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Phoenix Democrat Kyrsten Sinema
February, 2011, Page 39
Photo by Michael Woodall
“My initial challenge was to make the transition from being this partisan girl to being a smart, savvy minority who gets things done.”
— Kyrsten Sinema
What’s the role of Democrats in the new GOP supermajority? Out and outspoken, outsider Kyrsten Sinema is leading the way.
Being on the short end of a legislative supermajority means never having to say you’re sorry. Often, it means not having a say.
Kyrsten Sinema knows. For six years, the brazen, bespectacled, bisexual Democrat from Phoenix served productively in the Arizona House of Representatives while trumpeting an underdog philosophy of pragmatism and bipartisan compromise. She even wrote a book about it: Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win and Last.
That across-the-aisle idealism has all but vanished now. Sinema believes the GOP’s sweeping, supermajority midterm election victories last November means that she and fellow Democrats in the state Legislature will no longer have the leverage to tap the brakes on unilateral Republican policy-making.
“My initial challenge was to make the transition from being this partisan girl to being a smart, savvy minority who gets things done,” says the 34-year-old attorney and ex-Independent. “But that has to change, too. Now [the Republicans] can just ignore Democrats all the time, so the question is: How do I change the way I operate to stay relevant and serve my constituents?”
Sinema posed the same question to a room of crestfallen Democrats on Election Day at the Wyndham Hotel in Downtown Phoenix. Having defeated the Republican candidate to succeed term-limited Phoenix Democrat Ken Cheuvront as State Senator for District 15, Sinema took the podium to deliver a pick-me-up speech. “I told them that our job was more important than ever,” recalls the Senator-elect. “I said we might not be able to stop [the Republicans], but we could make sure that every last Arizonan knows what their policies mean to our future. And provide alternative solutions.”
The speech was a hit. A reporter for radio station KTAR called it “the highlight of the night” for the Democrats. More importantly, it gave the party faithful a small measure of solace: They lost the vote, but they gained an exciting new voice.
Sinema’s journey to the state Capitol traces back to the Nanini branch library in Tucson in the mid-1980s, where her strict Mormon father let Sinema roam free as a precocious but sheltered pre-teen. Sinema and her dad didn’t see eye-to-eye on much: He was a politically conservative churchgoer who built missiles for Raytheon. She was a sensitive kid with a rebellious streak who felt alienated in a religious culture that prizes obedience above all else. “But he let me read whatever I wanted,” Sinema remembers. “He told me to learn whatever I wanted. It was exempt from the religious stuff.”
Expounding on her fondness for Jackass and vegan cuisine, peering through her trademark designer eyewear, Sinema is talkative, irreverent and almost satirically un-Tea Party – like a blonde, hyper-literate, Chanel-wearing parody of Sarah Palin.
“I think she’s horrible,” says the lawmaker about Palin, for the record.
Fast-forward through Sinema’s childhood: She’s 14, shuttling between Tucson and her mom’s place in Florida, attending community college in Niceville, Florida, for dual credit. She delivers an A+ report on the landmark Bowers v. Hardwick sodomy ruling without knowing what the word means. She blasts through high school in two years, enrolling at Brigham Young University on a coveted Benson Scholarship at age 16. She earns a bachelor’s degree in social work in two years, then lands at Arizona State University to get her master’s in social work in two years. She’s 21.
Sinema was still in her final year of law school at ASU when she first ran for the Arizona House of Representatives in 2004, and she’s currently a doctoral candidate in Justice Studies at ASU. So it’s not surprising that her personal GOP-policy-hobgoblin is public education. A former social worker who got her first taste of legislative politics by lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a Sunnyslope-area school district, Sinema is candid about the majority party’s education agenda.
“I think they’re going to slash one-and-a-half billion dollars from public education,” she says grimly. “And I think that’s going to cause us incredible problems eight or 10 years down the road. That’s our economic engine.” She adds: “I can’t stop it. There’s nothing nine Democratic Senators can do to stop it. All we can do is bark our heads off.”
That’s not a fair or productive assessment, say prominent state Republicans. “Kyrsten is clearly playing politics at this point in time,” says Arizona Republican Party Executive Director Brett Mecum. “Instead of getting common ideas passed, and coming up with solutions, she’s pointing fingers and doing the Chicken Little sky-is-falling routine.
“It’s disappointing. As a strong voice within [her] party, she should be finding common ground instead of sowing division.”
But Sinema isn’t the only Arizona Democrat pointing skyward. “Most of the Republicans who weren’t ideologically pure enough, they threw out,” says Cheuvront, who represented District 15 for eight years before ceding the seat to Sinema. “And those who did get elected will be afraid to work with the Democrats, for precisely that reason. That will be Kyrsten’s biggest challenge.”
The legislative lockout, if it happens, may actually burnish Sinema’s credentials as a strong, articulate voice of opposition. Perfectly at ease with her outsider-hood, Sinema – who was recently named one of America’s rising young political stars (“40 Under 40”) by TIME magazine – doesn’t see her LGBTQ affiliation as a potential roadblock in rising to higher office, even in conservative Arizona. “Nobody cares,” the currently single lawmaker says. “It’s because we’re Libertarian. It’s like, do whatever you want, just don’t tax me or take my guns.”
Even Mecum, who helped guide the Arizona GOP’s Tea Party windfall, is bullish on Sinema’s political future – to an extent.
“She represents a very heavily Democratic district,” he says. “Could [those voters] take her to Congress? Absolutely. But do I see her as a U.S. Senator, or in a statewide office? Not at all. I don’t think the majority of Arizonans relate to her values.”
Sinema – whose legislative “best of” includes defeating anti-gay-marriage Proposition 107 in 2006 and shaping Arizona’s current Darfur policy – hopes she can trade on amicable relationships with key Republicans. She speaks highly of Eddie Farnsworth and Andy Biggs, two staunch Gilbert Republicans. But she knows that kind words will frequently fail her in a filibuster-proof Senate. She admitted as much in a recent text-message to Biggs. “I told him that I wouldn’t be in the building very much,” she recalls, half-jokingly. “I’d be the one outside holding press conferences.”
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