Election 2022: State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta on Running for PA Senate | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, November 30th, 2023  

Election 2022: State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta on Running for PA Senate

“Listen, I don’t believe you can lead people you don’t love.”

Apr 06, 2022 Web Exclusive
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Pennsylvania is a mystery. One side of the commonwealth doesn’t like the other. The middle doesn’t like either side. It’s a place full of contradictions and cognitive dissonance. Like America itself, and it’s gorgeous, filled with history, and a couple hundred years worth of grudges. PA is forever a work trapped in progress, but it has a chance to surprise even its most hardened cynics.

Malcolm Kenyatta’s origin starts in the ‘60s, when his grandfather, a civil rights activist, changed his name from Jones to Kenyatta. His father was a social worker and his mother was an honest-to-god saint. Through his formative years his family was subjected to the daily struggle of the working poor. They had to dodge a lot of eviction notices. He was born at Temple University Hospital and later graduated from the same university. He then got his Masters at Drexel. Malcolm Kenyatta is Pure Philly. He’s tough, good-natured, aggressive, and has a sense of humor. It can’t get more Philly than that.

He is a communicator. He’s a poet and activist. A happy warrior and a fierce fighter. Kenyatta was a keynote speaker at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. And he’s only 31! Long story short; he is a star on the rise. He is one of those young politicians who’s worth keeping tabs on. Malcolm Kenyatta is way ahead of his time. He’s what’s next.

Steve King (Under the Radar): You grew up poor in Philly; you’ve spoken a lot about your family’s struggles. You got into organizing before you were a teenager. You’re pretty self-actualized. What was the catalyst for your activism early on?

Malcolm Kenyatta: I think what’s frustrating for so many people, it was for me as well, I grew up in a working poor family, both of my parents had jobs. Obviously, when they separated that meant that more of the burden was certainly on my mom.

For me, my involvement started with a situation with my mom. I was living on this new block, the second house we’d lived in since my parents had separated, so we couldn’t afford to stay there, and we ended up on West Woodstock Street, which is in my now State House district, believe it or not. I just remember coming home one day, full of pre-teen angst and frustration about everything that was going on in my life, being in this house on this new block and just not happy with the conditions on the block, with the trash, with the blight, and I came home and I was in the kitchen with my mom complaining about it, and I’ll never forget, she was lighting a Newport cigarette on the stove, listening to me as I’m going through all these things that I hate and she says, “You know what, boy? If you care so much, why don’t you go do something about it?” and I was like “Oh, I thought you were going to give me a hug but that works too.” Tough love.

And I ran for Junior Block Captain. It was the first thing I ever did in terms of getting civically engaged. It gave me this great sense of two things that I’ve carried with me. One: that no one’s coming to save us. No one’s coming to save our communities, who have been unable to have equal access to what I call the big-ticket American Bargain, the idea that you can have one good job, backed up by a union or environment where your small business can start and thrive, that your kids are going to go to a good public school that’s well-resourced and safe. That if you get sick, you can afford to go to the doctor and fill the prescription when you leave the appointment, and that you’re able to retire with a level of dignity in a house you are able to afford in the first place, in a neighborhood that’s safe and clean. That’s not real for most people, and what it takes to make that real is recognizing that we’re not waiting on somebody else to come. That it’s going to require us to do something.

And the second thing I keep with me is that we don’t need anybody to come and save us. There’s something incredibly powerful about building a coalition that is big enough and bold enough to meet the challenge of making that basic American Bargain. So that people can access what true American freedom is all about. Freedom to actually pursue your happiness because the basics are taken care of. That’s where I started.

Conor Lamb is a good man, but he’s kind of a Manchin-lite. Fetterman checks all of the boxes, but he’s not in the best standing with the party because he’s a wild dude. I mean, the party went out of their way to not endorse a candidate this time. What do you offer PA that’s different from Fetterman or Lamb?

I think that there are more challenges with both of their candidacies than you mentioned here. We are either going to have this conversation in May or we’re going to have it in November. It’s a real problem to have a nominee who was an armed vigilante in a community chasing down the first person they saw. That’s a real problem. It’s not a problem only if he knew that the individual was Black. It didn’t matter what the color of his skin was. In his own words at the time the Lieutenant Governor said, “I may have committed a crime” and he was not held accountable for the potential crime because he was the mayor, and because that privilege shielded him, and that’s an incredible challenge that I think is going to be used as a weight to try to make sure there’s not the type of robust turnout we need, particularly among young minority voters, not to mention the fact that the Lieutenant Governor has never been an actual legislator.

If you’re going to go to a body that doesn’t always feel like the most deliberative body, I think it’s pretty important that you understand the legislative process in a significant way. Being mayor of this town was primarily a ceremonial role; they have a strong Council format, and being Lieutenant Governor is primarily a ceremonial role as well. So, he’s never been tested in the way that we really need to be.

You mentioned Conor. Conor is the traditional inside-baseball politician who we’re all used to and know very well, who will say anything (depending on the election) to try to win. In his first campaign he wouldn’t even mention that he was a Democrat, and now he’s saying that he’s the only real Pennsylvanian Democrat. But I think it’s clear; Joe Manchin, just last year, was hosting fundraisers for Conor Lamb. He wasn’t hosting one for me.

So when I think about what it’s going to take to win this election, it’s going to take somebody who’s able, first of all, to bring our party together, and what you’ve seen with our supporters is that our supporters are incredibly diverse. Yes, I’m proud that every progressives organization that weighed in on this race has endorsed me. I’m proud of all the folks and organized labor, SEIU, the multiple AFSCME Locals and Teamsters Locals, the American Federation of Teachers…so many of them have stepped-up and endorsed our campaign, and I’m proud you’ve seen us pick up more endorsements than anybody else in this race. We have more endorsements from my elected colleagues at the state level, multiple members of Congress. And so, we feel like we’ve built the type of coalition that can bring our party together when it’s over, because we’re a big tent party, but I also feel like because of my experience, understanding what happens when government doesn’t work, understanding what it looks like and feels like when the basic bargain is not accessible to your family.

I’m going to be best able to communicate with those voters who aren’t firm Democrats or firm Republicans, who are Independent. They’re saying, “Hey, I don’t buy what anybody’s talking about because I don’t trust that any of these elected officials will actually serve me in a serious way.” I think people look at me and say, “Here’s this guy who does not represent the past. He represents the future. He represents the type of working-class leadership that we desperately need right now in the Senate.”

You’ve got the most endorsements in the race, like the SEIU, but you’ve also got a lot of celebrity endorsements and contributors. Just the name Malcolm is going to scare some of the old white people in PA, and that’s before they learn anything about you. Do you think some of our more boisterous liberals could hurt you in the general election?

I reject the notion, completely, that Pennsylvanians aren’t going to vote for me because I’m Black or because I’m gay. Listen, I don’t believe you can lead people you don’t love. I love Pennsylvania with everything that I have and I reject this notion that folks are so racist and so bigoted and so whatever else that they would not be for me.

Pennsylvania is a state that elected a man named Barack Hussein Obama, twice. Pennsylvania is a place where working people are looking for somebody that represents the future, who represents a departure from the status quo. I represent that. People are going to judge me not on my name, but based on what I’m going to do to make life better for their families, and I can’t wait to prove that point when I win this election.

What is it about PA that makes parts of the commonwealth dislike each other? The politics of the east are different from the politics in the west of the state. They’re a little needlessly antagonistic. Why? Is it just the size of the state? It’s got to be it, right?

I think the powerful thing about Pennsylvania is we are most reflective of America as a whole. If you look at us from a socio-economic perspective, from a racial perspective, from the disbursement of folks who have a certain faith background, or people who don’t worship at all. Pennsylvania is America, and I think that we recognize that this experiment in democracy has not come without bumps, but it is the best version of government that I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Pennsylvania is a place that is home to big ideas. The foundation of our current form of government was ratified right here in our Commonwealth, and that was not without fierce debates. And that’s why we desperately need someone to bring us together, and the different distinctions that I have, I’ve often heard and communicated as a demerit against my campaign. That I’m Black and young and gay. That is one of the things that’s going to make my candidacy the most effective in terms of bringing people together. By virtue of who I am, I inhabit different diverse groups and that helps me to know one thing to be true: that we are not as divided as people think we are, and that we are more united about having a government work for our individual families than folks want us to believe. And I’m going to be able to go around and tell that story to people because I know it to be true.

I mean, to a lot of people like me, you are literally the future that liberals want, trademark or whatever. But do you think you might be too progressive for PA?

I’ve never understood how to respond to that question, frankly, because I don’t know what’s too progressive about making sure that people don’t have to work two and a half jobs. I don’t know if it’s being too progressive about standing up for organized labor or making sure that people can go to the doctor or ensuring that their kid can go to a good school or that they can afford childcare. I don’t know what’s progressive per se about taking on the pharmaceutical companies. Yeah, I’m progressive and proudly so, but I don’t get how anything that I’m outlining is outside of the mainstream. And what I would argue is the fact that what I’m saying is squarely within the mainstream [and] highlights the fact that there are probably more progressives than we think out there. I think we need to say screw the different titles. I think people care about what I’m going to do, and what I’m going to do is fight for their family in the areas that I just outlined and in all the ways that we’re going to end up debating in Washington.

Fetterman has got a knack for self-promotion; Lamb is great at… something, I’ve been told. How do you beat a milquetoast white man and a seeming force of nature like Fetterman? Like, how do you beat those two dudes?

I would do it by being myself and talking about things that actually matter to people and not getting distracted with anything else, by being disciplined, and by talking about what I know to be true.

You’ve introduced legislation that would allow counties to pre-canvas mail-in ballots, so voters who make technical mistakes on their ballots, have an opportunity to correct whatever the issue may be with them. I love this idea, but to Republicans, it’s going to sound like vote-harvesting and ripe for fraud, blah blah blah. What would your response be to that?

I would say that I’m not going to take any advice too seriously, any feedback from people who wanted to overturn our entire democracy because their preferred candidate didn’t win.

When we make laws around fire prevention we don’t reach out to arsonists and say, “Hey. What do you think is the best thing to do?” When we make policy about fraud we don’t reach out to con artists and ask them about how to draft policy in this regard. The idea of widespread voter fraud is a complete lie and I’m not going to paddle over to Fantasy Island to try to have a completely unserious conversation with people who have proven time and again their lack of reverence to the truth and their lack of fidelity to free and fair elections.

Pre-canvassing is about allowing counties to count ballots that have already come in, so we’re not waiting days and days and days to get the result. Republicans were able to use the delay in counting the ballots as proof that fraud exists. The Big Lie is a big load of bullshit and I’m not going to treat it like anything other than that.

It’s like, after every time they lose a presidential election, they use all of these social issues or fraud to scare people. Right now it’s critical race theory and trans kids, but while they’re saying that, they’re clearing the voting rolls and no one ever catches on. They’re grabbing with both hands and no one is stopping them.

I’m grateful that in Pennsylvania I have a record of stopping them from abusing the legislative process, and to stymie them and their worst ideas. And this is another difference between me and the Lieutenant Governor. It’s nice that he was on TV talking about it and putting out little clips about what was happening but he had nothing to do with it actually. I was the person in the room legislating around this issue. He was not.

That’s why the experience that I offer is incredibly important in this moment, when you have a threat to democracy and we want our best fighter in the room. And I’ve proven that I’m an absolutely fearless and effective fighter for democracy. That’s how most people know me, because of the work that I did to make sure that the election was not overturned.

The State Senate hasn’t really treated him with the most amount of respect either.

Well, you know what? I would say this: Not one of his Democratic colleagues in the State Senate have endorsed him. Not one. There are zero examples. So the people who work with him the closest aren’t backing him, and it has nothing to do with the fact that the establishment doesn’t like him because of anything. It has to do with the fact that the people who work with him the closest don’t think he can do the job. Multiple state senators have endorsed me, on the other hand.

Republicans have effectively killed Roe v. Wade, they’re trying to topple democracy, they’re going after trans kids. This stuff makes my blood boil and I’m not in one of the first demographics on their hit list. You’ve recently gotten married. They’re not going to stop until marriage equality is overturned. They’re not all saying it, but we know what they’re thinking. How do you negotiate with these people?

My approach is to not join anyone on Fantasy Island. I’m not going. I don’t want to visit. All the Yelp reviews look awful. But I’m more than happy to meet people in reality and craft serious policy proposals that can move Pennsylvania in a way that makes sense. But on certain issues, like you mentioned, there is no place to negotiate. We just have to absolutely win. We have to win. We have to beat them. And not only do we need to beat Republicans, but we need a bigger, bolder majority. It’s unconscionable to me that the Senate has not already taken up the Women’s Protection Act, which would codify the protections of Roe. It’s unconscionable to me that the Senate hasn’t taken up the Equality Act, which would enshrine some of the protections for LGBTQ folks. If we had more openly gay members in the Senate, maybe we would have addressed some of these things already. If we had more than zero African American representatives from places like Pennsylvania, then we’d be talking more about the maternal mortality crisis and how it relates to Black women, particularly in communities across Pennsylvania where we’re seeing Black women die at alarming rates during childbirth.

Even with all of these endorsements and big names, your fundraising could be a little better. With the exception of Obama, Black candidates have been historically snubbed by white contributors. In a state as large as PA, how can you expect to stay competitive?

We’ve stayed competitive and I think that’s clear by the fact that you and I are talking, that I’m going to be on the debate stages, and that we pick up support every single day. Certainly, in every campaign you understand money is an important part of the campaign, and that money has allowed us to build an incredible team with people who are committed to going all across the Commonwealth, across the country with me, talking about the message of making the basic American Bargain real for every single family.

I don’t think you can buy this election and some of what I offer as a candidate is something you’ll never be able to purchase. It’ll never be for sale. It will never be available at any store; you kind of just had to be there. So when people go to vote, my name will be right on the ballot just like everybody else. People will see who I am throughout these debates, and have seen who I am through these conversations.

We have raised a significant amount of money for a first-time statewide federal candidate. I’m incredibly proud of that. I’m proud to have the second most individual donors, proud that my average contribution is just 10 bucks. And we’re going to continue to talk about what matters to people and not get caught up on these metrics that matter to people inside the Beltway.

No voter cares how much money I’ve raised. They care about how much money I’ll help their family have, because we make it easier for them to organize on the job, and how much money I’m going to help them save by making sure Universal Pre-K and universal child care is a reality for folks; how much money young people are going to save because I’m going to be standing up for us canceling student debt…and the list goes on and on and on.

So I’m not worried at all, but I can tell you the establishment is very worried and they should be because when we win, we will not be bound and tied to folks who are fine with everything as it is going right now. Everything as it’s going right now isn’t fine. If you are Big Pharma, or Big Oil, or Big Gas, if you are fine with the status quo, then you aren’t going to be supportive of a campaign like mine. And you probably shouldn’t because what we are going to do is talk about an advanced policy that can help working people, not just folks who are well-off or well-connected. If that pisses people off who could write me big checks…I’m not in this campaign for them.

The SEIU is a big deal for any Democratic candidate. It also leads to a ton of money. But 2016 made it pretty clear that union members were following the bosses. We have workers’ unions fighting vaccine mandates. This isn’t like a cop union endorsing Trump. These are real workers. What have you been hearing from actual union members?

That’s the power of the endorsements that I’ve got. These haven’t been top down endorsements and there are other folks up in this race who have gotten top down endorsements, where the leaders say this is what we’re doing, and that might not be reflective of where their members are.

The SEIU and so many others of the organizations that have endorsed us, have been a member driven process and we know that with that endorsement not only is there going to come the support of the biggest contributor from an organized labor perspective, but we also know it comes with the support of the members themselves who had an active role inside in deciding what the SEIU was going to do. What District Council 33 and AFSCME local was going to do and the list goes on and on and on.

So we know that the support we’ve earned and has been the support that is from the ground up, and we know that those folks are going to be people who are going to be for us and that’s why we’re actually the most viable candidate, because we inspire the working-class people that maybe aren’t big contributors, but you know what? They can vote and they can talk to their neighbors, and that’s free.

You went out of your way to not subtweet Lt. Governor Fetterman for skipping a forum with Black clergy members. But he’s not not doing well with Black voters. He was the mayor of a predominantly Black small town for over a decade. He’s got Allegheny County locked down, I think. This starts to look like a battle of two cities, with you and Philly on one side and Lamb, but really Fetterman (let’s be honest), in Pittsburgh. Who comes out on top in that dynamic?

I don’t buy that at all. This is a race that is going to be won by the person who shows up and answers the hard questions and tells voters what they’re going to do to make their lives better.

I have said multiple times; what if the Lieutenant Governor would leave the candidate protection program and get out and really engage with folks. I don’t think the Lieutenant Governor can wrap himself in his money and ship himself to the general election. That’s not how it’s going to work. We’re within 60 days here. We are going to prove what I’m saying to be one hundred percent true. We’ve seen polling on this, and actually I’m winning Black voters by a margin of 70-plus percentage points. I’m not the Lieutenant Governor and I think a town as small as Braddock, with voter turnout of a couple hundred people, maybe low thousands in every election, that’s not reflective of where Black voters are at all. And in almost every election he’s won by incredibly small margins, including his first election by like one vote. So this is a small town that I have grown to really love because I’ve been out there so much.

Me too. It’s a cool town.

I like Braddock. It’s a really cool place and it’s wonderful and I’m excited and grateful for all the support we’ve earned in Braddock, even though this guy’s been there a long time. And that speaks to the fact that I have made my approach to go everywhere to talk to everybody and to never assume that voters are going to be for somebody else over me. I don’t assume that everybody in Philly is going to be for me. We have to earn every vote, and so does he, and I hope he gets to the business of showing up to these forums and debates, where they have an opportunity to hear from all of us at one time and to go back and forth about our visions.

You’re in favor of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For The People Act. If Democrats, with one-party control of all of Congress and the White House, can’t even pass Biden’s Build Back Better campaign promise, what makes us think we can pass all of this other stuff before Republicans bring everything to a halt next year?

What makes me think we can do it is if we’ve got to get new, fresh leadership. If we’ve got fresh leadership and if I’m elected, I believe strongly that we can represent that new leadership and that’s what it’s going to take to get these things accomplished so I-

I’m sure you had a good answer but the phone’s cutting out. You might be able to hear me but I can’t hear you…

At this point in the interview some of PA’s notoriously bad cell coverage begins to stall the conversation with cut-outs and dropped sound. Anyone who’s ever tried to have a talk on the phone with friends, family, or politicians in PA, knows what I’m talking about. We eventually get back on the phone.

This is the nature of trying to do interviews with people in PA…

This is why we need Build Back Better so much. Let me say this, I believe we’re going to get it done. If we solve the math problem that we have, right? We need a bigger, bolder majority so we can have that. We can have a bigger, bolder majority where Joe Manchin doesn’t have an effective pocket-veto over any piece of legislation or any nominee.

You’ve got a special relationship with your state’s history. Your grandfather was a civil rights activist and scholar. He literally gave your family the name Kenyatta. You’re the first openly gay person of color elected in your state’s history. You were one of many rising stars to deliver the 2020 DNC Keynote. You’re making history with this race. Do you feel the weight of it at all from time to time, or do you kind of compartmentalize it and move on?

That’s a good question. It’s certainly not lost on me that I’ll be the first openly gay man ever elected to the US Senate. I’ll be the first African American to ever represent our Commonwealth. That’s not lost on me. I also recognize that that’s just something that will happen. Not by virtue of me being elected. That’s not why I’m running but it’s a fringe benefit of us selecting new dynamic leadership.

What is always exciting to me, is it’s not ever about the history that I make. It’s about all of the other people who’ve been told they’re not the right candidate, this is not the right time, they don’t have the “experience,” they didn’t go to the right schools, you weren’t backed by the right inside-baseball umpire, on and on and on. It’s going to encourage a lot of other people to say, “Hey, you know what? I can run too. I can run too.” That is incredibly inspiring because I have met and I know I will meet countless more who said, “You know, Malcolm, I saw you run and I recognize that I can run in my community,” and if we all just focus on making our little corner of the world better, then we’ll all be in a better place.


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