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Malcolm Kenyatta discussing his candidacy for U.S. Senate. Photo: Nigel Thompson AL DÍA News. 
Malcolm Kenyatta discussing his candidacy for U.S. Senate. Photo: Nigel Thompson AL DÍA News. 

Malcolm Kenyatta’s non-traditional Senate campaign

PA State Rep. Kenyatta told AL DÍA about his preparation for a Senate run and the policies he wants to push.

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Pennsylvania will be key for Democrats to retrain or expand their Senate majority in the 2022 midterm elections. 

After the announcement of Republican Senator Patrick Toomey’s intent to retire from public office came last October, many candidates have thrown their names into the mix to capture an open seat in the swing state. 

One of those candidates is State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, the first openly-LGBTQ person of color ever elected to either chamber of the state’s General Assembly. 

He won his seat in 2018 and represents the 181st district, which includes a significant portion of North Philadelphia. It is the third poorest district in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Kenyatta’s attraction to public service and social activism are attributes that can be seen in his family. 

Through economic hardships, he was raised by his father who was a social worker and mother who was a home healthcare aid. 

State Rep. Kenyatta believes that the story of his upbringing will be the asset to help him connect with voters and plans to stay away from identity politics. 

“I don’t think people have to look like me or love like me to know that I’m going to fight for them… I think that the perspective that I bring is critical not just to have ornamental diversity, it is about policy,” the Senate candidate told Al DÍA News.

Muhammad I. Kenyatta, the state legislator’s grandfather, was a civil rights advocate who promoted Black participation in Southern politics and was targeted by the F.B.I.’s Cointelpro program. 

“There’s nothing that is predestined about America or our success and my grandfather certainly understood that. That’s part of the reason why he was so often shaking the table to take what I call ‘the American Promise’ and make it real for people,” he said.   

A rising star

The 30-year-old is considered a rising star in his party and that’s especially true after he was asked to speak at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. 

Despite garnering notable recognition through an array of media appearances, he is still questioned about his lack of political experience when campaigning to serve in the upper chamber in Congress. 

Some of the other candidates in the race include Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners Val Arkoosh and State Sen. Sharif Street, who is the son of former Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street.  

“We’ve tried it before with folks who have spent their entire lives in government and then they go to the Senate and we get the same political gridlock, the same elitist disconnection from what’s happening on the ground,” Kenyatta said. 

Despite this, the young legislator was an early endorser of Joe Biden’s third campaign for president. The current commander-in-chief is regarded as a moderate and spent over 36 years in the Senate. 

This is set to divide hardcore progressive voters in the Keystone state who were more supportive of the platforms of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. 

The endorsement might seem like a contradiction of his beliefs, but there are more parallels between them than one would expect. 

Biden ran to represent Delaware in the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29, and after serving on the New Castle County Council for less than two years. After being counted out for his youth and inexperience, he defeated a two-term Republican incumbent. 

Kenyatta wants to use being an outsider to deliver change on longstanding systemic issues by dismantling the political gridlock he believes is caused by more traditional senatorial candidates. 

Some of his policy goals include raising the minimum wage, expanding access to affordable health care, and making major investments in efforts to combat climate change. 

“These issues are popular with everybody, but the millionaires in the Senate and a part of that is that they don’t have skin in the game. If we don’t raise the minimum wage, what the hell does that matter to them in a real personal way,” the state legislator said. 

Family experience drives action

Here, Kenyatta recounted why needed to get his first job at the age of 12 cleaning dishes  to help his family pay the bills. Growing up with neighbors who lived paycheck to paycheck, he knows the effect that raising the federal minimum wage can have on everyday people. 

He can speak to the healthcare crisis in America because both his parents were also the victims of the increasing cost of prescription drugs. 

Rationing insulin led to his mother’s health deteriorating over time. His father took medication for his epilepsy and after he got laid off during the Great Recession, he ceased buying them. He eventually passed after a seizure.  

Kenyatta’s own life experience dictates much of the work he has done in the State House and the policies he chooses to promote in his current campaign. 

Supporting Medicare for All, a universal, single-payer healthcare model, is personal to him because of the stories of people like his parents or constituents being uninsured or underinsured. 

Fetterman is the only other candidate in the race who publicly endorses Medicare for All, an idea that grew in popularity after Sen. Sanders’ 2016 run for president.  

Kenyatta is also a strong advocate for raising the federal minimum wage to $15, and continues to fight for the Commonwealth’s minimum wage to be increased. 

In March a clip of him from a committee hearing went viral as he confronted a representative from the Commonwealth Foundation because of her opposition to raising the minimum wage and belief that the policy should not exist.

“You are clearly, you know, an evangelist when it comes to not paying workers fairly,” the legislator said. 

A bipartisan bill aimed at ensuring that students in Pennsylvania public schools had adequate access to mental health resources was introduced by Kenyatta in his first term. 

Known as “Phillip’s Law”, it was named after a child in his district who committed suicide after struggling to connect with resources in his neighborhood. The legislation ultimately failed to become a law.

A Do Something Democrat

Many of Kenyatta's proposals would be cataloged as “progressive,”  but he prefers to identify as a “Do Something Democrat” instead of boxing himself into that label. 

“I understand why people want to throw folks into different buckets, but I don’t have any permanent friends or permanent enemies, I have permanent interests on how we lift up communities. I will work with whoever to get stuff done,” he said. 

The young legislator also believes that striving for moderation or compromise does not necessarily deliver political efficacy. He raised the examples of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-VW) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) stalling Biden’s agenda by wanting everything to have bipartisan support. 

“The decisions that they’re making right now to not be bold, to not use the power that we have to deliver for the American people — They are pissing away our democracy and that is unacceptable,” Kenyatta said.  

Not wanting to attach him to a specific ideology or flank of the Democratic party is an non-traditional way of running a campaign, but Kenyatta is determined to stick to addressing policies. 

Appealing to Latinos

Another unconventional part of his bid for Senate is how he wants to appeal to the Latinos, which represent nearly 8% of the Keystone state’s population. 

“We have to treat the incredibly diverse Latino community with a level of respect and nuance. I get so frustrated when people want to talk to the Black community they only want to talk about criminal justice reform. And when we talk to the Latino we only want to talk about immigration as if that’s the only issue people have,” Kenyatta said. 

He believes that people who think that Latinos have immigration as their top priority, view the demographic in a “myopic” way when they too are affected by other national public policy matters. They may even be worse off in many cases to systemic injustices. 

Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Pew Research surveyed Latino voters on which issues they considered to be “very important.” 

More than three quarters of registered Latino voters selected the economy and health care while 59% of them said immigration. 

According to an UnidosUS report, nearly one in every five Latinos in America lack health insurance and they are overrepresented in low-wage jobs where they are oftentimes exploited. 

Kenyatta hopes to connect with this community and many others as he hopes to become Pennsylvania’s first Black and openly-LGBTQ Senator. 

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