Politics

A Layman’s Guide to John Fetterman, the Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania and America’s Secret Political Hope

John Fetterman wearing a gray shirt, sitting in front of an American flag
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Big week for Pennsylvania! Its 20 electoral votes put Joe Biden over the top in the presidential race. Philadelphians have already started celebrating and won’t be shy when it comes to claiming credit. But the Keystone State’s bench was deep, and the spotlight also gave shine to some of its lesser-known heroes: Thanks, Allegheny County! Shoutout to Erie! You seem cool too, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. But no list of newly inducted national treasures of Pennsylvanian extraction would be complete without Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of joining the cult of Fetterman, get ready, because you’re about to.

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You may have heard Fetterman’s name this week because he is a guy who knows how to deliver a good sound bite: He told Rachel Maddow that the only hitch in his state’s election was “the president’s campaign rolling up in a clown car in downtown Philadelphia.” He followed that up by going on the Today show and inviting our litigious president to sue a ham sandwich. And to round out his week, when a reporter asked Fetterman what he thought of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s public rebuke of Trump’s claims of election fraud, he quipped, “It would’ve been nice if someone had FedEx-ed him that backbone four years ago.”

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But it’s not just the things Fetterman says—it’s also the way he looks when he says them. I’m sure he’s very nice, but based in appearance alone, I have no doubt that he could easily make mincemeat of just about any lawyer or operative the GOP could throw at Pennsylvania: He is 6-foot-8, with a bald head, tattoos, and some more adventurous facial hair than you usually see in elected officials. He’s decked out in the same casual black short-sleeved shirt in most photos. As recently as last year, he claimed to own only one suit. A youthful-for-politics 51 years old, Fetterman is with-it enough that this week he changed his Twitter display name to “Jawn Fetterman,” a tribute to a bit of Philadelphia slang, and he also used his time in the limelight to repost a photo of him with a Gritty sculpture made entirely out of butter (produced in the commonwealth, of course).

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But as much as this tough-guy, give-it-to-you-straight vibe sets Fetterman apart from most politicians, people who have known who he is for longer than a few days emphasize that he is more than that. “It often feels like the media branding of Gov. Tom Wolf’s second-in-command overshadows the actual human behind it,” John L. Micek wrote in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star last year. As a Twitter user put it a few days ago, “our Lt. Gov is not just some big lovable mascot but a smart dude with a track record of actually doing shit and broadly appealing policy positions. The future of the electable left looks like John and his family.” Fetterman took the Mayor Pete route into politics, first gaining national attention, complete with magazine profiles and an appearance on The Colbert Report, as the mayor of Braddock, a struggling old steel town not far from Pittsburgh. If that sounds like Trump Country, Fetterman is a leftist who’s been endorsed by Bernie Sanders; in a 2018 profile, the Washington Post wrote that Fetterman was “pro-marijuana before it was mainstream; risked impeachment from his mayoral office by officiating a same-sex wedding before it was legal; [and] supports single-payer health care.” He’s not all liberal hero: He’s a gun owner and has been criticized for supporting some fracking in Pennsylvania. His first attempt for statewide office was a 2016 Senate bid, which he lost in the primary (to a Democrat who eventually lost the general election to Toomey). In 2018, he ran for lieutenant governor and won.

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Then there is Fetterman’s personal life. He reportedly turned down the lieutenant governor residence his office affords him to stay in the car dealership he and his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, converted into a home for them and their three kids. It’s the most beautiful former car dealership you ever saw; DesignSponge did a photo shoot of it in 2016. Barreto Fetterman, who made headlines last month when a stranger called her a racial slur in a grocery store, likes to refer to herself as “SLOP,” which she finds less stuffy than “second lady of Pennsylvania.” Originally from Brazil, she was once an undocumented immigrant. She is also, strangely enough, friends with Kim Kardashian. It’s this that I secretly think could be the strongest argument that John Fetterman is our country’s next great hope. His wife’s friendship could give him an audience with Kanye West, meaning maybe he could talk some sense into him or otherwise dissuade him from his 2024 ambitions. Name another politician who could do that and give us socialized medicine.

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