Candidates like John Fetterman and Summer Lee are charting a more progressive future for Democrats
By Ed Simon
The short film begins with an orchestral stirring. It’s Wagner. The sun dawns on a wooded horizon. A rugged young white man decked entirely in denim—blue jeans, jean jacket, even a denim hat—stands with his dog and warms his hands over a fire, watching a freight train move through the field. Next, a tableau of Rust Belt decay: boarded up commercial properties, dilapidated homes overgrown with vines, the edge of the (still operational) Edgar Thompson Steelworks. Workers climb scaffolding in an abandoned building; a young, handsome man rolls up his sleeves in front of a mural of the Statue of Liberty. He wears a hard hat. A voiceover, read by a child, accompanies the images: “We were taught how the pioneers went into the West. They opened their eyes and made up what things could be.”
The child continues: “A long time ago, things got broken here. People got sad and left.” The score begins to soar as a pretty young woman near the scaffold puts on a white dust mask. “Maybe the world breaks on purpose, so that we can have work to do,” the child says. And, at that moment, a tarp comes down and we see that the workers have been installing a beautiful stained-glass installation in the abandoned building, a post-industrial rose window. The music accelerates. The camera pans down hallways with flaking paint, down streets overgrown with weeds and littered with potholes. A child runs in front of the camera. “People think that there aren’t frontiers anymore,” the voiceover explains. They can’t see how frontiers are all around us.” A mural on the side of a building reads in red paint:
Historic Braddock, PA
It was an ad for Levi’s jeans. Braddock, once a city of twenty thousand people, now has fewer than three thousand residents and a poverty rate of almost thirty-seven percent. More than ninety percent of its commercial district has been gutted since Big Steel’s collapse in the 1980s. Just nine miles from Downtown Pittsburgh, Braddock could be a continent away—the gleaming skyscrapers lining Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers stand in stark contrast to the condemned homes and business of the dying steel town.
Filmed in 2010 as part of Levi’s Ready to Work campaign, and directed by John Hilcoat, whose previous work included the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (filmed not far from Braddock), the spot was a Rorschach Test: viewers saw either “ruin porn” or a new Rust Belt anthem. The former perspective was voiced by photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, who told The Los Angeles Times that the commercial’s “whole principle is that Braddock is this idealized romantic empty pasture…That’s really problematic.” The latter is represented by a quote from another ad in the series: “ninety percent of our town is in a landfill somewhere. So reinvention is our only option.” That quote came from Braddock’s mayor at the time, John Fetterman.
On Tuesday, Fetterman—who has served as lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania since 2019—won the state’s Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Tellingly, the news from the Quaker State on Tuesday night was focused on the western portion of Pennsylvania, with the two leading Senate candidates both from that corner of the state, as well as in terms of the nomination of Summer Lee as Democratic candidate for the stolidly blue 12th Congressional District, and who will most certainly win in November and be both the furthest left member of the state House delegation, as well as the first African American woman to ever represent the Commonwealth in Congress.
Fetterman is also a Rorschach Test of sorts; a six-foot-nine, shaven-headed, goateed giant who suffered a stroke four days before his nomination and had a pacemaker inserted the day he won. The York, Pennsylvania-born graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School has been a fixture of politics in the Pittsburgh metro area since his election as mayor of Braddock in 2006—the white mayor of a municipality that’s seventy-one percent Black. Courting equal parts controversy and adoration, Fetterman was feted by some as intrinsic to Braddock’s revitalization, which included the surprising development of a growing arts scene that improved economic prospects in the city, or for using his notoriety to encourage investment in the town (Levi’s paid for the restoration of the historic Carnegie Library, the building in the ad).
Fetterman conveys a rough, no bullshit, working-class authenticity—tattooed on his body are the names of every person murdered in Braddock while he was mayor—and has developed a reputation as a sterling progressive. In his role as Lieutenant Governor since 2019, looking almost comically mismatched next to professorial Governor Tom Wolf, Fetterman has advocated for marijuana legalization and LGBTQ rights, as well as becoming personally involved in criminal justice reform and helping to commute the sentences for forty-five people. But as mayor of Braddock, he was financially supported by his parents, which some argue makes his persona more performative than genuine. And, in 2013, he pulled a shotgun on a Black jogger, claiming he thought the man, Chris Miyares, was a school shooter. (He handily won re-election following the incident, and Miyares has endorsed his Senate campaign, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the mayor had “done far better than one bad act.”)
After Fetterman’s win was announced, CNN commentator Chris Wallace cast him as a left-wing radical, and described probable GOP opponent Mike McCormick as a “moderate.” This is a demonstration of how mainstream journalists like Wallace, formerly of FOX News and with a voice that sounds nothing so much like a Def Comedy Jam standup’s imitation of an uptight white guy, have allowed conservatives to move the Overton rightward, until words like “moderate” cease to mean anything. McCormick is a former Bridgewater Associate hedge fund manager who has the ghoulish Stephen Miller on his campaign payroll, and who quickly pivoted to an “America First” platform to stave off MAGA opponents (like the Trump-anointed professional quack Mehmet Oz) in the primary. That McCormick isn’t as foaming as Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial nominee who literally took part in the January 6 coup attempt, is faint praise.
An early supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run, Fetterman would arguably be among the most left-leaning candidates elected to Congress’s upper chamber in recent memory, but his policies are far from fringe interests—he is pro-choice (fifty-one percent of Pennsylvanians support abortion rights according to Reuters); he supports taxing the rich (along with sixty-four percent of Americans, according a Reuters/Ipsos poll); and legalizing weed (ninety percent of Pennsylvanians agree, according to a poll from the Muhlenberg College Public Health Program). Regardless of what liberals and leftists, moderates and centrists, progressives and activists might think about Fetterman, how they might read the Rorschach test, Democrats’ ability to preserve their slight majority in the senate (and forestall the Republican Party’s march toward authoritarianism and fascism) now relies, in large part, on his success in the Pennsylvania senate race.
Conventional pundits have focused largely on Fetterman’s appearance when trying to explain his success. Wallace implied that it was the unconventionality of Fetterman that would turn off the mythic moderate voters of the Keystone State, that they couldn’t abide the tattoos and the gym shorts, as if the election of Donald Trump hadn’t demonstrated that none of the rules which the DC class hold sacrosanct regarding propriety, appearance, or language weren’t defunct. David A. Graham writes in The Atlantic that “Fetterman looks like he was hacked together from spare parts in an oil-streaked Pittsburgh chopper garage,” which is funny, but only part of the reason for the candidate’s surprising success. The article does an adequate job of explaining the psychic differences between Fetterman and his opponent, Representative Connor Lamb, the moderate former prosecutor and veteran who seems like he was designed in a McKinsey laboratory. But Graham’s too-clever-by-half conclusion regarding Fetterman’s appeal, that his “success comes in part because many voters are attracted to candidates more by ‘vibes’ than by detailed policy platforms,” does little to explain his broad support.
The answer is actually much simpler: most Pennsylvania Democrats agree with Fetterman’s policy positions—by a margin of more than thirty points, given the results of Tuesday’s election. Shocking though it may be, it’s not just how politicians say something, but it also matters what they say. Take this quote from Fetterman, in an article by Edward-Isaac Dovere in The Atlantic: “If Hobby Lobby is paying $15 an hour, how the fuck is that progressive to believe that people should be being paid $15 an hour?” Journalists are hearing the profanity; voters are hearing the truth.
Columnists who are pretending that Fetterman’s win bodes defeat for the Democrats in November have yet to explain how Lamb, who lost by an embarrassing 32.6 percent among Democratic voters, would somehow be able to attract Republicans to his cause. No matter how moderate, how centrist Lamb may be, he would have been tarred as a “socialist” by his opponents. The point isn’t “Can Fetterman attract Republican voters?”—though he has just as much of a chance as Lamb, despite being further to the left—but rather that the candidate clearly has fight in him. That’s what some dismiss as “vibes”: an awareness that the bread-and-butter voters are enraged as Beltway Democrats capitulate repeatedly to an authoritarian GOP, as professional politicians valorize an imagined halcyon day of bipartisanship more than delivering on their campaign promises.
In this respect, Fetterman is a welcome sign of things to come. Another comes from Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, where Summer Lee pulled out a historic victory in the primary, all but ensuring that she’ll the first Black woman ever sent to Congress from Pennsylvania, joining recent left-wing stalwarts like Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Presley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Lee will replace the reliably Democratic (though annoyingly conservative) Mike Doyle, who held office in an otherwise reliably liberal district, another sign that the future of the Democrats is to the left, where they might actually win, and then when they do, where they might actually govern.
There was no missing that the Democratic Party machine favored Steve Irwin, a wealthy attorney and milquetoast centrist, versus Lee, a grassroots candidate who also supports widely popular positions on things like economic justice and abortion rights, as well as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. With the exception of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, the city’s first elected Black mayor, Lee received few endorsements from local elected Democrats, though she did have the support of stalwart national progressives such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Last October, in a well-produced campaign video, Lee explored the economic degradation of her hometown—Braddock, Pennsylvania. With shots of decaying homes and steel mills, the video evokes nothing so much as the Levi’s Ready to Work ad from 2010, but the tone is entirely different from that commercial. Lee’s voiceover is still proud: “Our labor made the steel that built America.” But, the progressive, millenial representative says, “I never knew that town.” She continues: “When the mills left, our communities paid the price. We watched the people with money and power make our kids sick with asthma, break our unions, and then blame us for the blight and crime.”
More than a decade ago, that Levi’s ad intoned, “Maybe the world breaks on purpose, so that we can have work to do”—a sentiment of the early Obama years that’s gauzy and mythopoeic. But after Trump, it would be foolish to believe that the world breaks just so we can keep our hands busy—it breaks because certain people and interests benefit from breaking it. What this new left rising from Western Pennsylvania suggests is that there might just be a type of elected official who not only notices that the world is broken, but wants to join with residents to build something new. ■
*Opinion and commentary columns are the work of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.
Ed Simon is a contributing writer to Belt Magazine and author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh.
Cover art by Chris Harvey.
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