Gisele Fetterman, wife of US senate candidate, is much more than a surrogate

For most candidates, suffering a stroke in the midst of a campaign for the US senate might have meant an early exit. But John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania, had a secret weapon. As he began a difficult and very public journey to recovery, his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, quickly stepped in to pick up the slack.

When Mr Fetterman faced questions over his health following the stroke, Ms Fetterman, who was diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood, used the incident as an opportunity to talk about how the media covers disability. She criticised coverage of his use of closed captions in an interview, a result of his trouble with auditory processing as a result of the stroke.

“We have received so many messages from folks who said, ‘This is exactly why I’m afraid to seek accommodations. This is exactly why I’m afraid to pursue a different position because of exactly what your husband has gone through,’” she told The Independent in an interview this week. “So I think he’s shown what he’s experienced, but a lot of people saw themselves in him.”

It was one of many instances where Ms Fetterman seemed to step in at just the right moment and steer her husband’s campaign back on course.

Even before the incident, she had become a central figure in his campaign — something more than a surrogate, and closer to a running mate. In the time since, that role has become even more important.

While Mr Fetterman has drawn the attention of magazine writers for his backstory as a mayor of a gritty Pennsylvania steel town, Ms Fetterman’s story is equally eventful.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Ms Fetterman, then Ms Barreto, moved to the US with her mother and younger brother when she was seven years old to escape the epidemic of violent crime in the city. In interviews and public speeches, she described a difficult childhood growing up in Queens, New York; her mother, who held a PhD from her native Brazil, worked as a cleaner. The family was undocumented, which made it hard to hold a job, and Ms Fetterman didn’t yet speak English.

Her experiences in childhood led her to a life of activism, and to John Fetterman.

Ms Fetterman’s name may not be on the side of the campaign bus, but she and her husband have worked as a partnership for many years. They first met in 2007, when she read a magazine article about the mayor of a struggling steel town called Braddock, just outside of Pittsburgh, and wrote to him. Mayor John Fetterman wrote back and invited her to visit. A year later they were married.

Between them, the Fettermans launched a series of non-profit organisations aimed at bringing Braddock back to life. They each had their own projects, but they shared a common goal.

Gisele launched the Free Store with help from a nonprofit founded by Fetterman in 2003 called Braddock Redux, which was aimed at helping at-risk disadvantaged young people in the town. It later evolved into something of a wide-ranging charitable behemoth.

On a recent visit to Braddock by The Independent, Gisele was — by chance — working the Free Store in a parking lot off the main road through the town.

“We’re almost ten years old,” Gisele told The Independent of the Free Store. “I wanted a place where this exchange of goods can happen. I came to this country as a young immigrant,  I did a lot of curb shopping, I did a lot of dumpster diving, and I saw that there was so much surplus — so many people had to have so much, and so many had so little, so I wanted to create a space where that could happen.”

Gisele Fetterman stands outside the Free Store, a charity she founded that distributes free clothes and other items in Braddock.

(Richard Hall / The Independent )

She said she was proud of the work being done in Braddock, not just by herself and her husband.

“It’s now a place that people want to live. When we got here a lot of people had left, and when someone that used to live here says ‘oh I really want to move back,’ that means a lot. I think it shows that it has shifted in a good way,” she told The Independent. “In 2018, Mr Fetterman ran for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, a job that required presiding over the state senate and, together with governor Tom Wolf, overseeing its elections.”

Mr Fetterman took what was traditionally a pitstop for ambitious politicians and turned it into what he described as a “bully pulpit” for criminal justice reform. Ms Fetterman, who embraced the role as second lady of Pennsylvania — or SLOP, as she named it — also broke with tradition. She used the profile of that role to promote her own charitable causes, including campaigning on immigration reform, and built a fanbase of her own in the process. She opened the swimming pool of the lieutenant governor’s residence to the public.

In Braddock, Mr Fetterman built a national name for himself and a springboard for his eventual senate run — but he is not without his critics there. Chardaé Jones, who succeeded Mr Fetterman as mayor of Braddock, caused a stir in the Democratic primary when she endorsed his opponent, Malcolm Kenyetta. Though, she told The Independent that Ms Fetterman is an almost constant presence in Braddock.

“I tell everybody that if she was running, I would endorse her and vote for her tenfold. I’ve always seen her out in the community,” she said.

In the senate campaign trail, Ms Fetterman has been front and centre. She and her husband regularly tease each other on Twitter and share images of family outings.

She has also eschewed tradition in this role, often going on the offensive against her husband’s opponent, Dr Mehmet Oz. In recent interviews, she has crticised his involvement with animal testing and his promotion of weight loss products while working as a television doctor.

“Reaching out to vulnerable people and trying to sell them a fake solution is cruel,” she told  KDKA-TV. “I don’t think anyone should take away any contributions he made as a heart doctor, but then became this new world where you’re pushing things that most people can’t pronounce, these fake claims.”

It appears her attacks may have had some effect on the Oz campaign. Speaking to the Hugh Hewitt show this week, Dr Oz again questioned his opponent’s health and asked of Gisele Fetterman: “Is she gonna be the senator, or is he gonna be the senator?”

On Wednesday, Mr Fetterman’s physician said he was ready for “full duty in public office” without any restrictions.

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