Clarion, Pa.- Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman conducted a public forum in Hart Chapel, organized by the Clarion University Young Democrats. Fetterman is currently mayor of the city of Braddock, located just outside of Pittsburgh, and is one of three Democrats running in the primary election for U.S. Senate.
The forum on April 4 lasted nearly an hour, and after an opening speech, students and community members alike asked Fetterman questions on issues such as fracking, healthcare, minimum wage and education. The issue Fetterman kept coming back to was inequality, and how he believes this one issue ties into everything.
When elected mayor of Braddock in 2005, Fetterman inherited what he inferred was a less than ideal situation. The borough of Braddock has been under Pennsylvania Act 47 since 1988. Act 47 Financial Distress is a governmental provision which administers the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). Under this legislation, the DCED is assumed to have a responsibility to assist specified Pennsylvanian municipalities in order to “ensure the health, safety and welfare of their citizens”.
The borough of Braddock was developed based largely upon the steel industry. This began when Andrew Carnegie built the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in the borough. At that time the steel industry was very profitable, but when the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s, Braddock fell into a tumultuous period.
Drug use and violence also became an issue around this time. As the city’s population peaked in 1920, 90 percent of Braddock’s inhabitants have vacated, creating serious funding and other similar economic issues that continue to plague the borough.
Fetterman spoke at length about the life experiences he had that led him to become a Democrat, despite hailing from a Republican family, and also the events that inspired him to become the mayor of a town like Braddock that was so disadvantaged.
Dean Lenker III: On your campaign video, you speak about building smart business. What can the government do that encourages rather than discourages the creation of these smart businesses?
Mayor John Fetterman: I think certain tax policies, certain incentives. And just making funds available to start these businesses is crucial to fostering and creating an environment that allows the entrepreneurs to take over and do what they do best, and just make sure that there is the funding, infrastructure and legislation in place to allow this growth.
Lenker: Also in this advertisement you said: “No community deserves to be left behind.” What is the responsibility of that community to carry on, and what is the responsibility of the U.S. government to improve competitiveness at a state and local level?
Fetterman: Well, I’ll turn that on its head. What is the responsibility of a person who is unable to take care of him or herself? Do we just cast them out? Do we not provide assistance, do we not provide help? And it’s no different with a community. The responsibility of the community is based on its ability to actually accomplish these things, and if you’re in Act 47 the way ours and other communities are, it’s kinda hard to say “Just pull yourself up by the boot straps.”
My view is different than other people. Some people think you should just let these towns die; you should let these towns get bulldozed over. I believe that we have a moral obligation to support these towns, and to foster creative re-use of these towns, to foster investment and bring manufacturing jobs – just the typical playbook of economic development that has worked in the past. If you’re familiar at all with Pittsburgh, or any city that is getting better, you know all these places were once written off for dead. I think we as a society need to remember that. It’s an argument that will never be settled. Some people say screw these places, I will never be one of those people, and I think every town deserves to be re-invested in, every town deserves to have a basic level of services, and we will never be equal in terms of one city versus another, but I don’t think any community should have to suffer the way mine has, or the way so many others have suffered across Pennsylvania.
Lenker: This election cycle has been different to say the least, as evidenced by the ascension of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. What is causing this unexpected change, and will it benefit your campaign?
Fetterman: Well, I haven’t really thought about how it’s gonna benefit my campaign, but I think it’s amazing how Trump and Sanders have come out of nowhere. I think it is because people are so dissatisfied with what is out there. And I think Donald Trump is the disaffected, angry, white, predominantly male voice that feels like they have been left behind, and he is the collective finger that they give to the rest of us for that anger and that betrayal that they feel. And I think Sanders is the “yin” to that “yang”, where it’s like that’s the positive, that’s like, “Look, we need to have a higher minimum wage, we need to make college affordable, we need to bring Wall Street under control. I think it’s the bright side of populism rising, and the dark side of populism rising. I don’t want to sound cliché, but it’s like that yin and yang, and they balance each other out perfectly. You have the anti-billionaire foil, as popular as the pro-billionaire bombastic side, and they are both potential leaders of their party. It’s an amazing year for politics, and I think that just taps into their respective bright and dark sides of populism.
Lenker: You have said that you are a “realist more than a populist”. With all of this clamor within the Democratic Party about raising the minimum wage and containing the cost of healthcare, where do you stand on these issues? Can they become a reality?
Fetterman: Well, of course they can. We have money for the things that we make a priority, and we just need to make these things a priority. At the end of the day, if anyone says “we can’t do this, we can’t do that,” it’s just not the way it has worked in our society, and we have far too many people. Take minimum wage for example, do you want to work for $7.25 an hour?
I just fundamentally believe I don’t want to work for $7.25 an hour, so why would I want to impose that on somebody else? I think that’s what it fundamentally comes down to: this idea that we are more concerned with the collective than with the [individual]. I always read the message boards in some of these chat rooms about minimum wage, and they have this derisive [tone], like “you only make burgers, you deserve this wage.” Well, no. There’s dignity in every job, and there should be. A big part of the dignity in any job is making enough money to take care of yourself and your family. In terms of what we can afford and what we can pay for, we have spent trillions of dollars on unjust wars of choice that was based on the wrong information. We can certainly turn our focus more inwards, and invest those resources in things like healthcare and making college more affordable.
Lenker: So on college, do you agree with Sanders that free public education is the way to go?
Fetterman: I think free or low-cost college is what we should have. As radical an idea it was that high school should be part of everyone’s core base of knowledge and education last century, we should rethink that. And we should also include trade school in that too. Not everybody wants to go to college, not everybody is cut out for college, but you should have a technical path that’s as accessible and as affordable as a college path.