What Is Kyrsten Sinema’s Deal?

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The last time Rebecca Rios spoke to Kyrsten Sinema, the senior senator from Arizona declined to make an actual appearance. On a Zoom chat this spring, there was a publicity photo where the live image of Sinema should have been. She seemed reluctant to be there at all. The meeting — organized by ten concerned Arizona Democrats, many of whom had known Sinema for decades — had taken weeks to set up. Sinema’s office demanded questions in advance. From behind her publicity photo, Sinema intoned canned answers about her refusal to buck the filibuster, the principal obstacle to the Democrats’ efforts to protect minority voting rights against Republican assault. Twenty minutes later, the meeting was over.

A spokesman for Sinema said the call was taken right off the Senate floor and that turning on a phone camera was not “a realistic option.” But Rios, a former minority leader of the Arizona House, now serving in the state senate, isn’t in the mood for excuses. “This is what we’re getting?” she asked. “What does that say?”

Just what the Democrats are getting from Kyrsten Sinema has become an increasingly urgent question among Arizona’s newly empowered liberals along with some talk about who can run against her in the primaries in 2024.

Sinema used to be known as an accessible, funny, and hardworking lawmaker willing to cut deals — a cool breeze for Democrats in an otherwise hostile political climate. Now a grudging Zoom chat seems to be the extent of her outreach.

Along with Joe Manchin, Sinema has emerged as the most outspoken gadfly in the Democratic caucus. In addition to opposing filibuster reform under the specious claim that it was designed to “bring together members of different parties to find compromise and coalition,” she has reliably popped up to stymie the agenda of President Joe Biden and progressive Democrats, most recently throwing sand in the gears of her party’s big budget bill because she “could not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion.” And she has done so with a glee that has irritated and confused her allies in equal measure.

After she made a flamboyant thumbs-down gesture on the floor of the Senate in March to vote against including a raise in the minimum wage in Biden’s COVID-19 relief package, she posted a photo of herself to Instagram, sipping sangria through a twisty straw on a restaurant patio. She wore a pink driving cap, dangly earrings, and a ring on her fourth finger pointed toward the camera that said “fuck off” — a message that seemed to be squarely aimed at her Democratic critics back home. In July, Politico reported that Sinema had told Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that she would not stick around to vote for either the bipartisan infrastructure bill or the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill if the votes were held during the scheduled August recess because she had vacation plans.

Unlike the sure-footed Manchin, however, Sinema doesn’t seem to have a particular method to her madness. And unlike Manchin, who is likely the only Democrat who can win statewide office in his native West Virginia, Sinema comes from a state where Democrats are in the ascent, having just won two Senate seats for the first time since the 1950s. Sinema’s taunting of her left flank may have come with a price. A poll from Data for Progress showed Biden with a 95 percent approval rating among Arizona Democrats, while her colleague Senator Mark Kelly clocked in at 75 percent. Sinema came in at a miserable 42 percent, the apparent result of giving the finger to the same people who put her in federal office. Two-thirds think she should be primaried.

“There can be no power without mystery,” observed Charles de Gaulle. “There must always be a ‘something’ that others cannot altogether fathom, which puzzles them, stirs them, and rivets their attention.” Combine that “something” with squishy principles, relentless self-promotion, and a performative notion of bipartisanship and you might get Kyrsten Sinema.

A suspicion of the Democratic Party is one of the coherent through-lines in Sinema’s journey from Green Party outsider to U.S. Senate obstructionist. She grew up Mormon and poor in Tucson and has told stories (later challenged) of living in a converted gas station for a time. After an early marriage and a divorce, with a degree from Brigham Young University, she moved to Phoenix in the early 2000s and took a job as a social worker at Shaw Butte Elementary School.

One of her colleagues there, Jackie Thrasher, remembers her as a hard worker “in overalls and Birkenstocks,” protesting on behalf of leftist causes in her off-hours. She was armed with a wicked sense of humor that was disarming. “She can rip out a person’s heart from their chest, and they’ll thank her for it,” Thrasher told me. “There’s a way of being caustic and getting away with it — she’s got that.”

In those days, she had no love for centrist Democrats, who she thought were awash in corporate money. “I don’t even know why he’s running,” she complained to a reporter while protesting a 2000 visit to Arizona by Joe Lieberman, then Al Gore’s vice-presidential pick and the model of the centrist Democrat who seemed to exist only to foil and rankle his peers. “He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him — what kind of strategy is that?” Celeste Pettijohn, a retired theatrical producer who knew her at the time, put it succinctly: “She certainly didn’t like Democrats.”

Sinema soon began to recognize the futility of trying to make change from the far left. “I’m an activist and a progressive activist,” she told the Arizona Republic in 2003. “I’m used to losing. It’s the nature of the movement.” The following year, she registered as a Democrat and won election to the state legislature from a liberal central Phoenix district with a significant constituency of LGBTQ voters.

The results-oriented strategy soon took another form: befriending Republicans. This might have been seen as laudably prudent, particularly at a time when the GOP had a stranglehold on the state, were it not for her choice of friends. Among them were Andy Biggs, who went on to make false claims as a congressman that Donald Trump lost the 2020 election because of voter fraud and that antifa was behind the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Another was Russell Pearce, the ferociously anti-immigrant state-senate president who authored the “show me your papers” bill known as SB 1070, which all but forced local police to racially profile Latino drivers. “The more Republican they are, the better she’ll like them,” said Rios. “She initiated all those relationships. They didn’t need to cultivate Democrats. They had the numbers.”

These new contacts turned Sinema into a deal-maker as well as a champion gossip (“She knew who was sleeping with who,” Pettijohn recalled). She began to self-mockingly call herself “a Prada socialist.” She told the Progressive Democrats of America in 2012, shortly before she graduated to the U.S. House, that she couldn’t push back too hard against Pearce’s nativist crusade because “he’s my boss.” She told a local NBC affiliate, “I love Russell.” It got to the point at which she could no longer brook criticism of conservatives. Pettijohn recalled making an unkind observation about Republican David Schweikert, also a future congressman, and getting a stern look from Sinema: “She told me, ‘I can’t allow you to say anything bad about him. I can’t speak ill of any of my associates.’ And she’s been on that path ever since.”

Sinema talks a lot about “bipartisanship” but seems to have forgotten about partnering with her own party. She was the only Democrat to skip a June dinner thrown by Vice-President Kamala Harris for women in the Senate (her spokesman said it was due to a broken right foot). Leaders of the Latino advocacy group LUCHA, which campaigned hard for her during her first run for Senate in 2018, have expressed disgust over her neglect of key causes like voting rights and the minimum wage. Co-founder Alejandra Gomez says she is ready to campaign against Sinema, even at the risk of losing the seat to the other party, offering a tart observation to a reporter: “We already have a Republican in that seat.”

Her office countered by noting that Arizona voters knew exactly what they were getting when they elected her: a centrist legislator who prizes concrete results. Still, speculation back home about Sinema’s ultimate motivations tends to revolve around what one longtime Arizona strategist identified as “her narcissism.” The multicolored wigs and the constant need to be at the center of the conversation seem to suggest that Sinema is more interested in promoting herself than in Getting Things Done. If so, she got her wish: The path to federal law now flows through her.

What’s the long game? Sinema is said to care about her legacy as a pragmatist who made government work, even at the expense of party loyalty — or perhaps in defiance of it. “When I first met her, she was protesting the war criminal George W. Bush outside the Phoenix Convention Center wearing a pink tutu,” said the strategist. “She portrayed herself as a progressive but then played footsie with Republicans in a way that seems designed to piss off her base.”

In the red Arizona of previous decades, that used to be something of a requirement for Democrats who had no better options. And even today, some Arizonans think it’s smart politics. Republican political consultant Stan Barnes called her “the most talented political figure of her generation,” with a Bill Clinton–like ability to turn on the charm. “She is running a pitch-perfect reelection strategy,” said Barnes. “The ideologues of the far right will never vote for her, but the center right is getting a pleasant surprise.”

“Surprise” is an apt way to describe Sinema’s sallies against Democratic orthodoxy, since it’s difficult to locate any consistent ideology that might explain them — the result being that you never really know what you’re going to get. Her dramatic thumbs-down gesture against the minimum-wage hike was seen by some as a visual callout to fellow Arizonan John McCain, who made a show of doing the same in a vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2018. Sinema has called McCain a “personal hero” but does not have McCain’s reputation for patriotic valor. “She wants the maverick label, but to earn that label, you have to stand up at key moments when your country needs you,” said the strategist, noting that another of her cited heroes, Representative John Lewis, would have been extremely displeased at her decision to stand in the way of expanded ballot access.

She has been quiet about the much-maligned “audit” of Arizona’s 2020 ballots, an effort by Republicans to make false claims of fraud a path toward GOP-controlled legislatures picking the winners — a list she is unlikely to make. (Her spokesman said she finds it “deeply troubling to see state leaders wasting time and taxpayer money on this when we’ve seen no credible evidence of irregularities — and that Arizonans should feel assured that our election was secure and that their votes were counted correctly.”) That she hasn’t spoken louder is being interpreted as yet another misguided sop to the right. “Her whole thing is you do what you have to do to get things done,” said Thrasher. “But I think she’s getting conned.” Facing an electorate increasingly filling up with displaced Californians, her record may be harder to justify when she finally has to court Democrats again for the primary and the general.

Seduction and abandonment are nothing new in politics. Nor is calculated opacity. But at some point, Sinema is going to have to start answering the questions swirling around her. In March, a reporter tried to ask her about filibuster reform just as she was getting into an elevator. “I love your enthusiasm,” she told him as the doors closed.

What Is Kyrsten Sinema’s Deal?