Malcolm Kenyatta, a state representative and progressive activist from Philadelphia, officially launched a campaign for U.S. Senate on Thursday, casting himself as a champion of working people who would make history as Pennsylvania’s first Black and first openly gay senator.
Kenyatta, 30, grew up poor in North Philadelphia, where his first job at 12 was washing dishes at a vegan soul-food restaurant to help his mother, a home health aide, pay the bills. His family had to move five times when he was a kid.
“Every month we were sitting at that proverbial kitchen table — but sitting there literally figuring out how to make it work,” Kenyatta told The Inquirer in an interview ahead of his campaign launch. “So if we’re going to secure a democracy for the future, we have to have a system that actually works for working people. The people that will be best able to lead us to that place are people ... who know exactly what it looks like when government fails.”
Kenyatta, who announced his 2022 campaign on MSNBC, has been a frequent presence on cable news shows and was a top Pennsylvania surrogate for Joe Biden. That’s given him a bigger national platform than typical for a second-term state lawmaker — one he could use to raise money for an expensive and competitive statewide campaign.
He’s also entering the race with some significant backers. The American Federation of Teachers, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the Working Families Party all issued endorsements to coincide with his announcement.
“Malcolm is one of the most dynamic voices for progressive values in politics today,” Randi Weingarten, president of the national teachers’ union, said in a statement. “He knows first-hand the impact of a government that fails to look out for our most vulnerable, and he uses that experience to fight for what is possible when we invest in our public schools, turn around the inequities our communities of color face, and provide dignity for all working people.”
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman became the early Democratic front-runner when he announced his Senate campaign earlier this month having already raised $1.5 million. Other Democrats widely seen as possible candidates include U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of Allegheny County, U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia, and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh.
Numerous Republicans are also expected to run for the seat held by GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not seeking reelection. The race is seen as one of the most competitive in the country and will help determine control of the Senate.
Kenyatta said he decided to run after seeing how the inequalities that first got him involved in politics were exacerbated by the pandemic.
He took an early interest in public service, becoming junior block captain on Woodstock Street at his mother’s prompting after he complained about neighborhood trash. Kenyatta represents a district surrounding Temple University, his alma mater, where he lives with his husband, Matt Miller. He became the only Black LGBTQ person elected to the state legislature in 2018.
Kenyatta said traveling the state to campaign for Biden made him realize his story can resonate statewide.
“There are a lot of people who feel that knot in the pit of their stomach every time the Supreme Court is back in session, like, which one of my basic rights is gonna be potentially taken away?’” he said. “When you know what it’s like to be treated unfairly, there’s a level of empathy you have, even when the story isn’t exactly yours,” he said.
As a member of the House State Government Committee, Kenyatta drew national notice for passionate, blunt defenses of voting rights and other issues that have sometimes gone viral in liberal social media circles.
“I’m not gonna say things I don’t believe,” Kenyatta said. “I think government needs more real people.”
But Kenyatta will have to get through a competitive primary field loaded with candidates who enjoy larger platforms — and the fund-raising prowess that comes with them. And he’ll have to convince Democrats that a young, progressive Black candidate can win statewide.
There have been relatively few Black candidates for statewide office in Pennsylvania. State Rep. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia) unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010. Former NFL star and broadcaster Lynn Swann ran for governor in 2006. Republican Tim DeFoor was elected state Auditor General last year.
“This idea that Black folks can’t win statewide or progressives can’t win statewide or young people can’t win statewide, that’s based on no data,” Kenyatta said. “We’ve had very few run. So, it’s not about these labels of progressive or moderate. What people want is someone who will do something.”
Kenyatta could also be the youngest U.S. Senator if elected. He noted that his generation is largely absent from the chamber.
“If we say we’re the party for working people then when working people run for office, let’s lift them up,” he said. “If we’re the party that believes in Black Lives Matter, then when Black candidates run for office, let’s lift up that experience.”
Kenyatta and Fetterman both hope to claim the mantle of leading progressive in the race, though hailing from opposite sides of the state. Fetterman, a former Braddock mayor, says he can combine progressive appeal with support from the white working-class voters who backed Donald Trump.
Fetterman spent the early days of his campaign defending his actions in pursuing a man in 2013 and pulling a shotgun on him because he believed the man, who turned out to be an unarmed Black jogger, had been involved in a shooting.
Asked about Fetterman’s handling of the incident, Kenyatta said that while it may have been isolated, it’s important to call out vigilantism.
“I don’t think this is about whether John is racist. I’ve not known him to be,” Kenyatta said. “But I don’t think we can have a system in Pennsylvania where somebody thinks they hear something and then have carte blanche to go chase down the next person they see with a shotgun. I’m from North Philadelphia. I hear gun shots all the time, unfortunately, but we can’t have people think they hear something and run and confront the next person they see. ... As a young Black man I know how traumatizing that can be.”