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The Political Past And Present Of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., right, arrive at the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite, File/AP Photo)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., right, arrive at the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite, File/AP Photo)

Arizona’s Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema says her ‘brand’ is bipartisanship. Sinema isn’t an everyday senator. We talk with Arizonans about Sinema’s life story, what she stands for, and what she’s really trying to accomplish.  


Ron Hansen, national politics reporter for The Arizona Republic. Co-host of The Gaggle podcast. (@ronaldjhansen)

Adam Jentleson, executive director of the Battle Born Collective, a progressive strategy and communications firm. Author of “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate.” (@AJentleson)

Kent Burbank, chair of the LGBTQ+ Alliance Fund of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona. He teaches social work at Pima Community College.

Interview Highlights

How would you describe what kind of state legislator Sinema was in the Arizona State House?

Ron Hansen: “If I could even go back a little bit earlier than that, she ran in 2002 for the Arizona legislature and lost. She was aligned with the Green Party at the time and was a vocal member of the anti-war movement here in Arizona during the Bush era. And so when she gets to the legislature, she really had sort of created a body of support among the very progressive community in Arizona, such as it was at that time, and found herself in a legislature that has been, to this day, pretty well dominated by Republicans.

“So she was in some ways, you know, notable just by her background walking into the place. And by the time she left it, I think she was seen as somebody who was interested in crafting deals to make legislation that could work. It’s worth noting, though, that in Arizona, the legislature really never accepted much Democratic input. And so Democrats were always sort of shunted to the back and just sort of watched their legislative goals crumble in a GOP-controlled House and Senate. So she was trying to work productively with people in the very, very limited space where it was permitted.”

On her personal history

Ron Hansen: “She really is an interesting person because there are some interesting paradoxes that we’ve seen in Washington that sort of, I think, amplify some of the questions that people have about her here in Arizona and have throughout the years. She was born in 1976 in Tucson. Her parents divorced when she was a child, and her mother moved her and her siblings to the Florida Panhandle for a few years. That’s when in the mid-1980s, they famously spent three years living out of an abandoned gas station.

“She graduated from high school early and with honors. She won a scholarship to Brigham Young University and again graduated early and began a career in social work with the Phoenix Area Public School District in the mid-90s. It’s notable that shortly after that, she began pursuing advanced degrees and she may have the most college degrees in the Senate. She has a master’s in social work, a law degree, a Ph.D. in justice studies and an MBA. So she has a long career in seeking and getting college degrees as well. And all of this, I think, has just kind of burnished her reputation as someone who is a thinker, trying to understand more about the world around her.”

Is she being naïve about the possibility for bipartisanship in the Senate?

Ron Hansen: “She maintains that she thinks that bipartisanship still exists and that it’s something that is a hard process that you can get if you’re willing to do the work. And that’s something that I think to a lot of folks these days, it just feels like it doesn’t reconcile with their lived experience of contemporary politics. And I think that’s where this great tension lies at the moment, especially with Democratic and liberal activists, that she seems committed to an ideal that to them seems antiquated, if not extinct.”

On support in Arizona, and what guides her actions in the Senate

Ron Hansen: “This is a state that continues to evolve. But what we do know is that when she won in 2018, for example, she won by 2.3 percentage points. And it was the first time that a Democrat won a Senate race in Arizona in 30 years. When you look at Mark Kelly, who is her counterpart in the Senate from Arizona, you know, he won by 2.3 percentage points. And of course, everybody remembers that Joe Biden won Arizona last year, but it was by 0.3 percentage points. What you’ve got is what seems to be, in some ways, a recent track record of great success for Democrats in this state.

“And that is something that has emboldened folks on the left here to feel like they can win. And they can get what they want, seemingly. But at the same time, the state legislature got more conservative. The night she was elected to the Senate, the gubernatorial Democratic candidate was wiped out by double digit. And so there is a relatively narrow path that has been shown to work in this state. But it’s unclear as to just how far you can take it in the near term. And I think that’s part of what is guiding her deliberations on these issues.”

From The Reading List

Washington Post: “Biden’s inaccurate jab at Manchin’s and Sinema’s voting records” — “Biden did not mention any names, but he’s clearly talking about Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), the two most moderate members of the Senate Democratic caucus.”

AOL: “Column: What’s the matter with Kyrsten Sinema?” — “The original filibuster is a very Roman move. In the ancient world, Roman senators like Cato the Younger were notorious blowhards who thrived on delivering long speeches to prove their stamina and talent at oratory.”

The 19th: “Kyrsten Sinema doesn’t feel the need to explain herself” — “When Sen. Kyrsten Sinema walked onto the Senate floor in March to vote against the inclusion of a minimum-wage hike in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, the ‘no’ vote itself didn’t come as much of a surprise.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.