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Braddock’s mayor picks Malcolm Kenyatta over her predecessor, John Fetterman, in Pa. Senate race

The endorsement could be seen as a knock on a key part of Fetterman’s narrative: his close ties and support for the town he served as mayor for 14 years and where he and his family still live.

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

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman rose to national prominence in part because of his leadership as mayor of the struggling Southwestern Pennsylvania town of Braddock. But his bid to climb higher took a slight hit this week when his successor chose to endorse Fetterman’s Philadelphia rival in the U.S. Senate race, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.

Chardaé Jones, a 32-year-old newcomer to politics and Braddock native, said she was backing Kenyatta because she related to him as a young politician who grew up in a poor, working-class family. She said she also saw similarities between challenges facing Braddock and North Philadelphia. The once-booming steel town is a state-designated distressed municipality, and has been for 30 years.

“Braddock is pretty much dilapidated, but the thing that keeps us all staying here are the people,” she said. “The people are awesome and we were talking about those parallels, dilapidated structures and how it’s been that way for years and the need to find creative solutions.”

While Jones isn’t well-known — and endorsements from political novices normally don’t carry much influence — the lack of support from Braddock’s mayor could be seen as a knock on a key part of Fetterman’s narrative: that he brought back a Rust Belt, majority-Black borough where he enjoyed considerable support and where he and his family still live.

Fetterman declined to comment on the endorsement.

Fetterman, who famously tattooed his arm with the dates of every homicide in the town that occurred during his 14 years as mayor, brought national attention to Braddock as crime and homicide rates dropped under his tenure. He became the Democratic front-runner in the 2022 race for retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat when he launched his campaign this year, portraying himself as someone who can appeal across the state.

“I’m not saying he did a bad job with Braddock, because he put a spotlight on Braddock,” said Jones, a business analyst and writer who also mentors teens in the city. “That’s what I tell everyone. No one really saw us before he came here, but there’s a lot more work that needs to be done on a higher level here. ... I just resonated more with Kenyatta.”

Jones also opposes hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the drilling technique for extracting natural gas, and likes that Kenyatta supports a moratorium on new wells. Fetterman opposed fracking in his 2016 Senate race, but given new regulations since then, said he no longer supports a ban.

Jones said she was not influenced by a 2013 controversial incident in which Fetterman, armed with a shotgun, confronted and detained a Black man after hearing what he thought was gunfire. The man, who said he was he only jogging in the neighborhood, was not charged, but the incident has resurfaced with Fetterman’s candidacy and the national discourse over policing and racism.

Fetterman and Kenyatta are the highest-profile Democrats in the race so far, though others are expected to join the fray in the coming weeks.

Jones was appointed mayor after Fetterman became lieutenant governor in 2019. She is not planning on running for reelection in November. She said she’s never had much of a relationship with Fetterman but is friends with his wife, Gisele.

“That made it hard. But his wife is not running, he is,” she said. Fetterman never asked her for her endorsement, she said.

Kenyatta called her earlier this month, pitching her on his campaign, she said. She agreed to meet with him and to her surprise, he said he’d be in Braddock the next day. He returned a few weeks later to talk to residents and take a tour of the town, a mostly Democratic borough of about 2,000 people, 36% of whom live below the poverty line, according to Census data.

Kenyatta, who would be the first Black, openly gay member of the U.S. Senate, has argued working-class people should be represented by candidates who have experienced poverty and working-class problems. He has steadily traversed the state this month, announcing endorsements from relatively unknown mayors or council members in Mount Pocono, Carlisle, and Aliquippa, to show appeal beyond Philadelphia.

“You don’t get the vote you don’t ask for,” Kenyatta said. “I’m going to leave no stone unturned in terms of going to red districts and blue districts and purple districts ... to make our case that my lived experience is something that is desperately needed in the U.S. Senate.”

This story has been updated.