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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fetterman in Fetters

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 8:33 PM

Once again, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman is making headlines -- this time for being charged with trespassing yesterday after refusing to leave UPMC's global headquarters Downtown:

Pittsburgh police today charged Braddock Mayor John Fetterman with trespassing because they say he refused to leave private property during a Downtown protest.

Fetterman, 41, was protesting the closing and razing of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Braddock hospital outside the U.S. Steel Tower.

Fetterman, who was holding a sign but not causing any disruption, was charged after refusing to leave the Steel Building's premises and move to the sidewalk. Which seems fitting: a refusal to budge an inch has been symptomatic in the UPMC Braddock debate. And Fetterman's action, which comes even as Braddock Hospital is being torn down, has caused some to speculate about whether he has been pulling his punches as a favor to a political ally, county executive Dan Onorato.

In the wake of Fetterman's action, Save Our Community Hospital (SOCH), which has campaigned for more than a year to keep UPMC Braddock Hospital open, issued a somewhat perplexed-sounding statement:

The Save Our Community Hospitals organization welcomes the action of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman today at UPMC headquarters. Unfortunately, Mr. Fetterman's concern about the lack of emergency care in Braddock comes too late. The UPMC Braddock Hospital building is being demolished and the 26,000 patients that used its ER will have to travel much further for emergency treatment.

We are not clear why Mr. Fetterman waited until now to undertake civil
disobedience to draw attention to the lack of emergency care in Braddock. It may be that he was restrained due to his support of Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato's candidacy for Pennsylvania governor. In any event, we thank Mr. Fetterman and urge him to continue to pressure UPMC to provide emergency care for Braddock
.

Suffice it to say that there has been considerable tension between Fetterman and SOCH. As UPMC moved ahead with the shutdown, they have differed over goals and tactics, and political rivalries have factored in as well. So it's no surprise that when I contacted Fetterman last night, he disputed almost every part of SOCH's statement.

For starters, Fetterman says, he is not pressuring UPMC to provide emergency care for Braddock; Fetterman says there's no hope for such a facility, since ERs can't operate independently of hospitals. He is seeking an urgent care facility, much like those UPMC operates in Robinson Township or Shadyside. Urgent care facilities offer extended hours and express treatment for a variety of common medical complaints, ranging from broken bones to the flu. Such a facility, Fetterman says, would address "8 or 9 out of 10 medical problems that come up every day in Braddock. And it will be cost-effective for UPMC."

Fetterman says his appearance at the Steel Building was "not a protest but a plea -- a plea to UPMC that it's not too late to do the right thing."

The hospital giant has offered to ferry Braddock residents to facilities outside Braddock for health care. But Fetterman finds such efforts inadequate -- especially in comparison to the services available in Shadyside, where UPMC's urgent-care facility operates not far from Shadyside Hospital and the Hillman Cancer Center.

"They have an embarrassment of riches over there," he says. "But a kid is just as likely to get an earache in Braddock as he is in Shadyside."

Fetterman says he was "surprised" to have been cited, but says "it wasn't a 'keep your meat hooks off me' kind of thing. I didn't try to chain myself to the wall." Holding a sign urging the creation of an urgent-care facility, he refused to leave the Steel Building's premises because standing on the sidewalk "wasn't effective."

"It's been a bitter, bitter divorce between UPMC and Braddock," he says. 

There's also been an ugly trial separation, at least, between Fetterman and those who have gotten previous headlines for taking on UPMC.

Fetterman has been openly critical, for example, of a civil-rights lawsuit filed by Braddock Council President Jesse Brown, who alleged that closing a hospital in a primarily black community was racially unjust. That suit was settled in September, with Fetterman disparaging the outcome. When Brown first announced his plans at a rally outside the hospital a year ago, I found Fetterman on the periphery of the event, all but rolling his eyes. UPMC chief Jeffrey Romoff, Fetterman said, had told him there was no hope for the hospital's survival. And Fetterman was sure the lawsuit wouldn't change things.

Today, Fetterman still calls the lawsuit "frivolous" and "politically motivated," scoffing that "it's easy to be a bomb-thrower." 

But ... isn't standing outside UPMC's headquarters, and refusing to leave, a bit of Michael Moore-style theatrics as well? And why did he wait until now to take this step? Is it because he didn't want to embarrass Onorato during his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, as SOCH suggests?

There's no question that Fetterman and Onorato are tight. Fetterman backed Onorato's gubernatorial ambitions from the outset, and in fact Fetterman and his father have contributed more than $12,000 to Onorato since 2009. And while SOCH has faulted Onorato for not doing more to keep UPMC Braddock open, Fetterman says, "Their disdain of Dan baffles me. He is a profoundly honorable man" -- and one who has taken key steps to improve life in the Mon Valley. 

Even so, Fetterman says it is "absolutely false" to think he held off on challenging UPMC until after the election. Fetterman's efforts to turn Braddock around have made him a national phenomenon, and he notes "I've held UPMC accountable on [venues like] Huffington Post and CNN," naming just two of the national media outlets where he has appeared. "In every national platform, I'm the first one to name them."

Fetterman says he took this step because "the situation continues to deteriorate," and the civil-rights lawsuit has "dragged this [dispute] out." Settling the suit offered a chance for "the fog of war to lift," opening a "window of opportunity" to discuss Braddock's future.

As for his relationship to SOCH, "I'm not here to get into the middle of polarizing arguments," he says. "What's fueling the SOCH thing is more personal, and I don't want this to digress into 'SOCH says this and you say that.' They love this community as much as I do, and I invite SOCH to move past whathever differences they've had with Dan or anyone else, and join me with constructive dialogue that will bring urgent care" to Braddock. Fetterman says his appearance at UPMC's headquarters could be a chance for everyone to "hit the reset button" on the dialogue.

To that end, he says, "I'm counting on Sean Logan, who I think is a man of integrity." Logan is a former state Senator who left the legislature to take a community relations post at UPMC, a move that also prompted dismay at UPMC's influence. "SOCH has been very hard on Sean Logan," Fetterman adds, "but I couldn't disagree more."

There's nothing new, or strange, about Fetterman playing an inside game here. While others have taken a more directly confrontional stance, it's not a bad thing to have a mayor with warm relations to the region's top elected official. And Fetterman has been publicly critical of UPMC: Just to take one example, he slagged them when we discussed a Levi's ad campaign focused on Braddock.

Still, I can't blame SOCH for being confused by his recent action. Fetterman's refusal to leave the Steel Building has the whiff of old-fashioned grassroots activism ... except for the fact that he did it alone. UPMC Braddock is coming down -- the building "looks like a missile-testing site," Fetterman says -- and it's not clear that UPMC is any more likely to make new concessions now than it was a few months ago. Especially in a community whose leadership is still divided.

But who knows? One thing I've learned is not to underestimate John Fetterman. 

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