Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in his Capitol office (Capital-Star photo).
So, this isn’t a “John Fetterman” column. And you know what we’re talking about here.
After more than two years on the statewide political stage, there’s already a well-established journalistic shorthand for Pennsylvania’s new lieutenant governor.
It’s the lather, rinse, repeat formula of “black clothes, bald head, tattoos, gosh he’s tall but skinnier, cheerleader for the struggling steel town of Braddock, Pa.” that’s launched a thousand profiles — including a recent one by NYMag.com.
And while all that’s true about Fetterman, it often feels like the media branding of Gov. Tom Wolf’s second-in-command overshadows the actual human behind it.
That’s a guy who’s deeply intelligent and thoughtful, who walks the talk on public service, is clearly committed to a very specific vision of progressive public policy — but also boasts a fluency with the “Cannonball Run” movies that verges on the forensic.
So, in short, one can’t help but wonder, doesn’t he ever get tired of being “John Fetterman?”
The answer came on a snowy morning last week where Fetterman, dressed in, yes, that gray work shirt and those black Dickies trousers, held court in his Capitol office sandwiched between the House and Senate chambers.
“I’m still not comfortable in this office,” he says, settling into a wing chair next to his formal desk, which he says he rarely uses.
For the record, Fetterman’s one and only suit, bought at a big-and-tall store near Braddock, hangs on a coat-rack just off his left shoulder.
He puts it on to preside over the Senate — one of the few official duties that come with his job — and takes it off when he’s done.
Naturally, he’s made headlines for the suit; for his wife Gisele’s joking embrace of the acronym “SLOP” (that’s second lady of Pennsylvania, to you), and for his decision to pass on living in the official residence at Fort Indiantown Gap.
As the accusations continue to grow, it is appaling that @daylinleach is suing some of the brave women who have stepped up to tell their story. I called for it as a candidate and now as President of the Senate and your Lt. Governor: Sen. Leach needs to resign immediately.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) January 29, 2019
He’s also called for the resignation of a fellow Democrat, state Sen. Daylin Leach, of Montgomery, who’s being investigated by his colleagues over an allegation that Leach sexually assaulted a minor in 1991. Leach has resisted that call.
— Gisele Barreto Fetterman (@giselefetterman) January 15, 2019
So when he says “I don’t actively solicit attention – I have never have,” there’s a natural inclination to arch an eyebrow. But his follow-up underlines his urgent earnestness.
“If someone is interested, if you want to understand,” the struggles of such small communities like Braddock and neighboring McKeesport, “… I will invite you into my bubble.”
He’s just getting warmed up.
“The cardinal sin for a politician is that you get high on your own supply,” he says. “It’s never about you. It’s about the drastic fraying of the social contract across our country, and nowhere is that more prominent than in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“If that’s being John Fetterman, it’s only to acknowledge what’s out there,” he says, adding later, “I’ve never had one person walk away and say, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Everyone gets that.”
Though he’s only a couple of weeks into his new job, there’s already been talk about Fetterman transcending an office where political ambitions historically go to die.
A Democratic run for governor in 2022, maybe? Or another shot at taking out U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa?
If Fetterman harbors those ambitions, and there’s every reason to think he does, he’s equally good at knowing his lane. And for the foreseeable future, that means being Wolf’s loudest and proudest cheerleader.
And he leans in, repeating a familiar line.
“If he asked me to go out on Second Street and direct traffic, I would,” he said, adding that he and Wolf speak frequently. “He has welcomed my input and participation.”
Wolf has tapped Fetterman to run a statewide listening tour on marijuana legalization. Fetterman says he believes there’s a “convergence” between the public and policymakers that shows its time has come.
There is the small matter of a brick wall of Republican resistance in some quarters of the General Assembly and the stubborn reality that marijuana is still on the DEA’s list of banned substances.
But 10 other states, most recently Michigan, have defied the feds and legalized recreational marijuana. So, it might be a matter of “when,” rather than “if,” on when Pennsylvania follows suit.
“My personal hypothesis — there is enough convergence to find some common ground on that,” he said. “I think fewer and fewer people believe that it is a true Schedule I kind of product.”
And if it pumps some badly needed cash into the state’s coffers during what’s looking like a tough budget year? All the better.
Fetterman says he also wants to take a crack at improving the operations of another of his constitutionally mandated duties. That’s the state Board of Pardons, which he chairs.
If there’s one area where Fetterman’s sartorially vibrant, but politically troubled predecessor, ex-LG Mike Stack, won plaudits, it was in Stack’s own efforts to fix what he described as a “broken” system.
Fetterman says he’s looking to build on Stack’s accomplishments — and to take them further.
“We’re going to work closely with all the stakeholders and dramatically reform a process that is in desperate need [of reform]. It is in dire need of major revisions,” he says.
Fetterman tosses across a copy of the application that pardon-seekers have to fill out to kick-start the bureaucratic process. It’s maybe a half-inch thick and reads like some nightmare version of Swedish flat-pack furniture instructions.
“There will be close collaboration between us and the Attorney General’s office,” he says. “We will never guarantee an outcome. What we will guarantee is a better turnaround.”
It’s that kind of thoughtfulness — not the black clothes — that might enable Fetterman to transcend the usual limits of his office.
It’s certainly going to be worth watching.
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