Page last updated at 16:31 GMT, Monday, 31 August 2009 17:31 UK

US mayor strikes unconventional note

By Matt Wells
BBC News, Braddock, Pennsylvania

John Fetterman
'Mayor John' was re-elected with a big majority in May 2009

John Fetterman might have been called "America's coolest mayor" by a British newspaper, but it is an epithet he can live without.

"It's nice to be acknowledged," says the 39-year-old mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. "But I could be at this job for another 30 years, and still have work to do."

We are sitting in the abandoned warehouse he bought for $2,000 (£1,200), which has been stylishly renovated and is now home to his young family.

"Mayor John" - as he's known around his rust-belt town of just under 3,000 residents - is at the very least an unusual public official.

'Less ink'

The town's post-code is tattooed on one forearm, and on the other is a list of five dates, commemorating the local people who have died in violent circumstances during his time in charge.

"The less ink that ends up on my arm, the better-off everyone is as a community," he says, relieved that for the past 16 months he has not made any trips to the tattoo parlour.

Braddock used to be a thriving steel town of 20,000, but now the average house price is just $6,500 and many of its neglected buildings are falling apart.

After serving one four-year term following a close race, the mayor was re-elected by a large majority in May.

He sees it as a clear endorsement of his plan to breathe new life into Braddock by reducing crime, providing better service for long-term residents, and attracting newcomers through bold initiatives.

I've got the world's greatest job
John Fetterman
Braddock mayor

BBC News contacted several of the mayor's political opponents, but they declined to comment.

Mr Fetterman moved to Braddock fulltime in 2003 after spending several years establishing a youth project in the town.

A native Pennsylvanian, he arrived fresh from Harvard University where he earned a masters degree in public policy.

"He looks unusual, but he's a great guy," said Kenneth Parrotte, a local funeral home worker, as we surveyed the collapsed frontage of a building on one of Braddock's ravaged streets.

"I'm definitely not on the payroll," he said with a chuckle standing beside the mayor.

"He dresses like us," he added. "He takes care of the people, instead of just worrying about himself."

Labour of love

Mr Fetterman's popularity is evident all around the town.

A motorist pulled up in the middle of the road to discuss a concern, and left looking satisfied.

When we stopped at a local bar, a mechanic insisted on buying the mayor lunch.

As well as creating a large urban garden near the town centre - which is supplying the local florist as well as a new source of organic vegetables - Mr Fetterman has also pushed for the construction of a new community centre inside a disused church, which is nearing completion.

Dozens of young people have been given summer jobs, which - according to local art teacher Nicole Helvy - which has helped to keep crime low.

And Ms Helvy has observed other signs of improvement.

"I see houses popping up everywhere... If people didn't care, he wouldn't be the mayor for the second time," she said.

Bu Mr Fetterman has not escaped criticism.

His personal investment in Braddock's building stock has led to the accusation that he is turning the town into "Fettermanville" for his own benefit, a charge he strongly rejects.

Braddock mayor John Fetterman's arm, featuring tattoos commemorating the local people who have died in violent circumstances during his time in charge.
His tattoos commemorate the violent deaths of local residents

"Anyone who's buying property here on a speculative basis, is going to lose their shirt," he said.

The mayor's style of running the town has led him to appear recently on The Colbert Report - one of cable television's hippest satire shows - and earned him a growing profile in Washington.

He has also testified at a Senate committee hearing on how greener environmental policies could benefit communities like Braddock.

He has introduced a raft of local initiatives that are attracting dozens of young environmentally-conscious urbanites to relocate there.

But when it comes to his own political ambitions, the mayor is uncomfortable even thinking about office higher up the political food-chain.

"Right now, I've got the world's greatest job," he said, looking out onto Braddock's only remaining steel mill.

"I really like the direct working with constituents, and working on real-world problems," he said, adding that he much preferred it to hearing about problems from his team.

It is hard to imagine a cooler political figure than Mr Fetterman in contemporary America, who appears totally focused on broken-down Braddock, and what can be done to make life better there.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific