Politics

Kyrsten Sinema Is Using an Outdated Political Playbook

She doesn’t think she needs the Democratic Party. Her Democratic constituents beg to differ.

Sinema gestures with one hand as she speaks before a microphone held out by a reporter. Murkowski, Warner, Portman, and Collins stand around her outside.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Kyrsten Sinema, Mark Warner, Rob Portman, and Susan Collins speak to the press at the U.S. Capitol after a meeting with President Joe Biden about the infrastructure bill on June 24. Alex Wong/Getty Images

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Kyrsten Sinema is at the center of the political universe, both in terms of her ideology and in her role in negotiations over President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. But despite all the attention, she remains “kind of a black box,” according to the 19th reporter Amanda Becker. Becker’s recent story declared, “Kyrsten Sinema doesn’t feel the need to explain herself.”

That wasn’t always the case. Early in her political career, Sinema ran as an independent affiliated with the Green Party. She organized anti-war protests, worked on Ralph Nader’s campaign, and penned a diatribe against capitalism. Now, it’s difficult to tell what exactly she stands for. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Becker about the senator’s political evolution, her commitment to bipartisanship, and the prospects of a primary challenge back in Arizona. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: In that first run for the statehouse in Arizona, Sinema was an independent, and she’s said, “Here’s the thing: You can’t win that way. But I didn’t know that.” And so she re-registered as a Democrat, and the next election she won. To me, it’s like the first realization that I need to moderate a little bit.

Amanda Becker: Yeah. And at that point, it was simply just saying she was the member of a party, one of the major two parties, but that evolution continued. So she essentially has written about how her first year in the Arizona Statehouse was a complete waste. She didn’t get anything done. She talks about how she gave these kind of fiery floor speeches and was kind of this Bernie Sanders type figure in the Arizona Statehouse that was heavily Republican, and she was completely ineffectual, in her own telling. And so after that first year, she did some self-examination and decided that she wanted to befriend people on the other side in order to get things done, that that was the only way to achieve lasting political wins.

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In the stories she tells about her time in the state Capitol, she likes to point out how she got on Republicans’ level, appealing to their values and principles to get them to vote with her. But you say that, with the benefit of hindsight, a lot of Sinema’s favorite political victories weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

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One that’s really big, looming in her mind, from what she’s written about it and the interviews she’s done on it, was when she was in the statehouse and she was part of a coalition that defeated a ballot proposition that would have prohibited same-sex marriage by adding that to the state constitution. Now, same-sex marriage was already prohibited in Arizona at this time. This would have prohibited adding it to the actual constitution. Now, eventually, this was null and voided by a Supreme Court decision a few years later, but at this time, she talks about how, by the way that they decided to frame the issue, which is they actually used older heterosexual couples who were living together in terms of framing this as a domestic partner benefits issue, she was able to get more conservative Republicans on her side. Now, this upset some LGBTQ activists at the time, who thought this should be framed as a right or wrong. You either support the rights of the LGBTQ community or you don’t, and we shouldn’t have to couch it in making a heterosexual couple the face of this. But that victory was short-lived. The state eventually did approve this in a ballot proposition.

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The same thing happened for another coalition she worked with to prevent another ballot proposition from being on the ballot that would have banned affirmative action. So Sen. Sinema’s whole argument for the importance of bipartisanship is that you need bipartisanship to create lasting change, durable change, so you don’t leave constituents swinging back and forth and law and policy going back and forth in this confusing, wild way, depending on who’s in power. But two of the examples that she’s written about the most were changes that didn’t last.

Sinema caught heat back in March, when she voted against including a minimum wage increase in the coronavirus relief package. Plenty of people, including Democrats, voted no—but she did it with panache.

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She comes into the Senate chamber to cast her vote on the inclusion of this minimum wage hike, and she walks up to where they record the votes and she does a thumbs-down—which is normal in the Senate, especially with masks on. People use that a lot, senators do, to just get their vote recorded. But then she curtsied, she did kind of this dip. Now, what you could see on camera was just her curtsying in front of the staffers recording her vote. And then she talked to a couple Republicans on her way out of the chamber.

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And how did commentators react when they saw this?

The backlash was swift. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, wrote on Twitter, “Just wow,” linking to a post about her previous support for raising the minimum wage. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, wrote on Twitter, “No one should ever be this happy to vote against uplifting people out of poverty.” So this was really seen by a lot of progressive Democrats as kind of an “F you,” that not only was she not going to vote to include it, but the way she did it was rubbing salt in the wounds of working people and the lawmakers who wanted to get this done.

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But was it that?

No. So she got a lot of flak in media reports as well for this, both nationally and in her hometown paper. When I started reporting it out, because I was already working on a profile of her at this time, I was told by multiple people—and the more people I asked, the more people confirmed it—was that what you couldn’t see is that right off camera there were nonpartisan Senate staffers, so these are staffers who work for the Senate, not for one party or not for one lawmaker. They had had to stay up all night the night before reading the bill, and it was hundreds of pages long, so they had been there all night. Earlier that day, Sen. Sinema had brought them a cake, and they were thanking her for it as she voted. And so she was looking at them, beyond the staffer that was recording the votes, as they thanked her, and she curtsied as a response to them, a gesture of acknowledging their thanks.

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Now, the really puzzling part to me was why her office or she herself wouldn’t have just said that at the time. The only thing her office did say about it was they told [HuffPost] that it was essentially sexist to talk about a woman’s body language. They told [HuffPost], “Commentary about a female senator’s body language, clothing, or physical demeanor does not belong in a serious media outlet.” …

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I mean, the title I put on the story that I wrote about her is “Sinema doesn’t feel the need to explain herself.” And I really don’t think that she feels that she does. Now, I question whether that’s a good decision for someone in politics, but I don’t feel as though she feels as though she needs to answer to people on the progressive side of politics right now. She sees herself as having put together a winning coalition that included a lot of Republicans and crossover and independent voters—there’s a lot of independent voters in Arizona—and she views that as why she won. In Arizona, just five years ago, a Democrat winning a Senate seat was a bit of a political coup. Now I think things have changed, even since then. So I think it remains to be seen whether her calculation is correct, that that is the only group of people she should be focused on in her coalition.

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Does anyone know what Sinema actually believes? Other than friendship across the aisle, what does she stand for?

So, after talking to many people in her orbit, a couple dozen, including some people who are pretty close friends with her to this day, I am told that she has not changed her core beliefs, that they haven’t shifted all that much.

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So she still wants to burn down capitalism. [Laughs]

You know, I’m not sure it extends that far. I think they’re more talking about her latter statehouse days than her Green Party, anti-war activist, Ralph Nader days. But she believes deeply in food security issues and stuff like that. She believes deeply in supporting the military. She has members of her family who were in the military. She believes very strongly in voter rights. I had a couple people tell me that if there was anything that would get her to change her mind on the filibuster, it would be if she came to the realization or the conclusion that Republicans were truly going to make sure that nothing got through on protecting the right to vote—that that might be the one thing that would change her mind on the filibuster.

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But H.R. 1 just failed.

It did. She was an original co-sponsor, though, and she voted for it.

But that wasn’t enough.

Apparently not, because she just wrote an op-ed right ahead of that vote on protecting the filibuster. But beyond that, I don’t think that she seems to have changed her core beliefs on anything, according to the people closest to her. It’s just she feels as though she was elected to represent a group of voters who skew moderate to conservative. Whether that will be the same profile of voters she deals with going forward, that is TBD.

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Yeah. Is that still true? Because I wonder if Sinema is doing what her voters want or what she thinks they want based on a previous understanding of who they are.

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When I went and talked to voters in Arizona—liberal-leaning voters, who were ecstatic to elect the first Democrat to a Senate seat in a long while, in 2018, who worked really hard on her behalf—they’re fed up. And more than one of them told me, you know, “She doesn’t return our calls.” Sometimes they don’t even know how to get a hold of her or someone on her staff. She won’t meet with a lot of the progressive groups. Meanwhile, she’s meeting with a lot of industry groups and other more moderate or conservative-leaning organizations. And they told me, “We’re not going to put the same human power into her next campaign. If that means she loses, then so be it.” They think that there could be a credible primary challenger. And while Sen. Sinema might not see these people as the ones who put her over the edge and got her her victory, they were certainly the ones making phone calls, doing lit drops, going door to door. And they tell me that they just are not willing to do that a second time around. And if she faces a challenge from someone else who’s well known in the state, I think that she could have a really rough primary in 2024.

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If you read or listen to Kyrsten Sinema, it’s clear that she thinks of herself as a deal-maker. Do you think about her as a deal-maker or an obstructionist?

I think that she bases that view of herself on perhaps an outdated political dynamic and climate that has shifted. This year is the first year in Kyrsten Sinema’s political career that she has been a member of the party in control. I mean, her party controlled the House before, when she was in the U.S. House, but Republicans had the Senate and the White House, so it effectively didn’t really matter. When she was in the statehouse, Republicans usually were in control with a supermajority. So in that context, her commitment to reaching across the aisle did make her a deal-maker. Now, I think that she is viewed by her own party as potentially being and playing the role of an obstructionist as they try and get key pieces of legislation passed, either because she has not announced she’s on board in terms of some piece of legislation, such as a labor bill, or because she is one of the most vocal opponents on the Democratic side of changing the filibuster.

The person who would be the real deal-maker right now would be the Republican version of a Kyrsten Sinema. Because by even putting herself in the role as deal-maker, that to a certain extent makes her also a de facto obstructionist of the Democratic agenda, because she’s not automatically on board.

Kyrsten Sinema needed the Democratic Party to get into politics. She just couldn’t get elected without them, she said it herself. And now she’s in this funny situation where the larger party needs her, but she seems to be pushing back. It’s a funny flip to me.

Maybe it’s not a flip at all. I mean, maybe she doesn’t feel like, at the end of the day, she answers to the Democratic Party. She started out as not a Democrat, and it just has never become a pivotal point of discussion until now, because Democrats have not been in power until now.

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