Democrats in Pennsylvania hope to see diversity reflected in 2020 election

Representation in the battleground state could have an impact in November.

September 9, 2020, 4:08 AM

As Pennsylvania Democrats aim to flip the Keystone State back to blue come November, the state's political leaders are making historic moves within their party in terms of politics and representation.

With two months until the general election, Pennsylvania finds itself increasingly in the 2020 campaign spotlight against a backdrop of a national reckoning over race and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And, as both presidential campaigns gear up for the final push, the state's reputation as a key presidential battleground has some Pennsylvania Democrats hoping to see their state's shift toward diversity reflected in the national political landscape.

Among them is Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who made his mark on the national stage as one of a group of young Democratic National Convention keynote speakers whom the party identified as "diverse voices from the next generation of party leaders."

PHOTO: Pennsylvania state House Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a campaign stop to support Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, Jan. 8, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Pennsylvania state House Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a campaign stop to support Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at the Biden for President Des Moines South Side Office, Jan. 8, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Andrew Harnik/AP

For emerging political leaders like Kenyatta, being 30 years old and the only gay, Black man elected to the state legislature is something he feels should be normalized rather than seen as unusual. Kenyatta, who represents the state's 181st District, located in Philadelphia County, says these differences only give him more willpower to break what may come across as "different."

"I used to believe, when I decided to run, I had this whole list of all these different reasons why I felt like, you know, maybe I wasn't the right person," said Kenyatta in an interview with ABC News. "But I look now and everything that I thought disqualified me actually qualified me."

Kenyatta isn't the only one shaking expectations in Pennsylvania's political landscape -- Nikil Saval, who already made Pennsylvania history by being the first Asian American to be elected as a Democratic ward leader in Philadelphia, is now running to represent the state's First Senate District.

Saval, who is going into November unopposed, will be the first Asian American elected to the Pennsylvania Senate and the first Indian American elected to the state's legislature. For Saval, the shift he sees across the state's electorate could be indicative of a larger generational change.

"I think there's just a cause for people of my generation and younger who have been through, you know, now two major recessions, kind of endless war and just felt really frustrated by politics as usual," Saval said in an interview with ABC News.

Kenyatta echoed that sentiment, saying that he sees the frustrations of voters he represents as a reflection of the developing political climate across the state. That evolution could also affect future policy change across Pennsylvania, where voters in this election cycle are seeing more representation in their government.

"I think that people closest to the pain ought to be closest to the power," said Kenyatta. "I'm viewing issues from a variety of different perspectives, just naturally. And, I think it makes you a better legislator because you're more sensitive to how the decisions we make impact a variety of different groups... the groups who were not centered in the conversation as the policy was being proposed in the first place -- because that's what you end up having."

Saval, who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, and has made it a priority to focus on Pennsylvania's working-class, added that seeing a shift in generational politics has already made its way to the national political stage among Democrats.

"There's like a willingness to seek out sharper voices, more diverse voices," he said. "You see this nationally. I was obviously inspired by the notion of when you start seeing figures like Ilhan Omar or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez winning national elections. It's our federal level elections -- you suddenly feel like there's a place for you to actually enter [and] be forthright and speak your mind."

Statewide representation is also evident in the race for Pennsylvania's auditor general, in which both candidates are people of color -- meaning that no matter the outcome, Pennsylvanians will elect a candidate with a racially diverse background as the top legal and financial supervisor of the state for the first time.

PHOTO: Nikil Saval from a photo on his website for State Senate in Pennsylvania.
Nikil Saval from a photo on his website for State Senate in Pennsylvania.
Nikil Saval for State Senate

The candidates include Democrat Nina Ahmad and Republican Tim DeFoor. Ahmad came to the United States from Bangladesh as a student when she was 21 years old, and DeFoor, who is currently the Dauphin County controller, is of African American descent.

Upon arriving in the U.S., Ahmad enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry before becoming a molecular biologist. If elected, Ahmad would be the first woman of color to serve in a statewide executive position, as well as the only woman and person of color in the Keystone State's executive branch.

"I pinch myself sometimes, you know?" Ahmad said in an interview with ABC News. "I'm running for statewide office, and I got 551,144 votes split... in a six-way race. I'm very pleasantly surprised from time to time as to 'how did I get here?'"

"I'm an immigrant from Bangladesh and I lived through the War of Independence, which was very brutal and very bloody. And so, I've seen what people sacrificed for freedom," she said. "200,000 women and girls were brutalized, you know? I don't want to use the trigger words, but they did that as a tool of war. That has made me fight to level the playing field, not just for women but for marginalized communities, because I know what it means to be on the receiving end of that."

Ahmad said she thinks people are having conversations about race in unprecedented ways because communities across Pennsylvania are rising up to address the cause of race relations head-on. Ahmad remains hopeful that those kinds of changes will continue and expand into meaningful change and inclusivity both on a state level and on a national level.

"We've always had people everywhere -- in all 67 counties -- who care deeply about human rights, but sometimes they haven't had enough numbers or, you know, felt courageous enough to speak up about it," she said.

"I owe a great debt of gratitude to all whose shoulders I stand on, all whose sacrifice I stand in," Ahmad said. "It's like my little prayer that I say every time to remind myself: I didn't get here by myself, it was a lot of people's hard work and blood, sweat and tears that allows me to be here today. So, I'm very hopeful, and I'm going to fight for that dream."

Though many Democrats feel empowered by the change seen across some parts of the state, the political weight of Pennsylvania as a battleground looms over how the party is organizing statewide campaigns in 2020. Four years ago, President Donald Trump won the Keystone State by just 0.7% of the vote, and this year, a tight race could take place again, as recent polls indicate shaky footing for both Trump, and his opponent, Joe Biden.

According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, Biden has an eight-point lead in Pennsylvania, 52% to Trump's 44%. Meanwhile, a Monmouth University poll showed a tighter race between the two, with Biden leading Trump by four points among Pennsylvania's registered voters: 49% to 45%.

"I think things are changing across the state," Saval said. "It may also be polarizing, and... there may be people drawing lines. I mean, things may also be getting more conservative in certain ways. There's radicalization happening on the right, clearly."

According to an analysis of the 2016 presidential election conducted by the American Center for Progress, the majority of voters in Pennsylvania were white, but a larger portion of those voters, 54%, were non-college educated, while 30% had a college degree. The nonpartisan group's data also indicated that among the state's minority voters, about 10% were Black, 4% were Latino and 3% were Asian or of another race.

PHOTO: Nina Ahmad, a former city official seeking to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's seat, speaks with members of the media in Philadelphia, Jan. 31, 2018.
Nina Ahmad, a former city official seeking to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's seat, speaks with members of the media in Philadelphia, Jan. 31, 2018.
Matt Rourke/AP

While the American Center for Progress notes that turnout among Black voters decreased by 0.2% in 2016 when compared to 2012, the turnout for other minority groups rose. Latino voters rose by six points, while Asian and other minority voters went up eight points.

While presidential candidates must still focus on winning over white, non-college educated voters, in addition to expanding the vote in highly-diverse urban areas, like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the rising voting patterns among minorities are likely to play a large factor in places with high Latino populations, like Reading, Allentown, Hazleton, Lancaster and Lebanon.

Kenyatta said he hopes that diversity in politics extends to show the inclusivity of educational backgrounds and careers. He said these changes should happen not just in the scope of the 2020 election, but for all elections going forward.

"My hope is not that people look up to me, but that they look in the mirror that they're not saying, 'Oh my God, look what Malcolm did,' but they're saying, 'Oh my God, look what I can do,'" said Kenyatta. "Because we have to get to a place where it's no longer major news when a young Latina, or LGBTQ person or somebody who grew up working poor finally runs for office. We need to get to a place where that's no longer news, [but] the norm."

Kenyatta said elected officials like himself give a sense of hope and change to the future of politics in the battleground state: something he wishes all residents could see in a positive way in order to truly make a difference.

"But the visibility does matter, because it's difficult for people to be what they can't see," he said. "But once people see me, my message always to them is to then see yourself."

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