By J.D. Prose | jdprose@pennlive.com

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John Fetterman’s history with the borough of Braddock, like any relationship, can be complicated, but borough resident Delia Lennon-Winstead has no doubts about him.

Lennon-Winstead was a struggling mother trying to pull herself out of a downward spiral when she met Fetterman years ago as she sat on a bench mulling her situation.

Through the chats that followed, Fetterman, she said, inspired her to change the direction of her life.

Now, she holds the seat Fetterman used to. Lennon-Winstead took over as mayor of Braddock in January.

“I know that John Fetterman’s heart is good,” she said. “He’s got a heart, and he wears it on his sleeve. He wears it on his arm.”

Lennon-Winstead’s last comment could be taken figuratively or literally.

Fetterman’s years spent in Braddock are central to his U.S. Senate campaign. He also has Braddock’s 15104 ZIP code tattooed on his left arm, while the right arm has tattoos of the dates of nine murders that occurred during his tenure as mayor from 2006 to 2019.

Fetterman, 53, came to the economically depressed borough about 10 miles east of Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River in 2001 to work with young people and run a GED program. He moved to the borough in 2004 and ran for mayor to reduce gun violence after two of his students were killed within weeks of each other.

Once he became mayor, though, Fetterman battled with the borough council and stopped attending meetings, saying they were standing in the way of progress.

Today the former mayor is Pennsylvania’s Democratic lieutenant governor and running against Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Fetterman’s national profile skyrocketed after the 2020 election, when he became nearly a nightly presence MSNBC and CNN denouncing Republican conspiracies about Pennsylvania’s election results with an unapologetic scowl, but he had gained attention long before that.

Rolling Stone labeled him “The Mayor of Hell” in a 2009 profile and two years later the New York Times Magazine called him the “Mayor of Rust” in a 2011 story. Those articles and others held him up as the epitome of self-sufficient urban renewal, ignoring the naysayers and conventional governing along the way to get things done.

The New York Times Magazine said he had “become the face of Rust Belt renewal,” and recounted how he was named America’s coolest mayor by The Guardian and one of the Atlantic’s “Brave New Thinkers.”

But there are detractors who point to hard realities that counter the mystique surrounding his time in Braddock, where he and his family settled and still live in a loft above a now-shuttered restaurant he helped bring to the old car dealership building.

On an afternoon walk in early September down the borough’s main street, Braddock Avenue, former mayor Chardaé Jones, who replaced Fetterman after he was elected lieutenant governor in 2018, said her predecessor was good at marketing the borough — and himself.

Pausing on the street still dotted with boarded up buildings and faded signs of businesses’ past, but no “Fetterman for Senate” signs, Jones chuckled at the impression left by glowing stories about Fetterman’s time as mayor that Braddock has been reborn.

“There’s been a lot that’s happened, but nothing at all, if that makes sense,” said Jones, who remains active in the community.

Jones didn’t endorse Fetterman in the Democratic primary for Senate, instead backing state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia, who toured the borough, asking residents about the community’s needs.

In next month’s general election, though, Jones said she’s voting for Fetterman. Asked what she’d tell voters about Fetterman, Jones paused for a few seconds.

“It seems like he’s very good at creating an image,” she said, “and that’s what he did.”

Oz and Republicans have had the same observation. Bristling at the blue-collar image of Fetterman, who favors shorts and hoodies over dress clothes, Oz has referred to him as a “pretend populist.”

By his own account, Fetterman grew up in a “cushy” environment in which his family’s successful insurance business in York County allowed him to earn an MBA from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree from Harvard University.

Fetterman has been upfront about the support he received from his parents well into his 40s. Fetterman has repeatedly said he left the insurance business to work with young people after a close friend was killed in a car crash and he reconsidered the direction his life was taking.

Nonetheless, Republicans have tried to counter that Fetterman has crafted a steel-town image that doesn’t reflect his actual life.

“John Fetterman is not who he seems to be. He is a sheep in wolf’s clothing,” David Urban, a Pennsylvania Republican strategist told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Nobody’s ever laid a glove on him.”

Critics have said Fetterman focused on making publicity splashes, like drawing artists and restaurants to the struggling former steel town instead of focusing on basic needs.

Some longtime residents rolled their eyes at his efforts, but Alaina Webber, a co-owner of the Brew Gentlemen brewery on Braddock Avenue, said that approach was part of Fetterman’s vision for the borough.

“Where a lot of people had written off the town and saw nothing, John saw nothing but possibility,” she said.

Fetterman invited the co-founders of Brew Gentlemen – Asa Foster and Matt Katase – to consider opening a brewery in the borough, Webber said, and let them stay for free in a house he owns for a few years while they got the business off the ground.

Webber recalled Fetterman showing up with furniture before the brewery’s opening day so customers could have somewhere to sit. It was, she said, an example of Fetterman seeing a need and addressing it.

“To anyone who thinks John just does things for the camera, they don’t know [expletive],” Webber said. “John’s as real as it gets.”

Crime and taxes

Fetterman, a York County native, took over as mayor of a borough wracked by drugs and crime and the ongoing effects of the steel industry’s decline.

A reminder of the town’s boom days, the still-operating U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Plant, sits across the street from Fetterman’s loft, which he purchased for $1 from his sister, who paid $70,000 for it.

Braddock is 70 percent Black with about 35 percent of its residents living in poverty. It mirrors other once-bustling steel towns in western Pennsylvania that have never recovered from the industry’s demise and the exodus of jobs that served as the borough’s backbone.

During Fetterman’s tenure, the borough saw its population dwindle from about 2,200 residents to approximately 1,900, a decades-long trend that has put the current population at about 1,600.

Oz’s campaign has noted that while homicides might have paused for a few years, violent crime overall increased dramatically between 2013 and 2017, according to FBI statistics.

Turning to old reports in the Pittsburgh media, the Oz campaign has frequently reminded voters that Fetterman and community group Braddock Redux have been sued 67 times for over $34,000 in tax and service fee liens.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2015 that Fetterman had more than $11,000 in tax liens placed on a property in Braddock and three in nearby North Braddock between 2006 and 2012, before the last lien was satisfied in 2014.

Asked about the tax liens in 2016, when he first ran for the U.S. Senate, by WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, Fetterman attributed the Braddock Redux tax liens to a “clerical error” and said the other unpaid taxes “fell through the cracks.”

Fetterman, the Post-Gazette reported, bought one North Braddock house for $15,000 and sold it to a former GED student for $1.

And, Fetterman famously feuded with a council that he described as obstructionist and having older members with “nothing constructive” to offer.

Fetterman’s campaign is ready to defend his mayoral record. It provided PennLive with a nine-page fact sheet about Fetterman’s relationship with Braddock Council, including the above quote, and a 15-page summary of his accomplishments as mayor.

Fetterman has also run ads explaining his path from his family’s insurance company to AmeriCorps, which led him to Pittsburgh and, ultimately, to Braddock.

Supporters and the Fetterman campaign have highlighted his work in building the Braddock Community Center; drawing businesses, investments and affordable housing; fighting the closing of the local hospital and for a healthcare center to replace it; and addressing gun violence, including going more than five years without a homicide under his watch.

At one point, Fetterman also secured a $400,000 grant that put 100 local young people to work building an energy-efficient roof over a summer.

Political squabbles

When it comes to the political bickering, the campaign says Fetterman “boycotted” council meetings after the borough manager was accused of embezzling $175,000, which he blamed on lax oversight by council.

Bypassing the council, Fetterman forged alliances with county officials and nonprofits to pursue his plans, the campaign says.

In 2011, the former manager pleaded guilty to theft and forgery charges, leading Fetterman to question why then-council President Jesse Brown didn’t know about the crimes.

Those rifts between Fetterman and Brown, now deceased, continued.

In a 2015 video interview with PennLive, Brown said Fetterman assumed the borough’s mayor had more authority than it did. Instead, Brown said the mayor’s main role was to oversee the police department.

Brown said Fetterman “should’ve been at all council meetings” to break ties and participate.

Fetterman, Brown also said, got undue praise for anything that occurred in Braddock, although he credited Fetterman with starting a farm program that employed young people and opening the community center.

“He got credit for everything. Everything that’s happened in this community he’s gotten credit for,” Brown told PennLive. “The people believe that all this has come about through John Fetterman and it’s not true.”

Another resident, Phyllis Greathouse-Brown told PennLive in 2015 that she met Fetterman when he was working with young people through AmeriCorps.

She noted that he directed money from blue jean maker Levi Strauss, which used Braddock as the backdrop for a gritty ad campaign, toward the community center.

“I just supported him as mayor and when he ran again, I supported him again because I believe,” Greathouse-Brown said at the time.

Two sides, same coin

Years ago, when Delia Lennon-Winstead had fallen on hard times, she said had a routine of sitting on a bench outside every day and regularly saw Fetterman passing by while he walked along the street.

One day, the two struck up a conversation and Lennon-Winstead found the hulking 6′8″ Fetterman sharing words of encouragement.

“He just inspired me and gave me the courage to change my life,” said Lennon-Winstead. “I was going through some difficult times.”

Lennon-Winstead also shared her thoughts on Fetterman with PennLive in a 2015 video.

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Fetterman helped her get her a low-level criminal record expunged and encouraged her to look for work, Lennon-Winstead said. Eventually, she got a job offer as a crossing guard in Braddock, but she had no transportation to get to her post.

After hearing this, Fetterman showed up one day with a bicycle so she could get to work, which she said put her on a path “out of the darkness” and toward a better life.

“I know what he did for me, in conversations and small tokens of appreciation, that is his concern for the people that are discouraged and broken and lost,” said Lennon-Winstead as she began crying. “I know what he did for me he can do for all.”

Chris Halchak insists he has seen a different side of Fetterman, who Halchak called “the biggest joke this side of Pittsburgh.”

Halchak’s grudge against Fetterman goes back years when the borough had a dilapidated house next to Halchak’s home torn down, but the work damaged his home.

Seeking help on getting his house fixed, Halchak said he asked Fetterman. “He told me to go fix it myself,” Halchak said.

Halchak, who lives in the house he grew up in, echoed the criticism of others that Fetterman was attracted to the limelight of TV cameras, particularly when it came to attending council meetings.

“The only time I seen him down there was when the news cameras were there,” Halchak said.

Jones said she still doesn’t have a relationship with Fetterman, even though at one point they lived two doors away from each other and she was close with his wife, Gisele.

“He wasn’t very in the community. You didn’t really notice him unless it was on the news,” Jones said of Fetterman’s mayoral tenure. “If there was a camera, he was there. If there wasn’t a camera…”

Jones trailed off, but the implication was clear.

Fetterman, Jones said, drew a spotlight to Braddock and its various issues, and brought in a few businesses, but never built “sustainable models” that would continue in the future.

Jones said Gisele Fetterman’s has had more of a lasting impact on Braddock with her Freestore 15104, which sits on Braddock Avenue, the borough’s main street.

The Freestore accepts surplus items and donations to counter food and clothing insecurity issues in the community. Gisele Fetterman also helped found 412 Food Rescue, an effort to combat hunger and reduce food waste in the Pittsburgh region.

“If she was running, I would endorse her,” said Jones.

The mayor’s only real authority lies in overseeing the police department, Jones said. When she replaced Fetterman, Jones said she soon learned that the department’s evidence procedures were in shambles and some evidence had been sitting untouched for years.

Jones said the borough ended up hiring an officer from a neighboring department to come and organize the evidence so it could be sent to the Allegheny County district attorney’s office.

“It was a mess,” she said.

Halchak also raised the specter of an incident in 2013 that continues to dog Fetterman, when he pulled a shotgun on a Black jogger after claiming he heard “assault rifle” gunfire and went to investigate.

Fetterman has said he was outside playing with his young son when he heard gunshots, jumped into his car and drove toward the sounds. He saw the man, Chris Miyares, jogging and stopped him in nearby North Braddock, although the two have disagreed over whether Fetterman pointed the weapon at Miyare’s chest.

“I believe I did the right thing, but I may have broken the law in the course of it,” Fetterman told Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV at the time. “I’m certainly not above the law.”

Miyare said in 2013 that there were no shots fired, the sounds came from bottle rockets. No charges were filed in the case.

Republican groups have tried to use the incident to raise suspicions in Black voters’ minds about Fetterman. The latest effort is coming this month from a Republican super PAC that plans a $1.5 million broadcast TV ad campaign in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia geared toward Black voters, according to the New York Times.

Halchak said Fetterman, who has said the shotgun’s safety was on and there was no round chambered, should have been arrested for the incident.

“He thinks people actually believe him that that gun was empty,” said Halchak.

“Small steps”

Dominique Davis Sanders is the current Braddock Council president, who said he met Fetterman as a teen through the Braddock Youth Project.

Once Fetterman became mayor, Sanders said he saw Fetterman “taking the small steps that brought the community back together,” such as local projects, fixing up parks and cleaning trash from lots.

Doing so, Sanders said, planted the seed in residents’ minds, especially young ones, to take pride in their town.

“It took an outside person who didn’t grow up in Braddock all their life to come here and make us value our neighborhood,” Sanders said.

Webber, the brewery co-owner, echoed that same sentiment, saying that while Fetterman might not be from Braddock, he’s stayed there while natives have fled. “That counts for something,” she said. “Trust me, if you want to build a political career there’s a lot more efficient ways than being in Braddock.”

During PennLive’s visit to Braddock, a crew was shooting scenes on the main street for the Paramount+ series “The Mayor of Kingstown.”

Sanders said Fetterman’s work championing Braddock in the media has led to such welcomed exposure and dollars spent in the borough. “We needed that because nobody was looking at us,” he said.

As for Fetterman’s tenure as mayor, Sanders, who will vote for Fetterman in November, said most of the criticism comes from those who were unwilling or unable to accomplish anything for years, then saw a newcomer making changes.

“I think he did a great job for what he did because no one in our community stepped up to do that,” Sanders said, “and we’ve known them all of our lives.”

This story was first published by PennLive

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