Kyrsten Sinema Really Doesn’t Care, Does She?
As the Biden agenda idles, the Arizona Senator has abandoned old allies and caused frustrated Democrats to wonder if she'll ever make clear what she wants
When Kyrsten Sinema announced her run for the Senate in 2017, she emphasized a childhood of poverty, one in which she describes living for several years in an abandoned Florida gas station without electricity or running water. Full of emotion, she shared her desire to make lives of Arizonans better in her announcement video:
“I have the chance to change things, to help Arizonans every day—whether it’s a veteran who can’t get his benefits, a widow who needs social security, a businessman who’s struggling with red tape or parents worried their kids won’t have a better life than they’ve had. I get to help people solve their problems. What a privilege.”
Her words and her story gave optimism, especially among progressives who expected that that she would be sensitive to the plight of the poor and those struggling to pay their bills. She was the former Green Party activist and social worker who worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign. She was the intriguing bisexual, wig-wearing triathlete and House member who wrote a how-to book on political organizing, in which she called herself “a big fan of honesty” and said that it’s wrong to “be sneaky about the truth—no doubt about it.”
Her campaign attracted Democrats of every variety who believed that Arizonans could elect a Democrat to take the seat of departing GOP Sen. Jeff Flake. Among them was Arizona Wins, a coalition of 32 progressive advocacy groups that worked aggressively to help get Sinema—a three-term Congresswoman—elected in 2018. That included registering nearly 200,000 new voters and knocking on over 2 million doors.
But that was then. Before her too-cute curtsy and thumbs-down vote against raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, seen as a blatant insult by many progressives who assumed she would be on their side. “It was like a slap in the face,” said a retired ATT telephone operator who worked to get her elected in both the House and Senate.
That was also before Sinema became one of the two most conservative members of the US Senate, refusing to engage with Washington reporters in a serious way and neglecting to hold Arizona town halls or other open-to-the-public events.
That was also before her most high-profile choice: acting as one of the two main obstacles to the passage of the Biden Build Back Better bill intended to address climate change, child care, education and much more; refusing to say what exactly she opposes and what she supports; and frustrating her colleagues and constituents alike.
But as silent as she’s been on her intentions—which have reportedly included not taking some calls from the president—she’s also been quite visible in her departures from Washington to hold fundraisers at a Phoenix spa resort and in Paris while her colleagues sought desperately to pass the legislative package. (Last month in D.C. she also raked in dollars with business lobbying groups that oppose the legislation.) As Dana Milbank’s column suggested this week: “What does Kyrsten Sinema want? A Parisian holiday.”
Every time I see photographs of the senator departing for one of her fundraisers, dressed in one of her multicolor, attention-seeking outfits complete with running shoes, I think of Melania Trump’s green jacket scrawled with her sneering message for the media: “I REALLY DON’T CARE DO U?”
As it turns out, a lot of people in Sinema’s home state do care—a state that’s a far cry from the deep conservatism of her friend Joe Manchin’s West Virginia. A poll of likely Arizona Democratic primary voters, conducted October 8 to 10, found that 49 percent strongly disapprove of the job Sinema is doing, another 21 percent somewhat disapprove, and only 19 percent somewhat approve.
Contrast that with President Joe Biden, where 47 percent strongly approve, another 38 percent somewhat approve and only 10 percent strongly disapprove. As for Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, up for re-election next year, the numbers are even stronger: 58 percent strongly approve and another 27 percent somewhat approve.
In that same poll, Sinema was beaten handily in four head-to-head matchups with potential Democratic challengers for the Senate in the next election in 2024, garnering around 25 percent support in each case. These included Reps. Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero.
While my own conversations with Democrats who donated to her 2018 campaign reveal a remarkable level of rancor and confusion over why she has abandoned many of those who supported her, there’s particular anger over her apparent need to be the center of attention and in a position of power—no matter the damage it may cause to the Democratic agenda.
Her calls for bipartisanship and her refusal to toe a party line may be motivated in part by her desire to emulate the revered “maverick” John McCain—hence her infuriating “thumbs down” show on the $15-an-hour vote. But this behavior is alienating those who put her into office, and she likely misunderstands the possibility that independents or Republicans will support her a few years from now.
But maybe she really doesn’t care. Maybe she doesn’t plan to run again, as her personal wealth has risen and she has become closer to Republicans and corporate donors. And maybe, as her opportunism grasps changes ahead, the principles she’s abandoned will suddenly lure her back to a Democratic agenda and former friends who are willing to embrace her.
Who knows? As Reid J. Epstein writes, “Ms. Sinema has finally swung so far around that the people she used to disagree with are now her allies. Her old allies, who now disagree with her, no longer have any hope she’ll work with them.”
Is there anyone who really knows what her sphinx-like behavior portends? At a time when democracy’s survival and positive change depends on maximum clarity and Democrats sticking together, this self-serving ambiguity is increasingly intolerable.
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