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What’s Kyrsten Sinema Up To? It’s Pretty Obvious.

POLITICO
POLITICO
 2021-10-27
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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks during a committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. | Mandel Ngan/AP Photo

Hank Stephenson is a journalist in Phoenix and co-founder of the Arizona Agenda , a newsletter about Arizona politics and government.
Updated: 10/27/2021 12:38 PM EDT

PHOENIX — Walk the streets of Kyrsten Sinema’s old stomping grounds, Phoenix’s artsy Roosevelt Row, on a busy Friday night and you might see a dozen or so Kyrsten Sinemas, none of them flattering.

A local dance crew calling itself the Moderate Pixie Dream Girls , whose members dress in pink tutus and purple party wigs, perform on local street corners to protest the Arizona senator’s opposition to increasing the minimum wage or her resistance to immigration reform.

Stickers at the hipster coffee shop anchoring the neighborhood feature her face on a milk carton reading “Missing: Last seen defending the Jim Crow filibuster.”

At the national level, though, Sinema’s brand isn’t so much progressive betrayal as raw confusion. When Saturday Night Live parodied Sinema as one of two Democrats opposing President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, the writers knew how to have fun with her biographical details — “as a wine-drinking bisexual triathlete, I know what the average American wants” — and her fashion sense (“all the Scooby Doo characters at the same time”). But when it came to what motivates her, they drew a blank, settling simply on “chaos.”

Chaos isn’t a bad way to describe her impact in Washington right now; she’s not only holding up her own party’s biggest national priority, but she’s famously unclear about her reasons why. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), the other most-intransigent Democrat, can’t stop talking about his motives. Sinema isn’t even calling her friends . She’s rocketed into the national zeitgeist as an enigma, one of the least understood politicians in Washington.



Back home, some of her oldest allies — as well as critics — have an insight for the Democrats who are trying to corral her, and it’s not necessarily a comfortable one: Get used to it. Politically, Sinema’s career looks like she experienced a personal revolution; she began as a left-wing agitator and ended up as a Republican-friendly moderate. But in Arizona, many people see those positions as almost beside the point: For them, Sinema is better understood in terms of pure ambition, and the constant triangulation needed to hold office in a purple state that fancies itself charting an independent course, whatever that requires in the moment. Sinema declined to comment for this report.

“She’s usually the smartest person in the room and she wants to be treated that way,” says Phil Lopes, a former Democratic colleague in the state House of Representatives, who was once a Sinema ally, but no longer.

What exactly Sinema stands for appears to be less important. She voted against Donald Trump’s massive tax cuts but now refuses to raise tax rates on the wealthy and corporations; she says tackling climate change is a top priority but reportedly suggested slashing billions of climate dollars in Democrats’ sweeping social spending package (something her office denies).

Progressive activists are furious, with local groups already threatening to fund a primary challenge against her in 2024. Some of her old comrades say Sinema would be better off dropping the ‘D’ next to her name altogether and returning to her roots as an independent.

But for those still perplexed about Sinema, her rise offers an object lesson in how to get ahead by flagrantly eschewing loyalty to one’s own party.


The broad outline of Sinema’s metamorphosis is well-known: A former Green Party activist who protested the Iraq War in a pink tutu, she shifted toward the center as she set her sights on Congress. But the details of Sinema’s transformation lay in her time in the state legislature, where she learned to distance herself from progressives and made alliances with Republicans that she still leans on today.

Back in 2002, the Arizona Democratic Party deemed Sinema “too extreme” for the Arizona Legislature in her bid as a lefty independent candidate. But two years later, after adopting the label of Democrat and getting the nod from her new party, she won a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives.

For the next six years, she served in the state House representing the same Downtown Phoenix district as David Lujan, an era that culminated with him as House minority leader and her as assistant leader. But the first time they met in 2004, she was hesitant to team up with him because he had once been registered as a Republican. She interviewed him first to ensure he was sufficiently progressive — an irony that’s not lost on him now.

“We were very much a progressive team,” he says. “If you look at our campaign materials during those years, we ran on a progressive platform and the bills we introduced are pretty progressive. So that’s definitely different than the approach she takes today.”

As Sinema climbed the ranks into state Democratic leadership, she also learned the art of compromise so well that it began to concern some of her progressive allies and former liberal champions. She also stood out immediately for her ability to make friends with the most conservative Republicans, including now-Rep. Andy Biggs, leader of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, and Russell Pearce, sponsor of Arizona’s SB1070, a controversial 2010 law designed to crack down on illegal immigration.


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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) attends a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting to discuss committee matters on Capitol Hill on October 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The committee met to discuss topics including amendments to the Inspector General Act of 1978 and the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and to vote on several nominations to security posts. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Many of those relationships were strategic, notes Kirk Adams, the former GOP speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. She buddied up to the people who had the power to help her agenda, and Republicans held strong majorities in the state House and state Senate.

“Some of her caucus-mates were suspicious because she was so friendly with Republicans,” Adams says. “But there was also a fair amount of jealousy, because if you go back and look at how many bills she got through, I’d be surprised if any other Democrats came close to her.”

These days, it seems Sinema’s only fans are Republicans — and one of her biggest might be Biggs.

Biggs was recently captured on video praising Sinema and Manchin for holding up the Biden agenda, while Florida Republican Rep. Byron Donalds urged Republicans to call their offices and thank them for keeping the filibuster intact.

Her friendship with Biggs was the subject of considerable Capitol intrigue during her days as a state legislator and one of the first big signs that Sinema was changing, says Lopes. Notably, Sinema had helped whip votes for Lopes’ election to be House minority leader in 2006, but two years later was part of the team that toppled him in a leadership coup.

“She was getting closer and closer to Biggs. They hung out a lot and did things together, and she bragged about that,” he says. “I attribute all of that to a strategy in her head to stay in office. She’ll do anything, anything, to stay in office.”

That strategy shift included, per Lopes, sponsoring a pair of bills playing to the anti-immigration fervor seizing the state at the time, in the runup to her 2012 bid for Congress. The first measure made small changes to a human trafficking law to allow police to more easily prosecute human smugglers; it ultimately passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously, but it rankled progressives.

The next year, she came back with a more controversial proposal , which increased the penalty for forgery if forged documents were used in relation to a “drop house” — a landing pad for undocumented immigrants brought to the country by smugglers. To get the bill across the finish line, she turned not to her fellow Democrats, but to several conservative anti-immigration stalwarts, including Biggs, who signed on as a co-sponsor.


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Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., the newly-elected chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, listens as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., leads his panel to approve guidelines for impeachment investigation hearings on President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Immigrant rights groups swarmed on a press conference Sinema held after the bill passed, chanting “no más” — no more — until Capitol police arrested four people . But they had made their point: Sinema abruptly ended the press conference and left.

Soon after, Sinema enraged many in her party for refusing to back the recall of Pearce, the then-Senate president who had authored Arizona’s hard-line immigration law. Sinema had been elected to the state Senate in 2010, and she told a group of activists organizing the historic recall effort that she couldn’t help because Pearce was her “boss.”

She also went on a local news program and declared that Pearce, among the left’s most hated politicians, was a good friend who should also run for Congress. Her spokesperson later said it was a tongue-in-cheek remark meant to convey that she wanted him out of the state Legislature. But to many Latino activists, cozying up to the man who had demonized their communities all to get a few modest bills through the Senate was a bridge too far.

Today, Lopes is part of a group raising money for a potential Democratic challenger to Sinema in 2024, infuriated that she’s serving as a blockade to the Biden agenda.

“This is our chance to do something really, really meaningful,” he says. “And she’s holding that up. What kind of bullshit is that?”


Sometimes, Sinema succeeded in co-opting her conservative friends into backing a liberal agenda.

In 2006, when Sinema was still a true-blue progressive, she asked Jonathan Paton, a Republican legislator from Tucson, to take the lead on her bill ensuring women who breastfeed in public couldn’t be charged with indecent exposure.

“She was very matter of fact about it: ‘Look, if I sponsor it, it’s not going to pass. I’ll do all the work, I just need a Republican to sponsor it for me because that’s the way the world works,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Okay, you know, whatever,’ and I didn’t really pay a whole lot of attention to it, to be honest with you, until the day of the hearing.”

He was shocked when hundreds of women showed up for the hearing — a mix of what he calls granola hippies and Mormon moms. The bill passed committee with their support, but Paton warned Sinema it still faced opposition within conservative ranks of the Republican Party, particularly from Pearce.

“And she looks at me and she says, ‘I’ll handle Russell,’” he says.

Sinema drummed up a campaign for moms and higher-ups in the Mormon Church to email Pearce, who is Mormon, to support the bill, and Pearce folded, Paton says.

“I was impressed,” Paton says. “She was smarter than most people in either party.”

The two went on to work on a host of other issues together, including the drop house bill that later put Sinema in trouble with members of her own party. But Paton still thinks back to that first project — the breastfeeding bill that he didn’t really want to sponsor — as the moment when he understood what a powerhouse Sinema could become.

All the Washington, D.C. intrigue about why Sinema is holding up Democrats’ legislation is based on a misreading of where the state is politically, Paton adds. It’s an independent, center-right state that can support a Democrat who leans conservative.

“Let’s just say she knows this state at least as well as she knew Russell Pearce,” he says.


Even among her critics, Sinema is widely regarded as among the savviest political operators in Arizona history. She has the book smarts of a lawyer, the emotional intelligence of a social worker and the determination of a triathlete, because she is all of those things.

Nobody gets to the U.S. Senate without a healthy dose of ambition and hubris. But her detractors say in that regard, too, she’s off the charts: That she’s only ever cared about herself, that she craves the limelight, that she’s abandoned all principles she once held dear in exchange for power.

“Kyrsten is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known, if not the most brilliant,” says a former Democratic lawmaker who once was close with her in the legislature and was granted anonymity to speak candidly. That’s what makes her conduct in Washington so disappointing: “I don’t think her motivation for casting the votes that she does today has anything to do with what her actual true beliefs are.”

Instead, the former colleague says her decisions are based on cold hard political calculations — and a need to feed her hunger for attention, more than power even.

“If she lost the Senate race and got a TV show on Fox or whatever, I think she’d be just as happy,” the former lawmaker says. “What she wants is Cecily Strong to play her on SNL. Anyone who thinks that she was insulted by that doesn’t know her.”


Other longtime allies and supporters of Sinema are bewildered.

Back when Sinema unsuccessfully ran for the legislature as an independent, Sandy Bahr, executive director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, was her biggest champion. She helped campaign for Sinema and was there on election night sharing in the devastating loss.

When Sinema ran as a Democrat two years later and won, she quickly became one of the Sierra Club’s most reliable votes at the Capitol. For years in Congress, Sinema and Bahr were still close. But these days, Bahr can hardly get a meeting with her, securing a single 5-minute session since Sinema became a senator three years ago.

And why, wonders Bahr, is Sinema reportedly pushing to cut $100 billion from funds to fight climate change — a stance at odds with the view of her own voters based on the polling. Sinema is typically a math whiz when it comes to politics, Bahr says, but in this instance, her calculations seem to be off. A Sinema spokesman denied the report to the New York Times.

“I’m really disappointed, and I’m perplexed,” she says, adding that she thinks Sinema still cares deeply about environmental issues. “But where she’s centering herself seems to have changed.”


Of course, Sinema isn’t the only Democrat standing in the way of passing Biden’s agenda. But politicos and pundits find it much easier to explain away the reservations of Manchin, a longtime moderate whose state Trump won by nearly 40 percentage points last year.

Manchin has come in for pressure from the left — protesters have been kayaking up to his houseboat — but he has had no problem debating them, even on the water .

Sinema, meanwhile, hasn’t been spotted around her old haunts since she was photographed in April flaunting a ring reading, “Fuck Off.” She rarely takes questions from the press or her constituents, whether they try to buttonhole her on airplanes or in the bathroom . She doesn’t ham it up with the press like Manchin.

To Lujan and other former allies, her silence is the most confounding part of her transformation.

As a state lawmaker, Sinema would sometimes speak at three public events a day and was among the most quoted and quotable lawmakers, he says. But now she’s “almost reclusive.”

Former Arizona Democratic lawmaker Debbie McCune Davis, a solid progressive who was something of a mentor to Sinema during her early years at the Capitol, says she saw a change once Sinema ascended to Democratic leadership. Suddenly, Sinema was keeping the door open to the payday lending industry and others who were in direct opposition to Democrats’ agenda.

“I watched the evolution take place. And what I saw was a pragmatic side of her that frustrated me a bit, because those were not people who were doing anything good for our community,” she says.


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Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema walk to the Senate Chamber after a Democratic policy meeting at the Capitol on Oct. 5, 2021. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

McCune Davis says Sinema still ultimately voted against the payday lenders, and she doesn’t hold it against Sinema for meeting with them and raising money for Democrats from them. But she, like others, has a hard time reconciling the Sinema she knew with the U.S. senator of today.

“It’s unsettling because you vote for someone because you believe you know what they stand for. And right now, I think people are very confused about what Kyrsten stands for,” she says. “I haven’t given up on her. But I know people who have.”


It’s nearly impossible to talk about Sinema without mentioning John McCain, the “Maverick” Republican who represented Arizona in the Senate for more than 30 years and was frequently at war with his own party.

McCain faced primary challenges, state GOP censures and hostile crowds any time he faced a room of Republicans — and that was even before he inflamed the grassroots by taking on Trump.

Sinema is said to be eager to inherit McCain’s mantle as an Arizonan with an independent streak; whether intentionally or not, her ostentatious thumbs down on Democrats’ minimum wage boost earlier this year instantly conjured memories of McCain’s own rejection of the GOP Obamacare repeal bill.

Republicans who have taken a recent shine to Sinema especially like to draw the comparison.

“I know another Arizona senator who faced primary challenges, even really stiff ones, and always came through — and that was John McCain,” says Adams, the former House speaker. “So there’s a model… of success, frankly, of how you can do it.”



But that comparison, Adams acknowledges, misses the first 20 years of McCain’s history, before Tea Party activists overtook the state Republican Party, when he built up a political machine and passed out favors like Halloween candy.

Sinema lacks the same strong relationships with local elected officials that McCain once had, which makes occasionally breaking with the party far more difficult. In addition to quite distinct biographies — McCain, of course, was a war hero and presidential candidate — their temperaments couldn’t be more different. Unlike Sinema, McCain would talk to the press for hours at a time. And Sinema doesn’t have the fiery, confrontation-loving spirit that leads one to hold court with critics. Agree with him or not, McCain had a way of making people feel heard, even if not convinced.

Sinema has always been a woman apart from her party. She reluctantly adopted the label of Democrat only after realizing it was her path to power. And she largely shed that label in her most recent campaign, opting instead to emphasize her independent voice .

Winning reelection in Arizona won’t be easy for any Democrat, but even most of her critics acknowledge Sinema is well positioned for the general election. The real threat may lie in a primary challenge.

Her support within the party is sinking fast, with recent polls showing her approval rating among Democrats at 25 percent. But her reelection is still three years away, and if she ultimately helps pass Biden’s legislative agenda, rank-and-file voters could grudgingly return.

But what if she doesn’t, and they don’t? Some Arizona politicos are increasingly floating the idea that she could sidestep her problem with the base entirely by formally quitting the party and running as an independent.

“By reregistering independent and running for reelection as such, Sinema would take the club out of the hands of progressive hardliners,” Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb wrote recently. “The threat to primary her would evaporate. In fact, the harder left the Democratic nominee for the seat turns out to be, the better for Sinema’s chances in a three-way general election.”

That still sounds like a fantasy to most in the political chattering class here. But it’s one that Democratic state Rep. Robert Meza, one of Sinema’s closest allies from the state legislature and still a supporter, says is possible. In fact, he sees it as the most likely path to victory for Sinema.


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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema leaves a Senate Democratic meeting at the Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Like others, Meza watched with a mix of inspiration and awe as Sinema transformed from self-described “bomb thrower” and “patron saint of lost causes” into a moderate power-player. She studied the playbook of dozens of winning candidates and campaigns in Arizona, he says, and integrated them “like an artificial intelligence computer absorbing all these different techniques.”

Meza has studied her playbook closely, too, and thinks he knows what’s next.

“I pretty much know her chess game,” he says. “She’s not gonna run it as a Democrat. She’s gonna run it as an independent in Arizona, and she’ll win.”

Lopes, the Democratic lawmaker who clashed with Sinema in a leadership contest, says he’s not sure he buys that theory. But in a way, it rings true.

“She’ll change her stripes,” he says. “She’ll just do whatever she thinks is the best thing to do right now for her.”

Comments / 214

Fred's here
10-27

regardless of which party you belong to, do you want your representative to vote with the party or someone who votes their conscience? when you vote strictly along party lines you are giving into "groupthink " mentality instead of deciding according to your own beliefs

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DN Allen
10-28

The fact that she doesn't talk to her constituents and that she doesn't feel that it's anybody's business what she's thinking is what bothers me. She's not there it's not there to make her own personal decisions, she's there to represent her constituents and their needs and wants

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Johnny Arant
10-27

I hope she continues to oppose this radical spend policy of the Socialist Progressive Democrats. In this article in Politico written by Hank Stephenson, he slam's Kyrsten Sinema because she is taking a stand to help the American people. However, he says, "she began as a left-wing agitator and ended up as a Republican-friendly moderate. That's the best praise he could have given her. You stand firm Kyrsten!

Reply(27)
53

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