Malcolm Kenyatta needed a job.
It was the summer of 2018, and Kenyatta was a 28-year-old community activist who had just won a Democratic primary for a state House seat in North Philadelphia. But he was still months away from the state paycheck that would come once he was sworn into office.
So State Sen. Sharif Street, a fellow Democrat representing an overlapping North Philly district, hired Kenyatta for three months as a constituent-relations aide.
Fast forward three years, and Kenyatta and Street both want the same job. Kenyatta is running in Pennsylvania’s critical U.S. Senate race, while Street has formed a committee to explore a run for the same opening.
Of course, elections aren’t like a deli counter. There’s no place to take a ticket and wait until your turn to campaign is called.
Nevertheless, the talk of North Philadelphia Democratic political circles is whether Kenyatta jumped the line by declaring his candidacy in February, knowing Street had an interest in the race. (Street has said he’ll make a final decision about running in the fall.)
The chatter in some traditional Democratic factions is that Street helped launch Kenyatta’s political career, though it’s not clear how, and neither wanted to discuss it.
Both men are Black, and nobody interviewed for this story was eager to pit them against each other. While they hail from overlapping political territories, sharing more than 30,000 voters, a generational divide and a perceived lack of respect have stoked the strained relations.
“There is in general this feeling that Malcolm jumped Sharif’s spot in line, which is a very old-school way of Philadelphia thinking,” said one Democratic political consultant familiar with Street’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “Beneath that is this thinking that Street helped make Malcolm a state representative.”
Adding to the generational tension is the fact the two lawmakers cut very different political styles — Street a mild-mannered vice chair of the state Democratic Party steeped in traditional political coalitions, Kenyatta a fiery and charismatic orator more known for turning viral social media moments into cable news appearances.
Ryan Boyer, head of the politically powerful Laborers District Council, has heard the rumblings of discontent but also sees an opportunity in a race with Kenyatta and Street.
Boyer said there’s a growing sense in North Philadelphia that Kenyatta may face a primary challenge to keep his state House seat next year. (Both Kenyatta and Street are allowed to seek reelection while also running for Senate.)
“I know some elders in North Philly feel that way and Malcolm is going to have to answer for that in some way,” Boyer said. “I think it will make Sharif sharper. I think competition is good.”
Neither is seen in political camps as a top-tier candidate, currently representing a relatively small slice of voters and raising less money than other contenders.
Neither was eager to discuss talk of friction between them. Street declined an interview request. Kenyatta said he and Street “have been friends for a long time.”
That was a consistent theme for Kenyatta. Asked whether he considers Street a mentor, Kenyatta focused on their friendship. He did the same when asked about his time on Street’s staff or the senator’s past support for his political ambitions.
It’s not uncommon for state House candidates to work in other legislative offices, learning the ropes before taking office. It is unusual for a former staffer to run in the same primary as their former boss.
The Democratic consultant, who doesn’t agree with critics who think Kenyatta has been disloyal to Street, said Kenyatta just believed “this is his shot, this is his moment.” Kenyatta has enjoyed a modest but growing national profile from being a 2020 campaign surrogate for Joe Biden.
“He’s not going to sit back and miss his moment for Sharif,” the consultant said.
Boyer sees Kenyatta as an ambitious competitor who got into the race early to boost his name recognition because he doesn’t have the political relationships enjoyed by Street, the son of former Mayor John F. Street.
“Let’s face it: If Malcolm was going to do it, he had to go early and Sharif didn’t have to,” said Boyer, whose union has donated to both candidates’ state legislative campaigns but hasn’t endorsed in the Senate race.
Kenyatta’s 181st House District, which includes parts of North Philadelphia, Spring Garden and Northern Liberties, is the southern heel of Street’s larger 3rd Senate District, which stretches from Roxborough and Oak Lane south through North Philadelphia to Fairmount.
While they share a base, the generational divide in their campaigns is in some ways larger than the 17 years separating them. Street appears to be operating directly from the political playbook his father used to lead City Council and then the city. Kenyatta is focused on rising to the moment, taking on political fights in public forums and then sharing it all on social media.
Street, who had been musing publicly about the race since January, announced an exploratory committee in April packed with big-name Democratic establishment players like city party chair Bob Brady, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, and State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa. That committee has more than 100 members, including Boyer, other elected officials party leaders, clergy, and union heads. It is a roster of the Democratic establishment.
Kenyatta came up an activist, his family’s poverty a driving factor in his personal narrative. He won a five-candidate primary in 2018 and then defeated Street’s uncle, former State Sen. T. Milton Street, who ran as a Republican in the general election.
Kenyatta’s district includes the Street family political base, including parts of the City Council district John F. Street represented before winning his first race for mayor in 1999.
Sharif Street ran unsuccessful races for state representative and City Council before working as a top aide to a state senator and practicing law. He won his state Senate seat in 2016 with no primary or general election competition.
Kenyatta has crisscrossed the state with an early sweep of endorsements, drawing attention to himself and to the support he has found from elected officials far from his hometown. Staying on brand, he has pushed the virality of these moments as proof of the vitality of his campaign.
Kenyatta raised about $500,000 during the three-month period that ended after June, while Street raised just $245,000. But both trailed far behind Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is widely seen as the early Democratic front-runner, as well as Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, another top contender.
Kenyatta and Street would each make history. Either would be the first Black U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Kenyatta would be the first openly gay senator from Pennsylvania. Street would be the first Muslim senator.
Mustafa Rashed, a Democratic political consultant and City Hall lobbyist, noted that Kenyatta has been looking past Street in the race so far, focusing his line of attack on Fetterman.
“Malcolm Kenyatta has to catch lightning in a bottle,” Rashed said. “He’s looking to capitalize on the moment.”