FILE - PA Sen. Sharif Street 11-1-2019

State Sen. Sharif Street speaks during a Pennsylvania Democratic Party fundraiser in Philadelphia, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.

(The Center Square) – With the Democratic field for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat growing more crowded every day, one state lawmaker says his experience stands him apart from the rest. 

Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, made history in 2016 when he became the first Muslim elected to the General Assembly's upper chamber. The son of former Philadelphia Mayor John Street, the lawyer and legislative staffer said he's made it his career – and personal mission – to tackle issues endemic to his district in north Philadelphia that often occur statewide.

“We don’t think of ourselves as being one commonwealth enough, but we really are,” he told The Center Square on Thursday. “I believe we’ve got a lot of challenges in front of us and I believe I have the skillset and the ideas to advance the needs of Pennsylvanians and the country.”

Street, although he’s yet to formally announce his candidacy, joins Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh in the Democratic primary race to vie for Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat when he retires next year. 

Fetterman, an early entrant into the campaign, carries statewide name recognition as Gov. Tom Wolf’s second in command. He’s also an ardent supporter of legalizing recreational cannabis and reforming parole standards for individuals serving life sentences – two issues for which Street has co-sponsored legislation in the state Senate.

Kenyatta, who announced his bid in February, represents the House’s 181st district in central Philadelphia. He’s adopted a progressive platform targeted toward working families that struggle with low wages and inadequate mental health support. 

“We do have different approaches,” Street said of his challengers. “Rep. Kenyatta has decided to stake out a position of being the far left candidate. He is unapologetically a far left guy. I recognize we have to advance some progressive issues, but we have to have a more collaborative approach.”

Street said he’s come to understand as much during his tenure in the Senate, often reaching across the aisle to “build bridges and get things done.” He made headlines in February for co-sponsoring a recreational cannabis bill with Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, that was authored, in part, to reverse some of the damage done to communities of color who often face harsher consequences for cannabis use.

“This has been a 180 change in opinion for me,” Laughlin said of the bill. “I’m not a fan of the product. I don’t use it. I don’t think it's great if people use marijuana. I know that seems a little odd … [but] I’ve realized some of the social damage we’ve done to communities of color over these minor offenses, and that really got my attention.” 

The lawmakers said they shared common ground on decriminalization and legalization, despite Senate Republicans’ longstanding opposition to the issue. The two also worked together on a proposal to increase transparency in prescription drug pricing as residents statewide complain of sticker shock that often forces them to choose between medicine and food.

“In order to advance legislation that would benefit the people I represented, I needed to understand the issues for other legislators,” Street said Thursday of his collaborations with Republican lawmakers. “Most people are voting for what isn’t just an interest in their district, but many districts. That’s what motivates you.” 

Expanding broadband access and bringing more equity in education funding, he said, may look different in a rural community than his city district, but the urgency is the same.

“A lot of folks in low income communities in urban centers, they don’t have the financial means to access broadband,” he said. “But, in rural communities, we haven’t even built it out there.” 

Street went on to describe what he calls the “chocolate milk economy” for illustrating the interconnected needs of the state.

“We are importing cocoa beans through the Port of Philadelphia, manufacturing chocolate in central Pennsylvania, raising the cows everywhere else and sending it out to the midwest through Pittsburgh and to Canada through Erie,” he said. “We are much more integrated as an economy than we realize.”

That’s why, when former President Donald Trump made disparaging comments about immigrants from African and central American countries in 2018, Street said he took it upon himself to reach out to ambassadors in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire – two of the largest cocoa bean exporters in the world – to preserve the nations’ relationship with the state and their use of the Port of Philadelphia.

“It’s about chocolate and it’s not about chocolate,” he said. “It’s about the ability to recognize the connectedness of Pennsylvania. I don’t think anyone else has had that caliber of experience in this race.”

Street said he plans to make a formal announcement on his candidacy in the fall. Until then, he will focus on finding "pragmatic" solutions to the problems everyone faces, whether thats at the state or federal level.

"We really need to get back to governing for all of Pennsylvania and all Americans," he said. "They don’t want us to go up there and just fight. I think what people want us to do is work on the stuff we agree on."

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.