If US President Biden does not want to rule toothlessly, his Democrats must at least hold the wafer-thin Senate majority. Almost all eyes are on the embattled state of Pennsylvania – where John Fetterman is tasked with reconciling the party with workers.
In the basement, at the bud of hope, it smells of frying fat. Shayla Wolford leans on the counter in front of the open kitchen, watches the blaring television showing the TV series The Bold and the Beautiful, and discusses with her teenage daughter who the characters actually cheated on whom. Then the 45-year-old pulls a cigarette out of her pocket, walks up the wheelchair ramp in front of the community center and stands in the sun to smoke for a few minutes.
“John is one of us,” says the mother of three, who grew up in Pittsburgh’s western Pennsylvania suburb of Braddock. “You see him on the street in a hoodie and shorts and that doesn’t put anyone off.” John, this is John Fetterman, Democratic Senate candidate for the state. He embodies what voters for the US Democrats have so often missed in elections in recent years. Close to the people, authenticity, an ear for workers. “He was proud to be our mayor,” said Shayla Wolford.
In the congressional elections on Tuesday, when the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are up for re-election, the former social worker with these qualities is set to win the Senate seat from the Republicans. If things don’t go wrong in other states at the same time, President Joe Biden and the Democrats could get away with a red eye. And defend the wafer-thin majority of Democrats, at least in the Senate. Both parties are therefore pumping tens of millions of dollars into the Pennsylvania election campaign. Biden, ex-presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump – all three threw themselves into Pennsylvania’s election campaign to the end.
Braddock sits on the Monongahela River, lined with autumn foliage, a long freight train slowly pulls along the opposite bank. Ships can enter the Ohio River and Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico from here. Dilapidated houses line the main street; a defiant bank building with pale windowpanes, opposite the steelworks a boarded-up bar. A poster on the deserted hotel calls for voting.
A hundred years ago, more than 20,000 people lived here. For decades, the suburb shrank, in recent years the population has stabilized at around 1900 inhabitants. Around 35 percent of them lived below the poverty line in 2020.
A life at the steel mill
Shayla Wolford has lived in Braddock for most of her life, raising her own children here. Since the 1980s, she has seen the decline of industry tear her hometown of a few thousand people into the abyss. How gangs, drugs and murder came to Pittsburgh in the 90’s, more and more people left and shops closed. And how Fetterman instilled hope for a better life in the suburbs of the former steel metropolis.
Fetterman is a newcomer who initially worked in a youth program. He made a name for himself as a local politician between 2006 and 2019. Fetterman rolled up his sleeves; He has Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his left arm and the dates of the nine murders committed during his 13-year tenure on his right. The mayor appeared in front of the television cameras at the crime scenes.
Beginning anti-gun campaigns, Fetterman raised funds through his own non-profit organization, bought an old church across from the historic library, and turned it into a community center. The front part of the brick wall has been rented out, where Shayla Wolford has been cooking for the residents of her homeland for three years. Behind the snack café there is a lounge and event room for young people so that they don’t have to hang out on the street. Unknown visitors are turned away – everyone should feel safe here.
Fetterman has been lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania since 2019, but he and his family still live in a house in Braddock, across from the steel mill. Where Pittsburgh’s steel city fame began; Steel has been cast here since 1874, initially mainly for the rail-hungry railway that ate its way through the country. The community center is just a few minutes walk past a vegetable field and community garden. In front of it is the historic library, which bears the name of steel mill founder Andrew Carnegie, once one of the richest men in the world. In the last years of his life, he gave away almost his entire fortune for charitable purposes.
“Couldn’t choose anyone else”
Money is always tight with Shayla Wolford. Inflation doesn’t make it any easier. “Without social programs I would be freezing in the dark,” she says. She gets her vegetables cheaper in the farm shop than in the mall, and in Fetterman’s wife’s free shop she gets Christmas presents, Halloween costumes and winter clothes. Work clothes are also available there, or suits for job interviews. Jobs and fighting inflation are the key issues for nearly all Pennsylvania voters in this election. For the cook, it’s abortion rights.
Supreme Court precedent had stood for almost half a century, but the currently conservative-dominated Supreme Court overturned it a few months ago. Since then, every state can do whatever it wants. “Let’s be honest, non-white women like me are particularly hurt by an abortion ban,” says Shayla Wolford. “I could never vote for someone who sees it differently.”
In Pennsylvania, the same abortion laws apply as before, up to a maximum of 23 weeks of pregnancy. But a Republican-dominated Congress could attempt to legislate a federal ban. More than two-thirds of Braddock residents identify themselves as Black or African American.
Just as the Democrats portray the 54-year-old Fetterman as an authentic workers’ fighter, the Republicans disagree. The conservatives invested millions of dollars in so-called attack ads against Fetterman, i.e. in advertising intended to discredit the opponent. It was said that he was too “soft” on criminals. It was also mentioned that the Democrat was a graduate of the elite Harvard University. In a conservative radio show, he was accused of letting his family put up with him “just like Karl Marx, who never achieved anything in his life”. The moral accusation is clear: Fetterman is not honest and neither is anyone like you and me. But an actor.
After suffering a stroke in May, Fetterman kept out of the public eye, but did appear in a televised duel against 62-year-old Dr. oz on Fetterman was still struggling with his health. “Not suitable for the office” was the expected judgment of many conservatives afterwards. The troublemaker on the other side was Dr. Oz, who said during the debate “local politicians” should have a say in whether women are allowed to have abortions. A veritable shitstorm followed.
“I’d like to talk to him”
A few days after the televised performance, hundreds of eyes are on an open-air concert stage in downtown Pittsburgh. It’s not long until the congressional elections, in front of a huge US flag, the candidate steps up to the lonely lectern and spreads his arms while AC/DC’s “Back in Black” roars from the speakers. “I was knocked over, but I got up again,” says Fetterman amid jubilation. “I will do the same for you: I will help everyone who falls down.”
Amy Coleman listens carefully to the candidate. The 48-year-old is a costume designer, also works for the theater and is a member of the event industry union. “We people from the middle class and the disadvantaged, we’re getting a lot right now,” she says. The food prices felt like they had tripled, her husband couldn’t go to work because they couldn’t afford a daycare for their two children. “Fetterman is the representative of the little man,” Amy Coleman is convinced.
Fetterman makes many promises that any Democrat would probably make in a similar way: raise the minimum wage, enact abortion rights into law, improve health insurance. But he didn’t come in a suit, but as the well-known bald giant from the steel town of Braddock, wearing a hoodie and sweatpants. For a long time, Fetterman was very clearly ahead in poll results, but the closer the election got, the more open the race became.
Perhaps, despite his shaky TV showing, there’s one argument that will push Fetterman across the finish line to Washington DC: His opponent has no roots. dr Oz is a native of neighboring New Jersey and just bought a house in Pennsylvania to compete there. “He doesn’t see things the way we do,” says Amy Coleman. “He has too much money for that.” And Fetterman? “John comes across as very engaging, like he’s listening to people,” she says. “Well, I’d like to sit down and talk to him.”