Kyrsten Sinema wasn’t the only Democrat to vote against including a $15 federal minimum wage in the $1.9 trillion covid relief bill in early March, but she was the only one whose vote became a meme. The clip itself is short and sparse: Sinema, the 44-year-old first-term Democratic senator from Arizona, walks briskly around the well of the chamber, gives Mitch McConnell a friendly pat on the back, and pauses in front of the clerk. Then she thrusts her right thumb dramatically down, dipping her body for emphasis.
“Ms. Sinema. Ms. Sinema: No,” says the clerk, recording her vote. But Sinema, by this point, is already gone.
That morning, she had brought a chocolate cake for the floor staff who worked long hours before the final stimulus vote. Now “Marie Antoinette” was trending on Twitter. Within a few hours, the image was everywhere—on cable news, late-night shows, even the side of an old flour mill in downtown Tempe, near the intersection where, in 2003, Sinema led an anti-war vigil on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. “Keep the cake,” read the message projected onto the building. “Support the $15 minimum wage now.”
To Sinema’s progressive critics, her vote was a funhouse mirror image of John McCain’s thumbs-down vote to save the Affordable Care Act four years earlier—only now an Arizona Democrat was rejecting one of her party’s biggest legislative priorities. More alarming was her opposition to reforming the filibuster, the Senate rule that allows a minority of senators to block a piece of legislation from coming to a vote. Weeks earlier, Sinema, who rarely speaks to reporters from news outlets that are not based in her home state, had drawn a sharp line during an interview with Politico: “I want to restore the 60-vote threshold for all elements of the Senate’s work,” she said. In the face of united Republican opposition, many Democrats feared such a standard would doom almost every piece of their agenda— from immigration reform to voting rights to LGBTQ equality.
Democrats expected such intransigence from West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a conservative from a state Donald Trump carried by 39 points, who once shot climate legislation with a gun and whose wife cuts his hair with a Flowbee. But to those who have supported Sinema from the beginning of her career, her heel-turn is more painful. Long before she became one of the Democratic caucus’s most centrist members, Sinema was so liberal she refused to even join the party. From her family’s struggle with poverty during her childhood to her Green Party roots, her rise is the story of striving and adaptation, and of the transformation not just of an idealist, but of a state—from a Republican stronghold she once dubbed the “meth lab of democracy” to a bona fide battleground.
But in the process, Sinema has left some back home wondering whether she’s misread the lessons of her own ascent. As a progressive in one of the nation’s most conservative state legislatures, Sinema abandoned her early radicalism for a new theory of change. She learned to play nice, seeking incremental progress through careful messaging and across-the-aisle relationships and reinventing herself as a post-partisan deal-maker. But her success was also powered by an army of activists—outsiders like she had once been—operating on a far different theory of change. Now, for the first time in her career, she hoLDS real power. The future of the party and the Senate just might hinge on what Kyrsten Sinema wants to do with it.
WHEN SINEMA TRIED to explain why she opposed the minimum-wage hike, she began, as she often does, with a nod to her past. “I understand what it is like to face tough choices while working to meet your family’s most basic needs,” she said in a statement. While critics called her a hypocrite and pointed to comments in which she had previously endorsed a higher wage, Sinema insisted she still did support an increase. Her issue, she said, was that the wage increase had nothing to do with covid relief. Sinema had become a stickler for the rules. She didn’t start off that way.
The hardships Sinema faced growing up have long formed the foundational story of her politics. Born in Tucson, she moved with her family when she was 8 to a rural community in the Florida panhandle after her parents divorced. While her new stepfather struggled to find work, they settled across the street from relatives, in a cinder-block building that had once been a gas station; she said they subsisted with help from members of the LDS church to which they belonged. The details of the living arrangement are a matter of dispute—she has often said their home lacked electricity and running water, although relatives insisted to the Washington Post in 2018 that it had both. But a gas station with running water is a gas station nonetheless. Sinema grew up poor and from a young age was possessed with a relentless drive to change her own circumstances.
At 16, she was co-valedictorian of her high school class. Two years later, she graduated from Brigham Young University. She moved to Phoenix, got married at 19 and divorced within a few years, and became a social worker at an elementary school in a Mexican American neighborhood. Sinema worked for Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential bid, managed a campaign for a Green Party state legislative candidate named John Scudder, got a master’s in social work at Arizona State University, and in 2001 launched her first campaign—for a seat on the city council. Her interests, she told a local newspaper, were housing and poverty; she raised practically nothing because she believed donations were “bribery.”
“What Kyrsten had to say was always a million times smarter than what anyone else had to say,” says Carole Edelsky, a retired Arizona State University professor who volunteered on the Scudder campaign. “She was head and shoulders above everybody. She was gorgeous and brilliant. She was a lightning rod. She just sparkled.” Sinema was active in every political club and attended every meeting. “She just struck me as somebody who slept like two or three hours at night,” another activist tells me.
During that first campaign, Sinema auditioned for a part in a community theater production of Jacob’s Gift, an original play “about a young Jewish couple who just had their baby boy, and it was a big decision as to whether or not to have a bris,” explains Janet Arnold Rees, a local theater mainstay who played Sinema’s character’s mother in the show.
Even back then Sinema could sometimes be hard to pin down. Rees, who praised her co-star as “a delight—and a very talented actor,” recalls Sinema describing herself as a “libertarian.” A spokesperson claimed during one of her congressional campaigns that she had joined the Green Party because she was interested in sustainability. The play’s program identified her simply as a city council candidate who “loves shoes and purses and hates macrame owls.”
When an anti-circumcision activist wrote to congratulate her on the show, she wrote back at length, unpacking her own thoughts on the play and on the nature of belief more broadly. Sinema, who had left the LDS church after college and currently claims no religious affiliation, explained that she was drawn to her character, Eileen, because of the way she challenged the strictures imposed on her by tradition.
“I am interested in religious thought, customs and rituals, and have always been fascinated with the idea that people in societies do things just because ‘they’re supposed to,’” Sinema wrote. “Organized religion, by its very definition, prescribes a set of rules and then tells its ‘followers’ to live by these rules. I liked Eileen because she questioned and thought for herself.”
But Sinema felt betrayed by the ending, in which her character at last bows to tradition. “Eileen should have done more with her conviction,” Sinema wrote. “A person with conviction who gives in still gives in, and that is what is remembered in the end. I hope that one day she doesn’t give in.”
By the time the votes were tallied in her city council race on September 11, 2001, Sinema’s doomed city council campaign was an afterthought. A few days later, Congress authorized a global war on terror, and a small but determined group of activists in Phoenix, calling themselves the Arizona Alliance for Peaceful Justice (AAPJ), began discussing how to push back. Sinema dropped by an early organizing session at a Quaker meeting house in Tempe and threw herself into the anti-war cause.
In a movement that sometimes drifted toward chaos, Sinema emerged as a natural leader—“in charge without being ‘I’m the boss’ kind of in charge,” says Seth Pollack, a former Green Party activist. She organized protests and invited members over to her house near downtown Phoenix to make signs beforehand. (For the uninspired, Sinema even suggested slogans—“Bombing for Peace Is Like Fucking for Virginity”; “Real Patriots Drive Hybrids.”) On “occasions where she wanted to draw attention,” an AAPJ member recalls, Sinema grabbed a bullhorn and wore a bright pink tutu (an image that would later feature in Republican TV ads). And on Wednesdays after work, Sinema and a small group of women donned black veils and stood in silence outside a public library. She intended to keep the vigils going, Sinema told the Arizona Republic at the time, “’til there’s no more war.”
Only one member of Congress had voted against the war in Afghanistan, and the drumbeat for invading Iraq felt unstoppable. But AAPJ members had their own theory of change, rooted in passion and persistence. For a long time, on its website, AAPJ featured a slightly altered quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead—a catechism for the righteous but outnumbered: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”
They had a special disdain for would-be allies who coveted power over ideals. When hawkish and conservative-leaning Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman passed through Tucson during his presidential campaign in 2003, Sinema led a caravan of activists to protest outside his event. “He’s a shame to Democrats,” she told a reporter. “I don’t even know why he’s running. He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him— what kind of strategy is that?”
Politically speaking, Sinema was still on the fringe. When she ran for state legislature in 2002—this time as an independent—she blamed her defeat on the local Democratic Party, which she said had told voters she was “too extreme for central Phoenix.” But she was honing the skills of a politician too, lobbying for social services at the state Capitol and skillfully navigating the crosscurrents of the anti-war movement.
Peace activist groups, as one member tells me, “are not exactly the model of organizational efficiency,” and AAPJ was no exception. One early meeting devolved into an argument over the name. (“Some people thought it should be AAPJ—because the justice had to come first, before the peace,” recalls Korky Day, an early member.) The anti-war movement brought together Quakers and veterans, Wobblies and gun-toting libertarians, united by the one thing they all opposed. The most persistent source of tension was the anarchists, whose militant methods grated on many members. When the anarchists and peaceniks deadlocked over the tactics they used at anti-war demonstrations, Sinema—whose day job as a social worker, after all, involved conflict mediation—brought the two factions together in Tempe to broker a truce.
“She’s always had the inclinations of a social worker—‘sit down and talk and we can reach an agreement on something,’” says Victor Aronow, a longtime peace activist who is still active with the group. “That’s always been one of her strong and weak points simultaneously.”
When the conflict flared up again, the group turned to Starhawk, a self-described witch and ecofeminist from San Francisco who had made a niche for herself in lefty circles by fusing “earth-based spirituality” with political activism. Members of her movement, known as the Pagan Cluster, were involved in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, the fight against deforestation, and the anti-war movement.
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