A Pennsylvania native, John was born to teenage parents just starting out on their own. At the time, his father worked nights to put himself through college. John grew up in York, PA, and followed in his father’s footsteps to Albright College, where he played offensive tackle for the Lions.
At 23, John joined up with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and his life has never been the same.
John threw himself into the program, mentoring his ‘little’ - an 8-year-old boy who had recently lost his father to AIDS and whose mother was also battling the disease. Before she passed away, John promised that he would continue to look out for her son and make sure that he graduated college. Fifteen years later, John and his ‘little’ had both held up their ends of the bargain, with his little’s graduation from Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, PA.
But John wanted to do more. He joined AmeriCorps and served in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District, where he helped set up the first computer labs in the neighborhood and taught GED classes to young mothers and fathers.
He went on to earn a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
John returned to Pennsylvania to start a GED program in the town of Braddock, one of the poorest and most troubled communities in the commonwealth. In 2005, encouraged by his students, John ran for mayor. He managed to win the crowded primary by a single vote. In his 13 years as mayor, John worked to rebuild his community, creating jobs, getting youth engaged, and bringing creative urban policy solutions to Braddock. The town now has a community center, urban gardens, and a free store run by John’s wife, Gisele.
Together, John and Gisele have fought for causes they believe in, from immigration reform to LGBTQ+ rights. When Pennsylvania lawmakers continued to push outdated discriminatory policies banning marriage equality, John stood up and officiated one of the first same-sex marriages in the commonwealth.
In 2016, John decided to run for U.S. Senate to confront the inequality crisis at the highest level of government. Although he lost the Democratic primary, John confounded expectations, earning 20 percent of the vote as a relatively unknown candidate in a four-way race.
Two years later, in 2018, John ran to be Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor, and this time dominated across the commonwealth, winning a five-way Democratic primary and a commanding victory in the general election.
As Lt. Governor, John has transformed the position and made a bully pulpit of the office, advocating for economic justice and criminal justice reform.
Weeks after taking office, John embarked on a listening tour of all 67 counties, something no sitting Lt. Governor has ever done, to engage with Pennsylvanians about legalizing marijuana. In three months, the historic tour saw over 10,000 people turn out in person and tens of thousands more engage online. Following John’s final report and recommendations, the Governor announced his support for legalization for the first time.
As the chair of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, John has led the fight to give second chances to non-violent longtime inmates and free those who have been wrongfully convicted.
He has taken numerous steps to overhaul the clemency process in Pennsylvania, including eliminating all fees associated with applying for a pardon, making the pardons application more user-friendly, and working to move the application process online. Under John’s tenure, the Board has recommended more applicants for commutation than under any lieutenant governor in decades.
John and Gisele have chosen not to settle in the Lt. Governor’s Mansion, instead opening up the pool in the official residence to children who typically wouldn’t have access to one. They live with their three children Karl, 11, Gracie, 9, and August, 6, in a restored car dealership in Braddock with the family dog, Levi.
Gisele Barreto Fetterman is a trailblazer in her own right. Bornin Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Gisele’s mother took her and her younger brother to the United States when she was nine, all of them undocumented immigrants. They lived in a one-room apartment in New York City, depending on food banks and teaching themselves English. Gisele married John in 2008, became an American citizen in 2009, and is now a prominent advocate and activist in Braddock. In addition to the Free Store, she has launched 412 Food Rescue, the nonprofit For Good PGH, and The Hollander Project, a business incubator for female entrepreneurs.