Big John Fetterman Can Save the Democratic Party — if the Democrats Let Him

John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and one of the more intriguing figures in the Democratic Party, sounds exasperated. 

He’s exasperated that Democrats saw a blue wave in 2020 and underestimated the enduring appeal of Donald Trump. (“I call him the Bulworth president. [He] has created a brand loyalty that is really unprecedented.”) 

He’s exasperated that Republicans will defend imaginary claims of voter fraud at the expense of democracy itself. (“When you understand how grossly disingenuous every last thread of their argument is, you can’t help but be outraged by it, because there isn’t one true sentiment, idea, concept, accusation coming out of their mouths.”)

He’s exasperated that neither President-elect Biden nor outgoing President Trump championed the issue of drug decriminalization, a political “bazooka” that Fetterman believes could realign the American electorate. (“If you can grow it next to your fucking tomatoes, why are you going to prison and being labeled a criminal for the rest of your life? That would have blown up this election, and it would have made it a lot less close for whichever campaign picked up that bazooka.”)

Fetterman, 51, doesn’t sound like a typical Democrat, and he doesn’t look like one either. He’s 6-foot-9, bald headed and goateed, tattooed on both arms. He might be the only politician in America who gives TV interviews in Dickies work shirts and Carhartt jackets. During his three-and-a-half terms as the mayor of Braddock, he sought to reignite a once-mighty steel town that was suffering from crippling poverty, violence, and a sky-high abandonment rate, leading to profiles in national magazines (in 2009 Rolling Stone called him the “mayor of hell”) and an appearance on the Colbert Report. (Violent crime declined under his watch but Braddock continues to struggle.) He lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016 but won the lieutenant governor’s seat in 2018. He refused to move his family into the lieutenant governor’s mansion, urged the state to sell it for the revenue, and opened up the mansion’s pool to the public. (His spokeswoman says the Fettermans call it “the People’s Pool.”)

Like Bernie Sanders, who endorsed him when he ran for lieutenant governor, Fetterman called for universal health care, marijuana legalization, and a much higher minimum wage well before it was popular. Now, as he potentially weighs his next move, Fetterman wants to convince his fellow Democrats that their party’s future depends less on fighting over fracking and more on embracing legal weed and embracing their populist roots. “This idea [of climate change] that every climate scientist in the world agrees [on] — we need to run on that,” he says. “We also can’t tell a bunch of workers, ‘Go work at Duolingo.’ That’s not fair. We still need to be a manufacturing powerhouse, too.” 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I thought I would just start off with the election results. Obviously good for Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, but not so great for the Democratic Party further down the ticket. How do you make sense of these results a week later?
It’s easy to make sense of it, quite frankly. I was one of the only Democrats that was warning just how popular Trump would be. These polls kept coming out. And, you know, the high watermark for me was when The Economist said Biden has a 93 percent chance of winning Pennsylvania. And I’m like, you look at the crowds that the president has generated, these are not the crowds of someone who has a 7 percent chance of winning this state. This is not the hallmark of a broken campaign that is just hanging on for dear life. 

They adopted an incredibly muscular barnstorming protocol that energized their small county base, and did so with a level of ferocity that I had never seen before from either party. The level of engagement in Pennsylvania from both campaigns was unprecedented. And I was saying that you can’t poll for that. You can’t factor that in. And [the Trump campaign’s] whole approach was to throw as much chaos into the equation as they can, throw as much engagement into the equation as you can. And find out, you know. That’s the only way, that’s their only path. 

And ultimately, aside from legalizing marijuana, they couldn’t have played any better than that. And that’s why it was rough for the Democratic Party across Pennsylvania. And it’s why the president, who seemingly most people had written off, performed so strongly. But it wasn’t a surprise. It’s honestly what I expected. 

So how do you understand the top of the ticket then? Is this a Biden versus Trump question, or was this a referendum up or down kind of question?
It was a referendum on the president, straight up. That was it. And Joe Biden came out just a little bit ahead. Trumpism was not rebuked, and more of like a hard-left approach wasn’t vindicated either. I see this as the same state that it was pre- and post-[election], only there was just enough purple churn that put the vice president over the top. 

When you say purple churn, what do you mean?
Meaning that what happened in ’16 happened in ’20, only there was a little bit more [of the marginal vote] that went in favor of Team Blue. 

The president did one bad thing in the sense of he didn’t actively reach out to the other side, and that’s why I argued that one of the parties needs to seize the legal weed reins, because that is a bazooka that could have an enormous impact on this election. And I’m grateful that the president didn’t take that advice, because [if he had] that would have absolutely allowed him to win. Because it wouldn’t have cost him a single vote in any of the states that he won. And it would have, especially if he framed it [around] the very real criminal justice and racial disparities, would have absolutely blunted margins, and it would have energized the libertarian bases and would have been a major policy statement, too. 

The big winner in November was legal weed. I say that when you’re to the right of South Dakota on anything, you really need some gut check time. 

That one blew me away, South Dakota [which legalized marijuana through a ballot measure on Election Day].
Their governor is popular, and she railed against it, and they still passed it. It’s such a unifying thing. And people don’t, I guess, intellectualize how strong the libertarian streak is in the Republican Party.

I’ve also looked at polling data about the emerging Democratic electorate and what has struck me there is hw many young people who identify as Democrat or as liberal have that libertarian streak as well. I feel like this also is a way into that generation.
Exactly. That’s my point. Just this morning, I tweeted about the micro-dosing revolution. Pennsylvania is the mushroom capital of the world, quite literally. We produce more mushrooms than anybody. And we have this other plant, just a plant [marijuana], that could be an enormous boon from a health and welfare [perspective], from an industry [perspective], from all kinds of perspectives. And that’s another thing that we could get out in front of, quite frankly. It’s that libertarian thing where it’s like, “Where do you get off telling me what I am able to do or not do for my own well-being and health when these are things that I can grow in my backyard with tomatoes.” And I think everyone’s finally realizing how truly absurd this view is. And you don’t have to have an R [or a] D after your name to be disgusted by that kind of prohibitionist mindset. 

I want to ask you about the Republican litigation after the election. What do you make of these lawsuits, including in Pennsylvania?
LOL. Straight-up LOL. 

Every Republican in Pennsylvania has been feverishly looking for voter fraud in Pennsylvania, like, you know, Raiders of the Lost Ark, like they would instantly be a national hero in their party’s eyes if they found it. And the only instance of voter fraud that has emerged in this cycle was a Republican from Luzerne County who tried to have his dead mom vote for Trump. And that’s a fact; that’s also independently verifiable. So these lawsuits are LOL or LMAO. They’re that ridiculous.

And that’s what makes it so disingenuous and dangerous. At what point does screaming fraud without one scintilla of evidence or proof become yelling fire in a crowded theater? 

Just because you have the world’s biggest microphone doesn’t make a lie any more true. And this idea is caustic and destructive to our fabric of democracy, that what we have is a peaceful transition of power. What we have are bipartisan, nonpartisan elections. And it’s outrageous and gross that anyone would carry water at this point for a narrative that they know is fundamentally a lie. 

Can you give a bio of yourself in the path that took you from York, Pennsylvania, to inner city Pittsburgh to Braddock, Pennsylvania, to where you are now?
I was an unplanned pregnancy between two teenagers in Redding, Pennsylvania, and they ended up getting married. They started out struggling. 

My dad was a union grocery worker in ShopRite in Redding. That helped keep the family together while he went to college. He ended up graduating and got a job as an underwriter and then transitioned into the agency side in York, Pennsylvania, and eventually became successful, at least certainly in comparison to his parents. 

I grew up in suburban south central Pennsylvania and never envisioned myself ending up in this space. All of that changed in 1993 when my best friend was killed in a car accident. I was shook by this idea that you could get up in the morning and not know that you have 15 minutes left in this world. I joined Big Brothers, Big Sisters in Connecticut, and I was paired with a little boy who was eight at the time. His mother was in the final stages of dying of AIDS, and his father had died from AIDS six months earlier. That really fried my circuits because I had never experienced that. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I even had a moment of hesitancy when [his mom] was able to lift her hand up to shake [mine] and I was like, “I don’t know,” because in 1994 [AIDS] was a death sentence. And that’s what really changed my perspective.

I joined AmeriCorps and then ended up in the Hill District in Pittsburgh in 1995. I did two years there teaching young mothers and fathers to get their GEDs, set up the first computer lab in the Hill District. I went to graduate school at Harvard’s Kennedy School and then wanted to continue that path. 

I ended up back here in Braddock, Pennsylvania, starting some programs, ran for mayor in 2005 after several of my students’ lives were claimed by gun violence. Won by one provisional ballot in 2005 and then [had] several terms as mayor. I ran for the U.S. Senate in the ’15-’16 cycle. I lost because I was just demolished by spending by the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee]. But I ended up getting 20 percent of the vote, and I won Allegheny County, and I ran for lieutenant governor in ’17-’18. That’s how I got here. 

You’ve got [Braddock’s] zip code tattooed on one arm.
Correct.

And the date of every homicide when you were mayor of Braddock on the other.
Correct. 

How many dates did you end up having to tattoo on your one arm?
I have nine. I actually have to get one more date added. In June of ’18 there was a tragic loss of life. So it will have ended up at 10. 

How do you look back on your time as mayor of Braddock? What you accomplished there and what you didn’t accomplish but you hoped you did?
I showed up in Braddock before the planes even hit the Twin Towers. The Democratic Party wasn’t in a place where they were focused on marginalized communities. They weren’t focused on just how unequal society was. Braddock had a 90 percent abandonment rate. And [was] beginning to draw attention — I mean, your publication called me “the mayor of hell.” And that’s how people saw this place. 

I never saw it as hell. I saw it as a place that helped make America what it was. And I live across the street from the first steel mill by Andrew Carnegie. There’s a straight line between Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. These were titans of their age, respectively. And you could probably not imagine going to San Jose or Seattle, witnessing a 90 percent abandonment rate. And like, yeah, this is the last software company here, 125 years from now. This was the Titanic. No one thought this could sink. And when half the world’s steel came out of this one valley, and now this is the last steel mill in western Pennsylvania, it’s a complete and dramatic reversal of fortune. It’s a reminder of how cruel the system can be. Wanting to help bring that community back was the genesis of my arriving here. 

You’ve been out ahead on a bunch of issues that have since come into vogue: a higher minimum wage, marijuana legalization, same-sex marriage.
I performed the first [same-sex marriage ceremony] as an elected official in Pennsylvania, [and] I was threatened by the governor to be charged criminally. And I said, “Hey, if you want to send the gay police, you know where I live.” It’s crazy. I’ve never had to evolve on one of my positions on that because I’ve always said what I believe is true. 

During [my] Senate race, immigration was again — shocker — a topic, and that was the height of the Syrian civil war. And between Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak and myself running, I was the only one that’s like, “We have to [accept] these Syrians.” These heartbreaking images of little Syrian children drowning and washing up. And I’m like, “This is what the Statue of Liberty orders us to take.” It’s not the “We just want the Ph.D candidates and we want the doctors.” 

Think how bad or dangerous it would be in Pennsylvania if you packed up or abandoned everything in your life, put your children on your back, and walked to North Carolina, how bad it would have to be in order for you to do that. And that’s exactly what happened in Syria. And for us to turn our backs on that was a low point and a stain on our country, quite frankly. 

I want to talk about another issue that came up a lot during the presidential race: fracking. Where did you come down on this issue? How do you see it play out in 2020?
In 2015, I signed the no-fossil-fuel-money pledge and I have never taken a dime from that industry, or ever will. Fracking is complicated because right now over 60 percent of our nation’s [newly installed] electricity is derived from natural gas. That’s a fact. And another scientific fact is it is dramatically cleaner than coal. So our country has transitioned away undeniably from coal to natural gas, and that has reduced our greenhouse emissions. That being said, we need to move along the arc of clean energy, and I would hope we eventually reach a threshold where 80 percent or all of our electrical needs come from renewable sources. But right now, we’re not there. 

I’ve said this line time and again: that Republicans must become honest about our climate, and Democrats need to get honest about energy. And if you take nuclear out of the equation and you want to take natural gas out, well, OK, where does 60 percent of our electricity come from overnight? 

I have people in my own community that can’t afford to keep gas on in their house during the winter. If we ban fracking, for example, overnight, how do people heat their homes or afford to heat their homes or cook their food? These are all practical issues, and it requires a true bipartisan Marshall Plan. And right now, unfortunately, it’s hopelessly divided. The truth of the matter is, climate change is real and we must act as stewards of the environment for our children and our grandchildren and their grandchildren. And we also have to do it in a way that acknowledges that we all can’t work for Google. I’m a 51-year-old man, and I wouldn’t like it if someone sneered and said, “Go learn how to code.”

What’s that plan for the future?
It is a complete reinvestment in figuring out what and where as much renewable energy can come from [as possible]. 

Climate change is the ultimate tragedy of the Commons. It’s game theory. This idea that it’s in each individual nation’s [interest] to cheat, so to speak, but it’s all in our collective [interest] to save the planet’s climate. So it’s complicated, because you have Russia, you have India, you have China, and all of these other actors that are cheating.

So recognizing that even if the United States got its act together overnight tomorrow, it still wouldn’t stop our march to the 2 degree Celsius right away. But again, on social media, you can’t have those kinds of conversations. Either you want the planet to burn or you’re some dopey tree hugger. Neither one is true. It’s about figuring out how we can make it work so we can get the clean energy that we need and acknowledge that fossil fuels should be transitioned out for the health and viability of our planet. 

And you think nuclear has possibly some role?
I do. I don’t know how you don’t have it in the conversation. And this is coming from a kid that had to evacuate my home when I was nine, during the Three Mile Island crisis. I grew up in the shadow of it. People joke that [it] explains my appearance. But seriously, nuclear power is not what it was when Three Mile Island happened. So if you’ve lost your appetite for nuclear, fair enough. But math is math. Science is science. You can’t selectively ditch or dodge science when it’s not compatible with your political worldview. And if you’re taking nuclear off the table, that complicates the physics in that equation of our power needs dramatically. 

I want to go back to cannabis. You did a tour of all 67 counties of Pennsylvania right after you took office as lieutenant governor. What did you learn from that?
Weed was the most actively engaged policy topic in the history of the Commonwealth. We got over 80,000 comments. We had tens of thousands of people turn out for these community meetings in the counties. I can’t even tell you how many interactions on social media we had. It was a supernova of discourse all across Pennsylvania. 

I estimated that around 65 percent, no higher than 70, though, of Pennsylvanians were like, “Just do it. Why are we arguing about this?” And then somewhere like 15 to 20 percent were hardcore reefer madness types. And then there’s a gray area of like, well, if it’s going to happen, so be it. And then when I reported all that back, the Pennsylvania GOP accused me of lying. 

One of the things that emerged is how desperately veterans need it. I can’t tell you the number of tearful veterans that said — and I’m going to use their language — “These motherfuckers will give me as many pills as I ask for at the VA. But the one thing that I really need is weed, because that’s the only thing that allows me to feel normal so I can begin my treatment. It doesn’t make me feel great, but it just gets me to a place where I can begin to work on myself.” 

We learned all of these things and presented them and said, “We are leaving $5 billion over the next 20 years, of free money to spend however Pennsylvania wants. All they have to do is say OK to legal weed.” Right now, the legislature is blocking those attempts. And I don’t know why! The people want it. 

I’ll never forget, I was called in for a meeting with all these doctors and they’re like, “OK, you’re getting ahead of yourself, son.” And I’m like, “OK, pump the brakes. Coming from the profession that unleashed the kraken on the American public with OxyContin and opioids, you want to lecture me about a plant with no known overdose deaths?” 

I ask law enforcement officers all across Pennsylvania, I’m like, which would you rather do, wrestle an angry drunk or wrestle an angry stoner? And without exception, they’re like, “I’ve never encountered an angry stoner, not one ever.” 

OK, because this is Rolling Stone, I have to ask: Do you ever partake?
The last time I smoked in earnest was Burning Man in ‘99, I think, and I didn’t really enjoy it. I’m not a user. My wife is a medical marijuana patient, but my critics accuse me of just wanting better stuff and I’m a stoner or Jeff Spicoli. And I’m like, I actually don’t use marijuana. But I think you should be able to, or any adult should be able to, legally, safely, taxed, and not label them a criminal. We need to expunge all criminal convictions. If there is anybody serving jail time for a marijuana conviction, get them out immediately. 

Prohibition is so much more work than just admitting you were wrong on legal weed, and let’s just get it done. I was disappointed with the vice president and the Democratic Party for not having the courage to stand up and say, “This has been a grave racial injustice perpetrated on our country, with the uneven enforcement, and the origins of prohibition was very racist.” 

I wonder if seeing these results on the ballot, whether it’s legal weed or the minimum wage in Florida —
Florida! This is a state that went for Trump. This is a state that went for [Governor] Ron DeSantis. You want to heal this country? Let’s start by acknowledging some universal truths. Health care is a basic human need and right. You can’t fucking live off $7.25 an hour. That’s a crime. And if Florida can vote for $15 an hour, why can’t the country? Why are we imprisoning people in the failed war on drugs? These are things that transcend politics. 

Is this the way forward for the Democratic Party?
It’s my way forward for the Democratic Party. We gotta get this election in the book and we need to come together. And those are what I think should be the starting point. Everyone acknowledges it. Everyone believes it. But it doesn’t happen because of the way it’s structured and set up — that would heal the country. 

What are the starting points?
Health care is a fundamental human need and right. A living wage. If all work has dignity, as I believe it does, then every paycheck should have dignity. And if Florida can vote for $15 an hour minimum wage, why the [censors himself] can’t America? Why can’t Pennsylvania? We’re not coming for your deer hunting rifle. We’re not coming for a gun for your home. But you don’t need full metal jacket AK-47s either and these weapons of expeditious death. That’s really all that it is. 

The Democratic Party feels increasingly like this big, diverse, sometimes unruly coalition. What is the message to unify that coalition?
Run on the truth, and that’s what I’ll do. Run on the truth. And if you win, great. If you lose, great. But I will always run on the truth. 

It’s not my opinion, it’s fact: You can’t live on $7.25 an hour — run on that. You need health care, I need health care, we all need health care — I run on that. This idea that every climate scientist in the world agrees [on] — we need to run that. We also can’t tell a bunch of workers, like, go work at Duolingo. That’s not true. That’s not fair. We still need to be a manufacturing powerhouse too. I don’t care who you love or how you identify, you deserve equal protection under the law. That’s a universal truth. I’ve always run on that. 

I feel like every political candidate gets up there and says, ‘I’m running on my truth.’ So it’s like, which truths are you running on? Which truths are going to connect?
The truth is the direction, not the destination.

I’ll say this: If you think Red should have died in prison in Shawshank Redemption, don’t vote for me. If you think that there are ample circumstances where redemption is possible, where a second chance is appropriate, then vote for me, because that’s what I want. We could reduce our prison population by a third, not make anyone less safe, and bank that $900 million, 1 billion in savings and reinvest that in our public education system. I mean, that makes a lot of sense to me, and I don’t think that’s controversial at all. 

How much of Trump’s appeal is sui generis, is unique to him?
All of it. All of it. And let me tell you why. Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by 44,000 votes, and in 2018, the governor and I won by 852,000 votes. That was a 900,000-vote swing. We demolished them. And then now we’re back to like, you know, basically gridlock. So, yeah. So, what changed? The president [was on the ballot]. Look, you can’t poll for that kind of singularly unique attachment that voters have for that personality. And that’s what you have with the president. And could somebody else replicate that? Anything’s possible, but I don’t see who that would be right now. 

I feel like in some ways it’s the purest form of identity politics. People identify so strongly with him that they feel like they are him, he is them. A vote against him is a vote against them.
I call him the Bulworth president. One of my all-time favorite movies is Bulworth. And when it came out, it was satire. Could you imagine if a politician just lost their mind or started saying whatever? They would get wildly popular. That’s exactly what happened. 

It only took America 20 years roughly to achieve Bulworth in the White House. That has created a brand loyalty that is really unprecedented. And again, assuming his health and vitality hold up, it’s his lane in ‘24 if he wants. 

What about your life, what comes next?
I genuinely don’t know. I’m not trying to be clever. I genuinely don’t know. There’s stuff that I really need to focus on right now with respect to getting folks that shouldn’t die in prison out next month. And then [those are] going to be thoughts and conversations for next year.

Would you consider the Senate, governor?
Yeah, it would either be one of those lanes. 

How do you deal with a political opposition that seems to care more about holding on to power than democracy itself?
You vote ‘em out. I don’t mean to sound flip or whatever, but you vote them out and that’s what we did. And it’s going to prevail. I mean, the Senate isn’t where you want it to be likely, but at the end of the day, it prevailed. But it wasn’t a clear cut victory for Democrats and it wasn’t a clear cut loss for Republicans, particularly on the state level. And that’s the reality, you know, and I’m sad to see, like, kind of the intraparty [factions] going at each other. I mean, that didn’t take long. 

It’s like the Ron Burgundy meme: “Well, that escalated quickly.” And that’s just not helpful. Each rep has his or her district. It’s up to the voters to decide what their views are and the reps’ views are. And right now, as raw as things are, we shouldn’t have any guns trained on either side, but certainly not among ourselves. 

This is RS Interview: Special Edition, featuring in-depth conversations with notable figures in music, entertainment, and politics. Episodes typically premiere every Thursday afternoon both here on the site and on Rolling Stone’s YouTube channel.

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