What’s Kyrsten Sinema’s Deal?

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S1: How do you think about Kyrsten Sinema, his place in the cinematic universe of the U.S. Capitol right now?

S2: Senator Kirsten Sinema is at the center of the universe in the US Capitol right now.

S1: Amanda Becker covers Washington for the 19th, thinks a lot about the characters in power, how they got there. When she says Senator Sinema is at the center of the universe in the U.S. Capitol, she means it literally. Like if you think about politicians on an ideological spectrum, this Arizona senator would be smack dab in the middle. And that means

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S2: her and Joe Manchin from West Virginia are kind of pivotal to every single thing that divided administration and Democrats would like to accomplish.

S1: Politics aside, Senator Sinema definitely stands out. She’s been known to wear thigh high boots to legislative sessions during covid, she covered up her overgrown roots with lavender and turquoise wigs. But you get a sense of her power when you see the way the White House puts her front and center. When President Biden was trying to iron out an infrastructure bill and racing to announce he had a deal, Senator Sinema was standing by his side. Amanda says the thing about these crucial moments, though, is you might see Kyrsten Sinema, but you will rarely hear from her.

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S2: She’s kind of a black box right now in terms of what will she get on board with? What won’t she get on board with?

S1: Yeah, it’s funny to me because. Kyrsten Sinema is hard to ignore. She’s often dressed in like an attention getting way, but then you don’t ever really seem to know what it all means yet.

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S2: She hasn’t always been like this. She used to, you know, when she was in the state house, give a lot more floor speeches, for example. She used to be a lot more accessible to members of the press who were covering her, whether it was as a lawmaker during one of her campaigns

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S1: a few years back, Senator Sinema was a regular on MSNBC. She gave a TED talk. She seemed to relish the spotlight. But now Amanda puts it this way. Kyrsten Sinema doesn’t feel the need to explain herself.

S2: She has chosen to kind of pull herself out of the public conversation now that she’s been in the Senate despite playing this pivotal role. So while she gets headlines for her, her clothing and her wigs, her colorful wigs, you know, people are kind of left wondering what she’s thinking on a lot of things

S1: today on the show. What’s Kirsten Cinemas deal? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Can we talk a little bit about how we got here with Kyrsten Sinema? I think many people know her. They they know her as the senator from Arizona. They may know that she got a lot of attention for being one of the first openly bisexual members of the Senate, and I believe Congress as well. But can you go back further than that and just explain how she got into politics in the first place?

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S2: Yeah. So Senator Sinema was born in the Tucson area in the mid 70s, her family, and was kind of solidly started out as a solidly middle class family. Her dad started to run into kind of work and money troubles during the nineteen eighties recession. She’s talked about how their car was repossessed at one point and their house kind of dipped in and out of foreclosure. Her parents ended up splitting up. Her mom remarried, and her stepfather was from this tiny town on the Florida Panhandle called Defuniak Springs, Florida. They ended up moving to that small town when she was elementary school age, I believe. And for a time, they really relied on the generosity of both family and the Mormon Church in order to kind of get by. I mean, Ferd, they were living in her stepfather’s parents piece of property that had an abandoned gas station on it.

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S1: And she characterized it as homeless.

S2: Basically, she did so in her. That became a huge kind of thing in her Senate bid that she had said she knows what what it’s like to be homeless. And it became a kind of back and forth about what qualifies as homeless. Did the gas station really not have plumbing? Like she said? I mean, by all accounts, the gas station was not a normal home. It was not designed or retrofitted to be inhabited by a family with children. So in that sense, she was she did not have a typical home. And her campaign at the time pointed out that in Arizona, the definition of homelessness would include, you know, residing in a structure not built for human habitation.

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S1: How did she get back to Arizona

S2: college after college? She moved back to Arizona. So they were they were in Florida and she graduated early. She you know, at this time, they were kind of getting food and financial assistance from leaders in the Mormon Church. She graduated early from high school, went to BYU, Brigham Young. Yeah, graduated early there as well, and moved back to the Arizona area where she became a social worker because she had this. She has a beloved aunt who was a social worker. And so she decided she would move back to the Phoenix area. And she was a school social worker for six or seven years. She got her master’s in social work. And she just started to become really frustrated during this period of time that she wasn’t able to have a bigger impact. A friend said to her, you should go to law school, consider politics. So she did. She got a law degree from Arizona State and she became an attorney and started getting more and more involved in politics. And that’s kind of the beginning of her political career.

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S1: But she was always in Democratic politics, like initially she was affiliated with the Green Party and was an independent. And it’s interesting because there’s this letter she wrote in 2002 to the Arizona Republic, where it’s like a diatribe against capitalism, the kind of thing that I couldn’t imagine Senator Sinema writing. Now, she basically talks about how, you know, until everyone realizes that the wealthy are in control, the almighty dollar will continue to rule. It’s it’s not subtle stuff.

S2: No, she was not that was not a subtle period of her political career. I mean, she was as you said, she was in the Green Party. She ran for local office a couple times and lost miserably. She worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign. She eventually, the first time she ran for the House, I believe was, yeah, as an independent affiliated with the Arizona Green Party. She finished last. She got less than 10 percent of the vote. So, you know, she eventually subsequently switched to a Democratic ticket affiliation and won her first state House seat in 2004. But, you know, for the years preceding that, she was pretty far out there. And, you know, she was an anti-war protester. She had a lot of opinions that she stated publicly about Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She did not tone it down at all in those early years in politics, but she also didn’t see many political victory. During that time period,

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S1: yeah, she’s pretty honest about this, like she’s been quoted saying, you know, in the first run for the state house in Arizona, she was an independent. And here’s the thing, you can’t win that way. But I didn’t know that. And so she reregistered as a Democrat and the next election she won, which to me, it’s like sort of the first realization that I need to moderate a little bit.

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S2: Yeah. And at that point, you know, 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 State House 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 State House that was heavily Republican and she was completely ineffectual in her own telling. And so after that first year, she kind of 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 kind of lasting political wins.

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S1: Over time, befriending people across the aisle became core to cinema’s political self mythology. She would give these speeches about it. The picture we see of

S3: politics today is rancorous and partisan and ugly. That is an accurate picture, but it doesn’t have to be.

S1: The truth is this is that TED talk Sinema gave after serving seven years in the Arizona state legislature in order for politics

S3: to work for people in this country, we can no longer divide and conquer. We must unite and conquer. Thank you.

S1: 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 Amanda says that with the benefit of hindsight, a lot of cinema’s favorite political victories, they weren’t all they were cracked up to be,

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S2: one that’s really big looming in her mind from what she’s written about it in the interviews she’s done on. It was when she was in the state house 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 known voided by a Supreme Court decision a few years later. But at this time, she talks about how she, 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 kind of 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 the rights of the LGBTQ community or you don’t. And we shouldn’t have to couch it in, you know, making a heterosexual couple kind of the face of this. But that victory was short lived. The state eventually did approve this and a ballot proposition. 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 Senator Cinema’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.

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S1: It wasn’t until Democrats seized control of the White House and the Senate this January. That question started bubbling up about what exactly Sinema is. Bipartisanship was all about. The first time she caught heat was a couple of months back. The Senate was scheduled to vote about whether President Biden’s stimulus bill was going to include a measure increasing the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour.

S2: Now, it was expected kind of that no Republicans were going to go along with this. Many Democrats were also wild cards, including some Democrats who support raising the minimum wage, as Senator Sinema does, because they had a procedural objection to kind of tacking it on to this larger stimulus package because, you know, it has sunset provisions in a variety of other things. They just didn’t feel it was the right way to go about this.

S1: So plenty of people were thinking they were going to vote against this. Yes, but Kyrsten Sinema did it with panache.

S2: She did. And she you know, she had said before the vote that she opposed this. So she comes in to 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,

S1: which is

S2: usual, which is normal in the Senate, especially with masks on. You know, people use that a lot senators do to just get their vote recorded. But then she Kirksey, she did kind of this dip. Now, what you could see on camera was just her curtseying in front of the staffers recording her vote. And then she talked to a couple of Republicans on her way out of the chamber.

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S1: And how did commentators react when they saw this?

S2: The backlash was swift. So, you know, Representative Mark Pocan, he’s from Wisconsin, a Wisconsin Democrat. He wrote on Twitter just to wow. Linking to a post about her previous support for raising the minimum wage. Rasheda to leave, but 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 kind of rubbing salt in the wounds of working people in the lawmakers who wanted to get this done.

S1: But when you reported it out, was it that.

S2: No. So she got a lot of flack, you know, 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 non-partisan 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 of long. They had been there all night earlier that day. Senator Sinema had brought them a cake and they were thanking her for it as she voted. And so her curtsy, she was looking at them beyond the staffer that was recording the votes as they thanked her. And she curtsied as a as a response to them, a gesture of acknowledging their thanks. 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 the Huffington Post that it was essentially sexist to talk about a woman’s body language. They told the Huffington Post, quote, Commentary about a female senators, body language, clothing or physical demeanor does not belong in a serious media outlet.

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S1: So what do you make of that? I mean, like, do you think. Kyrsten Sinema staff saw this like almost as an opportunity, like she’s riled up these progressives and she can kind of use that politically in Arizona, which is a very purple state, or are we just looking at her wrong? I’m just curious what you made of it.

S2: I mean, I don’t think her staff went kind of off script in any way in their response to that. If anything, I think they were trying to clean it up to the extent that they could. Probably given some limitations, congressional staffs rarely go rogue. They usually are carrying out the wishes of the lawmaker that they’re working for. I think that she really 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 just 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 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 is why she won, which 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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S1: When we come back, is Senator Cinema’s commitment to bipartisanship a winning strategy in the Senate or back home? Last month, Senator Sinema offered a few more clues about her approach to bipartisanship when she authored an op ed in The Washington Post defending the filibuster. Like her colleague Joe Manchin, Sinema thinks of the filibuster as a way to preserve civil debate in the upper chamber. She says by making sure no bill can pass without 60 votes, there’s an incentive for both parties to work together, and legislation is less likely to swing back and forth as one party or another takes power. This is a take that rankles her progressive colleagues. Does anyone know what Senator Sinema actually believes? Because other than friendship across the aisle, like, what does she stand for?

S2: So I after talking to many people kind of in her orbit, a couple of dozen, including some people who are are pretty close friends with her to this day, I am told that she has not changed kind of her core beliefs, that they haven’t shifted all that much.

S1: She just seems so she still wants to burn down capitalism.

S2: You know, I’m not sure it extends that far. I think they’re more talking about kind of her latter statehouse days than her Green Party, you know, 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 is members of her family who are in the military. She believes very strongly in voter rights. I had a couple of 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 she that might be the one thing that would change her mind on the filibuster.

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S1: But H.R. one just failed.

S2: It did. She was a she was an original co-sponsor, though, and she voted for it. It just they said if but that wasn’t enough, she was going to change your mind on the filibuster. And potentially there could be some other compromise they could reach on voting legislation. These people told me that if there was anything that would get her to change the filibuster, it would be if she was convinced that Republicans just truly were going to obstruct anything on voting.

S1: But she’s not convinced of that yet.

S2: Apparently not, because she just wrote an op ed right ahead of that vote on protecting the filibuster. But, you know, 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.

S1: Yeah, that was what I was going to ask. Like, is that still true, though? Because I wonder a little bit if Kyrsten Sinema is doing what her voters want or what she thinks they want based on a previous understanding of who they are.

S2: 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 twenty eighteen who worked really hard on her behalf, they’re fed up and more than one of them told me, you know, we can’t she doesn’t return our calls. Sometimes we don’t even know they don’t even know how to get a hold of her or someone on her staff. She won’t meet with kind of a lot of the progressive groups. Meanwhile, she’s meeting with a lot of industry groups and other kind of more moderate or conservative leaning organizations. And they told me, you know, we’re not going to put the same human power into her next campaign. And if that means she loses, then so be it. But they think that there could be a credible primary challenger. And while Senator 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 or 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 is well known in the state, I think that she could have a really rough primary in twenty twenty four.

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S1: It’s funny because if you read or listen to Kyrsten Sinema, it’s clear that she thinks of herself as a dealmaker. But I sort of wonder, do you think about her as a deal maker or an obstructionist?

S2: 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 Kersten’s cinema’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 US House, but Republicans had the Senate and the White House. So it effectively didn’t really matter when she was in the state, House Republicans usually were in control with a supermajority. So in that context, her commitment to reaching across the aisle did make her a dealmaker. 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 is not announced, she’s on board in terms of, you know, 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. You know, 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 kind of to a certain extent makes her also a de facto obstructionists of the Democratic agenda because she’s not automatically on board.

S1: Hmm. It’s funny to me that Kyrsten Sinema kind of needed the Democratic Party to get into politics, like she just couldn’t get elected without them, like 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.

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S2: 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, you know, a pivotal point of discussion until now because Democrats have not been in power until now.

S1: Amanda Becker, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Amanda Becker is the Washington correspondent for the 19th, and that is our show. What Next is produced by David Land, Danielle, Hewitt, Carmel Delshad, Elena Schwartz and Mary Wilson big thanks to Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt for helping us do what we do every single day. And I’m Mary Harris. Tomorrow, stay tuned to this feed. What next? TBD is going to be here with Lizzie O’Leary. She will be dissecting the Pentagon’s UFO report. Stay tuned, because the truth is out there.