Ubiñas: Meet the other Fetterman who should probably also run for public office

20160412-Gisele-Fetterman
Gisele Fetterman, the wife of Senate candidate John Fetterman, poses for a picture with a supporter of her husband.

THERE WAS no parking anywhere near East Palmer Street in Fishtown on a recent Sunday afternoon. No easy way to cut through the crowd at Interstate Drafthouse, either. The bar was packed with people hyped to meet Braddock, Pa., Mayor John Fetterman, the tattooed, biker-looking U.S. Senate candidate who's made a big splash as much for his size as his politics.

I like his politics, but I wasn't there for the big guy. I was there for the woman who's been by his side on this crazy ride that's attracted national attention, even if he is a distant third in the polls.

When I tell Fetterman that I'm there for his wife, not him - no offense - he doesn't blink. There's a reason his campaign logo just says Fetterman, he says half-jokingly:

"We're going to wise up and run her instead of me, so we'll save money on the logo. She would make a better candidate than I would."

His story is irresistible - Harvard-educated, conservatively bred, but with politics that, stereotypically speaking, defy his looks, from marriage equality to immigration reform.

But what of his wife, I often found myself wondering when I saw a picture of the two. A once-undocumented immigrant from Brazil who's since become a citizen - and the only Latina, she tells me, in the town of Braddock. (It's OK, she says - when she misses the culture and music, she blasts old-time salsa music around the house.)

She's also the woman whose family immigration story Fetterman, the candidate, said shaped many of his views on the issue.

Not to belabor a superficial point made repeatedly by now, but they are a visually striking pair. People's gaze naturally turns first to the 6-8, 320-pound guy in the room, but it tends to linger on her. It should linger more when you hear what she's about.

Gisele Fetterman, 34, didn't so much wear her heart on her sleeve when we sneaked over to another restaurant for a chat as she laid it bare on the table.

Her eyes filled with tears more than a few times while she talked about her family, the one she was born into and the larger one she chose to be part of in Braddock.

She was 8 when her single mother brought her and her brother to the United States from Brazil.

"My mom was having a conversation with my aunt, and she said in the same way people talk about the weather, 'You know, this year we've only been robbed seven times, and only four were at gunpoint.' "

"I just wanted to escape the violence," her mother, Ester Resende, later told me. She told her kids to pack up their favorite things and she never looked back.

They knew no one. They spoke no English. Her mother, who had earned a Ph.D. in Brazil, worked as a coat check girl for tips, then cleaned houses.

On their own and undocumented, they furnished their first place in New York with discarded furniture found on the curb. The experience shaped her, drawing her to try to salvage other things that were tossed aside, from pets to people.

So it's probably no surprise that she was drawn to Braddock after reading about it in a national news story. Braddock, a once prosperous steel-mill town that went bust, a place that from its peak lost 90 percent of its population. Little more than 2,000 people live there now - nearly three in four residents are black, and more than one-third live in poverty.

"I felt really sad that people could give so much and just be discarded," she said. And she felt energized by the mayor who was trying to bring the town back to life.

She wrote a letter to the borough, offering to start a summer program for kids. The mayor invited her down from Jersey. And just like in the movies, it was love at first sight - with the town, not the man. Though love with the man wasn't far behind.

Fetterman laughs when she recalls how she used to say she'd never marry a politician because of her estranged relationship with her father, who was in public office in Brazil. Now here she is, married for eight years with three children, and on most days riding shotgun on their grassroots campaign.

By the time her husband started talking about feeling frustrated and wanting to do more to help people, she was already all-in. She founded the Free Store, where, as the name suggests, people can come and get almost anything they need free in Braddock. She also cofounded 412 Food Rescue, which works with food providers to rescue unsellable but perfectly good food.

The third-generation vegetarian knows everyone in town - who needs what, who lost their jobs, who was down on their luck and now is back at the Free Store paying it forward. While we're talking, she checks her phone. There's a lady who is sick and can't get to the store. She wants to be sure she has something to eat.

During our talk, it strikes me that she and her husband may just be too nice - and sane - to be in public office, and I tell her so. Exhibit A: Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant campaign.

She laughs. Relatives in Brazil who only used to only speak of coming to America now don't seem to be in any big rush. But then we share a big, deep sigh at the state of politics and the world.

"I just hope that's not the direction we go in," she says. "We're so much better than that. I love being American. I love living in this country. I don't want us to go that way. I don't want us viewed that way in the world, as a nation lacking compassion."

Win or lose, she says the whole experience has been worth it. "I want to teach my kids that doing the right thing is the right thing to do, always. I want them to see that you could do the right thing and be in politics."

Imagine that.

ubinas@phillynews.com

215-854-5943N>@NotesFromHel

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