Sen. John Fetterman tackles Senate life after depression treatment

The first-term Pennsylvania Democrat is back at work after checking himself into Walter Reed hospital for clinical depression in February. He wears his signature shorts and hoodies, but not on the Senate floor.

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FILE - Sen. John Fetterman, D-Penn., waves to members of the media, Monday, April 17, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, as he returns to the Capitol after seeking inpatient treatment for clinical depression. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) ORG XMIT: WX102

Sen. John Fetterman waves as he returns to the Senate on April 17 after seeking inpatient treatment for clinical depression. Last year, during his run for the Senate, he suffered a stroke that nearly killed him.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Before Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman checked himself in to the hospital for clinical depression in February, he walked the halls of the Senate stone-faced and dressed in formal suits. These days, he’s back to wearing the hoodies and gym shorts he was known for before he became a senator.

Male senators are expected to wear a jacket and tie on the Senate floor, but Fetterman has a workaround. He votes from the doorway of the Democratic cloakroom or the side entrance, making sure his “yay” or “nay” is recorded before ducking back out. In between votes this past week, Fetterman’s hoodie stayed on for a news conference with four Democratic colleagues in suits, the 6-foot-8 Fetterman towering over his colleagues.

People close to Fetterman say his relaxed, comfortable style is a sign that the senator is making a robust recovery after six weeks of inpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where his clinical depression was treated with medication and he was fitted for hearing aids for hearing loss that had made it harder for him to communicate. His hospitalization came less than a year after he had a stroke during his Senate campaign that he has said nearly killed him, and from which he continues to recover.

“He’s setting a new dress code,” jokes Vermont Sen. Peter Welch, who is the only other newly elected Democrat in the Senate and spent a lot of time with Fetterman during their orientation at the beginning of the year. “He was struggling. And now he’s a joyful person to be around.”

Senators do occasionally vote in casual clothing — Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, for example, is known for sometimes arriving in gym clothes. But Fetterman’s regular attire is redefining fashion in the stuffy Senate. He’s turning heads on a daily basis as he walks the halls in his signature baggy Carhartt sweatshirts and saggy gym shorts, his hulking figure surrounded by much more formally dressed Washington types buzzing around the Capitol.

The senator’s staff had originally asked him to always wear suits, which he famously hates. But after a check with the Senate parliamentarian upon his return, it became clear that he could continue wearing the casual clothes that were often his uniform back at home in Pennsylvania, as long as he didn’t walk on to the Senate floor.

Welch said Fetterman was quiet and withdrawn when he first came to Washington, and often sat in the back of closed-door caucus meetings. Now he’s standing up and talking, sometimes joking and ribbing Pennsylvania’s senior senator, Democrat Bob Casey.

Fetterman, Welch and Republican Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama became friends at the orientation, and those two colleagues stayed close with him through his recovery. Britt says that in those early days, Fetterman would only really engage if she started the conversation, but they bonded over having children of a similar age and the fact that Britt’s former football player husband, Wesley, is the same height as the Pennsylvania senator. When Fetterman checked into the hospital, Britt’s staff brought food to his office next door.

Britt later visited him at Walter Reed, at his request, and found Fetterman to be totally changed. “When I walked in that day, his energy and demeanor was totally different,” Britt said in an interview.

Now, he’s loud and outgoing, she says — even yelling “Alabama!” at her down a hallway when he caught sight of her last week, giving her fist bumps and asking about her husband and family.

“That shows you the difference that treatment can make,” Britt says. “It’s just incredible to see.”

Fetterman’s decision to seek treatment won bipartisan praise from his colleagues, a sharp turn from his bruising Senate race against Republican Mehmet Oz that was the most expensive in the country.

Joe Calvello, a spokesman for Fetterman who has worked for him since the beginning of his campaign and before the stroke, said his boss is more back to his old self after a difficult year. Fetterman is getting to know all his staff after his return to the Senate on April 17, making friends with his Senate colleagues and speaking out on progressive issues on which he campaigned.

“It’s good to be on the other side of that,” Calvello said.

Last week, Fetterman stood alongside the other senators in suits to urge President Joe Biden to raise the debt ceiling on his own under a clause in the 14th Amendment instead of negotiating with Republicans. He also questioned bank executives at a hearing — dressed in a suit, as he does for committee meetings — and asked whether they should be subject to work requirements like those Republicans have proposed for food aid recipients in the debt ceiling negotiations.

Fetterman’s words are still halting and sometimes hard to understand, due to his stroke. He has auditory processing disorder, which makes it harder to speak fluidly and quickly process spoken conversation into meaning. He uses iPads in conversations, meetings and congressional hearings that transcribe spoken words in real time, and when he speaks publicly he often appears to be reading closely off a sheet of paper. He rarely speaks with reporters in the hallways.

While questioning the bank executives his words were occasionally jumbled, due to his auditory processing difficulties. “Shouldn’t you have a working requirement after we sail your bank, put billions in your bank?” Fetterman asked.

The senator’s conservative critics have frequently jumped on his stumbles, mocking them in television spots.

But his chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, tweeted that the moment at the banking hearing was unscripted -– and a surprise to even him.

“John Fetterman just asked the Silicon Valley Bank CEO if there should be work requirements for CEOs who crash banks and dear reader, I almost fell out of my chair,” Jentleson wrote.

Constituents he has met with say it can take a moment to get used to his speaking difficulties.

The president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, Michael Kovach, said Fetterman unexpectedly popped in when Kovach was meeting with the senator’s staff in Washington. It was only Fetterman’s second day back, but he stayed for a half hour, using a transcription device to read Kovach’s responses in their discussion about helping farmers who keep good conservation practices on their land.

Kovach said Fetterman asked thoughtful questions, made thoughtful comments and joked about beard envy with Kovach, who sports a long graying goatee.

“It’s the same Fetterman that I recall as lieutenant governor, it’s just difficult for him to communicate, so the elephant in the room obviously is the screen that he’s reading from,” Kovach said. “It’s a bit of a distraction, but something I got quickly used to.”

Fetterman is also back to social media, which was a staple of his campaign before the stroke. This past week he posted a photo of himself and Welch on Twitter sitting in a Senate courtyard and wearing hoodies.

Welch is hosting Fetterman and Britt at his house for dinner soon. Fetterman is “on his game” these days, Welch said.

Another Democratic colleague, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, said she noticed that Fetterman was “inwardly focused” when he arrived in Washington. But he’s now gregarious and cracking jokes.

“It’s really, really great to see, it’s a good message to send to people to seek help,” Duckworth said. “It makes a difference.”

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