A standout candidate at a standout show

3 x 2 John Fetterman
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, puts his spin on black tie.

I HAVE TWO consistent journalistic soft spots.

One is for unusual candidates for high office, the other's for the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

On Saturday, I indulged both.

I spent part of the day with Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, a Democratic (and unusual) candidate for U.S. Senate. And I did so at the 100th annual Farm Show.

I was secretly hoping that Fetterman might start a horse-throwing contest.

Instead, he was just amazed to find the show's huge food court selling chocolate-covered bacon, $2 a slice.

"Isn't bacon awesome enough by itself?" he asked.

He also seemed pretty impressed with Truth or Dare (not the party game).

This Truth or Dare is a 2,200-pound Bedford County stud bull that Fetterman spied resting in a stall, probably prepping for the Biggest Bull You've Ever Seen competition.

The mayor took a picture.

Which makes sense: Fetterman draws size-related attention, too.

At 6-foot-8, 325 pounds, with a shaved head, goatee, tattooed arms, and his signature (possibly only) wardrobe ensemble - black, short-sleeve Dickies work shirt, jeans, and work boots - he stands out in a crowd.

And the Farm Show draws crowds, more than 400,000 people each year.

It's the nation's largest indoor ag event: 24 acres; 6,000 animals; thousands of exhibits; competitions from rodeo to tractor pulls to baking contests; and a 1,000-plus-pound butter sculpture, this year depicting a cow and a farm family of four.

(Warning: If you have high cholesterol, never look directly at the sculpture.)

The food court is famous for fried things and mustard eggs, potato doughnuts, honey ice cream, maple cotton candy, real milk shakes, and so on.

I've long argued that anyone seeking to represent the state in elective office should tour the show and talk to those who attend.

It's a glimpse of Pennsylvania, a sense of its demographic: 48 of the state's 67 counties are rural, home to nearly one-third of its population.

Fetterman, 46, grew up in rural York County and has attended the show before.

I spent time with him because in a year of especially unusual politics, an especially unusual candidate could garner voter interest.

He is that. And he's doing so.

Several folks stopped to shake his hand and wish him luck; one said, "You got my vote, big man."

State Democratic Party chief Marcel Groen, a Montgomery County lawyer, last week told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Fetterman would be the "toughest candidate" against Republican Pat Toomey. More traditional contenders - Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty - also are running in the party primary.

Fetterman's campaign includes Brooklyn-based consultant Bill Hyers, who helped get wins for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Michael Nutter, and President Obama (in Pennsylvania).

Fetterman has drawn attention from the New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian.

And not just for what he calls his "freakish appearance."

Fetterman's story is compelling. He has multiple degrees, including one in public policy from Harvard University, a fact that clashes with a visage evoking the World Wrestling Federation.

He's in his third term as mayor, after winning in 2005 by a single vote.

His borough (population 2,150) outside Pittsburgh is a once-bustling now burned-out steel town, mostly African American, with a high unemployment rate and a higher poverty rate - above 30 percent.

His thing, à la Bernie Sanders, is inequality. So he works at balancing: with food, with housing, with problem solving.

He helped bring to Braddock urban farming, some small business and, with wife Gisele, the Free Store, offering donated food, clothing, and more.

"I can't bring Braddock back to what it was," he said, "but I can make it better."

He wants to do the same in Washington: "We have a moral imperative to confront the epidemic of inequality in this country. . . . The Senate is the best platform from which to do that."

Fetterman runs (at least) through the primary April 26. The Farm Show runs through Saturday. Both are worth a look.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer