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Exclusive: Mrs. Fetterman Goes to Washington

The Pennsylvania senator-elect’s spouse opens up about the nonstop attacks and threats she gets from the right.

Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images
Gisele Fetterman

The Second Lady of Pennsylvania arrived at the Senate spousal orientation last week in a dress she thrifted for $12.

“I’m just obsessed with the tile,” said Gisele Barreto Fetterman, smiling at the encaustic guilloche flooring patterns first installed outside the Senate chamber in 1856.

Two weeks ago, Mrs. Fetterman’s husband, John, beat television personality Mehmet Oz to replace retiring Republican Pat Toomey as the junior senator from the Keystone State. Mrs. Fetterman (“Call me Gisele”) sat down with The New Republic for a candid interview about coming to Washington, the right-wing campaign to define her, and her future in politics.

On Monday evening, Gisele waved at photographers as she accompanied John’s entourage of equally giant aides (the senator-elect is six feet, nine inches tall) and four deadly serious men with earpieces. She joined her husband in the windowless, wood-paneled Mansfield Room on the Capitol’s second floor for the final freshman orientation event of the Fettermans’ first day in the Senate: a reception with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Less than a minute later, Gisele and her aide emerged again, still smiling. “This place is big, and there’s no bathrooms anywhere,” she laughed, walking by the press. “All day long we just search for bathrooms.”

Gisele became her husband’s spokesperson after he suffered a stroke on May 13. “I noticed something was off,” she told supporters in Pittsburgh four days later when Fetterman, still bedridden, beat Congressman Conor Lamb in the Democratic primary.

“He didn’t even want to go to the hospital … but I insisted … and as usual, I was right,” said Mrs. Fetterman onstage, giving the applause line an adequate pause before adding: “I’m so glad I made him go, for two reasons. The first is that doctors were able to get him back on his feet quickly … and the second reason is I now have one more thing I get to hold over him. I mean, I saved his life, right? I will never let him live that down.”

That triggered right-wing attacks that have persisted ever since. A survey by liberal press tracker Media Matters for America found that Fox News’s prime-time lineup mentioned Fetterman more than Democratic nominees in six other competitive races combined.

On Tuesday, Fox News host Harris Faulkner took issue with a photo Gisele tweeted of herself beside her senator-elect husband who is partially cropped from the image. (The couple have a running joke that John doesn’t fit in photos.)

A conspiracy theory implied that Gisele was trying to steal the show (and maybe even the Senate seat) from her duly elected husband.

“First day for Senator-elect Gisele Fetterman,” said Townhall’s Mia Cathell. “Why is she even there?” asked someone called Bonchie on RedState. Both remarks were quickly aggregated with other jabs against Gisele into a digital story on Fox News’s website, which was followed by a graphics package of mean tweets about the Fettermans that Faulkner gleefully read on air.

“The right-wing hates women. They especially hate strong women, and I think that’s what you’re seeing,” said Gisele of the ceaseless ridicule she’s gotten from conservative media operatives looking to define her as self-serving and suspicious. “The fact that a spouse of a senator-elect has been attacked nonstop for the past 24 hours and everyone’s OK with it, and everyone thinks it’s normal.… It’s not normal,” said Gisele after her first day on Capitol Hill.

“Since entering the Capitol for training, my inbox has been completely filled with threats and horrible things. And that’s because I’ve been a nonstop loop on Fox News,” said the Brazilian-born Senate spouse. “Hopefully it’s not like this forever … and hopefully it’s not like this for the next young Latina or person of color or spouse who enters this space.”

Gisele Fetterman is not the first Democratic woman of color to get “the Fox News treatment.” Representative Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez has been a national obsession in conservative media since she began her freshman term four years ago. “I think that it’s very important that she doesn’t have to handle that by herself and on her own,” Ocasio-Cortez told The New Republic when asked what advice she’d give Gisele about her new life in the toxic political inferno of congressional politics.

“It’s very important that the party sticks up for people. They haven’t done a good job in the past,” added Ocasio-Cortez.

In July, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi instructed the sergeant-at-arms to create a new residential security program that gave members an allowance of $10,000 each to upgrade their homes. Staffers in offices where the threat level is highest have since complained that it’s not enough.

“I think it’s fair to say Congress can do a lot better on this,” said Abbas Alawieh, chief of staff to Missouri’s Representative Cori Bush, after the program was announced. Bush, Ocasio-Cortez, and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar have paid a fortune for private security to counter the deluge of threats on their lives. And that right-wing hate often winds up hitting young staffers.

“I’m the oldest person in my office,” Omar told me last November. “Most of them are pretty young people. This is their first job. Many of them are still idealistic and hold a lot of reverence for public service and for what this place represents. The fact that they are constantly subjected to death threats and vitriol that they deal with, it is a tragedy.”

Violent threats against Congress have more than doubled since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. Last year, the U.S. Capitol Police investigated nearly 10,000 threats, a number that’s expected to grow this year. Only 12 percent of cases get investigated.

“If you put out hate into the world, it’s going to turn into action … and that’s what we’ve seen with Paul Pelosi,” said Gisele, referring to the October 28 assault by David DePape, who broke into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home and attacked her husband with a hammer. Last week, the speaker said she would step aside from Democratic leadership.

“I do feel safe, but then something will happen, and it shakes you … can this happen to me as well? The fact that there’s such a focus on the spouse is scary, and it’s creepy,” said Gisele.

“I look like an ogre,” said Lieutenant Governor Fetterman in a 2021 Pittsburgh Magazine profile of Gisele. “People gravitate more to her than me, and not without good reason.… Kids love her. She radiates kindness and warmth.”

The formerly undocumented migrant from Rio de Janeiro is now a highly watched freshman Senate spouse with a rising national profile. “How the political power couple may be dressing” is literally celebrity fashion news in Vogue.

But despite caricatures and conspiracies painting her as a nefarious puppeteer seeking to replace her disabled husband, Gisele didn’t waffle when asked if she’d seek office. “Never,” she said. “It’s not for me. It’s a very cruel world, and I am not cruel. I don’t ever wanna become cruel. I’m sensitive. I want people to like me. It hurts me when people are mean.”

She also laughed when I asked if she saw a role for herself in John’s new capacity. “I don’t think I’ll be in his office at all,” she said. “I want to work closely with the spouses and get to know them, but I’m going to be in Pittsburgh. John will be in D.C. My work and my kids and my life is in Pittsburgh.”

Gisele said in her role as Second Lady of Pennsylvania—which she affectionately nicknamed “SLOP”—she tries to find spaces to bring “love and awareness” and get people involved in public service. “I hope to find my space in the role of a Senate spouse,” she said. “I don’t know it yet, but I hope to come into it.”