Baer: An unheard voice in the race for Senate

Braddock, Pa., Mayor John Fetterman talks about his run for the US Senate on the Democratic ticket as his wife, Gisele Fetterman, right, listens.

THIS ISN'T an endorsement. It's an observation.

After covering every major Pennsylvania political race of the last quarter-century, I can say I've never encountered a candidate quite like John Fetterman.

Not only doesn't he look like a politician, he doesn't act like one. Yet he's running for U.S. Senate.

He doesn't work a room. He doesn't talk in platitudes. He isn't fed big servings of special-interest money. He just shows up at events and says things that make sense.

Or he broadcasts, somewhere on discount outlets or YouTube, unusual ads that actually ask viewers to think rather than just watch colorful video of a pol talking with groups of ethnically diverse smiling people or cops or veterans or friendly, nodding senior citizens, while making sure to gently place a hand on someone's shoulder.

You've seen such ads.

Or those when candidates put on hard hats and walk a shop floor, or sit in a classroom admiring the work of the next generation because, after all, campaigns are ALL about "our children."

Well, one Fetterman ad shows him walking through the ripped-out shell of a crack house asking what the country might look like today if 30 years ago instead of a war on drugs we waged "a war on addiction" and treated it like the medical condition it is.

He asks how many families would not have been destroyed when loved ones were sent away for years under mandatory sentences. He tags the ad "Something needs to change."

But things don't change. Not our politics, not our elections, not our policies, not our problems.

Most candidates look the same, talk the same, and offer the same broad, often vacuous solutions.

Fetterman is a 10-year mayor of the economically burnt-out borough of Braddock, a once-booming steel town outside Pittsburgh, 75 percent African American with a median family income of $19,771. (Pennsylvania's is $53,115.)

He became mayor after graduate degrees in business and public policy from UConn and Harvard, after service in AmeriCorps, and after running a GED program in Braddock.

He says, "No community deserves to be abandoned." Now Braddock has prekindergarten, playgrounds, urban gardens, surveillance cameras, and no homicides in nearly six years.

He distributes donated food. His wife, Gisele, who as a child was an undocumented immigrant, runs a "free store" offering surplus clothing.

This is the sort of public service that doesn't draw endorsements from big unions, elected officials, or top politicians.

It draws endorsements from people like Mike Filippino, a 63-year-old Braddock native who runs a music business in his hometown and says: "My younger son was having trouble in school, and John took him under his wing. John has a lot to do with the success of a lot of kids around here."

Now, I concede I find this uniquely refreshing solely because I've spent so much time over so many years around so many traditional politicians.

But as I watch the spectacular collapse of the national Republican Party and the predictable pandering of so many in the Democratic Party, I wonder whether candidates such as Fetterman just might be the wave of the future.

Candidates whose talking points come from personal experience, not anecdotes; who actually make a difference in people's lives; who aren't products of a system where raising money is more important than raising expectations.

Of course, Fetterman has virtually no shot in the April 26 Democratic Senate primary. He's underfunded and trailing an establishment choice (Katie McGinty) and a former congressman (Joe Sestak) who's campaigned nonstop since narrowly losing to incumbent Pat Toomey in 2010.

Insiders call Fetterman "an 8 percenter." In fact, recent polling puts him at just 7 percent.

But at some point perhaps voters will question why so many of those we elect fail to make much difference, then maybe listen to different voices.

Even those emanating from people who don't look or act like politicians.

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer