Democrat Kenyatta brings his ‘working poor’ Philly upbringing to 2022 Senate race

By: - February 20, 2021 6:53 am

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia on 9/21/20 (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

A tall, brash Democratic politician familiar to Twitter users and cable news viewers alike with a pitch about fighting for working people has just stepped into Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race. 

You may feel like you have already read this story, but it’s not about Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. It’s about Philadelphia state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.

Sure, Kenyatta isn’t as tall. He’s 6’2” and a half, and sensitive about including the half, given that his dad rose to 6’8”. (Also 6’8”? Fetterman.)

Kenyatta is an enthusiastic 30 years old, versus Fetterman’s dour demeanor at age 51.

And neither particularly looks the part of a statewide winner in Pennsylvania, where Democrats have won big with a 72-year-old former cabinet maker and a politician once compared to oatmeal.

But both are running for U.S. Senate, with a majority in the upper chamber on the line, arguing that their unique brands attract a winning coalition in November 2022 to flip retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat blue.

Fetterman’s pitch is that of a plain-talking former mayor of a hard-scrabble western Pennsylvania steel town, who can rebuild Democrats’ old school working class base.

Kenyatta’s is similar; that of a pugnacious activist who, after growing up poor, Black and gay in North Philladelphia, has worked his way into the corridors of power to use his experience with inequality to improve government.

But unlike Fetterman, Kenyatta argues that his narrative is based in reality.

“We have to have authentic messengers, who understand what it’s like for the government not to work for them,” Kenyatta told the Capital-Star. “And I know 100 percent, being from a working poor family, what it looks like for the government not to work.”

The message is a veiled shot at the sitting lieutenant governor. While often using his wealth to support his community, Fetterman also hasn’t hid that he’s received financial support from his parents to get by. 

Kenyatta has argued that he’ll be able to appeal to any voters who’ve struggled to make rent or keep food on the table, regardless of where they live.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Altoona or Johnstown or whatever. If you’ve been hit over the head by life and by an economy that doesn’t give a damn about you that doesn’t pay you fair wages, that doesn’t center your experiences — if you’ve been somebody who’s been there — it doesn’t matter what I look like or who I love,” Kenyatta told the Capital-Star. “The question is, am I going to fight for you? And I think I have proven in my time in Harrisburg, that I absolutely will be an unequivocal fighter for working people.”

His record in Harrisburg is slim. He’s only served as a state representative for two years and change. But despite the partisan bombast that has made him a popular guest on MSNBC, Kenyatta argued he also has shown a knack for legislating.

He sponsored bills to cut professional licensing requirements and increase state cybersecurity standards with GOP Rep. Andrew Lewis, of Dauphin County, last session. The latter passed unanimously out of committee, but never received a floor vote.

Kenyatta also argued, as a member of the minority, he showed a keen ability to play defense, rallying opposition to an election investigation committee in the House before the 2020 election.

Kenyatta was nearly kicked out of a committee vote on the measure. Democrats mobilized against it, and moderate Republican defected, sinking the proposal.

“My advocacy on that issue and protecting the votes of millions of Pennsylvanians also speaks to my ability to not just win first downs right but also to block and tackle,” Kenyatta said.

He’s also taking some stances to the left of Fetterman on the environment. Kenyatta told the Capital-Star he supports a temporary ban on fracking, as well as cuts to subsidies and tax credits for oil and gas. 

Instead, he argued for more investment to expand clean energy in Pennsylvania.

“We have to have clean air, clean water, we have to protect the planet. The second thing we have to do is create good paying jobs along the way. And we have an opportunity to do just that,” Kenyatta said.

Fetterman has vocally backed the industry in recent years after proposing a moratorium in 2016, arguing that fracking and environmental health could not be reconciled.

Fetterman’s early 2022 entrance gives him time to build strength — or set up his fall

Kenyatta also said, like Fetterman, he supports legalizing marijuana. But Kenyatta said his support is contingent on clearing those imprisoned in the war on drugs of their charges, and making sure the budding industry includes Black entrepreneurs, not just big businesses. He pointed to former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as a prime example of what not to do.

“He retired as Speaker of the House, and now he’s a f****ng partner at a marijuana company going to rake in money hand over fist,” Kenyatta said. “I mean come on that’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

Kenyatta also backed forgiving student loan debt in a tweet Friday, and has supported a $15 minimum wage and eliminating the filibuster, a Senate rule, which effectively means bills can only be passed when they have the support of 60 senators.

Politicos pointed out that Kenyatta, in his second term as a state lawmaker, would need to quickly raise oodles of cash to raise his image and compete in what will likely be a high-dollar primary and general election as Democrats hope to hold onto the Senate.

Even if he hasn’t been to all 67 counties yet, Kenyatta did barnstorm Pennsylvania to back state House hopefuls in fall 2020. He’s also made appearances in Erie, Scranton, and State College in recent weeks as he contemplated a run.

If his fundraising and reach will match Fetterman, who raised $1.3 million in a month after teasing his run, is unclear.

But Kenyatta is also launching with some key allies already on board — the American Federation of Teachers and its Pennsylvania and Philadelphia affiliates, as well as the Working Families Party, a progressive third party that is active in Philly politics.

With their backing, Kenyatta argued he could recreate something similar to President Joe Biden’s coalition of African-American voters, young people, and suburbanites, to win Pennsylvania.

And his supporters were already setting expectations high.

Kenyatta “is for this generation what people like Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy were for other generations,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten on a Friday morning press call.

Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed reporting

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.