest about that. And speaking as someone who’s been on that ground now, in there for 16 years, it’s going to take more than speeches. It’s going to take more than empty, um, symbolism. It’s going to take uh, sustained decades of work, and I don’t see it coming, uh, and hopefully we Democrats can understand that this, we can never let this happen again, and, and we need to claim those places, because that’s what Democrats do. We care about, and we take care of um, places like Braddock, places like Manessen, places like Sharon Pennsylvania that have truly been left out of, of, of the economic equation.

HEFFNER: During the 2016 cycle, your governor was missing in action. Uh, I couldn’t find him, I didn’t see him out there or aware of the seriousness of the political problem. This is a Democrat…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Uh, of, of, Governor Wolf, right, uh…

FETTERMAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Who like Kate McGinty who ran…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: For the senate and lost, uh, made out of establishment cloth, uh, from a fiduciary, treasury background. Are they doing anything to help you?[LAUGHTER]

FETTERMAN: Uh, governor Wolf, uh, I mean, I’m a, I’m a big fan of governor Wolf…

HEFFNER: Yeah…

FETTERMAN: Uh, and I tell people right now that ask me, what can I do for 2018, what can I do? Is, is, you should do everything you can to get Governor Wolf and Senator Casey elected, because if governor Wolf loses, we in Pennsylvania have an exact replica of what the federal government looks like now, a, a Republican Chief Executive, both houses, and they can run the table on all kinds of things, from women’s choice to environmental regulation. So, um, uh, and that goes with, with Senator Casey. So um, you know we have to hold the line in 2018, I think, in Pennsylvania, and for 2020, uh, do everything we can to turn Pennsylvania blue again. And I’m optimistic, but um, only if we incorporate the lessons that we should have learned from 2016, and we select the candidate, whoever it may be, that understands that we need to cull the best, uh, from the Sanders populism, but also from the, uh, you know, let’s, we have to win too, uh, and combine them into uh…

HEFFNER: And there, there’s the argument that Sanders would have won, I mean that, he got a bad rap and, because of his provincial appeal as a…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Curmudgeonly…

FETTERMAN: Sure…

HEFFNER: New-Englander…

FETTERMAN: Well, I mean his authenticity it…

HEFFNER: Could have…

FETTERMAN: Yeah, and he…

HEFFNER: Won the day…

FETTERMAN: And he, and he had authenticity for sure. Um, but I bristle just a little bit because uh, Secretary Clinton pulled ahead, uh, an insurmountable lead, largely based on the strength of African American vote in the Southern states during the primary as well too, so I…

HEFFNER: And many of them didn’t come out on the general…

FETTERMAN: Yeah, well, unfortunately didn’t at the same level for Barrack Obama. But, but uh, you know, it, I don’t want to re, re-litigate the election. All I know is that moving forward, um, you know, we need to, to have a, an inspiring level of populism and, and really I don’t see that happening in the way it should until, you know, we get Citizen’s United out of the picture.

HEFFNER: Right, well Mayor, we really appreciate your time. I, I don’t wanna re-litigate the past so much as to, [LAUGHTER]

FETTERMAN: [LAUGHTER]

HEFFNER: Recognize that in the one primary contest to date in New Jersey, of course you have these special…

FETTERMAN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Congressional elections, it doesn’t look like the Democrats did learn their lesson when…

FETTERMAN: Nope and I, I, I would just like to see, I would just like to see our party really come together and, and learn its lessons. And, and I don’t see that, uh, happening, and I see uh, an overemphasis placed on these niche races in Montana and, and, you know, if John Ossoff wins, and I sure hope he does, it’s not going to change anything. If he loses, it’s still, it’s not, doesn’t say anything either, it just says that we, they have spent unholy sums of money, unhealthy sums of money, on a race that’s the most expensive in congressional history, after participating as I did, in the most expensive senate race in US history. And, you know, money, uh, and unlimited money seems to be what everybody uh, acknowledges uh, is the key to winning elections, and it’s not. It’s ideas, and I think it’s authenticity. And we need to return to those roots.

HEFFNER: Thank you Mayor.
FETTERMAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas, yes ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.