In the long history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the hallways of Harrisburg have been dotted with elected statewide officials who are primarily white and male.
While the state’s largest cities have elected black mayors – three in Philadelphia (Wilson Goode, John Street, Michael Nutter) and one (Ed Gainey) in Pittsburgh – the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, and U.S. senator have been primarily held by white males, with the exception of lieutenant governor Catherine Baker Knoll (2003-08), while only five blacks have served in the U.S. House from Pennsylvania.
The Keystone State is becoming an outlier. There are currently 57 Black U.S. House members – the most ever including Dwight Evans (D-Philadelphia). Black women are mayors of seven of the 100 most-populous cities (Chicago, Charlotte, San Francisco, Washington DC, New Orleans, St. Louis and Durham), while three Black candidates were among the primary contestants for Virginia governor a year ago, while three more are currently competing in the Maryland Democratic gubernatorial primary.
There has been some progress, as Stacy Garrity and Tim DeFoor won statewide office for treasurer and auditor, respectively, in 2020.
In Pennsylvania, there is one Black candidate for governor – Nche Zama – and one for lieutenant governor – Austin Davis. For the open Senate seat, there are two candidates – Malcolm Kenyatta on the Democratic side and Kathy Barnette for the GOP.
Why does it matter? Democrats rely on Black voters as a lifeline for the party, but Black candidates are still plagued with electability questions.
“We need to start interrogating why this question is almost only asked to candidates of color, women, marginalized candidates,” Kenyatta said in an interview. “Why are the only campaigns we take seriously are the campaigns that are run a certain type of way by the same type of people over and over again?”
Kenyatta and Barnette certainly stand out in a field of predominantly white, male millionaires.
“The unfair questions Malcolm was getting about money and viability early on came from establishment types not wanting to say out loud that they’re afraid Malcolm is too young, too Black or too gay to win statewide,” said Brendan McPhillips, who ran Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in Pennsylvania.
Kenyatta tries to turn his identity into a positive, often saying in campaign speeches: “Do you want someone who says, ‘Vote for me because you have no choice’? Or, ‘Vote for me because I understand your life’?”
Barnette, in a 2020 TV interview, said she used to be a Democrat, and she “bought into the same lie as everyone else, that if you’re black, you must be a Democrat. Those living in predominantly black communities do not need to be told their issues. They are living them every day. What we need is to be empowered to resolve them – and that starts with giving the black community access to influence the world in which we live.”
The Republican Party touts that it has over 40 Black candidates running in GOP primaries for local and federal office.
In the race for the newly-drawn 12th District, Summer Lee (D-34/Allegheny) is looking to become the first woman to hold a Senate seat from Pennsylvania.
She made history in 2018 when she won a state House race in southwest PA by beating 20-year incumbent Paul Costa. Even with that, she still combats doubts about her electability.
“It absolutely comes from within the party and from without,” Lee said. “The policies that we lift up are things that bring in more people and engage our base in different ways.”
“If there’s an opportunity for an African American to be a Democratic nominee, I believe they are uniquely positioned to bring along Democrats, Republicans and independents alike,” Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who’s worked with several campaigns, told Axios.
updated 2:05 p.m.