The three frontrunners in the Democratic Senate primary — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and U.S. Rep. Connor Lamb — largely agree on such issues as support for Israel, the need to ban assault weapons and climate change, but explained the nuances of how their policies differ during an April 14 online forum organized by the Jewish Democratic Council of America and Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania.
After opening comments by DJO Co-Founder Jill Zipin and JDCA CEO Halie Soifer, who served as host, the candidates introduced themselves. Fetterman outlined why he is in the race, highlighting his alignment with Democratic positions: a desire to raise the minimum wage; improving health care; strengthening unions; protecting reproductive freedom; safeguarding equality for the LGBTQ+ community; and protecting voters’ rights.
Kenyatta tailored his opening remarks to his Jewish audience. Considering the recent terrorist attacks in Israel, he said, it is imperative that Pennsylvania’s next senator “be outspoken and reaffirm our special relationship between the United States and Israel.” He highlighted his time as an anti-bias trainer with the Anti-Defamation League and said it is important to end antisemitism and racism.
Lamb began by saying he owed a debt of gratitude to the JDCA, and noted that he was the first candidate endorsed by the organization when he ran for his House seat in 2018. That election victory, he said, proved that he could win in districts that Donald Trump had won. Lamb also said he supports raising the minimum wage as well as President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Plan: better health care, child tax credits and climate change legislation.
Soifer asked whether the candidates would support reforming the Senate filibuster to help pass legislation, including voting rights.
All three said they would. Kenyatta noted that he fought against state Republicans who wanted to conduct an audit of the 2020 presidential election, and that he supported removing dark money from elections. Lamb stressed the importance of voting rights and said the filibuster has prevented passing the Freedom to Vote Act in the Senate, which supports same-day voter registration, early voting, voting by mail, election security measures and making Election Day a national holiday. Fetterman said that his campaign was the first to call for the elimination of the filibuster.
In a theme that has become common since 2018, Soifer asked if, in light of the massacre at the Tree of Life building, the candidates supported an assault gun ban.
All three candidates said they supported a ban on assault weapons, but Lamb noted that most gun violence in America is not committed by assault weapons. He called for enhanced background checks, saying that antisemitism and domestic terrorism is on the rise and need to be addressed.
“There is no rational reason why we should allow civilians to own weapons of mass death,” Fetterman said, arguing that this was another issue that could be addressed with the elimination of the filibuster.
Kenyatta said it was important to not only ban assault weapons but to hold gun manufacturers accountable.
The candidates next explained how they would support the middle class and economic justice.
In addition to his belief that the minimum wage should be raised, Fetterman said he supports a billionaire minimum income tax and wants to ensure that corporations pay their fair share of taxes. Kenyatta said that supporting the middle class and economic justice is the “reason I’m in the race,” and that billionaires like Elon Musk must pay their fair share.
“We used to make steel. Now we make health care,” Lamb said, pointing out that those jobs don’t pay the same as the manufacturing jobs they replaced. He is calling for additional tax credits and increased access to unions.
All three candidates said they support racial justice and a woman’s right to reproductive freedom.
Citing a poll listing climate change as the most pressing issue for Jewish Americans, Soifer asked how the candidates would address the climate crisis.
Fetterman highlighted his time working on the Environmental Defense Fund as part of President Barack Obama’s administration. He said the solution required a long-term commitment.
“We cannot be the party of science and pretend that this is a two- or five-year process,” he noted.
No new dollars or tax incentives should go to “extractive industries,” Kenyatta said. “Now is the time we need to double down and move as quickly as possible to greener forms of clean energy.”
Lamb said the issue will be best addressed through national security and that it should be confronted the same way the space race was in the 1960s and the Manhattan Project before it.
All three spoke of the need to work with NATO and the importance of sanctions to combat Russian President Vladmir Putin’s Ukraine incursion.
Asked about their support of security funding for Israel, Lamb said he has voted to continue funding during his time in the House and did not support any conditions on the funds.
Fetterman, too, said he supported the funding and was disturbed by a vote against funding the Iron Dome. He also expressed his opposition to the BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement against Israel.
Kenyatta said that as a senator, he would “absolutely” vote to continue security funding for Israel.
All three voiced support for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
Asked if they supported the Iran nuclear deal, Kenyatta called former President Trump’s policy of maximum pressure “maximum stupidity.” He said he supported the efforts to rejoin the agreement to ensure Iran never gets a nuclear weapon.
Lamb said Trump’s decision to leave the agreement was “a disgraceful breach of America’s word.” He said it was important to rejoin the agreement but to view the Iranian government, which has become more hard-lined since the U.S. pullout, with skepticism.
Fetterman said the world can never tolerate a nuclear Iran, and that Iran is pro-terrorism. “I absolutely support the Biden administration’s attempts [to rejoin the agreement],” he said.
In closing remarks, Fetterman said that control of the Senate hangs in the balance of this election and stressed the need to counteract Republicans. Kenyatta said it was important that a working government represent working people, and to focus on the needs of the American people rather than on “the guy who was impeached twice.” Lamb pointed to Republican attacks on health care, LGBTQ+ equality, immigration and education.
The Pennsylvania primary election is May 17. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.