Insider backs outsider as Rendell endorses Fetterman for Lt. Governor in Pennsylvania

In 2016, John Fetterman, the 6-foot-8, bald-headed, goateed, tattooed mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, launched a longshot bid for the U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, held then and now by Republican Pat Toomey.

Fetterman was running against two candidates with much more money and establishment support, Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak. While he finished third in the Democratic primary, Fetterman earned about 20 percent of the vote and acquired something of a national profile. And despite having endorsed Bernie Sanders, he was a frequent campaign surrogate of Hillary Clinton’s in Pennsylvania.

Fetterman recently announced his candidacy for Lt. Governor of Pennsylvania, a state which has separate elections for governor and lieutenant governor.

And on Monday morning, at Philadelphia’s City Hall, this quintessential outsider got the formal backing of one of the ultimate insiders in Pennsylvania Democratic politics: Former Philadelphia Mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.

Rendell had backed McGinty’s doomed candidacy for the Senate, and admitted that he had never even met Fetterman until after that race was over. But he decided to support Fetterman for a couple of big reasons: he was impressed with Fetterman’s record in Braddock, and he feels the incumbent lieutenant governor, Mike Stack, is potentially “a drag on the ticket.”

“The battle of Pennyslvania won’t be just in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” Rendell said, “But the battle will be in small and mid-sized cities — the Braddocks, the Eries, the Audubons, the Scrantons, and the Wilkes-Barres, and Johnstowns, and towns like that… all over the state.”

Rendell also praised Fetterman’s work ethic and tireless campaigning, calling him one who would be an “asset” to a ticket along with Gov. Tom Wolf. Rendell added that he had given a financial contribution to Fetterman’s campaign from his political action committee, and said he will raise money for the candidate as well.

Both Rendell and Fetterman highlighted the candidate’s unique background and biography: he’s from a small town that isn’t part of one of the state’s major cities, but it’s majority-minority. His wife, Gisele Baretto Fetterman, is Latina and a onetime Dreamer. Fetterman may be a large, hulking man who resembles the former professional wrestler Bill Goldberg, but he also has a degree from Harvard.

Fetterman vowed to serve as a “solid progressive backstop” and a “quality working partner for Gov. Wolf,” while thanking Rendell for helping out Braddock during his governorship.

“I came to a professional fork in the road where I was just re-elected for my fourth term as mayor of Braddock, and I asked myself how I can be of greater service,” Fetterman said, explaining why he decided to run. “And what’s the best thing I can dedicate myself to professionally — another term as mayor, or running for a larger platform and championing the issues … that we’ve been working on in Braddock now for the last 16 years?”

Fetterman said he had served as a uniter between the Clinton and Sanders factions of the Democratic party during the 2016 cycle against the “existential threat” of the Donald Trump presidency. And he said that this threat could come to Pennsylvania, should Republican Scott Wagner win the governorship.

I caught up with Fetterman after the press conference, and asked him what he feels the way forward is for Democrats in general in 2018. He first stressed the importance of dealing with rising inequality.

“With the new Republican tax plan that’s going to continue to increase the deficit at the expense of tax cuts for the wealthy, [that] to me epitomizes the kind of economic injustice we have here in the country,” he said. “The issues that Bernie raised were issues that I’ve been working on as a progressive Democrat since 2001 when I came to Braddock.”

These issues, he said, include marijuana legalization, economic revitalization, “treating people humanely with a path to citizenship” on immigration, and “developing a community policing strategy that can deliver a safer public without making people feel like they’re part of an occupation.”

With Democratic incumbents in the gubernatorial and senatorial races, the lieutenant governor race is where the action is for Democrats. In addition to Fetterman and Stack, State Rep. Madeleine Dean, Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone, and Lancaster County Commissioner Craig Lehman are among the declared candidates. The primary is May 15, 2018.