North Philly Special

A quick Q&A with North Philly’s Malcolm Kenyatta on his U.S. Senate Run

Malcolm Kenyatta is hoping to make history again. In 2018, he became the first openly gay Black man elected to the PA legislature when he became state representative for the 181st District.

He’s now running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate where, if he wins, he’d be breaking the same barrier in that chamber as well. He took a few minutes away from campaigning against the likes of John Fetterman and Connor Lamb to speak with our own POC.

Was running for the senate your plan all along or was it more of an opportunity presenting itself?

It wasn’t the plan all along. When Pat Toomey announced he wasn’t going to run, I started thinking about it based on my experience as a legislator and as a person who comes from the type of community that’s often ignored. I also decided that it’d be better to elect a working-class person than  someone who claimed to speak for working class folks.

In its recent article about you, Philly Weekly used the headline “gay, black and electable.” What do you want readers to get from that title?

Well, I’ve heard some pundits say Pennsylvania’s not ready to elect a Black person, especially not a Black, gay person. Those supposed experts don’t understand that most Pennsylvanians don’t care about the color of my skin or who I love. They want to know what I’m going to do for the people they love.  They want someone to fight for and uphold what I call America’s basic bargain — having one good job, backed up by a union; a house you can afford in a community that’s safe and clean; having a good public school in your area, affordable healthcare, and the ability to retire with dignity.

Your win as a state rep was historic in a couple ways. It made you one of the youngest reps in PA history and the first openly LGBTQ person of color as well. With so many “don’t say gay” bills being proposed across the country, is there a chance that PA might be advancing any similar legislation?

It’s already happening. Just recently a bill was advanced to ban trans folks from playing sports. And I said on the House floor that the bill was pathetic and that anybody who voted for it was equally pathetic. This idea that we are going to target a group of folks who have already endured marginalization and violence by putting an additional spotlight on them is cruel.

And to be clear the bill itself is cynical. It’s called the Protect Women’s Sports Act, but it’s got nothing to do with protecting women’s sports. The same reps behind this bill didn’t want to deal with equal pay for women in sports. They didn’t want to deal with making sure that training facilities for female athletes are on par with their male counterparts. They don’t give a damn about women’s sports. What they care about is bullying kids who want to find community and camaraderie in organized team sports and that’s wrong.

As a millennial, I hear lots of my peers questioning the benefit of identifying with one political party. What are your thoughts?

For all of the things that I care about, there’s a better chance of making those things happen when there are more Democrats in office. I think that’s just an indisputable fact. When Mitch McConnell, the most senior elected Republican in the country, was asked what the Republican agenda is, he said “I’ll get back to you.” I wish I was joking. But that’s literally what he said. And that is who they are. They do not have an agenda for lifting up working families or marginalized people.

Now does that mean that Democrats have accomplished everything that’s on the wish list? No. But Coretta Scott King said “Freedom is won and re-won by every generation.” And we’re in the process as a generation of having to fight, unfortunately, battles that are reminiscent of those that our grandparents and parents fought. I’ll never forget my grandmother calling me in 2019, crying. And my grandmother’s tough as hell.

She called to say she was so sorry that we’re still fighting for the same stuff that she and my grandfather were fighting for in the Civil Rights movement in the 50s, 60s and beyond. I don’t want to have to have that conversation with my kid. And if that world is ever gonna come about, then we’re going to need to elect more Democrats who are going to advance a bold agenda to lift up our families. And that’s what I’m about and the Democratic Party is about. But to get to that bold agenda, we need more young people in the party to make sure we’re advancing a vision that moves all of us forward.

I have to ask you about the gun violence in Philly, just over the Easter weekend, we had more than 30 people shot and about seven people killed. And among those who died, one was only 17. What’s your take on the issue? Is it a state of emergency or public health crisis?

It’s both. And the most urgent thing needed is investment in communities with high levels of gun violence. We know that safe communities are those where people have higher quality education, and increased levels of homeownership and small business ownership. Communities that don’t have those things are less safe. So if we’re going to build safe communities, we have to start investing in people and making sure they have the things that they need. Secondly, we have to pass some of the gun safety legislation that’s been stalled for so long — it will make us all safer.

You do not support an immediate transition to Medicare for all, would you explain that a bit for our readers?

I don’t think we can transition immediately, that’s just the reality of where we are. The healthcare industry is about 30% of our economy so you can’t just flip a switch to Medicare for All. My promise as a senator is to vote for any legislation that is going to make healthcare more accessible and affordable, period, because I believe healthcare is a human right. I also believe it’s going to take multiple steps along the way to get to Medicare for All.

Having said that, there are things we can do right here and now to make healthcare more accessible. We can allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, we can drop the age of Medicare eligibility, and we can expand the services that are covered under it. Growing up as a poor kid, there’s a pragmatism you develop that focuses on making life a little bit better, because you’re not going to solve problems in one fell swoop. But we can make incredible and serious progress along the way. And that’s my commitment as your next senator.

A little birdie told me that you used to spit hot fire and write poetry — is that true?

That’s true. I started a performance poetry group at Temple called the Babel Poetry Collective, which has won lots of awards. I will say they did it after I left, but I’m so proud of them. And, unfortunately, the worst part of running a campaign is that I haven’t had much time to write.

Do you have something from memory you could spit for us? You know I’m gonna put you on the hot seat…

Ha, nothing right now! Here’s my commitment — the next time we talk I’ll have something ready for you. Thanks for holding me accountable because now I have a good reason to write.

I will definitely hold you accountable, Malcolm. How can readers find out more about your campaign or get involved?

Check out or follow me @malcolmkenyatta on Twitter and Facebook.

2022 PRIMARY ELECTION UPDATE: Representative Kenyatta won 33% of the vote in Philadelphia, but still lost to Fetterman who had 60% of the vote state-wide (36% in Philly). 

Thoughts? Questions? Comment below or email the Please follow the links included for more information about this rising star in progressive politics. 

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