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'Mayor Rust' jolts Pa. Senate race

You think Trump, Sanders are unconventional? Meet the burly, tattooed, Harvard-educated mayor from western Pa. who wants to be your next senator.

John Fetterman was in town with wife Gisele to campaign for U.S. Senate. (MICHAEL BRYANT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
John Fetterman was in town with wife Gisele to campaign for U.S. Senate. (MICHAEL BRYANT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

IF THE TYPICAL American voter has anything to say in 2015, it's this: The electorate is sick and tired of conventional, blow-dried, say-anything-to-get-elected career politicians.

In that case, America, we may have just found your dream candidate. And he's running for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania.

John Fetterman is what a very different kind of nonpolitican named Donald Trump might call "Huuuuge." As in, NFL nose-guard-type huge: 6-8, 350 pounds, burly tattooed arms yearning to break free from his trademark black work shirt.

But Fetterman, Democratic mayor of the hardscrabble Rust Belt steel town of Braddock in western Pennsylvania, has an iconoclastic political platform that hews closer to Sen. Bernie Sanders than to Trump. He says that as a senator he'd end the "war on drugs" and also the war on undocumented immigrants - an issue close to Fetterman's heart because his wife, the mother of his three kids, lacked papers when she arrived from Brazil at age 9.

"All I have is a story and the ability to tell it - it doesn't get any more complicated than that," said Fetterman, ignoring a half-full plastic cup of draft at a Center City beer garden yesterday. He said, "I never had ambitions for higher office" but decided to jump into the Senate race, fueled by revulsion at the current state of politics.

"Something needs to really happen here, like immigration," he said, mentioning his wife's odyssey. "You've got one half of the body politic talking about revoking the 14th Amendment and 'anchor babies' and they're all murderers and rapists" - a thinly veiled reference to the Summer of Trump.

The man whom the media calls "Mayor Rust," who looks like the doorman at a Hells Angels club but talks a man with a master's degree in public policy from Harvard - which is what he is - still faces long odds in next year's Senate contest.

Most pundits thought they had the 2016 race already pegged: A bruising Democratic primary between former admiral and ex-congressman Joe Sestak, the candidate in 2010, and Katie McGinty, the choice of party leaders, ex-chief of staff to Gov. Wolf - followed by an uphill fight against GOP incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey next fall.

But Fetterman sees an opening for an unconventional candidate - a hole so wide that even he could squeeze through. He doesn't have big-money backers or big-name endorsements, but - based on the reporters circling like jetliners to interview him yesterday in Philly - he won't lack free publicity from the media.

Less then a week into his quixotic campaign, it's not clear whether Fetterman's deep attachment to his adopted hometown in the Monongahela Valley, 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, will be a selling point or an obstacle. He'd been planning to introduce his campaign to Philadelphia on Wednesday, but when he heard that the 14-year-old stepdaughter of a Braddock police officer had disappeared, he turned his car around and canceled his initial schedule.

"I would feel like a fraud if I came to Philadelphia for a campaign event knowing that the teenage daughter of a good friend of mine and one of Braddock's police officers is missing and unaccounted for, and I'm here, like, 'Hey, go, John!' " - he waved his beer cup - "It would be appalling." The girl turned up OK Wednesday night and Fetterman turned back around.

His rise in Braddock - where he moved in 2001 to launch a GED program for underprivileged youth - is the stuff of a made-for-TV movie. Four years later, living in a church basement, his GED graduates - "my ambassadors" - took him door-to-door in an unlikely mayoral campaign that he won by one vote.

His term has won plaudits for starting to revitalize a once-gang-ridden town that had lost 85 percent of its population, and he gained headlines when he was arrested protesting a health-care firm's closing of a hospital in Braddock and when he defied then-Gov. Tom Corbett to perform the state's first same-sex marriage.

He was characteristically blunt about gay marriage. "I could get on a plane for Vegas and marry a showgirl I met in a casino after two hours, and that's a legitimate marriage in the eyes of the law," he said, "but this loving couple that's been together for years and has two kids and a minivan together . . . their love isn't recognized? It's absurd."

And Fetterman brings a pragmatic view to one issue that has flummoxed many Democrats who run statewide: gun control.

"I own guns, and like a lot of people my age growing up in Pennsylvania, I used to hunt deer in Adams County - I've been around them," he said. But he quickly adds, pointing to his arm tattoo of the dates when Braddock citizens were murdered, "Seven of the nine names on this tattoo were gun-related deaths. If somebody shows me a piece of legislation that would have prevented those, I'll be the first one to champion it."

Fetterman, who's quite familiar with Philadelphia and worked briefly at a Center City insurance company two decades ago, seems excited about introducing himself to city voters, but not so excited that he would pander.

Asked to compare western Pennsylvania to our area, he said: "We have a much better football team than you do."

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch