FILE PHOTO: Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman.
Matt Rourke / The Associated Press
FILE PHOTO: Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman.
Matt Rourke / The Associated Press
(Harrisburg) — This ought to be interesting.
John Fetterman, who has gained inordinate amounts of attention for someone toiling in the trenches of Pennsylvania’s municipal government, goes into a job that’s rank on state government’s organizational flow chart typically far outstrips its actual function.
It’s literally a blank canvas at the state Capitol that Fetterman, 49, is clearly eager to fill through the next four years as your lieutenant governor.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s ticket-mate took some time out of his transition prep this week for an interview about his move up from mayor of hardscrabble Braddock in Allegheny County to the State Capitol in Harrisburg, and what he wants to do with the bigger platform his new, $166,291-a-year job entails.
First, some background.
A married father of three, Fetterman will, in one respect, be like many of the legislators he will serve with as presiding officer of the Pennsylvania State Senate: He is renting a home in the city and will make extended commutes to Harrisburg while his wife, Gisele, and their three kids – ages 10, 7 and 4 – maintain their household (and lives) in Allegheny County.
(Gisele Fetterman established a unique charity known as the “Free Store 15104” in Braddock, and is part of groups that run 412 Food Rescue – a food pantry – and The Hollander Project, an incubator for female- and minority-owned businesses. At one point, according to a report by the Pittsburgh-based news site The Incline this fall, John Fetterman was promoting his wife as his replacement as mayor, though that now seems unlikely to happen.)
The decision to become a road-runner grew out of the Fettermans’ distaste for living in the State House on Fort Indiantown Gap that has been the traditional home – and one of the nicest perks – for the lieutenant governor.
Fetterman says he prefers a comfortable place to hang his hat while in Harrisburg that can also accommodate the family during the summer and other school breaks. And he can go to the family’s home in Braddock when he has down time.
Fetterman’s new digs, incidentally, is a townhouse on North Second Street owned by his brother Gregg. John Fetterman describes the rental as a private transaction that he will not seek any reimbursement from the state for. “The Commonwealth does not owe me a place to live,” he said.
Still and all, working out of Harrisburg marks a regional homecoming for Fetterman, a York County native – Central York High School Class of ’87, in case you’re wondering – who graduated from Albright College and worked in the insurance industry before a volunteer stint with Big Brothers changed his personal trajectory.
“I made the choice at that point in ’95 that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my professional career just making my circumstances even better than they were,” he told Pennlive in a 2015 profile.
After a stint in AmeriCorps and graduate school, Fetterman found his way to Braddock and founded a non-profit serving youth there, which morphed into running for mayor, which morphed into a career in which he gained a lot of regional attention for his personal investment in trying to make something out of a down-on-its heels mill town that another notable politician probably had in mind when he famously decried “this American carnage.”
Fetterman has spent the last 17 years practicing street-level triage for little Braddock, from development of an all-purpose community center, to landing a starring role for the town in a Levi Strauss advertising campaign, or a one-man protest for improved medical services that resulted in a defiant trespass arrest in Pittsburgh.
Along the way, he’s earned notice in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The New York Times Magazine.
The legend of John Fetterman grew in a different way during his underdog bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2016, where a respectable third-place finish put him more squarely on the state’s political radar screen, and he made the smart choice to seek to be Wolf’s running mate last year.
It was smart because the incumbent lieutenant governor, Mike Stack, was already politically estranged from Wolf and badly wounded by massive press coverage of issues concerning his and his family’s treatment of personal staff. And it was smart because a glut of rivals from the southeast split the vote there to a degree that Fetterman could ride his western Pa. base to a relatively easy primary win.
The Wolf-Fetterman ticket rode the 2018 Blue Wave to victory in the fall.
The LG’s office is a position that – like one of those express lanes on a Candy Land game board – allows the holder to skip over a lot of steps to get right in the middle of the state government team picture. It is the office-holder, and his or her dynamic with the chief executive, that determines what happens next.
No one is more keenly aware of the improvisational nature of the office than Fetterman, who had another one of those the-job-is-what-you-make-of-it positions as Braddock’s mayor.
First off, he is eager to give Wolf the governmental partner he deserves.
“If Governor Wolf thinks I’m helpful directing traffic in Harrisburg, I’ll be out there directing traffic,” Fetterman joked during the interview with PennLive Wednesday. But the sentiment was real.
“My agenda is his agenda, and I’m really excited to work for somebody that I genuinely admire.”
The full parameters of that new partnership are still being worked out, but Fetterman talks eagerly about becoming something of an at-large ambassador for Wolf, who isn’t born to the bully pulpit.
“To the extent he’s willing to do that, I would love it,” Wolf said in an interview Thursday. “Because he is really good at doing that, and he’s tireless. And he’s a really smart guy.
“What I’ve asked him to do is let’s keep working together and figure out areas, I’ll try to anticipate where he can be helpful, and if he sees something he wants to do that I have ignored, he’s free to say, ‘I’d like to be in that meeting,’” Wolf said.
Fetterman is also eager to dig into his work as chair of the State Board of Pardons, the non-court entity that gives ex-convicts the chance to wipe their records clean.
It’s one of the few roles that is constitutionally assigned to the office, and Fetterman is looking to build on Stack’s work in promoting the pardons process – which can play a major role in helping ex-cons unlock doors to job and career opportunities – including posting pardons applications online for the first time.
The other role, of course, is presiding over the state Senate.
It is one of the most ornate spaces in Pennsylvania’s Capitol Building, and one of the state’s favorite parlor games has been to speculate how the shirt-sleeved, tattooed mayor from Braddock would adjust to its High Decorum.
Will he wear a suit and tie at the rostrum?, folks want to know.
Now hear this: Fetterman will not be gavelling in the Senate in his trademark Dickies work shirt and cargo shorts. There will be a tie.
You see, while he has been portrayed, and has happily accepted the role of the non-traditional politician, Fetterman told us “I’m not a bomb-thrower.”
He is, Fetterman says, actually a rules respecter.
So, in Harrisburg, “I want to help facilitate as much cooperation and achievement as I can. It’s ‘let’s see what we can get done’,” Fetterman said. “I certainly am not going to kick that process off by being defiant about dress codes and things like that.”
Fetterman, in one of the ultimate perks of his new job, also automatically becomes part of a deep Democratic Party bench in Pennsylvania that will be fascinating to watch as jockeying begins for open gubernatorial and U.S. Senate seats in 2022.
In Pennsylvania’s system, there would be nothing to prevent Fetterman from seeking re-election as lieutenant governor that year, with a new running mate at the top of the ticket. But with Wolf now term-limited, he could also be in the conversation for the top job, too.
Fetterman isn’t making those decisions yet; nor does he need too.
But, the 6-foot, 8-inch dude with the bald pate and bearded chin does hope to stick around in that aforementioned state government team picture for awhile. As he put it Wednesday: “I just want to be of service for as long as the voters of Pennsylvania will have me.”