Bouncing around North Philadelphia as a child, Malcolm Kenyatta quickly realized if he wanted to see change, he had to take action into his own hands.
“Nobody is coming to save us,” Kenyatta told City & State. The state representative, elected as the first openly gay Black state legislator in 2018, wants to ensure people don’t face the same hardships he and his family did.
As a young man living on Woodstock Street, he complained to his mother about their block and the trash in the neighborhood. Her response to him was: “Boy, if you care so much, why don’t you go do something about it?” And he did. Kenyatta went on to become a junior block captain at age 11 and didn’t stop there, going from community activist to state representative.
Now, a 30-year-old candidate for the 2022 Pennsylvania Senate, Kenyatta is bringing that same motivation to the campaign trail. The seat he’s going after, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s, is going to be one of the most competitive races in the coming year. Kenyatta is already one of several Democrats who plan to run, including Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh. The self-described “antithesis” to Toomey, Kenyatta is trying to bring real-world experience to the race that he says others have lacked.
“I'm kind of sick of waiting around for career politicians - who will tell you how much experience they have, how great they are, and how much they care about the needs of working people - to actually do something,” Kenyatta said. “I watched my mom ration her insulin. I watched my dad do the same thing with his epilepsy medicine, and they both died way too young. I moved four or five different times as a kid, because we couldn't make the bills. I know what it's like to not have the gas or electricity on, and to have the tap water cut off. I know what those things mean.”
Kenyatta says for the Democratic Party to be the working people’s party, it can’t “just have a list of talking points,” but must back up campaign promises with effective policy. And at a time when the country is very divided, he sees this as an inflection point for many reasons. Whether the focus is on climate change, criminal justice reform, income inequality, and even the democratic process itself, Kenyatta says now is the time to act. “I think this is one of those moments where either Pennsylvania is going to go in a new direction and have what I call a new day, or we're going to be crushed under the weight of these compounding broken systems,” he said.
The compounding issues he mentioned were at the center of his run for the state house in 2018, but after the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve only been exacerbated. “You pick an issue, and COVID has exposed in it what was already broken,” he said. The disparities exposed during the pandemic revealed how the color of your skin and where you live makes a big difference in your health and economic outcomes. Many people that were considered “essential workers,” he said, were the first to be let go or see a pay cut. He wants to be more than just the working people’s candidate, but the candidate that knows exactly what working people are going through.
“Nobody else in this race was walking over broken pieces of our government’s failures,” Kenyatta said. “This is not about symbolism for symbolism’s sake. It's about us having a party that holistically understands the concerns of Pennsylvania.”
During his time in Harrisburg, Kenyatta has made a name for himself as someone who’s not afraid to speak his mind. He’s received boos, and even some national headlines, for remarks he’s given in opposition to legislation going through the Republican-led legislature. GOP attempts to cut cash assistance, reform election laws, and lift COVID restrictions have been met with criticism across the aisle, and Kenyatta is often the loudest in the room.
“I am somebody who will unequivocally...bite back at some of the worst things that the Republican majority is trying to do. That's often the role that you play in the minority. You're being a goalie,” he said.
For Kenyatta, or any Democrat for that matter, to stand out in this race, they’ll have to be more offensive than defensive. Toomey’s a two-term Republican representing a Pennsylvania that’s very different in the north and west than it is in the southeast. Kenyatta may be well-known in his district and around the Philadelphia region, but he has work to do to build the “broad coalition” he’s striving for.
“I reject this notion that because I’m young and I'm black, that I can't be competitive in every single part of the state. And as I've gone around campaigning across the state, it's been crystal clear to me that that is a trope that is not really grounded in any reality,” Kenyatta said.
The reality in Pennsylvania is that a Black candidate has won a statewide election just once. Tim DeFoor, a Republican, became the first Black man to do so during the 2020 Auditor General election.
Kenyatta has picked up key endorsements from organizations including The Working Families Party and the American Federation of Teachers, as well as Fetterman’s predecessor, Braddock Mayor Chardaé Jones.
In a crowded race that’s only going to get more congested, it’s going to be an uphill battle for every candidate. As he looks to become the first openly gay Black man in the U.S. Senate, Kenyatta doesn’t want his identity to be the focus of his campaign.
“I don't think people care that much what I look like or how I love. What they want to know is whether or not I'm going to fight for them,” he said. “Whether or not I'm going to fight to cancel student loan debt and make college more affordable; whether or not I'm going to fight to make sure every single person has health care; and whether or not we're going to address the existential crisis of our time: the climate crisis.”
With just over a year until the 2022 primary, there’s a lot of time left for more candidates to throw their hat in the ring. As we get closer and the race gets more jam packed, the nation’s eyes, and the fate of the Senate, will be on the Commonwealth.