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Who is Malcolm Kenyatta, the Pennsylvania state representative running for Senate?

Malcolm Kenyatta, 31, has cast himself as a champion of working people.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, at a rally for his U.S. Senate campaign on Feb. 18, 2022, in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, at a rally for his U.S. Senate campaign on Feb. 18, 2022, in West Chester, Pennsylvania.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / MCT

Malcolm Kenyatta is a Pennsylvania state representative from North Philadelphia whose impassioned style and personal story has won him an enthusiastic if small following in his Democratic campaign for U.S. Senate.

Kenyatta, 31, has cast himself as a champion of working people. If elected, he would make history as the first openly gay and first Black person to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate. He’s the only established Democrat from the Philadelphia region who’s running.

He’s also running for reelection to his state House seat.

» READ MORE: Get to know the 2022 candidates for Pa. Senate and governor

What is Malcom Kenyatta’s background?

Kenyatta 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. He talks a lot about those struggles in his campaign.

“Every month we were sitting at that proverbial kitchen table — but sitting there literally figuring out how to make it work,” Kenyatta said in an interview when he launched his campaign. “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 represents the district where he grew up, a neighborhood surrounding Temple University, his alma mater. He lives there with his husband, Matt Miller. He became the only Black LGBTQ person elected to the state legislature in 2018.

He previously worked for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce as head of its diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Kenyatta’s national profile grew as he traveled the state to campaign for Joe Biden in 2020, often appearing on cable news shows. He drew more notice after the presidential election as he mounted staunch defenses of the results and of voting rights.

What are Malcolm Kenyatta’s top policy priorities?

Kenyatta has said his top three issues are voting rights, health care reform, and addressing climate change. He released a plan to preserve democracy,” which includes ending the filibuster, expanding the Supreme Court, and creating a Civilian Democracy Corps.

While the Democratic candidates largely agree on policy, Kenyatta is the only Democrat running who supports a moratorium on new fracking sites. He has said he would vote to abolish the Electoral College.

Kenyatta has centered much of his campaign around helping working families, including raising the minimum wage and supporting unions. He’s said the first bill he’d introduce as a senator would be one bolstering mental health care for kids to reduce youth suicides.

Who is backing Malcolm Kenyatta?

Kenyatta has racked up an impressive array of endorsements for a candidate who was always seen as an underdog. But he has struggled mightily to compete on what’s usually a crucial front in Pennsylvania’s expensive campaigns: fund-raising.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting in Pa.’s May 2022 primary election

He entered the race with endorsements from the liberal Working Families Party and the American Federation of Teachers. Since then, he got the backing of SEIU Pennsylvania, one of the state’s largest unions, which represents security, health care, and food industry workers. He has the support of some younger and progressive Philadelphia City Council members, progressive lawmakers in the suburbs, particularly Chester County, and lawmakers in smaller Democratic cities in more rural parts of the state.

Kenyatta and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb have both courted local and state Democratic leaders in a way that the front-runner, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has not. But Lamb has some of the most high-profile elected officials behind him, including Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. Kenyatta argues he can excite progressive voters, young voters, and Black voters, people the party will need in November.

Kenyatta has been lapped by his rivals many times over when it comes to raising campaign cash. He entered April with just $271,000 in the bank, compared to $4.2 million for Fetterman and $2.2 million for Lamb. While polling suggests he’s run a strong campaign considering that shoestring budget, he’s still more than 20 points behind Fetterman in most polls.

What else should I know?

Kenyatta often argues in his campaign that his background is part of what makes him electable, specifically bringing up his identity as an openly gay Black man. Pennsylvania, which is whiter and older than the national average, has never elected a Black or openly gay senator or governor.

“I know that there are a lot of pundits who say Pennsylvania is just not ready to elect an openly gay Black man from North Philadelphia,” Kenyatta said at an April debate. “But what those pundits never count on is you. Pennsylvania is more ready than the cynics believe.”

If elected, Kenyatta would also be the youngest U.S. senator.