York native, Senate candidate Fetterman comes home

Greg Gross

Tuesday was a whirlwind day for John Fetterman, much like others he's had since announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate in September.

But Tuesday was a little different.

It was Fetterman's first official campaign stop — an evening meet and greet with supporters and the curious at the Holy Hound Taproom — in his native York County following a day of putting feet to pavement for a mostly walking tour of York City.

“I've had just the best day. I've been impressed with the organic growth,” he said after visits to parts of the city where it is once again spring as city blocks are undergoing revitalization efforts.

Fetterman, a Central York graduate and mayor of the western Pennsylvania town Braddock, is in a three-way race for the Democratic nomination to take on incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey, the likely Republican candidate.

On tour: Fetterman's journey back to York started Monday morning, when he a few staffers loaded into his black Ford F-150 extended cab pickup truck for multiple events in State College. Tuesday was an early rise for the drive to York. Next stop: Philadelphia, where more campaigning awaits on Wednesday.

In York, the day started with a quick tour of Ace Distributing, 1800 Pennsylvania Ave. With a case of brew and staffers packed into the pickup, Fetterman, clad in his traditional black short-sleeved shirt and jeans, slowly started to drive off but stopped and opened his driver's side window.

“Thanks, guys. Thank you,” he called out, waving at Ace Distributing employees.

From there it was a walking tour of downtown York, with stops at Central Market, the up-and-coming Royal Square neighborhood and York City Pretzel Co..

“It'll cost me votes in Philly, but this is the best pretzel,” he said, taking a brief break for a sample at the 39 W. Market St. eatery.

Downtown: Walking down West Market Street, Fetterman paused to take in the stunning architecture as if seeing it for the first time.

“Like that building right there. They just don't make them like that anymore,” he said motioning toward a three-story brick structure between Rite Aid and Trinity United Church of Christ. “My hometown. It does my heart really good.”

Just before the lunch crowd hit Central Market, Fetterman, his entourage and a small contingent of media paraded between the market stalls.

For the Harvard-educated Fetterman, it was a homecoming of sorts. He stopped at Brunner's Exotic Fruits to praise the freshly squeezed juice. At Butera The Florist, he picked up a bouquet of flowers for his wife, Gisele, before making it to Copper Crust Co. for three cookies.

For the most part, not many people paid much attention to the large-framed Fetterman or the half dozen people he had in tow. One man asked if Fetterman was recording some sort of promotional video for the market after spotting a television news cameraman.

But others recognized the mayor who wants to become senator.

“That's John Fetterman,” one passer-by on the street said.

Growing up: By all accounts, Fetterman, the first son of teenage parents, grew up in comfortable, middle-class life. His father owns Kling Bros. Insurance on West King Street, and he and his three siblings grew up in a nice neighborhood in Springettsbury Township.

“He was always caring, protective and helpful,” said Fetterman's younger brother, Gregg.

After attending Albright College in Reading, he headed north to the University of Connecticut and worked, following his father's lead, landed a job in the insurance business. The death of a friend prompted him to become a mentor with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. He later joined AmeriCorps, serving in Pittsburgh, and the road ultimately led him Braddock, where he moved into the basement of a disused church.

Conditions weren't great.

With no working heating system, only a bunch of space heaters, Gregg Fetterman recalled waking up on cold mornings during visits to find the water in a toilet had iced over during the night. It wasn't out of the ordinary to hear gunshots outside in the poverty-stricken former steel town.

“I remember this feeling of dread going to visit him,” Gregg Fetterman said. “I've never encountered poverty like that, violence like that.”

Adopted home: But John Fetterman saw potential in Braddock.

He's taken on numerous efforts to improve the quality of life in the town, and Gisele Fetterman, who came to America as an undocumented immigrant from Brazil as a young girl, runs the Free Store.

"My dream was to be called for jury duty," she said, noting only U.S. citizens can serve. She's slated for jury duty in March.

Braddock once had a population of close to 21,000 during the height of the steel industry in America. Since then, the number of residents has steadily decreased to slightly more than 2,000 today.

With the collapse of the steel industry and the loss of jobs came increases in drug use and corresponding crime.

What John Fetterman is doing to improve life in Braddock is what he wants to do on a larger scale in the Senate. He said he wants to take on income inequality, funding for public schools, creating effective paths to citizenship and making sure workers are receiving a livable wage if he's elected.

“John is truly the finest person I know,” said Gregg Fetterman, who changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat so he can vote for his brother in the primary. “If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't support him.”

The life of a candidate for national office means John Fetterman is away from home quite a bit.

But on Tuesday, his home came to his hometown. Gisele Fetterman and the couple's three children — Karl, 7, Grace, 4, and August, 1, — came to York to spent time together.

From left, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, of Braddock, Ace Distributing's Vice President Nate Fochtman, Fetterman's Deputy Press Secretary Leslie Wertheimer, and Daniel Tublin, with Fetterman's campaign, Ace Distributing's President Jeff Reeder and Ace Distributing's Senior Vice President Tammy Ranck are shown during a tour of the warehouse at Ace Distributing in York, Pa. on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)
Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, of Braddock, is guided on a tour of the warehouse at Ace Distributing in York, Pa. on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)
Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, of Braddock, left, asks tour guide Vice President Nate Fochtman, right, of Ace Distributing,  about Troegs Nugget Nectar during a tour of the warehouse in York, Pa. on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)
Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, left, of Braddock, is guided by Ace Distributing's President Jeff Reeder, center, and Director of Warehouse Operations Mike Thompson, right, during a tour of the warehouse at Ace Distributing in York, Pa. on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

That night, John Fetterman likely did what he says he misses most when out on the campaign trail. He tucked his children into bed.

Media attention: Since becoming mayor of Braddock in 2005, John Fetterman has attracted national media attention that included articles in Rolling Stone and appearances on news programs and television shows.

Most articles make mention of John Fetterman's stature and seemingly unorthodox looks; He's a tall, tattooed, burly biker-looking guy with a shaved head.

“At the same time, he's so much more than that,” Gregg Fetterman said. “Once you meet him and talk to him, you understand the kind of man he is."

But the attention is gaining John Fetterman support.

Ben Kline, a Dallastown graduate and a former Penn State football player, showed up at the campaign office in Braddock unannounced a few weeks back looking to help any way he could. He had read about John Fetterman in a newspaper.

Now he's the Fetterman campaign's man in State College, where he's a graduate student.

"I've never been involved in politics before," Kline said. "I just really believe in what he stands for."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.