John Fetterman is the Democratic Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, serving since 2019, and is currently running for Senate in the state. According to his website, the 52-year-old Lieutenant Governor was born in Pennsylvania to teenage parents, and grew up in the city of York. After he joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, “his life has never been the same,” his website says.
According to Billy Penn, Fetterman ended up getting his undergraduate degree at his father’s alma mater, Pennsylvania’s Albright College, and his Masters of Public Policy at Harvard University. According to the Governor’s website:
John then returned to Pennsylvania to start a GED program in the town of Braddock. John saw the beauty, grit, and determination that had been in the community’s roots for generations, and focused on turning Braddock, a town facing many obstacles, into a thriving and growing community.
Fetterman ended up running for mayor in the small town of Braddock, in eastern Pennsylvania, in 2005, winning the Democratic primary by a single vote. According to the Associated Press, he announced his 2016 run for the Senate in Braddock in September 2015, challenging Republican incumbent Pat Toomey. He ended up losing the primary to the Governor’s Chief of Staff, Katie McGinty, but won the race for Lieutenant Governor in 2018, on the ticket with Tom Wolf. He is currently running again for the Senate.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Fetterman Is Known For His Tattoos, Bald Head, and Unconventional Style
Fetterman has made headlines for his unconventional appearance. The New York Times has described him as “hard to miss, at 6-foot-8 and 325 pounds, with a shaved head and goatee.” The 2009 article goes on to explain what his tattoos represent: “The mayor wears his commitment to Braddock not on his sleeve but under it: On his right arm are tattooed five dates memorializing killings in Braddock during his time in office. The victims included a man delivering a pizza and a 2-year-old girl who was assaulted and then dropped into a snow-covered playground. She froze to death while trying to walk home.” It goes on to explain that on his other arm are the numbers 15104, Braddock’s ZIP code.
In a November 2015 article, shortly after the announcement of his first Senate run, CNN wrote, “Fetterman doesn’t wear long-sleeve shirts. In fact, it’s hard to find a photo of him wearing anything other than a black, short-sleeve, button-up shirt and cargo shorts.” Fetterman himself has stated, “I do not look like a typical politician. Ha, I don’t even look like a typical person.”
In 2021, Politico described him as “one of the most photographed rising stars in the Democratic Party. As gargantuan as Lurch Addams, with a bald head, goatee and closet full of Dickies shirts—and tattoos running down his arm marking every date a life was taken while he was mayor of his hard-knock steel town—Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor is a cartoon image of a working guy from the Rust Belt.”
It is not only his appearance which has caught the eye of many Americans; his progressive policies have also reached headlines. In 2016, In These Times called Fetterman the “Coolest Populist in America,” with Slate calling him “A Member of Bernie’s Army.” In an article for his current Senate run, Politico described his ideology as “blue-collar progressivism,” and that he’s “running as a progressive and supports raising the minimum wage, Medicare for All, criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization. But he’s more middle-of-the-road on items like fracking and the Green New Deal.”
His website describes him as “A different kind of Democrat,” and explains how “John doesn’t look like a typical politician, and more importantly, he doesn’t act like one. He supported legalizing marijuana before it was popular, officiated a same-sex marriage before it was legal, and pushed for single payer healthcare long before it was mainstream.” He also prides himself on his progressive consistency, stating “You’ll always know exactly where I stand. I haven’t had to ‘evolve’ on the issues, because I’ve always said what I believe is true and I’ve been championing the same core principles for the last 20 years.”
2. Fetterman’s Wife, Gisele, Is A Former Undocumented Immigrant From Brazil, and Has Faced Racist Attacks In the Past
Gisele Barreto Fetterman is Fetterman’s wife, and the current Second Lady of Pennsylvania. In 1989, when she was 7 years old, Gisele immigrated to New York City with her mother and younger brother from Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, though they were undocumented. According to Barreto Fetterman, it wasn’t until 2004, when she was 22, that she received her green card, and in 2009 she became a U.S. citizen.
According to New American Economy, the Fettermans met in 2007, after Gisele wrote John, who was mayor of Braddock at the time, inquiring about the town’s role in the steel industry. The article explains:
Her initial fascination with Braddock was sparked by a magazine article she read about the town. She learned that a lot of steel in the U.S. came from Braddock and other nearby towns, and that some local steel was used to build the Brooklyn Bridge. The mayor invited her to visit, and one year later, they were married.
According to her page on her husband’s website, the two have been living in Braddock for 13 years now, and have three children: sons Karl, 12, and August, 7, and daughter Gracie, 9, along with their rescue dog, Levi.
Barreto Fetterman has been an outspoken advocate of immigration reform, calling for Congress to take a “humane and compassionate” approach to immigration, and called for the Trump administration to end its family separation policy. She is also a vocal proponent of DACA, criticizing the former President when he tried to end the program.
The Fettermans’ large public profile has also led to some racially-motivated attacks against Barreto Fetterman, however. In 2020, while out on a shopping trip, a woman who recognized her approached her and said, “You’re a n******.” She tweeted after the incident, “I love love love this country but we are so deeply divided. I ran to the local grocery store and was met by and verbally assaulted by this woman who repeatedly told me I do not belong here.”
3. As A Young Adult, Fetterman’s Best Friend Was Killed, Spurning His Desire to Get Into Politics
Fetterman didn’t always want to be a politician. In 2015, Fetterman said, “There was always the expectation that I would work and take over my father’s company,” an insurance company in York, Pennsylvania. However, when his best friend was killed in a car accident while he was pursuing a business degree at the University of Connecticut, he began to rethink his purpose in life. As Penn Live describes it, the car accident was Fetterman’s “first brush with mortality”, which “set in motion a series of events that led him to Braddock. He volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters and was paired with an 8-year-old boy whose father died of AIDS and whose mother would soon succumb to the disease.”
After seeing an ad around that time depicting an AIDS victim with his family at his bedside, Fetterman said, “I made the choice at that point in ’95 that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my professional career just making my own circumstances even better than they were.” At that point he joined AmeriCorps, a volunteering agency, and helped to set up new computer labs in Pittsburgh’s largely Black Hill District, which had seen mass displacement decades earlier. Penn Live explains:
After earning a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Fetterman returned to western Pennsylvania in 2001 and set out creating a similar GED program in Braddock. Two years later, he bought an old church with the help of his family as part of an increasingly ambitious plan to remake the town and, two years after that, he launched his mayoral campaign.
Fetterman said of Braddock, “It offered me this exceptional opportunity to come to a community and start from scratch.” A few years later, in 2005, he decided to run for mayor.
4. Fetterman Won His First Ever Election By a Single Vote
Fetterman’s first ever election was his 2005 mayoral run in Braddock, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania with a population of about 2,000, which Tina Doose, a candidate for one of the town’s council seats at the time, said was a long shot. Doose went on to say of his victory, “Many of [his voters] probably didn’t vote before they went out and knocked on doors. His work, helping the young people get GEDs, helped them feel they were part of society, that they mattered and their vote counted.” Fetterman agreed, saying, “You look like me and I knock on your door, you might not answer it. You may be like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?”
Though it took several weeks to count the ballots, Fetterman ended up edging out his Democratic primary opponent Virginia Bunn by a single vote – 149 to 148 – and went on to win the general election without facing a Republican challenger. He ended up becoming a staple of America’s Rust Belt quite soon thereafter, with the UK’s The Guardian calling him “America’s Coolest Mayor” near the end of his first term in 2009. He also appeared on the Colbert Report around the same time, discussing the economic difficulties Braddock, and other towns like it, were facing.
During his time as mayor, Fetterman spent time focusing on the underprivileged and underserved members and areas of his community, such as by initiating youth and art programs and creating a community center. Fetterman explains how Braddock has come to influence his ideas as a politician:
Braddock is just a place that deserved much better than it got. Pittsburgh [is] home to some really great, historical neighborhoods, and Braddock is one of them. I love what I call the “malignant beauty” of this place. Sure, it’s not Walnut Street. If you want Walnut Street, go live in Shadyside. There’s nothing wrong with that. But while I was born in Reading and grew up in York, Braddock is the only place that has ever felt like home to me. It’s where I met my wife. It’s where all three of our beautiful children were born. It’s a place where no one thought a person like me could come and build a good life, but that’s exactly what I’ve been fortunate enough to do—and all through community service.
In late 2020, while he was Lieutenant Governor, Fetterman made more headlines when he called out Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud, claiming he was “no different than any other random internet troll,” and that he could “sue a ham sandwich” in response to Trump’s threats of filing lawsuits in Pennsylvania. Joe Biden won the state of Pennsylvania, beating Trump by 81,000 votes.
5. Fetterman’s Current Senate Run May Be Democrats’ Best Hope at Retaining Control of the Senate
The U.S. Senate is currently divided, with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans splitting the chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tiebreaker. Republicans only need to win one seat in order to take back control. The Senate seat for which Fetterman is running in 2022 is held by Republican Pat Toomey, who Fetterman would have faced off against had he won the Democratic primary for Senate in 2016 (he came in third with 19% of the vote, behind Chief of Staff to the Governor Katie McGinty, and former U.S. Representative Joe Sestak).
However, Toomey has announced that he is retiring in 2022, possibly in light to his vote to convict former President Trump in his 2021 impeachment trial, and The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all report the race as a tossup (it is the only seat currently held by a Republican which all three currently rank as a tossup). In light of this, many Democrats see Pennsylvania as the best possible pickup seat in 2022. If Democrats do win the seat, Republicans will have a much harder time re-taking control of the Senate, as they would have to flip at least two other Democratic-held seats.
The two most recent polls, conducted in August and May 2021, have Fetterman leading the Democratic primary race at 21 points and 19 points, respectively, behind U.S. Representative Conor Lamb, a centrist who is also running (though the August poll shows more voters are undecided than support Fetterman). The date of the primary is currently pending, though the primaries in the 2018 race took place in May. If the past is any indicator, Fetterman’s opponents will have over 7 months to close the gap in the race. Furthermore, if Fetterman does win the primary, he will have to face off against whoever wins the Republican nomination, most likely Sean Parnell, a Trump-endorsed U.S. Army veteran and author, who was winning handily in the same Franklin & Marshall College poll from August.
Fetterman’s fans think his brand of economic progressivism and his Carhartt-wearing linebacker vibe make him uniquely able to win elections in the kinds of Rust Belt and white working-class areas where Democrats have been hemorrhaging support. In a party often seen as too elite, the lieutenant governor is unfussy and plainspoken—he poses for official government photos in workman’s shirts and calls Republicans “simps” on Twitter. Fetterman’s campaign is making the case that he has the best shot at picking off Trump voters in the general election.