At Home with Pennsylvania’s Headline-Making Second Couple as They Prepare Their Next Big Campaign
Nearly 15 years ago, Gisele Barreto spotted her future husband in a magazine — and then everything else happened
Gisele Barreto Fetterman was on a Costa Rican yoga retreat when she first saw the man who became her husband — though it's not quite the romantic-comedy meet-cute the situation might call to mind.
It was 2007 and she was glancing through a magazine to help pass the time in a waiting room before a class.
One article in the now-defunct ReadyMade caught her eye. "Captain of Industry,” the headline declared. “One man's mission to save Braddock, Pennsylvania.”
The man featured inside was John Fetterman, her future husband. Now the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania — and, if his recently launched campaign is successful, its next senator — John was then the mayor of Braddock, having been voted into office in 2005 by exactly one vote.
“The story was about this community that contributed so much to America, and then it had been left behind,” Gisele, 38, remembers. “I was just really drawn to it and curious about it.”
Upon taking office, John had spearheaded a renaissance of the former steel town, a blue-collar area that experienced significant decline in the late 20th century.
His work helped to transform large swaths of downtown Braddock, a small borough in Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs, just upstream from the Monongahela River. Abandoned properties were turned into creative spaces and urban gardens and an old church was refashioned into a community center. After John caught the attention of national outlets such as Rolling Stone and The New York Times, Levi's donated $1 million to that project and created an ad campaign centered on the town's refurbishment.
Gisele, who was living in Newark, New Jersey, and working with various food justice nonprofits, was impressed. More than that, she wanted to get involved.
"I wrote a letter to the borough sharing the work that I was doing, and that I wanted to visit and learn and do something — whatever that looked like," she says. "The letter ultimately ended up with John. We talked on the phone, I planned the visit and that's how I first got to Braddock."
That initial face-to-face led to another meeting, and then a few more — and then, eventually, a romance. After nine months of dating, John proposed in May 2008 with a vintage engagement ring his parents had purchased at an estate sale when he was 8 years old.
"I just thought that this was the person I wanted to take a chance with," John, now 51, tells PEOPLE. "I remember [saying to] my mother, like, 'Hey, this is the person.' "
Neither wanted a big wedding, opting instead to road-trip to Burlington, Vermont, where they eloped in in June 2008.
Much has changed in the nearly 13 years since the pair became John and Gisele Fetterman, the second couple of Pennsylvania.
John, the former small-town mayor, youth mentor and GED teacher, is now one of the most notable people in a headline-making swing state. A prominent Pennsylvania Democrat, he was a major voice during former President Donald Trump's baseless quest to overturn the November election.
He has further ambitions: After previously running for the Senate in 2016, John said earlier this month he would be seeking the Democratic nomination in 2022 what is likely to be a much-watched race after incumbent Pat Toomey, a Republican, said he would retire.
John, with statewide profile (and literal 6-foot-8-inch frame), will try to push out the competition. But there will certainly be complications.
He has an unabashed progressive record — on gay marriage, healthcare and marijuana legalization — in a purple state, something his opponents have already noted. And this month John and his aides spoke out to again explain a 2013 incident in which he was armed with a shotgun to detain an unarmed Black jogger whom he suspected was involved in a shooting near his home. (Police did not arrest the man.) John has insisted race was not a factor and said it was a "split-second decision" made out of safety concerns.
Another Senate run will bring a brighter spotlight and more scrutiny and, John hopes, more success for his vision for Pennsylvania.
"I want to continue to contribute on a different or larger stage," John says. "My political beliefs and core values and principles haven't changed really at all ... I believe in paying people a living wage, I believe in personal freedoms for things like marijuana, I believe in unions, I believe in economic development in communities that deserve it."
His wife has her own work tied to her story as an immigrant from Brazil. Last year, she spoke out about an altercation in which a woman harassed her at the grocery store over her ethnicity.
PEOPLE sat down with them for a joint Zoom interview over the holidays from their home in Braddock, before John launched his Senate race, for a look at their lives together.
An Unorthodox Politician
There's no getting around John Fetterman, it's true. There's the height, first of all, and his bald head, beard and the line of tattoos snaking down his right forearm — all of which make him look (even he acknowledges) like a "bad guy" straight from central casting or, at the very least, an intimidating bouncer.
"For many years, [people] thought he was my bodyguard," Gisele says. "I remember I was getting a haircut at the mall and the girls were like, 'Who are you?' And I'm like, 'Nobody, why?' and they're like 'Why is your bodyguard outside?' I was like, 'That's my husband.' "
Even John's dress is unusual and, more often than not, includes shorts. He proudly showed a pair off to PEOPLE on a day when temperatures outside his home hovered around 28 degrees while Gisele, whom John says is his "biggest troll," joked that the ensemble set exactly the opposite kind of professional-political mood.
Indeed, John's imposing figure and casual workwear belies a man who describes himself as passionate and outspoken about his community: The tattoos on his arm, he regularly points out, denote the dates of homicides in Braddock, which John focused on reducing.
But he's also introspective, growing philosophic when discussing what he calls a divisiveness so prevalent in modern politics and so recently sown by Trump's fight against the election.
"We just went through a phase were a significant part of our population was sold this idea that one plus one equals three — and despite all evidence to the contrary, and despite court case after court case, some would still cling to this idea that one plus one equals three," John says. "That's a dangerous slippery slope. The good news is, the guardrails have held and I think ultimately the most important guardrails are moral, ethical people that put country above party, or some of these loyalties that are deeply misplaced."
An Immigrant Who Knows What It Means to be 'Forgotten'
Born in Brazil, Gisele and her family fled the violence in their Rio de Janeiro home when she was 7 years old. They came to America where she says she lived, undocumented, for nearly 15 years.
"That was early 1990, so I turned 8 when I arrived here," she says. "My mom was a single mom, in Brazil she had a career, and we had stability in a sense. But we still lived amongst violence and she decided to try for a better future for us. So she moved to New York and then she was a domestic worker for many years."
Gisele received her green card in 2004, four years before her marriage, and became a U.S. citizen in 2009.
She has since launched a number of nonprofit initiatives, such as 412 Food Rescue and The Free Store, which allow individuals to shop for items such as art supplies, books and toys — even, most importantly, if they don't have the means to pay.
"It's this idea that there's dignity in being able to make your choices," Gisele says. "We never ask for proof of your tax receipts or any of those things, because to me that's all dehumanizing."
Her own history has allowed her a better understanding of what it means to be forgotten.
"I've always been really drawn to the discarded, and that's ... how I felt being an immigrant for a long time," she says.
While she's now open about her journey — a relief, she tells PEOPLE, after years of being told to "be invisible" for fear of being deported — that comes with its own challenges.
"I think I lived in limbo for really long time," she says. "My mom would say to us, 'I love you, have a great day at school, be invisible.' I heard that as an echo for so many years."
In October, Gisele filmed an incident in which she was the target of a racially-motivated verbal assault at her local grocery store. The video — in which a woman can be seen lowering her mask to say, "You're a n-----," into Fetterman's half-opened car window — quickly went viral.
"This behavior and this hatred is taught," Gisele wrote on Twitter at the time. "If you know her, if she is your neighbor or relative, please, please teach her love instead."
A Non-Traditional Political Life
In previous interviews, John has described his own childhood as comfortable. He lived in a two-parent household, played football in college and went on to earn master's degree in public policy from Harvard University.
It was the intervening years, he'll tell you, that taught him how other people can suffer for upbringings outside of their control. Rather than join his dad's insurance business, John worked first for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, as a mentor, and then AmeriCorps, teaching GED classes.
After he was elected as Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor in 2018, he and Gisele shunned the office's traditional residence — a 1940s three-story brick home — and opted instead for a converted car dealership in downtown Braddock.
The loft-like house is full of salvaged items that pay homage to Braddock. The main entrance door is vintage, as is the stove; an old steel table used for family activities came from a retired local mill.
"Our oldest, when he was little he would say, 'Mom can you clean this?' " Gisele says. "He couldn't understand this is history."
The design makes the industrial space feel lived-in — an ambiance that's evident when the couple's youngest son, August, runs in front of the camera to hug and kiss his parents.
The couple's other children — Karl, the oldest, and daughter Gracie — have also warmed to the unusual space, where they've been known to skateboard inside its expanse. (When PEOPLE spoke with the Fettermans, Gracie was nursing a broken wrist from her hobby.)
And there's a furry new addition: Levi, a rescue from West Virginia who came to the family amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"He lived his whole life on a chain, and he was pretty badly beaten and starved," Gisele says. "So when we rescued him he was just 30 lbs." Now, he's up to 70 lbs.
While the couple has welcomed one new family member in recent months, they've also suffered. "Gisele lost her father-figure from COVID in Brazil and she had another family member also succumb, so it's been tough," John says.
The pandemic is of particular concern to John, who leads a task force in Pennsylvania aimed to specifically address concerns surrounding health disparities in the state's most vulnerable communities. The experience, he tells PEOPLE, has been eye-opening.
"A lot of the things that the pandemic helped illuminate — a lot of the inequality, the disparities and things like that ... My heart breaks. It's just been really rough," he says. "So just paying it forward any way we can and realizing that we're lucky, we're together. We've lost people to the disease but we can turn this corner."
The couple is content to stay in Braddock, though John acknowledges that his political aspirations might outgrow the town.
"I can count myself very lucky to have a wonderful partner in Gisele," he says.
For now, when their work is through each day, the couple comes home to craft with the kids, eat their favorite snacks (Funyuns are a Gisele favorite) and relax with a movie or TV show. John has a well-documented "obsession" with The Social Network, and Gisele admits to "a 90-Day Fiancé problem."
Their partnership hinges on near-continual banter — often on full display on Twitter, where Gisele pokes fun at her husband for his choice of dress. Even in front of a reporter, she jokingly chides her husband for dressing like "a serial killer" in cargo shorts in sub-freezing temperatures.
"To be married to my biggest troll — whether it's in-person or online — that's her," John says. "She never misses a chance to get one over on me. I'm never far away from remembering who I am."
Gisele echoes that, saying their differences allow them to enrich one another. Laughter helps.
"We don't take ourselves seriously and we don't think anyone should," Gisele says. "It's not like John's this 'lieutenant governor [to us],' it's none of that. We take our work very seriously but we're always going to have fun as much as we can, in whatever circumstance we're in, because we need that levity, as well. There needs to be some of that, especially in the darkest days."