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It’s Fetterman v. Kenyatta, for future of Pa. Dems | Will Bunch Newsletter

Should Dems woo white, working-class voters or pump up Black and suburban bases? This race may decide.

The first big entries in Pa's 2022 Democratic Senate primary -- Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (l.) and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (r.) -- offer contrasting views on the party's future.
The first big entries in Pa's 2022 Democratic Senate primary -- Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (l.) and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (r.) -- offer contrasting views on the party's future.Read moreAP

The last week in February should be called Light at the End of the Tunnel Week. Sure, there’s 6 inches of snow still out there — in fact, it’s cold as hell — but the Phillies are warming up in Clearwater, someone you know probably just got a coronavirus shot, and a sunny, slushy meltdown is on the way. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at for a weekly dose of snarky sunshine, regardless of the weather.

Should Dems woo white working-class voters or pump up Black and suburban bases? This race may decide.

When I came to Philadelphia at the start of the 1990s and eventually found myself covering politics for the Daily News, old-timers reveled in Pennsylvania’s reputation as the last bastion of retail politics, where brass-knuckled ward leaders kept their neighborhoods in line and made sure that faithful voters got their street plowed.

It’s time to throw that myth into the trash can next to your old typewriter and rotary phone. Last week, Philadelphia State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta announced his bold candidacy for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2022 on the place where Pennsylvania Democratic careers get launched into orbit these days — on MSNBC, the national cable network, where a 5-minute hit in prime-time reaches more voters in Altoona than the hassle of actually going to Altoona.

Indeed, the telegenic, 30-year-old Kenyatta and the other early Democratic frontrunner out of the starting gate — gruff, tattooed Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, 51 — seem locked into an air war over who can garner the most hits with TV’s liberal lions like Rachel Maddow or Joy Reid since both men raised their national profile during the contested 2020 election. In winning progressive fans for bashing Donald Trump, casual voters might also think there’s not much difference between the Senate hopefuls.

But while it’s true their positions on key issues like a $15 minimum wage or expanding voting rights are pretty similar, the Kenyatta v. Fetterman showdown — may be complicated by additional candidates to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey — is a sharp contrast of styles and, more importantly, strategies for how to win in Pennsylvania.

The state’s Democratic Party is at a crossroads. Despite President Biden’s narrow, critical victory here, losses in state legislative races and two statewide row-office elections have activists wondering what’s the best way forward. Can the party woo back some of the white, working-class electorate who drifted away to Trump, with a pro-worker focus? Or should Democrats keep trying to boost turnout from their most reliable backersBlack voters, and college-educated suburbanites? If political scientists cooked up candidates in a lab to test these theories, Fetterman and Kenyatta would likely burst from their test tubes.

Launching his career as mayor of Braddock — a then-struggling, fast-shrinking steel town on the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh — helped Fetterman position himself as the champion of Rust Belt comeback. So did his adoption of white, working-class chic — from the black work shirts to the names of Braddock’s murder victims tattooed on his burly arms. He emerged in 2016 in his first Senate bid as a Pa. version of Bernie Sanders, selling pro-union, class-based politics as a way to cling to some of working-class voters in thrall to Trump’s demagoguery and culture wars.

The Kenyatta v. Fetterman showdown is a sharp contrast of strategies for how to win in Pennsylvania.

Will Bunch

While Fetterman moved to disadvantaged Braddock, Kenyatta — grandson of a well-known civil rights activist — was born in North Philadelphia and began fighting his neighborhood’s poverty at a young age, serving as block captain at age 11. Despite breaking barriers, particularly becoming Pennsylvania’s first openly gay, person of color lawmaker when elected to the state House in 2018, Kenyatta has a pragmatic streak that led him to an early endorsement of Biden when many of his young progressive peers were backing Sens. Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Instantly endorsed by the Working Families Party and the American Federation of Teachers, Kenyatta is moving fast to reunite the Biden band of African Americans and white suburbanites who resisted Trump.

“If this is head to head and there’s nobody else, then Malcolm has a real shot,” a Democratic political consultant from the Philadelphia region, who agreed to assess the campaigns without being quoted by name, told me. It helps Kenyatta that his relatively short career allows him to take bold stances — such as calling for a moratorium on fracking — without a long record to defend, and his MSNBC popularity is helping him reach the national pool of small donors. Fetterman’s strategy of wooing back Trump-y white, working-class voters aims more for the general election than a Democratic primary.

Of course, the race may not be head to head. Other possible entrants include Chester County U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan or Montgomery County Commission chair Val Arkoosh —a physician who’s upped her profile in the pandemic — who would tap into the growing aura of female empowerment among Pennsylvania Democrats. Whether or not they or others run, the two frontrunners will find themselves sometimes on the defensive — Kenyatta from leftists wary of his early Biden support or a stint working for Philadelphia’s Chamber of Commerce, and Fetterman over a 2013 incident as Braddock mayor when he pulled a gun on a Black jogger he mistook for a crime suspect, as well as his efforts to have it both ways on fracking, still popular with Pittsburgh-area trade unions.

But in the end, a Fetterman victory in 2022 may convince Democrats to embrace a more pro-labor, Bernie-flavored populist platform, while a Kenyatta win would boost the argument that the party needs to squeeze even more turnout from the 2020 Biden coalition. Stay tuned to a race that will make a lot of noise nationally — as seen on MSNBC.

Yo, do this

  1. Last week I told you that Judas and the Black Messiah, streaming on HBO Max, is the movie of the year (so far), but I held back this nugget: The film ends with the best song of the year (so far) — “Fight For You,” by the suddenly everywhere superstar of neo-soul, H.E.R. If you liked her (or H.E.R.) majestic version of “America the Beautiful” preceding the recent Super Bowl, you should love “Fight for You,” which announces with its James Brown opening-style riff that this is going to being an irresistible throwback to an early 1970s vibe — reliving both the message and the musical soul of Black Power, in a time when it again seems “the only solution/is a new revolution.”

  2. Sunday was the 56th anniversary of the killing of Malcolm X, whose fiery Black activism made him a target for everyone from his erstwhile allies in the Nation of Islam to the white law-and-order establishment. This year, Malcolm’s survivors highlighted the anniversary by releasing a letter from a now-deceased New York City police officer alleging the NYPD, the FBI and other agencies somehow played a role in his assassination. That news won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched Who Killed Malcolm X?, streaming on Netflix. The cops who knew Malcolm was a marked man and failed to protect him, the two men who may have been falsely convicted, and the alleged actual gunman who walks freely in Newark and even appeared in a Cory Booker campaign ad — all of it is a source of fresh and justified outrage.

Ask me anything

Question: Would the John Lewis Voting Rights act save us from all these attempted voter suppression laws in PA and other states with Republican legislatures that went for Biden? — Via @WasserL on Twitter

Answer: In 2013, the Roberts Supreme Court gutted the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (which the late Lewis, later a congressman, had been pummeled fighting for as a young activist in Selma) by removing the need for states or localities with a history of discrimination — mostly in the Deep South — to get federal “preclearance” for any law that might impede voting. The proposed law named after Lewis would restore “preclearance” based on states’ recent history — so it’s unclear that Pennsylvania would qualify. The only thing that is clear is that voting rights is becoming THE American issue of the 2020s. I’m writing my next column (online Thursday, in Sunday’s Inquirer) about why ... stay tuned.

History lesson

Harry Truman supposedly said — when asked for a comment on the passing of a nemesis — that “it’s a damn shame when anyone dies.” In that spirit, it was certainly a damn shame when Rush Limbaugh passed away last week at age 70, after a public bout with lung cancer — at least for his wife and his friends and family. This newsletter offers condolences to them, but this newsletter is also compelled to comment on Limbaugh’s outsized role in America’s modern history, and the nation’s slide toward rejecting democracy. In rallying his “Dittoheads” to carry the conservative movement forward by valuing unity over thought, the nation’s most listened-to talker since the late 1980s taught a predominantly white and male audience that they shouldn’t just question changing social mores but hate anyone connected to them.

The wrong-headed Limbaugh was the right person in the right place at the right time for conservatives and business leaders seeking a force to counteract a mainstream media they saw as too liberal. An obscure radio DJ for the first half of his life, Limbaugh was the first to take advantage of the 1987 rollback of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, thus allowing stations to now broadcast one political point of view all day. But it’s important to understand that he succeeded not because of any political genius but rather his skill as an entertainer who could connect with a mostly white, working-class audience. And he mostly did so by pandering to their basest instincts — the misogyny behind “feminazis,” or the anti-intellectualism that led to science denial on climate or vaccines. In replacing civic discourse with cheap entertainment, he forged a path for Donald Trump and whatever forms of neo-fascism lurk behind him. Limbaugh’s life ended relatively early, but his warped influence on our politics will last way longer than it ought to.

Inquirer reading list

  1. In my most recent Sunday column, I jumped on the humanitarian crisis in frigid Texas and tried — as it seems we must constantly do these days — to counteract all the Republican lies about the energy crisis in the Lone Star State. Tilting at windmills and the notion of a clean-energy Green New Deal was a lame effort to deflect from Republicans’ free-market extreme deregulation that left utilities unprepared for a cold snap, when in reality, a green overhaul of the grid and electric generation is exactly what Texas needs.

  2. Speaking of deflections, I looked over the weekend at what I argued was the worst moment of Joe Biden’s presidency so far — his very misleading and, in my opinion, misguided response on his small ball approach to tackling America’s staggering $1.7 trillion college debt. I was especially galled by Biden seeking to frame the issue around Ivy Leaguers, when the reality is that Black and brown young people attending state universities or roped into underperforming for-profit colleges carry a disproportionate share of this burden.

  3. Does any of the stuff that we dwell on here — the lies of a Republican Party still trapped in the demagogic shadow of Donald Trump — make a difference? Maybe. My Inquirer colleagues Julia Terruso and Jonathan Lai report that a whopping 19,000 Pennsylvanians have formally left the GOP in the six weeks since the January 6 Capitol insurrection. The irony, the authors note, is that the Republican Party they leave behind is, as a result of losing these moderates, now even more likely to nominate Trumpists. You can’t get this level of in-depth coverage of Pennsylvania politics, including the white-hot 2022 Senate race, anywhere else, so why not subscribe to The Inquirer today?