Immigrant rights groups swarmed on a press conference Sinema held after the bill passed, chanting “no más” — no more — until Capitol police arrested four people. But they had made their point: Sinema abruptly ended the press conference and left.
Soon after, Sinema enraged many in her party for refusing to back the recall of Pearce, the then-Senate president who had authored Arizona’s hard-line immigration law. Sinema had been elected to the state Senate in 2010, and she told a group of activists organizing the historic recall effort that she couldn’t help because Pearce was her “boss.”
She also went on a local news program and declared that Pearce, among the left’s most hated politicians, was a good friend who should also run for Congress. Her spokesperson later said it was a tongue-in-cheek remark meant to convey that she wanted him out of the state Legislature. But to many Latino activists, cozying up to the man who had demonized their communities all to get a few modest bills through the Senate was a bridge too far.
Today, Lopes is part of a group raising money for a potential Democratic challenger to Sinema in 2024, infuriated that she’s serving as a blockade to the Biden agenda.
“This is our chance to do something really, really meaningful,” he says. “And she’s holding that up. What kind of bullshit is that?”
Sometimes, Sinema succeeded in co-opting her conservative friends into backing a liberal agenda.
In 2006, when Sinema was still a true-blue progressive, she asked Jonathan Paton, a Republican legislator from Tucson, to take the lead on her bill ensuring women who breastfeed in public couldn’t be charged with indecent exposure.
“She was very matter of fact about it: ‘Look, if I sponsor it, it’s not going to pass. I’ll do all the work, I just need a Republican to sponsor it for me because that’s the way the world works,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Okay, you know, whatever,’ and I didn’t really pay a whole lot of attention to it, to be honest with you, until the day of the hearing.”
He was shocked when hundreds of women showed up for the hearing — a mix of what he calls granola hippies and Mormon moms. The bill passed committee with their support, but Paton warned Sinema it still faced opposition within conservative ranks of the Republican Party, particularly from Pearce.
“And she looks at me and she says, ‘I’ll handle Russell,’” he says.
Sinema drummed up a campaign for moms and higher-ups in the Mormon Church to email Pearce, who is Mormon, to support the bill, and Pearce folded, Paton says.
“I was impressed,” Paton says. “She was smarter than most people in either party.”
The two went on to work on a host of other issues together, including the drop house bill that later put Sinema in trouble with members of her own party. But Paton still thinks back to that first project — the breastfeeding bill that he didn’t really want to sponsor — as the moment when he understood what a powerhouse Sinema could become.
All the Washington, D.C. intrigue about why Sinema is holding up Democrats’ legislation is based on a misreading of where the state is politically, Paton adds. It’s an independent, center-right state that can support a Democrat who leans conservative.
“Let’s just say she knows this state at least as well as she knew Russell Pearce,” he says.
Even among her critics, Sinema is widely regarded as among the savviest political operators in Arizona history. She has the book smarts of a lawyer, the emotional intelligence of a social worker and the determination of a triathlete, because she is all of those things.
Nobody gets to the U.S. Senate without a healthy dose of ambition and hubris. But her detractors say in that regard, too, she’s off the charts: That she’s only ever cared about herself, that she craves the limelight, that she’s abandoned all principles she once held dear in exchange for power.
“Kyrsten is one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known, if not the most brilliant,” says a former Democratic lawmaker who once was close with her in the legislature and was granted anonymity to speak candidly. That’s what makes her conduct in Washington so disappointing: “I don’t think her motivation for casting the votes that she does today has anything to do with what her actual true beliefs are.”
Instead, the former colleague says her decisions are based on cold hard political calculations — and a need to feed her hunger for attention, more than power even.
“If she lost the Senate race and got a TV show on Fox or whatever, I think she’d be just as happy,” the former lawmaker says. “What she wants is Cecily Strong to play her on SNL. Anyone who thinks that she was insulted by that doesn’t know her.”
Other longtime allies and supporters of Sinema are bewildered.
Back when Sinema unsuccessfully ran for the legislature as an independent, Sandy Bahr, executive director of the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, was her biggest champion. She helped campaign for Sinema and was there on election night sharing in the devastating loss.
When Sinema ran as a Democrat two years later and won, she quickly became one of the Sierra Club’s most reliable votes at the Capitol. For years in Congress, Sinema and Bahr were still close. But these days, Bahr can hardly get a meeting with her, securing a single 5-minute session since Sinema became a senator three years ago.
And why, wonders Bahr, is Sinema reportedly pushing to cut $100 billion from funds to fight climate change — a stance at odds with the view of her own voters based on the polling. Sinema is typically a math whiz when it comes to politics, Bahr says, but in this instance, her calculations seem to be off. A Sinema spokesman denied the report to the New York Times.
“I’m really disappointed, and I’m perplexed,” she says, adding that she thinks Sinema still cares deeply about environmental issues. “But where she’s centering herself seems to have changed.”
Of course, Sinema isn’t the only Democrat standing in the way of passing Biden’s agenda. But politicos and pundits find it much easier to explain away the reservations of Manchin, a longtime moderate whose state Trump won by nearly 40 percentage points last year.
Manchin has come in for pressure from the left — protesters have been kayaking up to his houseboat — but he has had no problem debating them, even on the water.
Sinema, meanwhile, hasn’t been spotted around her old haunts since she was photographed in April flaunting a ring reading, “Fuck Off.” She rarely takes questions from the press or her constituents, whether they try to buttonhole her on airplanes or in the bathroom. She doesn’t ham it up with the press like Manchin.
To Lujan and other former allies, her silence is the most confounding part of her transformation.
As a state lawmaker, Sinema would sometimes speak at three public events a day and was among the most quoted and quotable lawmakers, he says. But now she’s “almost reclusive.”
Former Arizona Democratic lawmaker Debbie McCune Davis, a solid progressive who was something of a mentor to Sinema during her early years at the Capitol, says she saw a change once Sinema ascended to Democratic leadership. Suddenly, Sinema was keeping the door open to the payday lending industry and others who were in direct opposition to Democrats’ agenda.
“I watched the evolution take place. And what I saw was a pragmatic side of her that frustrated me a bit, because those were not people who were doing anything good for our community,” she says.
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