Keynote addresses at the Democratic National Convention over the years have turned previously little-known names into party stars. Future Texas Gov. Ann Richards and future President Barack Obama were keynote speakers early in their careers.
One of them is Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a North Philadelphia native and the only Black and LGBTQ person elected to the state legislature. Instead of speaking live before thousands, he’ll watch his prerecorded remarks while sipping tequila at home with his fiancé.
Kenyatta is one of several speakers with local ties who will take the virtual stage this week, with the convention once planned for Milwaukee going online-only because of the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. Reps. Brendan Boyle, who represents Northeast Philadelphia, and Conor Lamb, who represents a Trump-friendly district outside Pittsburgh, also will deliver short speeches Tuesday as part of the “Rising Stars” keynote.
Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, a Republican who backs Biden, spoke Monday night. On Thursday, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Delaware Sen. Chris Coons are slated.
We asked Kenyatta, 30, a Temple University graduate and longtime community activist, about the political career that’s led him to his moment. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How’d you get into politics?
“I was living on Woodstock Street, and I was 11 or 12 years old, talking about all the issues I saw on the block. I’ll never forget my mother — my mother was a tough black woman ... and she said, ‘Well, boy, if you care so much, go do something about it.’ So I ran for junior block captain. If you go down to Woodstock, the little sign the city put up, ‘A junior block captain cares for this block,‘ is still there.”
How would you describe your political career since?
“It’s not lost on me that every time I walk into the House chamber, I’m one of the youngest members, one of only two members who openly identifies as LGBTQ, the only one who is a person of color. I grew up in a working family, so I come in with a perspective that is not common in the place that I work.
“So often, working people and young people, we’re asked to work on other people’s campaigns, we’re asked to wait our turn, but I think the time for turns is over.”
Is Joe Biden a working person? Tell me why you chose to back Biden shortly after he got into the race.
“That is one of the reasons. He grew up in a very working-class family; he was the poorest member of Congress. He is someone who I felt really possessed the character, confidence, and compassion that we needed in this moment.
”Yes, I have an incredibly progressive voting record. There are areas where I would support a more aggressive approach, but I think one of the things I love about Joe Biden is that he really listens. I introduced a bill called ‘Philip’s Law,’ about a young boy in my district, 11 years old, who died by suicide. Suicide prevention is deeply emotional to me. [The bill] would require schools to report a ratio of how many mental health professionals we have per student. I talked to Biden about this in New Hampshire.... He made it part of his LGBTQ plan.”
Do you have political aspirations beyond Harrisburg?
“I’m getting a bunch of people identifying a bunch of different things I could run for, but there’s no other role I could imagine. I went to school at Temple, my parents met on campus, and because we moved a lot, I’ve lived in almost every section of the district. I don’t know if there’s a role that would be as fulfilling as representing literally the community that raised me.”
You’ve been very involved in the Biden campaign and they’ve highlighted your support. What message do you think they’re hoping you get out to voters?
“It’s something I’ve been saying over and over — leadership matters. Good government matters. And we’re in a position right now where there has been a vacuum of leadership. Across the country you see young people at [the] state and local level, congressional, stepping up and filling the void that has been left by the president, and I think Joe Biden is going to be able to fill that void.”
You, Boyle, and Lamb are all speaking. That’s a pretty robust showing from Pennsylvania.
“Pennsylvania is an important state, and I think [Biden] understands, that and he picked a cross-section of people who, in their own different ways, represent communities dealing with those challenges. We have a really big mess on our hands, from the way that Trump’s trade wars bankrupted dairy farmers to the way his racism, sexism, homophobia has affected marginalized groups, to the very real continued progress we need on gun violence and police reform.”
Pre-recording a speech isn’t quite the same as walking onto a huge convention stage. How are you feeling?
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get over the fact that a poor, black, gay kid from North Philly is about to be on this stage. And obviously it’s a bunch of us and it’s prerecorded, but I think that’s the reality — there isn’t just one future leader, there are a bunch of people at all different levels of government who are stepping up to do a bunch of different things.
“My hope is that I can be the role model that I didn’t have growing up. That there’s some gay kid watching somewhere who’s like, ’You know what ... I can do that too.‘”