Sen. Sharif Street is running for U.S. Senate, and he’s doing it ‘old-school’

Pennsylvania Sen. Sharif Street speaks at the Olney Transportation Center

Pennsylvania Sen. Sharif Street speaks at the Olney Transportation Center on Feb. 26, 2021. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Another candidate is entering the Democratic primary race for Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate election. Philadelphia Sen. Sharif Street, long assumed to be interested in the seat, on Thursday filed his statement of candidacy.

Street, 46, is planning to formally launch his exploratory committee next Friday, April 9.

His first campaign step will be to travel around the commonwealth and have conversations with potential constituents, he said, which will inform his platform. Taking a dig at his presumed primary opponents, he expressed a desire to steer clear of “bumper sticker politics.”

“What I’m not doing is what some of the other candidates are doing — they’re prolific tweeters, and I’m not,” Street said.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Sharif Street speaks from behind a podium
Pennsylvania State Sen. Sharif Street speaks at a press conference. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The two other major Democratic candidates who have filed for the seat are John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s current lieutenant governor and former mayor of Braddock, outside Pittsburgh, and Malcolm Kenyatta, a state representative for North Philadelphia. Both have active social media presences with large followings.

Between the pair, the Senate race had been shaping up as an east-versus-west contest. Street’s entrance complicates the narrative. Of the three, he has perhaps the most conventional political background.

His father, John Street, was the mayor of Philadelphia from 2000 to 2008, after a long stint in City Council. The younger Street went to Morehouse College, then got a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and worked as an attorney for nearly 20 years.

Before his successful 2016 election to the Pennsylvania Senate, Street worked as a staffer for the chamber, serving as a chief advisor to Democrats on the Housing and Urban Development Committee. He’s currently vice-chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

Though he’s leaving room for his platform to evolve, Street said many of his priorities involve issues he has already worked on in the legislature.

They include reducing gun violence, with a focus on creating a registry of lost and stolen handguns and instituting universal background checks; investing in education and career and technical training; and legalizing adult-use recreational cannabis. Though Fetterman has also stressed cannabis legalization in his campaign, Street noted, he’s the one who wrote the first-ever bipartisan bill to make it happen.

All three candidates are considered fairly progressive.

Pennsylvania Lt/ Gov. John Fetterman and his wife Gisele Barreto Fetterman walk to Gov. Tom Wolf's inauguration
Pennsylvania Lt/ Gov. John Fetterman and his wife Gisele Barreto Fetterman walk to Gov. Tom Wolf’s inauguration, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Fetterman, 51, is a longtime fan of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and has made criminal justice reform and support for “the union way of life” centerpieces of his campaign.

He first attracted media attention and cultivated a national image as the unconventional-looking mayor of a struggling onetime steel town, and was featured on a 2017 episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show. He was also a regular face on cable news networks last fall, in the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2020 election.

Kenyatta has focused on his own working-class Philadelphia upbringing and argues that the issues he’s campaigning on, like forgiving at least some student debt and raising the minimum wage, are “not hypothetical” for him. At 32, he would be the youngest U.S. senator, as well as the first openly gay Black member.

Malcolm Kenyatta
Pa. State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta speaks at a press conference on the campus of Temple University. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Like Fetterman, Kenyatta is prolific on cable news, and unlike several members of his young, liberal cohort in the state House, Kenyatta quickly endorsed President Joe Biden in the 2020 election and became a prominent spokesperson for him in Pennsylvania.

One of the biggest early divisions between the two candidates is on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, an industry that employs between 25,000 and 50,000 people across the commonwealth. Kenyatta supports a moratorium on new wells; Fetterman doesn’t support a total ban, favoring a more gradual phase-out. Street declined to give a firm position.

Acknowledging that race and geography are often factors in statewide contests, Street said he’s not worried about competing with Kenyatta for Philadelphia voters.

“I think Malcolm is a great guy … I thought he was a great guy when I hired him for my Senate staff,” Street said. “When you talk to people in North Philadelphia about us, I don’t think there’s much debate.”

Fetterman, on the other hand, has more name recognition in the western half of the state. He’s also facing some pushback over an incident that happened nearly a decade ago, when he was mayor of Braddock.

In 2013, Fetterman pursued an unarmed Black jogger, pulled a shotgun on him, and detained him because, he said, he believed the man had been responsible for firing several gunshots. The episode gained new traction with his high-profile Senate bid, and was written up in the New York Times, among other outlets.

Fetterman hasn’t apologized. He recently made a video saying Braddock had been struggling with a gun violence epidemic, the incident had happened shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting, and he had made a “series of split-second decisions” that he felt would “protect and safeguard” his community and young family. He easily won reelection just four months after “that awful episode,” he noted.

Kenyatta has largely avoided commenting on the incident. But Fetterman’s mayoral successor, Chardaé Jones, recently endorsed Kenyatta over her fellow Braddock native. She told The Philadelphia Inquirer the decision was about policy differences on issues like fracking.

Street, too, said he wouldn’t comment on “the whole Fetterman shotgun thing.” What Street would say is that in 2018, when Antwon Rose Jr. was shot by a police officer in Pittsburgh, he quickly “got in his car, drove across the state.”

“I was out on the ground, talking with community leaders, council people, and local leaders in Allegheny County about what happened,” he said. “I wasn’t a guy who popped up on MSNBC that night speaking for Pennsylvania. I was a guy who was walking through their community.”

Scott Wagner and Jeff Bartos campaign at a diner in 2018
Scott Wagner, left, Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, and lieutenant governor candidate Jeff Bartos, right, campaign at a diner in Imperial, Pa. Monday, May 14, 2018, the day before the Pennsylvania primary. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The race for the U.S. Senate seat, which is open after incumbent Republican Pat Toomey decided not to seek reelection, is expected to evolve considerably, and the dynamics could still shift in fundamental ways.

Other Democrats who have been rumored to be interested include three congressional representatives — Allegheny County’s Conor Lamb, Montgomery County’s Madeleine Dean, and Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County — as well as Montgomery County Commissioner Dr. Val Arkoosh.

On the GOP side of the aisle, Montgomery County real estate developer, GOP fundraiser, and unsuccessful lieutenant governor candidate Jeff Bartos has officially joined the race. Several other candidates are expected to join him, including former Chester County GOP Congressman Ryan Costello.

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