Campaigns & Elections

Unpacking the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania auditor general

Democrats Malcolm Kenyatta and Mark Pinsley have exchanged barbs as they eye a chance to go up against GOP incumbent Tim DeFoor in the fall.

Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley (left) and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (right).

Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley (left) and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (right). Mark Pinsley for State Senate; Commonwealth Media Services

The primary for one of the commonwealth’s three elected row offices has turned into arguably this month’s most contentious race. Democrats Malcolm Kenyatta and Mark Pinsley are exchanging barbs as they seek the party’s nomination for auditor general and a chance to face the incumbent, Republican Tim DeFoor, this fall.

The role of auditor general – the “chief fiscal watchdog of the commonwealth,” as the department describes itself – is to monitor how public dollars are spent by conducting financial and performance audits. The office’s core function is to review how taxpayer dollars are being used and to release reports that detail findings and recommend policy changes. 

The Democratic primary features state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley, two candidates boasting their political experience – although in different capacities – as the key to unseating DeFoor and bringing a fresh look to the row office that DeFoor has scaled back from his predecessor to focus on the seat’s required functions. 

Malcolm Kenyatta

A Philadelphia native, Kenyatta is making the run for auditor general after spending nearly six years as a state legislator in Harrisburg. Kenyatta, who also became the first openly LGBTQ+ person of color to serve in the General Assembly when he took office in 2019, has made a name for himself as an outspoken progressive who wants to bring his lived experiences and underdog mentality – ones he likens to that of the commonwealth’s working families – to a statewide office. 

“You see us having earned endorsements from the most conservative members of our party to the most liberal progressive members of our party,” Kenyatta told City & State, noting high-profile endorsements from the likes of the American Federation of Teachers and the Pennsylvania State Building and Construction Trades Council. “We need someone who is going to be an unabashed sort of watchdog for working people and is going to advocate for the types of statutory, regulatory and executive changes that allow us to utilize the limited resources we have in ways that make the biggest impact on real people.”

Kenyatta has established some national party bona fides, in part by serving as a surrogate for President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign. He also became the first openly LGBTQ+ person of color to run for U.S Senate in 2022 – a primary bid he lost to now-U.S. Sen. John Fetterman. And just last year, Biden appointed Kenyatta to be chair of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Black Americans.

As for the seat itself, Kenyatta has said he wants it “to ask the tough questions, to help reimagine and streamline government and to build the coalitions to fix what’s wrong.” Both Kenyatta and Pinsley have vowed to take back responsibility for annual school compliance audits from the Pennsylvania Department of Education – a practice DeFoor did away with in 2022. 

Kenyatta has also taken issue with DeFoor’s approach to the office, arguing that predecessors like Eugene DePasquale did more to maximize the role of auditor general and advocate for better use of public funds. 

“If the agenda is ‘only going to do the things that the legislature specifically tasked me with doing,’ you’re missing the type of flexibility that you want out of this office,” Kenyatta told City & State, pushing back on remarks that his legislative experience doesn’t match up with a fiscal role like that of auditor general. “At the end of the day, this is not about your CV … this is about the other CV: What is the clear vision you have laid out for this office?”

Mark Pinsley

Pinsley is no stranger to Pennsylvania politics either. The Lehigh County Controller, now in his second term, was first elected to the position in 2019. He previously served as a commissioner in South Whitehall Township and unsuccessfully ran for state Senate in both 2018 and 2022 as a progressive Democrat. 

A pivotal point in Pinsley’s tenure – one he says sparked his interest in running for a statewide office in auditor general – was his investigation into the “systemic overdiagnosis” of medical child abuse, formerly known as Munchausen syndrome. Pinsley said he spoke to about 15 families who had their children taken away from them and put into care due to the diagnosis; after he released his report, other families immediately began reaching out to him. 

“After I put my report out, my phone literally did not stop ringing. And I found there were 150 families that had been impacted by this,” Pinsley told City & State. “I happen to be a believer that every dollar has an impact on somebody in Pennsylvania. Whether it’s the judges or the people that the judge is ruling on, every dollar matters … I got to see it firsthand – the impact that was happening. I think that was my major motivation to really want to do (this work) on a larger scale.”

Pinsley told City & State that his top priorities as auditor general would include bringing back independent audits of school districts and looking at the effectiveness of workforce development and protection programs. 

“A school should not be auditing itself, just like controllers don’t audit themselves; we have somebody else come in and audit us,” Pinsley said, adding that whether it’s on behalf of students or the state’s workers, he wants to ensure resources and taxpayer dollars are allocated appropriately. 

“The scope of the auditor general (office) lets you take a look at all money coming in and all money going out. And to the extent that you can tie money to it – and you saw Eugene DePasquale do this with his reports – you have an opportunity to at least educate the people. And to me, this is 100% about transparency.”

On the topic of transparency, the race generated controversy when a video emerged of Kenyatta accusing Pinsley of racism – a claim Pinsley said is without merit.

In a statement to news outlets, Kenyatta did not explain the basis for the accusation, instead calling the video “dirty political tricks.” Pinsley said the accusation is false and told Lehigh Valley News that it “doesn’t show good temperament.”

Pinsley also had to deal with questions about the validity of his nominating petitions when Democratic activists alleged that his campaign had forged signatures on his petitions from Chester County. Pinsley said there was no legal complaint filed against his campaign and he has remained on the ballot, noting the Department of State hadn’t taken action regarding any alleged wrongdoing.