For Gisele Fetterman, John’s Healing Is A “Triumph”

Ahead of the midterms, she opens up about Pennsylvania’s Senate race, her husband’s recovery, and teachable moments.

by Sara Stewart
Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of  John Fetterman, talks to Bustle about her free store in Braddock,...

When Gisele Barreto Fetterman first moved to a struggling western Pennsylvania town in 2008, she didn’t know many people, so she befriended a fellow scrappy survivor: a flower growing out of a crack in the concrete. “I’ve been growing sunflowers in Braddock for the last 14 years, but it all started with one sunflower that needed a little bit of care,” she says. Now, after building a fence around it, caring for it, and harvesting its seeds, she’s grown a garden of towering yellow flowers. “That one sunflower has given thousands of friends and neighbors across the country a sunflower of their own,” she says.

It’s an apt metaphor for how Gisele operates in the world. We meet up on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Philadelphia’s Elixr Coffee. Before I can protest, she’s off to the counter, a long floral jacket flowing behind her, to order tea for both of us. This is not a woman who expects her staffers — or people interviewing her — to be gofers. “When you’re kind, it feels good,” says Gisele, the wife of Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman. “It takes so much energy to be awful.”

We pull up chairs at a sidewalk table, and Gisele shares her favorite moment of the day so far. “I met a woman in the rest stop on the way here, in Valley Forge,” she says. “I was coming out of the restroom, and she had all this makeup on the counter and was kind of stressed. I washed my hands next to her, and she looked at me and was like, ‘Can you help me?’ I said, ‘Sure, what’s going on?’”

The woman, Linda, was going on her first date since her husband died a decade ago. She’d bought an armful of new cosmetics for the occasion and was flustered. Gisele helped her apply the makeup — this is a woman who knows her way around an eyeliner — but failed to get Linda’s number. “I want to know how the date went!” says Gisele, who’d later tweet about it, hoping someone could put them back in touch.

This, I learn, is par for the course. The second lady of Pennsylvania, who refers to herself as SLOP with a twinkle in her eye, has a knack for putting others at ease. People she works with. Voters she speaks with at rallies. Locals who donate time to the midterm races. “She’s such a lovable person, she really is,” Desiree L.A. Whitfield, a campaign volunteer, tells me at an October rally in Philadelphia-adjacent Delaware County. “She’s so caring and so kind.”

As the midterms loom, Gisele’s presence has become a key part of Fetterman campaign events across the state’s 67 counties. Stakes couldn’t be higher: Pennsylvania has been called one of the most crucial swing states in the upcoming election. Voters here elected Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. With a 50-50 split in the Senate, the race between Fetterman and his GOP opponent, TV-star-turned-candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz, could make the difference between Democratic or Republican control of the chamber.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images

Gisele, who’s 40, was born Gisele Barreto Almeida in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her family immigrated to Queens, New York, when she was 7, fleeing violent crime like an injury her mother sustained when a thief tore off her necklace. She spent her adolescence undocumented and under strict instructions by her mom to be “invisible.” She went on to attend New York’s Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and in 2004, at age 22, she got her green card. She talks passionately about humane immigration reform because she knows what it’s like to be terrified of a knock at your front door.

Her story of meeting John is one she tells often on the stump. She was living in Newark, New Jersey, at the time, working as a nutritionist and volunteering to help food-insecure households, and had read about a run-down former steel town in Pennsylvania and its ambitious new mayor. John Fetterman had moved to Braddock to start a GED program and campaigned on a platform of rebuilding the ravaged Rust Belt community. When Gisele learned the town’s steel mill had made the beams used in the Brooklyn Bridge — her favorite New York landmark — the deal was sealed. She wrote a letter to Fetterman in 2007, offering to visit and volunteer. He accepted and, as she tells it, “fell madly in love with me.” They married a year later.

She may be new on the national stage, but to most Pennsylvanians, Gisele’s no stranger. She and her husband have long been local political standouts, partly due to the Beauty and the Beast aesthetic they play up. He’s 6-foot-8, looks like a professional wrestler, and wears gym shorts year round; she’s a full foot shorter than him, a delicate brunette, and wears colorful dresses and stylish boots. They live in a converted car dealership with their three kids and two dogs, across the street from the same steel mill she’d read about. Fetterman served as mayor from 2006 to 2019, when he was elected lieutenant governor. Then came his Senate bid. And, this spring, the stroke that threw everything into chaos.

On May 13, when the couple were stopped at a Sheetz gas station, Gisele noticed her husband slurring his words. His face drooped on one side for a moment. She insisted they go to a hospital, where a doctor removed a blood clot that could have been lethal. John took off several months from active campaigning, though he continued a spicy practice of trolling Dr. Oz on social media. He returned to the trail in August and has used closed captioning to address auditory processing issues that often occur after a stroke.

During his recovery, Gisele spent more time on the stump, giving speeches in support of her husband, talking to rally attendees, and fielding interview questions. She was good at it, and because she was good at it, a tiresome misogynist narrative sprung up suggesting she has some sort of Machiavellian power grab in mind — fueled in part by a gaffe from President Biden. But she’s said many times it’s not her thing. “I would never be in politics. I think politics is terrible,” she says. “But I can make change in other ways.”

For one, she aims to be approachable enough that anyone can talk to her — especially those with opposing views. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘I think you’re great; you do such great work; my issues are with all the other immigrants.’ I’ve had folks say, ‘You don’t look like an undocumented person.’” These are teachable moments, in her view, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.

In 2020, a woman approached Gisele in her local grocery store and began yelling racial slurs. The incident, a snippet of which Gisele caught on video, was investigated and deemed worthy of pressing charges. The Fettermans opted not to. “The optimal outcome to this scenario lies in a way forward and away from hate,” Gisele tweeted. It’s far from the only time she’s dealt with racism in her own community. “For years, everyone thought I was the nanny,” she says. “When I was out with my kids, people regularly would say, ‘Whose kids are they?’”

One story that stands out for her is from a book-signing party they hosted. “It was catered, so we had people passing food around, and my house was full of people. I snuck into our pantry and had a glass of wine because I was, like, overwhelmed,” she says. “When I came out, a woman said, ‘I just want you to know that I saw what you did, and I’m going to tell Mr. Fetterman.’ I said, ‘Please don’t, because I don’t want to get fired.’” You have to admire this level of cool-headedness. “In five minutes, John and I got up and said, ‘Thank you so much for coming to our home; we’re so happy you’re all here.’ And she came over, mortified. And we had a glass of wine together, and we had a conversation about it. It doesn’t always end up like that, but often, it does. I think we have to not be scared to have these conversations, or things will never change.”

She wears her heart on her sleeve, and today, around her neck — a hammered-silver one on a chain. “I try to normalize public crying, talking about our feelings, because I think those are really important,” she says. They’re also the polar opposite of messaging from Oz’s team, which brands vulnerability as a weakness to be conquered or weeded out.

These people are carrying so much sadness inside of them. That’s why they’re this way. And knowing that helps me cope; it helps me not take it so personally.

I live in Pennsylvania and first discovered Gisele via her habit of cropping her husband’s head out of social media photos. This was a prank, she’s said, that began when she had to choose between her shoes and John’s head. It became a running joke. You can’t be around politics without some humor, she tells me, because it would be intolerable. The Fettermans never take themselves too seriously, but they are highly serious about being a different kind of political family. When John became the state’s second in command, he opted not to move into the lieutenant governor’s residence in Fort Indiantown Gap, instead keeping Braddock as his home base and staying at an apartment in Harrisburg when he was needed in the state capital. But he and Gisele opened the mansion’s pool to the public that summer. “Swimming comes with a painful legacy of racial segregation. If my children can swim in that pool, so should every child in Pennsylvania,” Gisele said at the time.

The lessons of Gisele’s life dovetail with many of her husband’s central issues. He talks immigration reform and restorative justice; her pinned tweet is “Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant.” He has long championed legalizing marijuana; she is a medical marijuana user due to back pain sustained in childhood car accidents. He has fought for reproductive rights and struck back against Dr. Oz’s embrace of the anti-abortion movement; in college, she volunteered at an abortion clinic and escorted women past protesters.

Her influence has been widespread in Braddock and surrounding areas. On the Fettermans’ fourth wedding anniversary, she asked her husband for an unorthodox present: a shipping container. She cleaned it up, powered it with solar, and created The Free Store 15104, which accepts donations of household items and gives them away to people in need.

In 2013, Braddock residents began noticing new street signs around town: “Eat more vegetables.” “Be kind always.” “Believe in yourself.” This was a Gisele-created initiative called Positively Parking. “The signs you see along the streets are always so negative — ‘Don’t park here,’ ‘Don’t loiter there,’” she explained to a Pittsburgh paper. “We wanted to counter those with signs spreading cheer and kindness.” Then in 2015, she co-founded 412 Food Rescue, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that collects surplus grocery store food that otherwise would be discarded and distributes it to food-insecure households.

Since 2017, she’s channeled her activism into For Good PGH, co-founded with her friend Kristen Michaels. The nonprofit is an umbrella organization that works on a variety of local initiatives to make people’s lives better, like Hello Hijab, a project that involved making headscarves for children’s Barbies amidst a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in 2017. More recently, their Hollander Project hosts 13 local, woman-run businesses in a previously abandoned building in Braddock.

Even amid the campaign, Gisele’s still managing two days a week at the Free Store. She has a steady supply of volunteers — I’ve even heard there’s a waitlist to be one. One was Antwon Rose, the 17-year-old boy shot to death by Pittsburgh police in 2018. Gisele spoke at his funeral, saying “Antwon’s death shakes my heart, it rattles my faith that things will ever get better or that injustices will ever end.”

But she has plenty of positive stories, too: the woman who donated clothing from a son who’d died by suicide and crossed paths with a young man from a halfway house, newly out of prison, looking for something to wear to a job interview (the suit fit, to everyone’s delight); the woman who delivered a huge box of diapers, having once needed them herself, but was now in a better place and wanted to repay the kindness.

“All my heroes are women,” says Gisele, who hears regularly on the campaign trail about reproductive rights. One woman approached her at a rally and said, in a whisper, “I had an abortion, and I’m not a murderer.” That, says Gisele, was “really hard to hear. To see women scared is particularly unsettling.”

Her predominant reaction to the hate and bigotry directed at John recently is not anger, she says. “These people are carrying so much sadness inside of them,” she says of online and IRL trolls. “That’s why they’re this way. And knowing that helps me cope; it helps me not take it so personally.”

Still, “since the stroke, it’s been hard,” Michaels says. “This is my best friend, and I know that if I was faced with all the things she’s been faced with, I would not be OK. But part of the reason Gisele is who she is, the reason she draws people the way she does, is because of her capacity for doing one hard thing, and then doing another one.”

Nate Smallwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In this last leg of the campaign, that hard thing has been addressing the media’s treatment of her husband’s recovery. “To me, it’s a story of triumph, right?” Gisele says. “We could be having such a positive conversation around disability, around strokes. I’m so proud of him. He didn’t get to heal in private, like most people do. He had to heal with the world watching.”

In a rare moment of public anger, she hit back when NBC correspondent Dasha Burns made critical remarks about her husband’s ability to comprehend small talk before their televised interview and about the closed captioning Fetterman used. “NBC said, ‘We were happy to do it,’” Gisele says. “No. It’s a civil right. It’s not a favor.”

The conversation around accommodations has opened up a discussion that otherwise might not have been included in Fetterman’s campaign: ableism. “I want to see something change,” she says. “I want people to learn from this.”

“A lot of the folks criticizing John, they have glasses, right? That’s also an accommodation,” she says. Gisele has been upfront about her own ADHD diagnosis, which she received two years ago at age 38. “For me, it’s a superpower. It allows me to do so many things.” Later in our talk, she’ll look behind me at a car pulling into a spot and cringe. “He needs help parking — he’s going to hit that motorcycle. See, ADHD!” she says with a laugh. She says her son August is a lot like she was as a kid. “At school, he has a wiggly chair, and he’s doing amazing, because he gets to move. It’s a very simple accommodation, but it makes his life better. I wish I could be wiggling in this chair!”

The fundamental lesson of talking about inclusivity, she says, is that people see it’s OK to have differences, that they aren’t as calamitous as they’re sometimes portrayed, and that it often doesn’t take much to help someone feel comfortable. “I finally felt seen,” says Gisele of getting her diagnosis. “I think people want to be seen.”

We could be having such a positive conversation around disability, around strokes. I’m so proud of him. He didn’t get to heal in private, like most people do. He had to heal with the world watching.

When I tell Gisele I live in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a college town a little over an hour’s drive from Braddock, she asks if I know Lynne Alvine, a local Democratic activist. (I do.) She insists we take a photo together, which she immediately texts to Alvine.

“She’s just an incredible woman,” Alvine tells me on the phone later. “Her personal story is wonderful. The work she’s doing is everything I admire and believe in.” The two met on a number of occasions at political events, and to Alvine’s surprise, Gisele followed up, sending a handmade Christmas tree ornament with Alvine’s name on it — and sunflower seeds from her garden. “I don’t know how many generations she’s seeded,” Alvine says. “She gives them out to friends.”

“I think this world can be so cold sometimes, but growing and sharing sunflowers was an easy way to spread some joy and happiness,” Gisele says. “Sunflowers are always looking for the sun, and so am I.”