THE CASTING call went out last month. Braddock, a small steel town ten miles from Pittsburgh, needed a new mayor. John Fetterman, who had held the post for 13 years, had stepped down to become Pennsylvania’s lieutenant-governor. Interested candidates had five minutes each to wow the borough council in a special public session and convince them that they should be the next mayor. Only five applicants, who included a former chef and a wig-seller, auditioned on January 29th. Chardae Jones, a 29-year-old business analyst sporting pink dreads, was the unanimous winner.
The town does not usually hold open auditions for vacant political posts. Its council has the power to appoint an interim mayor, but an attempt to do this last month derailed when questions emerged about the eligibility of the chosen candidates and the vetting process. So the council decided to open the contest to any resident of the borough who is registered to vote and has not been convicted of a felony.
Braddock has struggled for generations. The hardscrabble town where Andrew Carnegie opened his first steel mill and first Carnegie Library is a shadow of its former self. At its height in the 1920s the population exceeded 20,000. Today it is less than 1,800. Braddock Avenue, the main commercial artery, once had bustling shops, hotels and restaurants. Today it is a parade of empty lots and closed storefronts.
Braddock’s mayor has few powers. The borough has been under state financial oversight since 1988. The council, not the mayor, operates the budget and hires borough employees. The mayor has public-safety responsibilities, but the police department is only part-time and its budget is tight.
The outgoing mayor, Mr Fetterman, a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of government, did much to shine a spotlight on Braddock, including giving TED talks, appearing on “The Colbert Report”, a comedy news programme, and hustling to attract businesses and investors. When he became mayor in 2006, the town didn’t even have an ATM. He went on national television to beg Subway, a restaurant chain, to open. New restaurants eventually came (though still no Subway), but Braddock’s renaissance is still some way off. Carnegie’s mill, miraculously, is still in operation. Its chimneys dominate the skyline, but not the city’s economy. It employs only 10% of the 5,000 workers it once did, and few of them live in Braddock.
The victor of Braddock’s talent contest, Ms Jones, intends to continue much of Mr Fetterman’s promotion, but warns that redevelopment means nothing if the community is not safe. She will have to audition again to keep her new job. She faces a primary, and then a more conventional election in November.