Both Pennsylvania Democrats in the state’s high-stakes Senate race support a $15 federal minimum wage and getting rid of the filibuster to make it happen. Both want student loan forgiveness and support some aspects of sweeping environmental legislation on par with the Green New Deal. One is a longtime advocate for marijuana legalization, the other a vocal champion for LGBTQ rights.
And both regularly dish out snarky critiques of Republicans on MSNBC.
Pennsylvania’s 2022 Democratic Senate primary is off to a pretty progressive start.
That two progressive candidates — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta — are the first in the contest reflects how the ascendant left has become the energizing force in Democratic politics, even with the comparatively moderate President Joe Biden in the White House. The race to replace the retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey will help determine which party controls the Senate after the midterm elections.
But this is still Pennsylvania, a swing state Biden won only narrowly and where Democrats faltered on almost every other front. The primary field will surely grow in the months ahead as more moderate candidates launch campaigns. For now, Kenyatta and Fetterman are left to distinguish themselves and define the brand of progressivism they think can win statewide.
And as is often the case in intraparty contests, the differences may ultimately prove more about style than substance.
“In a Democratic primary … most folks are going to be on the same page,” said Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant who isn’t aligned with either candidate. “So voters are likely going to have to decide this based on personality, who they think has the best chance of winning in the state.”
Some early political and policy differences are already becoming fodder for activists and the candidates’ allies. That includes hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the drilling technique for extracting natural gas. Fetterman opposed fracking in his 2016 Senate race, but given new regulations since then, he no longer supports a ban. Kenyatta supports a moratorium on new wells.
“I don’t support an absolutist ban on fracking tomorrow simply because the science and the realistic requirements of our energy needs can’t scale up that quickly,” Fetterman said in an interview last week.
Some liberal critics of Biden question Kenyatta’s decision to back him early in the presidential primary. Fetterman stayed neutral during the 2020 primary after backing Bernie Sanders in 2016.
“I don’t think anybody is focused on litigating an election we won and that got Trump out of the White House,” Kenyatta said in an interview. “I’m incredibly proud of the fact that I did everything in my power to make sure Trump was a one-term president.”
Even as they push progressive platforms, both stop short of some of the key progressive litmus tests — which could pay dividends if either becomes the Democratic nominee in a closely divided state.
“You win Pennsylvania by being the most practical,” Rashed said.
On health care, Kenyatta said he’s more inclined to support interim bipartisan measures than wait for a sweeping plan like Medicare for All.
“I’m gonna be pushing for us to get in that direction, but ultimately let’s be clear, there’s a lot … on costs and prescription drugs, surprise billing that we can do right now,” he said. “We get bogged down sometimes in stuff that does not embrace the reality that folks are in right now.”
Fetterman said the goal should be health-care relief for Americans, whatever form it comes in.
“If Medicare for All needed my vote to pass in the U.S. Senate, I would,” Fetterman said. “But if a public option that would create access for everybody needed my vote to pass, I would.”
Both see the progressive movement as part of a larger coalition they need to win. They have framed their campaigns around working people — Black, white, rural, and urban. Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock, near Pittsburgh, entered the race with the backing of several statewide labor unions.
“I consider myself consistent in what I believe and know to be true,” Fetterman said. “I can tell you exactly what I was doing 26 years ago … those kind of core values have been a straight line over the last 26 years. So is that progressive? I don’t know, what was progressive in 1995? What’s progressive in 2021? But it’s been consistent.”
Kenyatta, who launched his campaign with the backing of the liberal Working Families Party and the American Federation of Teachers, held an event last week with local officials in Mount Pocono, a sign of how he’ll try to expand his support beyond his Philadelphia home base.
“I really don’t care that much what people call me,” said Kenyatta, a North Philadelphia native serving his second term in Harrisburg. “I got involved because it was about my survival and the survival of people I love. What people call progressive now, I call survival.”
And while the two men occupy similar space on the ideological spectrum, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be battling for the same voters.
“It’s almost like our little version of Bernie Sanders vs. Elizabeth Warren,” said Philadelphia public affairs consultant Larry Ceisler. “Fetterman is Bernie and Malcolm is Elizabeth Warren. … The second choice of the Malcolm Kenyatta voter might not be John Fetterman, and visa versa.”
That hasn’t stopped supporters and opponents from weighing the candidates’ progressive bona fides — or shortcomings.
“I don’t believe that being pro-fracking is progressive,” said State Rep. Summer Lee, who represents Fetterman’s hometown of Braddock. “We’ll have candidates who fall short and rise above in different categories.”
Lee said she hopes the field expands to better reflect the party. “We have to fight the urge as a progressive movement to allow all eggs be put in these one or two baskets,” she said. “Especially when neither of those baskets are women, or are women of color.”
Fetterman is also almost certain to face continued questions about a 2013 incident in which he pursued a man and pulled a shotgun on him because he believed the man, who turned out to be an unarmed Black jogger, had been involved in a shooting. Fetterman reiterated last week that he didn’t know the man’s race and was responding as mayor of a city facing a gun violence crisis.
“Confronting gun violence as Braddock’s chief law enforcement officer was a responsibility I took on and whether someone puts that in a progressive box or not, that’s the role I found myself in,” he said.
Most progressive leaders in the state are taking their time in sizing up the candidates, especially with numerous others expected to run. Other Democrats widely seen as possible candidates include U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of Allegheny County, State Sen. Sharif Street of Philadelphia, and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh. (More moderate potential candidates like Houlahan and Lamb may be in less of a hurry to launch campaigns because they can already raise money through their existing campaigns that could later be used in a Senate race).
“I want to hear more about where their positions are right now,” said State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Philadelphia).
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a West Philadelphia Democrat, said the candidates need to focus on addressing the city’s homicide epidemic, something he said gets left out of the “progressive” political conversation.
“If you’re truly progressive, how do you miss including that in your agenda?” Williams said.
Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said lived experience also matters. That’s why she’s leaning toward Kenyatta, the only openly gay Black lawmaker in Harrisburg. “Identity isn’t everything, but I am drawn to supporting an out, gay, young Black man for this position,” she said.
Pennsylvania has never elected a Black senator or an openly gay senator.
“Any time a queer, Black man from North Philadelphia rises in the ranks by doing the work Malcolm has, people need to pay attention,” said Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks of the Working Families Party. “These are not only viable candidates, they’re generating the type of grassroots excitement we need to win in areas and with communities that Democrats have increasingly underperformed with.”