As Fetterman continues his Senate campaign, the shotgun episode is inevitably going to be part of many Americans’ introduction to him. When I started making calls for this story, one Democrat after another brought up what had happened with Miyares. One soon texted me a PDF of the police report.
Despite his worries going into our conversation, Fetterman snipped at me only once, when I asked how long he’d had the shotgun: “Not really sure why that’s relevant,” he said, explaining that he’d bought it a year earlier to protect his home. His tone was one of exasperation, not contrition. He pushed back on my suggestion that this story doesn’t align with the image he has cultivated, of a Paul Wellstone–meets–Paul Bunyan figure presiding over a collapsed mill town. The story fits his image perfectly, he insisted: He saw a problem and threw himself into trying to do something. He was reelected in a landslide in overwhelmingly Black Braddock a few months later.
The best way to understand him, Fetterman told me, is to see his life as split in two: “My life is broken down into pre–April 6, 1993, and post–April 6, 1993,” he explained. Until then, Fetterman was following a more conventional path, pursuing a master’s in business administration at the University of Connecticut. But that evening, one of Fetterman’s best friends was killed in a car accident on the way to pick him up. Grieving, Fetterman threw himself into a Big Brothers Big Sisters of America mentorship program in New Haven. He was matched with a boy named Nicky, whom he refers to as “my son,” though he has since had two sons of his own and a daughter. Tears welled up in his eyes when he talked about losing his friend, and again when he remembered meeting Nicky’s mother for the first time. She was dying of AIDS, and he hesitated to shake her hand, because he was uninformed about the virus and scared to touch her. “His mother was a cadaver, a literal cadaver,” he said. “And to be 8 years old, to watch your mother waste away like that, I can’t imagine that kind of trauma.”
Fetterman stayed close with Nicky, but working with Big Brothers catapulted him into a new life—into AmeriCorps, where he set up computer labs in Pittsburgh; into Harvard, for a master’s in public policy; into Braddock, where he got a job managing GED programs. In 2005, after two of his students were shot, he ran for mayor to make a point about gun violence; kids from his programs went door-to-door for him. He won by one vote. The rest of his story is biopic-ready too: The day he was sworn in, a man in town was murdered, and Fetterman began a tradition of getting the dates of every Braddock homicide during his years as mayor tattooed on his right arm. (Braddock’s zip code is on his left.) Fetterman met his wife, who was brought to America from Brazil as an undocumented child, after she saw a profile of him in a magazine and fell for him from hundreds of miles away, in New Jersey. She has thrown herself into the community right along with him, co-founding a “free store” of community resources and, since he became lieutenant governor, opening the pool of the official mansion, in Harrisburg, to neighborhood children.
“When I first met him, I thought, What is wrong with him? He stands out with his size, his demeanor, his dress,” says Lisa Freeman, who was a social worker in Braddock when Fetterman first arrived in town and during his early years as mayor. “Why does he stay in this hellhole? That’s what he loves, and that’s what he is.”