What, exactly, does it mean to be homeless? That might now be a central question in the U.S. Senate race in Arizona, where Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is up against Republican Rep. Martha McSally—a key matchup in deciding which party controls the upper chamber next year.
Democrats have long sought the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake as one of the two pickups they need to win the Senate majority. And Sinema has made her childhood homelessness—her family lived in a shuttered gas station for several years, beginning when she was about 8 years old—central to her pitch to voters from the very start. Here’s how she put it in the biographical campaign ad she used to kick off her campaign:
I guess I’m a little bit different than most people in politics. I was born in Tucson and started out in the middle class. But when I was in elementary school, my dad lost his job. Then my parents got divorced. My mom struggled to take care of us kids on her own. First we lost our car. Then we lost our home. For nearly three years, we lived in an old abandoned gas station without running water or electricity. Sometimes we didn’t have enough food to eat. But we got by, thanks to help from family, church, and sometimes, even the government.
She has been telling a similar story since at least 2012, when she was first elected to Congress, and continues to offer it up on the stump and in interviews. It’s all the more compelling because of how well it lines up with her political argument. A former progressive flamethrower who has recast herself as a Blue Dog Democrat, Sinema offers voters a modern retelling of the myth of the self-made American man or woman, designed to thread the needle in a red state: Pull on those bootstraps, by all means, but they can pull you up only so far. “See, my parents taught me if you work really hard you can make it,” Sinema said in that ad, which mentioned her family’s reliance on food stamps and the Pell Grant she used to go to college. “I worked really hard—but I still needed a little help.”
The problem now, though, is that her recollection of time spent without electricity doesn’t line up with what the New York Times found when it dug a little deeper. The paper discovered that during her mother’s divorce proceedings, she and Sinema’s stepfather told a judge that they were paying monthly bills for electricity, phone, and gas. Sinema was unable to explain to the paper why her parents would have an electricity bill at a time she says they didn’t have electricity. “Oh gosh, I don’t have an answer for that,” Sinema said. “That’s not something a little kid would hear about from her parents.”
As the paper notes, Sinema’s taken a tough line on truthfulness in the past, writing in her 2009 book, for example, that it’s “wrong to tell half-truths and be sneaky about the truth—no doubt about it.” And this also isn’t the first time questions have come up about Sinema’s childhood living conditions. Speaking to the Washington Post for a profile published last month, her step-aunt took issue with Sinema’s description of the structure in which her family lived, which was owned by her stepfather’s parents, who lived nearby. “I realize this tugs at people’s heartstrings and that was what she was going for, but, you know, it’s not the truth,” said Susie Fleming, who said she believed the structure—which she called a remodeled country store—had at least some utilities when Sinema lived there as a child.
Republicans, naturally, were quick to tout the Times report:
In many ways, this is familiar territory. Sinema is far from the first politician to run on her biography, and when you do that, the details of your biography become fair game. But as a candidate’s lived experience—as someone of a certain gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc., or any combination thereof—grows in importance, particularly on the left, it’s a good bet that we’ll see more of this type of litigation of those lived experiences. In 2008, one popular question was how black is “black enough?” In 2018 in Arizona, it’s how homeless is homeless enough?
It’s telling, though, that so far the GOP attacks against Sinema have been either overly specific (“in direct contradiction to court documents,”) or overly broad (“exaggerating her story of growing up ‘homeless’ ”). Despite what those scare-quotes suggest, Sinema has been clear from the beginning that she wasn’t living on the streets.
Given how frequently she has mentioned a specific lack of utilities like water and electricity, it’s fair to question whether that was the case. And if she did intentionally embellish the details, that matters. But it’s also worth remembering what’s not up for debate: Sinema and her family spent years living in conditions far more dire than your typical future senator did, and through hard work and some government aid, she was able to find remarkable success. She was the valedictorian of her high school at 16, and earned a prestigious scholarship to Brigham Young University, where she graduated in just two years. Whether her parents had electricity is relevant to that story, yes, but voters can decide for themselves whether it changes the moral of it.