Watch CBS News

Democrat John Fetterman looms tall — in person and in politics

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman looms tall
Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman looms tall — in person and in politics 06:51

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has described himself as Governor Tom Wolf's "anger translator."  

"Well, just look at me," he laughed. "The contrast between myself and the governor is almost comical, you know, when we're standing next to each other."

At 6'8" Fetterman looms tall both in person and in politics. The 51-year-old Democrat gained national attention for his brash and cutting defense of Pennsylvania's vote against false claims of fraud. "All they have is lies," he said on MSNBC. "They've had over three weeks now to come up with anything concrete."

… especially on Twitter, where he's even more outspoken:

"Getting on Twitter every morning's like starting the day with a dog-turd-and-motor-oil smoothie," Fetterman told contributor Mark Whitaker. "It's horrible. You gotta form that phalanx and push back against that. And I do that in a way that mixes kind of humor and mockery with cold, hard facts."

One cold, hard fact is that Fetterman is a blunt-talking, self-described progressive intent on also breaking through with swing voters in the Rust Belt.

John Fetterman, the 6'8" lieutenant-governor of Pennsylvania, is a blunt-talking, self-described progressive intent on breaking through with swing voters while working to revitalize the state's Rust Belt. CBS News

His pet issues include a higher minimum wage ("If you believe that a human being should toil for $7.25 an hour, vote for the other person"), and legal marijuana, which he says is a winner for either party.

Whitaker said, "You called it a political bazooka?"

"Yeah. They're arguing over these small wedge issues, when they're leaving the bazooka of legal weed, you know, there on the table for the other side to grab. Like, South Dakota, arguably the most conservative state in our country, voted for legal weed, straight up and down on the ballot."

Whitaker asked, "In a state that has a severe opioid problem, why you're talking about legalizing another drug?"

"Because it's not a drug; it's a plant," Fetterman replied. "It's a gateway to finding a completely natural alternative to the kind of relief that had brought so many people into this toxic spiral with opioids in the first place."

Fetterman was previously the 13-year mayor of Braddock, Pa., a once-thriving steel industry town devastated by decades of poverty, blight and crime.

Ten years ago, Jeff Glor reported for "Sunday Morning" on the efforts of this Harvard grad and former AmeriCorps volunteer to revitalize this largely African American community. Fetterman wears Braddock's past, literally, on his sleeves – the zip code tattooed on one arm, the dates of murders on the other. "The worst days of my life, because these are days that we lost people through senseless violence," he said. 

Paving The Way 08:07

Today, Braddock isn't perfect, but there are real signs of progress and hope. But as Fetterman showed us on a drive, other parts of Pennsylvania's Rust Belt remain decimated.

"Over there to the right, that's the Carrie Furnace site. It's been fallow since 1986," he said.

"It literal looks like an extinct mechanical dinosaur," said Whitaker.

"It is."

The White working-class voters still here are no longer reliable Democrats.

Whitaker said, "A majority of voters in this region are still Democratic. And yet, they've been voting Republican, and heavily pro-Trump. So, why?"

"We need someone that's gonna be doing the talking, that's gonna understand that, you know, we all can't work for Google. We all can't learn how to code when, you know, we're 50 years old," he replied.

Nationally the Democratic Party base has become more racially diverse, educated, wealthy and urban.

"Do you think Democrats in the last couple of generations have forgotten about working people?" asked Whitaker.

"I don't think we've forgotten about them. But I don't think they're the center, the way they should be," Fetterman said.

Speaking in the shadow of a U.S. Steel plant, Fetterman described the cost of not putting working people first: "If we turn our backs on the remaining industries and not reinvest in these places and just say 'You're on your own,' we will lose an entire generation of people that have no other options, other than to turn to somebody like Donald Trump and say, you know, 'Wow, he at least gets me. He at least cares. He at least pays lip service.'"

Which is one reason why Fetterman and his family still live in Braddock, in a renovated 1920s Chevy dealership.

His wife, Gisele, runs a charity known simply as The Free Store, which offers clothes, books, formula and diapers.

The second lady of Pennsylvania was born in Brazil, and came to the United States poor and undocumented: "Scared of every knock at my door that I wasn't expecting someone, because I was worried about being deported," she said. "When I would leave for school in the morning, my mom would say, 'I love you. Have a great day. Be invisible.'"

Invisible no longer, last October she captured a verbal assault while out shopping, where a woman called her the N-word:

Her struggles and those of other immigrants can nearly bring the imposing John Fetterman to tears.

"We, as a country, have to be better than this kind of anti-immigration rhetoric. And we ... have to be better than that as a country. My life has been, you know, immeasurably enriched by my wife and her family and her immigration story."

Fetterman is now exploring a run for the Senate in 2022 — and he has a new distinction to add to his resume.

"GQ magazine described you as an American style god?" asked Whitaker.

"No, no, American taste god, yes," Fetterman said, "which I guess is ironic because I have no taste, but I just am what I am. The fact that somebody that looks as unfortunate as I do sometimes would be an American taste god by the Bible of American taste, you know, I didn't see that coming! You know, talk about your 2020 bingo card, yeah!"

For more info:

Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Chad Cardin.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.