Malcolm Kenyatta is the Democrats’ future, so why can’t he be their present?

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta as he runs for U.S. Senate in the May 17 Democratic primary addresses supporters at the El Ranchero Mexican Restaurant in Kennett Square in Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

In the backroom of a popular Mexican restaurant in Chester County’s mushroom capital of Kennett Square, standing in front of florid Mexican folk paintings, a faux red-tile roof, and a half-finished Corona, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta held court for 20 minutes to explain why Pennsylvania Democrats should pick him, a 31-year-old North Philadelphian with a surname forged in 1960s Black radicalism, as their U.S. Senate nominee.

About 20 folks sated by chips and salsa gave their rapt attention as Kenyatta paid little mind to the political horse race that still pegs him as a long shot. Instead, he gave an animated master class on how progressive ideas could mean opportunity and better schools for rising working-class people like Kennett Square’s Latino community — avoiding the policy-wonk jargon that sometimes weighs down his fellow Democrats.

Kenyatta said voters simply want to “look your child or your grandchild in the face and know with a level of certainty their life is going to be a little bit better than yours was, because they got every opportunity and every chance.”

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Yet arguably the most critical Democratic voter of the night’s “meet-and-greet” an hour west of Philadelphia was the one who wasn’t there.

“This is for my mom,” said 20-year-old Keiran Francke, already a Democratic committeeman in Chester County’s London Britain Township while studying political science at the University of Delaware. He grabbed his phone to press the record button. “I’ve been trying to get her on your train for a while, and it just ain’t working. ... The reason is she doesn’t think you can win and beat a Republican in this state.”

'Focus on the future': After some chuckles and the obligatory “Hi, Mom!” from Kenyatta, the candidate made an argument that touched lightly on the practical, like that he’s the only candidate from the largest voting bloc of Philadelphia and its suburbs. Instead, his case hung largely on the notion that only he could energize the young, Black, brown and neglected working-class voters that Democrats need to show up in November. He reminded the room that a Black man with the exotic name of Barack Hussein Obama carried Pennsylvania by a larger margin than President Joe Biden, twice. “Democrats win tough elections,” he said, “when we focus on the future.”

Malcolm Kenyatta is the future of the Democratic Party. In seeking to become America’s youngest senator, he surely faces the hurdles of so many “firsts” in a state where politics is weighed down by its brass-knuckle ward-boss traditions — a Black, openly gay man in a state that has sent only white men to the Senate since 1789. Yet Kenyatta also bridges so many gaps for a party grappling with a severe identity crisis. While pundits fight over whether the Democrats should own their new look as the party of the college educated or woo back the working class, Kenyatta — who washed dishes at age 12 to help his mom get by, then took on $100,000 in debt earning degrees at Temple and Drexel — speaks to a more universal idea: the politics of aspiration.

So the question I had while driving west past ancient cemeteries, Revolutionary War battlegrounds, and fancy horse farms to see Kenyatta in action was: Why isn’t he the Democrats’ present? With the May 17 primary quickly approaching, Kenyatta continues to run well behind the made-for-TV, smart-pol-who-looks-like-a-bouncer candidacy of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. He seems instead in a fight for second place with another western Pennsylvanian, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, the centrist candidate more popular with party bosses than with the rank-and-file.

And yet it is Kenyatta who — to steal Howard Dean’s famous line from his insurgent 2004 presidential campaign — is running for the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Recent debates have spotlighted that the two-term state lawmaker is the only major candidate who wants to halt fracking in the war on climate change, who wants to undo the Trump-era invocation of Title 42 that makes it much harder for migrants to seek asylum at the border, and who would support ending the Electoral College amid broader reforms to fix U.S. democracy.

But Kenyatta is running out of time and — perhaps more important — money, in a race where Fetterman’s appeal to small donors has powered his big lead, to reach a Democratic base that needs to hear about this. In the brief spotlight of two recent television debates, Kenyatta has gone after Fetterman hard over a 2013 incident when — as mayor of Braddock, the struggling Monongahela River steel borough — he mistakenly chased down an innocent Black jogger with a shotgun. I asked him whether attacking Fetterman for the episode made Kenyatta look too political, taking away from his upbeat economic message.

“This is about people’s ability to be self-reflexive,” Kenyatta said. He argued that Fetterman’s more-defensive-than-apologetic responses about the 9-year-old incident raise bigger character concerns — and reminds him of Donald Trump’s accountability dodging. But when speaking to groups of voters like the one in Kennett Square, Kenyatta avoids directly attacking Fetterman or Lamb. Instead, he focuses on what he calls “America’s basic bargain” of giving working-class people opportunities to buy a home, receive proper health care, go to a good school, and get a decent job.

Addressing the industry that lured so many Mexicans and other immigrants to come to Chester County, Kenyatta said: “At the height of this pandemic there were folks who were ... showing up, going out and picking mushrooms in the dark, standing next to each other getting exposed to a deadly virus because they couldn’t work on Zoom. They had to show up. ... We celebrate them or we put up a sign, they’re a hero. You could save money on the damn sign and actually pay people what they’re worth.”

Indeed, Kenyatta was making a political statement just by showing up at the El Ranchero restaurant and talking largely to a Latino voting bloc that can get overwhelmed by the affluent sprawl of surrounding Chester County, even as newer generations become more politically active. It’s why the candidate brought out supporters like Sara Dickens-Trillo of Casa Guanajuato, which organizes Kennett Square’s Cinco de Mayo and other festivals, and Carlos Barraza, an assistant district attorney and rising star in Chester County Democratic circles.

Barraza said his “man crush” on Kenyatta began after watching “the disconnect” at a party fundraiser at the swank Desmond Hotel in Malvern, where most of the guests arrived in a BMW or Mercedes, while Kenyatta was the only candidate “who stopped to take a moment to recognize all the people who were there working.”

Best pitch: And yet Kenyatta’s biggest hurdle remains the fears of base Democrats like Francke’s mother. Can he win over a certain type of working-class voter — the white people who narrowly delivered the state to Trump in 2016? Kenyatta confronts the issue head-on. He cites evidence that he is winning some white working-class voters who backed Trump at least the first time in 2016, and that when he meets rural voters they see “I don’t have to look like them or love like them to understand their life.” But his best pitch is that he’s giving young and marginalized voters who should be the heart and soul of the Democratic Party a reason to show up.

“We can’t be the party that says, ‘Well, we believe Black Lives Matter, but we can’t nominate any Black people because there are some racists out there somewhere who will be upset,’” he said. “We’re not going to allow the Republicans to pick the Republican nominee and the Democratic nominee.”

Whatever happens on May 17, Kenyatta’s journey to statewide candidate, with a large following on social media and from his appearances on MSNBC, is already next-level stuff for the grandson of a famed 1960s civil rights activist, the late Muhammad Kenyatta, who had to endure FBI harassment while fighting for basic voting rights in Mississippi. I asked Kenyatta how he sees himself carrying forward the work of his grandfather, who died when he was only 1½ years old.

He told me a story about a time a few years ago when his grandmother — Muhammad’s widow, Mary Kenyatta — called him up in tears after watching a TV clip of him speaking in Harrisburg as a freshman lawmaker. She said she “called to say, ‘I’m sorry, so sorry. I heard you talking on the House floor and you were talking about some of the things your grandfather and I were organizing about decades ago.’ She said, ‘I thought we would have fixed some of this stuff by now.’”

In 2022, Muhammad Kenyatta’s future of voting rights and equal opportunity for all Americans is now the future that Malcolm Kenyatta is fighting for in his U.S. Senate race. But it’s so hard not to ask: When is the future going to be now?

— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.