Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema can’t seem to go anywhere these days without running into a constituent brandishing a smartphone and a long list of questions. And no matter what people want to talk about or where they approach her—in an airport, on a college campus, at a wedding—she simply acts like the people who want her attention aren’t there.
According to Sylvia González Andersh, Sinema’s strategy of avoiding tough questions extends to her own advisers. Andersh, an Air Force veteran who served on the senator’s veterans advisory council, had grown disillusioned with Sinema’s obstructionism around the Democrats’ legislative agenda. Last week, Andersh and four other veterans on the council resigned in protest with a letter calling Sinema “one of the principal obstacles to progress” and accusing her of using them as “window dressing.” On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Andersh about why she resigned and what the senator said to her in a voicemail afterward. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: There’s a picture I’ve seen of you with Sinema. She’s with a big group of veterans. Can you tell me the story of that picture?
Sylvia González Andersh: Yeah, that is actually the only time I was ever in a meeting with her in person.
We finally had a meeting in Phoenix and they asked us all to come. And so we went up there.
Were you excited?
Yeah! I mean, like, Oh, she’s going to be there—maybe. We weren’t sure. And so we were in the conference room, we’re all sitting around the table. And she comes in with her entourage and she sits down at the table and she starts the agenda and she’s just like, bam, bam, bam, bam. She’s going through and she’s telling everybody what to do, and she gets through whatever it is she wants to accomplish. And then we go around the table and say our names and where we’re from, and that was about it. And then she gets up from the table and she’s, “OK, now it’s time for a photo-op and we need to get this picture.” So we get up and go over to the area and I’m kind of standing there. And she just says, “No, no, you need to be over here.” She grabs me by the shoulders and she moves me and she puts me exactly where she wants me. And I’m like, well, OK then, I’ll stand right here. And the picture was taken and then she left.
You could come out thinking, Oh, she’s quite commanding. She knows what she wants. She lines things up the way that she wants them. But then you could also come out with a different perspective, which is, does she have time for listening?
At first, you’re right, that was the feeling. I said she’s very powerful, she’s a very strong woman, and as a woman who wants to promote women, I’m like, that’s really impressive, that she knows exactly what she wants and what she’s doing. But, as time went on, I became a little bit more cynical about what that was all about.
What did she want your counsel on when you were in a meeting with her?
Well, I don’t think I ever got a direct question towards me. It was more about her. At that same meeting she presented us with this bill that she was very proud of that she had gotten passed. It was a bipartisan bill and she gave us big copies on nice paper and for each one of us. Basically it was a bill to have the VFW be able to get new members from all the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. They couldn’t apply to be in the Veterans of Foreign Wars because that wasn’t a declared war, and so that was a bill that she wrote to help veterans get into the VFW.
It sounds like you saw that and you thought, OK, this is pretty small potatoes.
I mean, it’s good. It’s not bad. But there’s so many more things going on. We have half a million veterans in the state of Arizona. We have so many disabled veterans in the state of Arizona. In the whole country, we have over 4 million disabled veterans. They need things. And I don’t think their membership to the VFW is more important than their prescription medicine costs and their right to vote and their right to not stand in 100-degree weather to vote, especially when they have PTSD or they’re in a wheelchair. It’s heartbreaking.
After meeting up that one time in Phoenix, the veterans affairs council started gathering online. After COVID hit, it just didn’t make sense to meet in person. But the distance wasn’t just physical. You say, over the course of months, it began to feel like this advisory group was just giving the senator cover. You’d been working with a progressive veterans organization called Common Defense, and they seemed to listen when the senator wouldn’t.
I got to the point where I was so frustrated, my really close friends, they would say something and I would say, “I’m just so mad at her and so disappointed. I just want to resign in protest.” And then they kind of look at me and I’m like, “But it wouldn’t do any good. It’s just me, and who am I? I’m nobody. Nobody cares.” But Common Defense listened to me when I said that and they said, well, maybe you should check that out. And so I did. I went to the one guy that I knew in the Phoenix area and I said to him in a private, personal way, “Listen, I’m really upset about this and I’m thinking about doing this.” And he goes, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that too. I hear these rumblings.” So it was surprising to me. It was validating to me when I went to other veterans on the council and they said, yes, they felt exactly the same way.
What was that call like, when you got all these folks on the line?
I was a little hesitant, but I knew this other gentleman that I had reached out to. His name is David. He felt the same way. So we got on the call and we kind of all spoke our piece. We all came to a consensus. And that was how it happened. And then they said, “Well, who’s going to write the letter?” And I said, “I’ll write it.” I felt like I had a duty, since I’m the one that was kind of complaining in the first place.
Then Common Defense made you and your letter the focus of a splashy ad campaign. Three points you mention are voting rights, lowering prescription drug costs, and passing President Biden’s agenda. Some might look at those and say, “Those aren’t military issues.” And I wonder what you’d say to someone who says that.
Well, who are the military? We’re citizens. We’re all citizens in the same country and we put our lives on the line for those values of voting rights. It’s obscene. It’s obscene.
You also make some pretty straightforward allegations. You say of Sinema, “You have become one of the principal obstacles to progress, answering to big donors rather than your own people.” What made you so confident in saying that? Why did you want to write that down in this letter of resignation?
Because it’s the truth. I mean, nobody has had a meeting with her or seen her for a year, if not more. She doesn’t have outreach to actual voters. Common Defense has tried to meet with her several times to talk about disabled veterans and they couldn’t get a meeting with her. It was kind of like the last straw as far as trying to tell her that these were very important issues to veterans.
So many people want to speak with Sinema right now. They just want to get something out of her, an indication of what she’s thinking. And you may be one of the few people to have her on the record saying much of anything in the last few days, because my understanding is that after you resigned, she called you.
Yeah, she left me a voicemail mail at 6:45 in the morning, so she must have been calling from back east because Arizona is three hours different. And I kind of rolled over and picked up my phone, and I saw it was a blocked call and I’m like, I don’t even have my glasses on. I’m not answering that call. And so then finally, when I got myself together, I went back and I listened to the voice message and I’m like, It’s who?
Would you play it for us?
[Kyrsten Sinema speaking in a voicemail] Hi, Sylvia. It’s Kyrsten Sinema. I’m calling because I wanted to let you know that I saw the letter that you and a few others sent yesterday resigning from the veterans advisory committee, and while I’m very sorry to learn about your decision, I wanted to call and let you know how much I appreciate all of the service that you’ve given, not just to our veterans advisory committee, but your great service to our country and to our state. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service and to wish you well. Thanks. Bye-bye.
It doesn’t seem to acknowledge anything that you said in the letter. It’s a polite message and kind in some ways, but also keeps it pushing. And I sort of wonder how you felt after hearing that.
I just felt like, well, that’s par for the course.
Do you think about what you’d say to her if you had a chance to speak to her face to face again?
Well, of course. We want to talk to her about how voting rights affect everyone, but especially veterans who fought for this country and for democracy. We need to be able to have access to the ballot box. And maybe she can realize that we’re trying to help her here. We want her to do well. There’s a big PAC that’s already raising money to primary her. You know, people are very upset. People are withholding funds in protest. They’re not donating. They’re reaching out and helping organizations that are trying to do this work for the Democratic Party and for getting the Voting Rights Act and all these things passed because they’re so mad. They’re like, unless something changes with Sinema, nothing’s going to happen. So it’s becoming a problem in the state.
As someone who worked with the senator and pounded the pavement to get her elected, how do you feel about the debate among Arizona Democrats about whether to primary her? How do you think that’s going to resolve itself?
I don’t know. I was in a Zoom meeting for over four hours with the Arizona Democratic Party because I have a vote in that group. And they voted almost 90 percent, 80-something percent, to put forward a resolution to the executive board that if she doesn’t vote in favor of voting rights in the Build Back Better Act and several things that we put in there, we gave the board the ability to censure her. So that was a long, hard meeting with lots of discussions in there. And when the vote came up, there was no quivering, no dissent.
Do you think censuring her is going to make a difference?
I don’t know. I mean, there were people on there and they said, if you censure her, that’s just going to make things worse. But at this point, everybody was so frustrated. It was just like me writing the letter. We don’t know what else to do, but we feel so strongly that we have to make some kind of a statement.