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Tipsheet

Here’s How the Town John Fetterman Supposedly Saved Is Doing Today

John Fetterman is unwell, and so is the small town he claims to have revitalized.

This weekend, I walked the desolate streets of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh-area borough where the Democratic candidate was the hot-shot progressive mayor for more than a decade. There, I chatted with a few Braddock residents and local officials about Fetterman, the steel town's self-proclaimed savior now seeking a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate.

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The first thing I noticed trekking through Braddock: There weren't many Fetterman signs.

"You will not ride around and see a lot of Fetterman signs," chuckled former Braddock Mayor Chardaé Jones, who succeeded Fetterman after he left his $150-a-month gig in the mayoral office to become Pennsylvania's well-paid lieutenant governor. I asked why there's seemingly a shortage of support for Fetterman in a sit-down video interview with Jones last week. To which, Jones said: "Fetterman lives in the community and we don't actually see Fetterman."

When I questioned how often Fetterman visits Braddock's businesses or the projects he worked on, Jones said, "Not very often. I see him at the Waterfront more than I'd see him in Braddock." For those not native to Greater Pittsburgh, the up-scale Waterfront in nearby Homestead is an open-air shopping mall where you can sip on a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks, peruse books at Barnes & Noble, watch a flick at the AMC theatre, or go Skee-Balling at Dave & Buster's.

"Technically, he is a Braddock resident but we don't see him at community events," Jones said. "A lot of people know nothing about him. And the cool thing about Braddock is like everyone knows everybody that knows somebody..."

You won't find Fetterman featured on community artwork that showcases prominent figures in Braddock either. While we were walking past the art display, a newcomer to Braddock stopped Jones, asking: "What's up with the town?"

"I've been here two years. I'm on my way out," the Braddock transplant said. "You and everybody else," Jones answered. "You ain't got no grocery store down here...Ain't no bank," the resident replied. Farther down the road, the glass doors of the permanently shuttered First National Bank, near the fenced-off "#BraddockBeautiful" graffiti, remains shattered.

At first, the two of us struggled to find a meeting place in Braddock when I initially reached out to Jones.

"There's not much open in Braddock nowadays," Jones wrote back.

We settled on Civic Plaza, a colorful, aesthetic-looking community space that stands in contrast to the urban decay plaguing all other parts of bleak Braddock. During our outdoors interview Friday on that windy autumn afternoon, a handful of low-income locals lined up for "FREE PHONES" as advertised on a nondescript white car that was parallel parked along the park's perimeter by a casually-clad salesperson giving out government-subsidized cellulars.

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Braddock's supposed rebirth is one of Fetterman's go-to talking points he often sputters on the Senate campaign trail. When I asked Jones how her fellow Braddock residents feel about Fetterman invoking the borough's purported revival under his 13-year reign, she said that while some of the neighborhood's inhabitants appreciate the public exposure, others wish that the national attention could be channeled into much-needed resources for the struggling community.

It's "a divide" among residents, Jones told Townhall, indicating that town folks are split on Fetterman touting his mayoral record as he's gunning for higher office. "Some people feel like Fetterman used Braddock. Some people were like, 'Oh, he put a spotlight on the community'...A spotlight is nice, but you got to do something once you have the spotlight."

"We need businesses. These people need jobs," Jones urged. "And when Fetterman says, 'Oh, I helped create jobs in Braddock,' I'm like, 'Where?' Most people that live in Braddock don't work in Braddock," said Fetterman's successor, who endorsed his opponent, Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, in May's primary for the Democratic nomination.

Jones said "a quarter" of the slow progress made in Braddock can be attributed to Fetterman's work in the community. "I think he does take too much credit because some of these projects are actual council projects," Jones added.

Fetterman was frequently absent at council meetings, according to records obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. A recurring no-show, Fetterman skipped at least 53 council meetings, amounting to more than a third of the borough's monthly gatherings when the Senate hopeful was the town's leader. "A lot of leaders didn't get to work with him during his time in office. I don't want to say he doesn't know how to work on a team, but he didn't display his ability to work on a team," Jones said of Fetterman's "do-it-by-myself" attitude. "We never got him to actually come to the table to do things." 

The council—which was comprised of retired members and longtime residents—expressed that "they didn't want him there," Jones explained. "In my opinion, that's not a reason to not go to a council meeting, especially if you're an elected official getting paid by the people. One might say, 'Going is a waste of my time,' but at least to know what's going on; a lot of things happen at council meetings...You have to learn how to work with people that like you and do not like you."

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"The older generation definitely views Fetterman as an outsider," Jones said. Fetterman moved to Braddock in 2001, four years before the West Reading-born, York-raised politician was elected mayor, winning his first term by a single vote.

Fetterman lives above one of his failed revitalization projects. Back in 2013, Fetterman bought a 3,000-square-foot building that used to be the site of a car dealership and transformed the Chevrolet showroom into a high-end restaurant: Superior Motors. Raising $310,000-plus on Kickstarter, a record for the crowdfunding site, the Superior Motors campaign offered a five-course dinner party at Fetterman's spacious, repurposed loft for the donors who pledged $5,000 or more.

Superior Motors was meant to serve as an economic accelerant, but after launching halfway through 2017 following years of delay, it ended up closing down in the spring of 2020 during the pandemic and hasn't reopened its doors since. In the meantime, Superior Motors received a $191,000 relief loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program's first round of bailouts and its management organized a GoFundMe page that netted over $25,000 to support its laid-off staff. Two years later, the abandoned restaurant's tables, chairs, and respective centerpieces are collecting dust in the downstairs seating area beneath the Fetterman family home while a plaque of its business hours is still plastered to the property's entryway.

Fetterman felt that Superior Motors could "reimagine" the neighborhood when he recruited celebrity chef Kevin Sousa to prepare gourmet food like beef tartare, sashimi, and foie. Although it did attract visitors from across borough lines, Superior Motors turned out to be too expensive for most of Braddock's own diners. "A decent majority of the community was like, 'I can't afford to eat there.' And they were put off by some of the offerings there, because they're like, 'I don't know what that is,'" Jones said of the menu selection, which patrons considered "pricey" with its "small portions."

"It was cool to have people come from other towns to see what was here, but that was not on the top priority list of things that people from Braddock needed: a fine dining restaurant," Jones stated. The main reason for the closure of Superior Motors, according to Jones, is because Sousa "just up and left" his brainchild after he "got bored of the concept."

One of the longest-lasting businesses active in Braddock is Club Elegance, a nightclub that Fetterman tried to shut down when it was Club 804. "Fetterman did not like them. He couldn't stand that business," Jones laughed. Fetterman labeled the bar "public nuisance No. 1" and "a cancer," but Jones said the club donates coats to the community and recently held an "increase the peace" fundraiser. Fetterman was caught on surveillance footage vandalizing the club's marquee sign by rearranging the words to say, "We will not be reopening soon." The mayor proudly admitted to the act of vandalism captured on camera. "The black community did not appreciate that at all. And we're predominantly black," Jones said.

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Another incident Fetterman was lambasted for in the black-majority town was when the mayor chased down and held an unarmed black jogger at gunpoint whom he falsely assumed was involved in a crime. "He never apologized for it," Jones said. "I think if he owned up to it and apologized for it, people would kind of feel better, but it's kind of late to apologize."

Fetterman brags on his campaign website that he tackled crime as Braddock's "chief law enforcement officer" who "worked with the chief of police, our police officers, and the community to reduce violent crime." However, during Fetterman's tenure, the violent crime rate sharply rose in Braddock, according to a City-Data.com analysis.

When she took over after Fetterman exited, Jones said, "There was years and years and years worth of paperwork that was never filed and the police reports weren't being done. No one was looking at this. So I had to take on that task."

Jones also had to tell Braddock's police officers to write tickets because the elderly residents were complaining about the cars parked on the public sidewalks where they couldn't place their wheelchairs. "And [the cops] said, 'Well, we were told not to write tickets. We don't even know where they are. The last mayor told us not to write tickets.' I was like...'Well, I want you to write tickets—to enforce something. You don't have to have a quota,'" Jones recalled responding.

"We can't keep police officers to save our lives," Jones said of Braddock Police's staffing issues.

The following day, I spoke with Braddock's new police chief Brian Bradford during the second annual Coffee with a Cop event at the Braddock Municipal Building. The chief said Braddock's police department only has six part-time officers at this time but needs 13 cops to cover the entire community. Until then, Pennsylvania State Police is assisting with calls since the borough made a formal request for help mid-July. "We run from call to call sometimes," Bradford said.

Resources are currently stretched thin with such a small crew serving a wide area. "I'm the only one working today, so you might have one person on for the whole town," Bradford said. "You have to prioritize your calls as they come in."

"Gun violence is an issue in Braddock," said borough councilwoman at-large Delores Scales, who acknowledged that the youth in Braddock are affected, noting that many have experienced a gun-related death in the family or among friends.

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At the gun safety and intervention event outside of the municipality's administrative building, students as young as fourth grade were among the children who signed the "No Cap" Pledge and uttered the verbal vow to stop gun violence.

A Braddock resident, who was born at the since-demolished UPMC Braddock hospital where Civic Plaza is now located, said her unarmed son was murdered in an overnight shooting last July on North Braddock's Rebecca Ave. (The crime scene in North Braddock, a neighboring borough, is slightly closer to Fetterman's house than it is to Civic Plaza).

"Senseless...for no reason," the Braddock mother told Townhall. "He has six children. Now every one of them in this town, city, community, [and] state has to take care of those six children until they're an adult. It needs to stop. Period."

Bradford said that Braddock is "a depressed town" and "businesses just have left and not come back."

The town's dwindling population of about 1,700 residents has slim pickings of stores to shop from and eateries to dine at along what used to be bustling Braddock Ave, where the Robert "Bob" Portogallo's resilient Peppers N'AT has weathered tough times. Inside the veteran-owned business, I chatted with Portogallo, the outspoken owner/operator of Braddock's one-and-only Italian restaurant, that chilly Friday evening before the dinnertime rush. "I think the thriving business is the dollar store, which I call it the Braddock mall, jokingly," said Portogallo, who is a one-man team in Peppers N'AT's kitchen.

"It's kind of tough to find many fans of [Fetterman] here..." Portogallo stated. "His narrative and the commercials on the political ads that 'Big John Fetterman built back Braddock; working man brought jobs.' I mean, none of it's true."

Levi's jean company approached Fetterman, not the council, to promote a line of work clothes in 2009, the New York Times Magazine reports. The million-and-a-half dollars Levi's offered in exchange for the working-class advertisement blitz "went to John's Nonprofit, for John's Church and community center, rather than the town's coffers. It was a closed loop that didn't sit well with some of the mayor's constituents," the NYT Magazine report says of the spending spree.

"From what I understand is, he used the Levi's commercials to look like a hero saving a town," Portogallo said at another point during our conversation on the edge of his covered patio. "And Levi's contributed quite a substantial amount of money to Mr. Fetterman to help that the community and I heard the money never did make it out to the community."

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"He doesn't work," the Air Force veteran of 22 years said. "The only time I see him 'working' is walking down the Waterfront on the path...And the only time I've seen him is driving through Braddock Ave, I think maybe taking his kids to school—not a public school, private school...During the pandemic, you're supposed to be helping out, doing what you can for the state and local businesses...and you're walking on the Waterfront. I mean, are you working? No, you're walking."

"I notice a lot of people are against Fetterman because they know what he did here, which is nothing," Portogallo said.

Over at the bar, one of Portogallo's customers, who owns a screen printing company and is shifting operations to Braddock, said movies using the town as a film set has more so put it on the map. Braddock is so impoverished and dilapidated that the Hollywood filmmakers behind The Road, a 2009 film, cast the town as a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Fetterman is now on the hunt for another "cushy job," he said, one where "you don't really work, but you get paid."

"I just don't like the fixed status quo, the political system," he said. "And here we have how many years of Clinton, Clinton—? And they just [are] recycling the same people...We couldn't get a different guy from Biden or Hillary? C'mon...sometimes you want to break it a little bit." I asked if he thinks Fetterman is part of the recycled process and hand-picked by the establishment. "Who picks a guy like that?" he said, taking a swig from his bottle of beer. "He's no John F. Kennedy in front of the camera. He's no Richard Nixon in front of the camera, either. You know?"

A day later, across the street from where I interviewed Jones, I did find a crowd of Fetterman supporters, who were waiting in line for donations from his wife's Free Store. Aside from the Fetterman signs outside the Fetterman residence, that's the only other spot in Braddock I observed pro-Fetterman paraphernalia: when two black vehicles full of separate Fetterman supporters pulled into the Free Store's parking lot and unloaded a bunch of Fetterman signs from their trunks.

The current Braddock mayor, Delia Lennon-Winstead, is all for Fetterman. Donning a Fetterman button, a Josh Shapiro pin, and a Summer Lee for Congress t-shirt, Lennon-Winstead was decked out backing the trifecta of Democratic candidates in the battleground state while she flashed a piece of paper that read: "Please remember to pray for John Fetterman and family." Scales supports Fetterman as well. "He would gather the children up. There would be a slushy truck or an ice cream truck nearby. I'd see him with my own two eyes buy every last one of them children a treat from the ice cream truck," Scales said. "He has a heart of gold...I think he would be a great senator for the state of Pennsylvania."

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Jones, although a Fetterman critic, is voting for Fetterman. "I like to be critical of people that I'm voting for."

On the third day I was there, when numerous Braddock residents were out of town for Sunday night's Steelers game against the Miami Dolphins in Florida, I discovered several Fetterman signs that were positioned sometime Saturday underneath the anti-Fetterman billboard paid for by the Dr. Oz campaign, which compares the Democratic nominee's record on crime to toilet paper that's "soft on bottoms." Meanwhile, a plethora of Doug Mastriano signs occupies the grass beneath the massive "Welcome to Historic Braddock" mosaic sculpture that greets all passersby traveling into Braddock.

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