HARRISBURG — Not so long ago, John Fetterman was spending his days trying to reverse years of poverty, inequality, and urban blight in the small steel town where he was mayor for more than a decade.
His unconventional approach to turning the town’s fortunes around made him a national media darling well before he ran for statewide office. “Mayor of Hell,” a Rolling Stone headline declared early in his career, documenting his attempts to “save” Braddock, Pa., population 2,100 and change, a wisp of a town 15 minutes outside Pittsburgh but millions of miles away in terms of its fortunes.
Now, Fetterman is about to step into one of the most conventional — and, in terms of politics, forgettable — jobs in state government: lieutenant governor. In Capitol political circles, it is not-so-jokingly referred to as the best gig in the state, because it comes with all the trappings of power — a house, a staff, a car, and a driver — but a fraction of the work.
In a recent interview, the onetime Democratic mayor downplayed any suggestion that the job may not rate compared with the intensity of his most recent government post.
“It’s definitely an evolution, or whatever you want to call it,” he said of transitioning from being Braddock’s mayor to Gov. Tom Wolf’s second-in-command. “But I very much enjoyed being on a team [during the campaign]. And Gov. Wolf conducts himself with such supreme humility and quiet leadership in an era where politicians are usually falling over themselves to Instagram themselves making pancakes or whatever. Gov. Wolf just gets it done ... and I find that inspiring and refreshing, quite frankly.”
Being lieutenant governor can be a lonely, if lucrative, job.
In terms of the work, there are two set duties under the state constitution: chairing the Board of Pardons and presiding over the state Senate. The former meets roughly four times a year, for several days at a time; the latter convenes from 50 to 70 days of the year, sometimes with long stretches in between.
And lieutenant governors are always on standby in case they need to step into the governor’s job, as was the case when Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker took over after 9/11, when Republican Gov. Tom Ridge was named the first director of the Office of Homeland Security.
For that, the job pays $163,672.
Still, lieutenant governors can play big roles in a governor’s administration, and historically have. It is easier when the two get along, less so when their relationship is strained, as it was between Wolf and outgoing Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III. Despite that chilly relationship, Stack managed to carve out a niche, helping to streamline the pardons process and educating former offenders on clearing their criminal records and easing their path to employment.
“The lieutenant governor feels very strongly that the man makes the job,” said Stack spokesperson J.P. Kurish.
Yet it’s a far different post than the one Fetterman, 49, just left. Though he had his detractors, the onetime AmeriCorps volunteer spent 14 years trying to get the world to look at and confront the problems in his hardscrabble town — but also look beyond them. He started after-school youth programs, launched college scholarship and urban garden projects, and lured edgy new businesses to vacant buildings and lots.
Along the way, the job became deeply personal. The zip code of Braddock is tattooed on one of his arms; the dates of the nine murders that occurred while he was mayor are inked on the other.
So it came as little surprise when Fetterman said that he and his family won’t be leaving Braddock for the taxpayer-funded residence outside Harrisburg where previous lieutenant governors have stayed. Instead, Fetterman said last week, he is renting an apartment within walking distance of the Capitol.
Though he will accept a state police detail, he doesn’t want the expense account that comes with the office — something that became an issue during Stack’s tenure — and it doesn’t appear that he wants much of the office’s support staff either.
And despite his proclivity for comfortable clothing, he doesn’t plan on bucking the state Senate’s strict blazer-tie-trouser dress code for men when he presides over the chamber.
“I just don’t know how the legend gets born," he said. “I would never, ever create a distraction over something like that.”
Fetterman doesn’t look much like a politician, at least not the ones that frequent Pennsylvania’s Capitol. Suits, ties, and shiny dress shoes have never been part of his look, for the simple reason, he says, that elected officials should be approachable. (Though his look, he readily acknowledges, sometimes causes people to more tightly clutch their belongings when he approaches.)
“I can’t do anything about my looks. I’m not a matinee star,” he said.
He cuts an imposing figure. Much ink has been spilled on his height (6-foot-8), his clothes (often a Dickies shirt with jeans or shorts), his tattoos, and his shaved head.
His politics (unabashedly liberal) and political backstory (a finance major and Harvard master’s holder turned AmeriCorps volunteer turned Braddock mayor) have also been a source of almost curious fascination among the political elite.
Pollster and political analyst G. Terry Madonna said one of Fetterman’s biggest challenges may be not stealing the spotlight in a button-down town.
"He’s the most intriguing personality to be in state politics in modern history,” said Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. “And he has something of an aura about him. But the lieutenant governor is expected to follow the agenda of the governor. Period. That matters. The lieutenant governor can’t get ahead of the governor or replace the governor in terms of his exposure, in terms of his profile.”
Yet, Wolf, who during last year’s campaign was known to jokingly introduce himself as “John Fetterman’s running mate,” is widely expected to assign Fetterman to work on challenging policy issues.
In an interview Thursday, Wolf said one of those issues will be to survey the landscape on whether to legalize recreational marijuana.
Last month, during a Twitter town hall, the governor said he believed it was time for the state to take “a serious and honest look” at the issue. It made headlines almost instantly, as Wolf had previously taken the position that Pennsylvania, which legalized medical marijuana less than three years ago, was not ready for that step.
Fetterman has long supported legalization.
Wolf on Thursday downplayed any rush, but said he believed Fetterman would be well positioned to take the state’s pulse, “in an informal way,” on the issue.
“I think John has a lot of smarts," said Wolf, adding that he envisions Fetterman pinpointing “what the tenor of the commonwealth is and [getting] some ideas as to what’s going on.”
As for Fetterman, he said he plans on “being where I’m needed.”
And though he is widely expected to make another run for U.S. Senate in 2022 (he was unsuccessful in his first bid in 2016), Fetterman said his focus is on the present.