Gisele Fetterman steps into the spotlight after husband’s stroke
Pennsylvania’s second lady Gisele Fetterman stepped into the spotlight this week and took on a central role in the campaign of her husband, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman, after he suffered a stroke.
Gisele Fetterman has long been a presence on the campaign trail, with her husband frequently citing her former status as a “Dreamer” when talking about immigration.
But being front and center on primary night when her husband couldn’t be introduced her to a far wider audience.
“Women can do anything,” Gisele Fetterman said in an interview with The Hill on Friday when asked what it was like to step into the spotlight on primary night.
“John’s used to always being the strong one in the relationship for our family and it was my opportunity to step in and I wanted to make him proud, so it was easy to have to rise to that,” she said.
John Fetterman suffered a stroke on the Friday before Pennsylvania’s primaries and had a procedure to implant a pacemaker on Election Day. It was Gisele Fetterman who gave remarks at his campaign’s party after he clinched the Democratic nomination for Senate, spoke to media and provided updates on her husband.
The lieutenant governor credited his wife with urging him to seek medical attention when he wasn’t feeling well.
“I didn’t want to go — I didn’t think I had to — but Gisele insisted, and as usual, she was right,” he said in a statement.
Since her husband’s stroke, Gisele Fetterman has been vocal about the importance of learning the warning signs of strokes.
“It’s a really important conversation to have,” she said.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Fetterman came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant when she was 7 years old with her mother and brother. The family settled in Queens, New York, where her mother worked cleaning houses and hotels. Fetterman described her mother’s work in the U.S. as an “adjustment,” after earning her Ph.D. and running hospitals in Brazil.
“That began our journey in this new country as new Americans,” she said.
Fetterman later pursued a career in the nonprofit space, focusing on issues like food insecurity, poverty and equity. She is the founder of Freestore 15104, a Braddock, Pa.-based organization dedicated to redistributing donated and surplus goods to communities in need. She is also the co-founder of the nonprofits For Good PGH and 412 Food Rescue.
“Access is really my passion,” she said. “Working to ensure that everyone has access to all of the things we should.”
It was Fetterman’s work in the nonprofit space that led to her meeting her husband.
“It’s a really romantic story. Are you ready?” Fetterman exclaimed.
Fetterman was working in Newark as a nutritionist when she read about the work then-Braddock Mayor John Fetterman was doing.
“I was inspired by the work he was doing and I wrote a letter to the Borough of Braddock sharing my work with food justice and food access,” she said. “The letter ended up with John, who called me and then planned a visit.”
“He came to visit after the call and then I arrived and he fell madly in love with me,” she said. She noticed bridges that she drove on, like the Brooklyn Bridge, were made with steel from Braddock.
“I felt that was a connection and a sign,” she said.
The two married in 2008. Since becoming lieutenant governor and second lady, the Fettermans have been seen as a team unit by Pennsylvanians.
“You have two people that can literally draw crowds,” said T.J. Rooney, the former chairman of the state’s Democratic Party. “That’s what you call a political blessing.”
Gisele and John Fetterman have been vocal about her history growing up as an undocumented immigrant. In 2020, the couple penned a joint op-ed in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program that protects immigrants who came to the U.S. as children from deportation. More recently, the lieutenant governor has cited it on the campaign trail.
That same year, Gisele Fetterman was the victim of a racist verbal attack in which a white woman hurled racial slurs at the second lady as she was in line at the grocery store and later approached her in the parking lot. Fetterman posted a video of the incident online.
The second lady told The Hill that a “compassionate approach” to immigration is just one topic that her husband would focus on if elected to the Senate, also listing ending the filibuster, raising the minimum wage, legalizing cannabis and addressing climate issues.
John Fetterman is recovering well, his campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello told the Post-Gazette on Thursday, though he’s not ready to be back on the campaign trail quite yet.
Even after he is, experts say that Gisele Fetterman’s presence on the campaign trail is likely not going anywhere ahead of November.
“People know her in the state already,” said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics. “It would make sense to leverage that notability beyond his illness.”
When asked whether she would one day like to run for office, Fetterman immediately threw cold water on the idea.
“I would never, ever, ever want to be in politics,” Fetterman said laughing. “I like having a backseat, I like having nonprofit work.”
“I imagine I would continue that work, maybe have a slightly bigger platform to do so, but in running for anything, I promise you will never catch me there,” she said.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.