How Kyrsten Sinema Went from Lefty Activist to Proud Neoliberal Democrat

The story of Senator Kyrsten Sinema — a former Green Party–aligned activist who happily rejected a minimum wage hike recently and is now one the most right-wing Democrats in the Senate — is about how a desperate thirst for power can debase even the most idealistic progressive.

Kyrsten Sinema on Wednesday, December 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The halls of Congress are filled with individuals who at some point abandoned almost everything they once believed in. More often than not, it’s a cushy, post-political corporate job or lobbying position that might have led them to give up on whatever led them to enter politics in the first place. Rarer is the person who’s done it out of pure, unbridled political ambition.

Such appears to be the case with Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic senator from Arizona who recently went viral after cheerfully voting against a $15 minimum wage hike that would have helped reduce poverty for millions of children and working parents. Unlike fellow congressional spike strip Joe Manchin, Sinema doesn’t have a conflict of interest that might explain her vote; according to disclosures, her only extracurricular activity is a $25,000 a year adjunct teaching job at a local university. Nor has Sinema, who consistently ranks among the least wealthy members of Congress, appeared to pair her journey up the political ladder with a windfall in her own personal fortune.

So what is it that led Sinema to do a complete 180 on almost every position she ever took on almost any issue, from war to inequality to government spending? The answer is that she shifted right little by little, at each moment when her political ascent demanded it, a death by a thousand compromises that has turned Sinema into a right-wing Democrat who makes a virtue of defying not just the party’s Left but even its center.

Sinema Vérité

The powerful story of Sinema’s early life has been core to her political identity, however much the latter has shifted. Born into a middle-class household in Tucson in 1976, she was soon plunged into bitter poverty when the recession that closed out that decade put her father out of a job. He filed for bankruptcy while their home went into foreclosure, and Sinema, her brother, and her soon-to-be-divorced mother moved to Florida, finding themselves broke, homeless, and relying on food stamps and the charity of her stepfather’s Mormon church to survive.

As Sinema would often tell audiences, the family lived for years in a converted gas station, with no running water or electricity. What ultimately helped her escape these dire conditions was education. After finishing high school as valedictorian, she graduated college and became a social worker in a heavily immigrant- and refugee-populated part of Phoenix. A master’s in social work followed, as well as a law degree, which saw her work as a “defense attorney who represents murderers,” as she put it — a quote that would later haunt her.

In her early political years, this narrative arc helped explain her commitment to fighting for those on society’s margins. In later years, she would add a bootstrapping moral to the story, a sign of the work ethic that, with a little bit of help, can get anyone to the top in America. Over time, the role of government support in the story would be gradually de-emphasized in its retelling.

But to start with, she channeled her concern for the poor and downtrodden into political activism. An idealistic young Sinema worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party bid, which she saw as the start of a decades-long movement for change. Using Arizona’s public financing law (“I don’t believe in accepting money in exchange for votes. That’s bribery.”), she ran as an independent for Phoenix City Council and later the state House, pointing to the lopsided distribution of wealth that left poor immigrant families with no safety net, and calling for better education, comprehensive health care coverage, and improved childcare and mental health coverage. She spent 2003 protesting the Iraq War back when doing so was (literally) violently unpopular, protesting outside a campaign stop in Tucson for Sen. Joe Lieberman’s presidential run.

“He’s a shame to Democrats,” Sinema said of Lieberman at the time. “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?”

Kyrsten Sinema applauds during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in February 2020. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Sinema’s first political compromise arguably came in 2004, when she ran again for the state House, this time as a registered Democrat in a heavily Democratic district in central Phoenix. “My political stance has never changed,” she insisted. “The party’s platform is right in line with my beliefs.”

This was doubtful to say the least. Less than two years earlier, Sinema had written into the Arizona Republic railing against NAFTA, the World Bank, and WTO, and warning that “until the average American realizes that capitalism damages her livelihood while augmenting the livelihoods of the wealthy, the Almighty Dollar will continue to rule.” Less than three years later, she would describe herself as a “Prada socialist.”

But if it was a compromise, it was minor. And Sinema used the seat she won for undoubtedly progressive causes. She opposed abortion restrictions; fought for extending the rights of straight married couples to gay ones; led a successful effort to kill a ban on affirmative action; spoke out against drug testing of welfare beneficiaries and cuts and regressive changes to Medicaid; and spearheaded the fight to kill a measure banning same-sex marriage. She did what few lawmakers did at the time, certainly in Arizona, and talked about mass incarceration, attending a prison reform rally in 2008 where she declared that “individuals deserve to have a start again.”

As she had said years earlier about her political career: “We need people to push in from the edges.”

Sinema was particularly outspoken when it came to immigrant rights and the plight of the undocumented. She opposed sanctions on employers who hired undocumented workers, harshly criticized attempts to coerce immigrants to speak English, tried to change a law that would have been used to charge immigrants themselves as coconspirators when being smuggled, and attacked a bill that made people prove they were legal residents before they could get government benefits.

She consistently spoke out against the push to further militarize and police the border and immigrant communities, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters demonstrating against harsher immigration laws. And she clashed with anti-immigrant groups, going to the border and observing armed border watchers, while feuding with the Minutemen militia, for which she paid for with what the Associated Press described as “sexually threatening emails.”

Some of Sinema’s early high-profile bills recalled her Green Party roots, such as legislation outlawing horse-tripping in rodeos and idling by certain vehicles, and bills encouraging recycling and discouraging plastic bag use. She put forward another bill to let local governments set up ranked-choice voting, and spearheaded a petition drive to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Particularly successful was Sinema’s bill to divest the state’s retirement funds from companies supporting the genocide in Darfur, which cleared both the state House and Senate unanimously before being signed into law, albeit somewhat watered down to pass constitutional muster. Sinema worked with local activists and religious groups and used her profile to bring attention to the issue. It later took a prime spot in her 2009 book about reaching across the aisle to get things done.

Something that doesn’t pop up in Sinema’s book? The words “minimum wage.” Though Sinema sponsored several bills modestly hiking the wage from the then federal floor of $5.15, she was largely invisible in the most high-profile and viable fight to raise it: the battle to pass the Proposition 202 ballot measure in 2006, which raised the floor by $1.60 and allowed for cost-of-living increases in later years.

At the time, Sinema was heavily involved in the equally worthy goal of fighting a separate ballot measure to limit marriage and its benefits to same-sex couples. She headed the committee against the measure, and was frequently quoted in the press when reporting covered it, as well as for a separate measure that aimed to punish undocumented immigrants. Yet even though the wage hike was described at the time as a “Democratic cause célèbre” and won the endorsement of her hometown newspaper, I can find no record from the time of Sinema saying anything about Proposition 202, which went on to win voters’ approval by a two-to-one margin.

Despite her earlier criticisms of capitalism and how unfairly wealth was shared, Sinema, during this period, overwhelmingly made headlines for the issues of immigration and LGBTQ rights, while pocketbook issues took a backseat. Perhaps it was, as the Republic suggested, the fact that her district of many affluent families and single professionals also had sizeable LGBTQ and Latino populations. But as Sinema herself later acknowledged, this isn’t an either/or proposition.

“Gay people are just as concerned about the economy and health care as straight people,” as she later told an audience.

Fork in the Road

Sinema’s coalition-building skills would be put to the test over the course of 2009 and 2010, when a combination of the housing crash and a series of imprudent tax cuts left Arizona with among the worst budget deficits in the country — one the conservative legislature was determined to use to make massive spending cuts.

Three years after calling for politicians to “push in from the edges,” Sinema seemed to have bent to conventional wisdom. When then Arizona governor Janet Napolitano opened 2008 with a state of the state speech warning against budget cuts and proposing relatively ambitious ideas, like a state health insurance program for kids, Sinema commented that it would “be difficult to get some of these ideas through the legislature,” particularly her health proposals.

The battle over the state’s budget shortfall seems, in hindsight, to have been a watershed in Sinema’s political journey. On the one hand, there was little she could do: She was just one progressive member in a conservative legislature controlled by hardline Republicans, set in stone by her party’s failure to make any gains in the 2008 election. Worse, the Obama administration’s strategically baffling decision to nominate Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security, and her equally baffling decision to accept, took the last pivotal bit of state government power — the governor’s veto — out of Democratic hands, giving Republicans total control, with Tea Party icon Jan Brewer at the head.

On the other hand, budget crisis or no, Sinema had clearly decided by that point the time was ripe for a rebrand. Eight months after ascending to party leadership in the House, Sinema’s book on coalition-building hit the shelves, renouncing her early years as a “bomb thrower” in the legislature, and urging those politically involved, whether in the streets or the halls of power, to avoid demonizing those on the other side and to “find areas of common ground.” This, despite Sinema’s political claim to fame at the time being her successful opposition campaign against a same-sex marriage ban, and being only a year out from successfully leading a grassroots fight against an affirmative action ban — suggesting there were certain things she wasn’t willing to meet in the middle on.

Austerity apparently wasn’t one of them. Early on, even as she got Republicans on board with a resolution to consider ideas other than spending cuts, she voted with the rest of the House Appropriations Committee to rule tax increases out as a solution, despite herself acknowledging years of irresponsible tax cuts had led the state to disaster. For months, raising revenue subsequently stayed off the table for both sides, even as some Republicans admitted they’d been flooded with emails from people willing to pay a little more in property taxes to save vital programs.

Despite significant grassroots opposition to the GOP’s planned spending cuts — including an overflow audience at a middle school pleading with lawmakers not to cut education and children’s programs — Sinema insisted that “we will have to make tough choices” and aimed instead to “ease” the severity of the GOP’s cuts. When, in February 2009, Brewer asked state agencies for brutal cuts beyond what had already been requested, and Senate Democrats countered with a proposal that that made no further cuts, Sinema undermined them, telling the press she disagreed there was nowhere else to cut. When Senate Democrats proposed $500 million in long-term borrowing, Sinema, who had earlier supported such measures, pooh-poohed it, saying it just “continues out the debt for a really long time.”

Kyrsten Sinema speaks with Republican senator Ted Cruz during a hearing about the state of airline safety in March 2019. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

This attempt at coalition-building failed. Republicans closed Sinema and other Democrats, not to mention the public, out of the budget discussions. Draconian cuts passed through committees and legislative chambers on party-line votes. For her troubles, the state GOP chairman would later have Sinema investigated over what turned out to be a nothingburger; despite the talk of not demonizing the other side, Sinema and House Democrats eventually reverted to firmly opposing the GOP cuts and attacking Republicans and Brewer in the press. Brewer would eventually pass several brutal cutbacks, even outright repealing a state kindergarten program whose expansion had, ironically, been one of Napolitano’s most important legacies.

Even though she soon abandoned it, Sinema’s flirtation with austerity signaled a lasting shift. Once Obama’s health care reform was unveiled, Sinema repeatedly joined Brewer’s budget-driven pushback against the bill’s expansion of Medicaid. In a couple of years, Sinema would be loudly professing her kinship with various hardline Republicans to the press, shocking progressives when she said of state senate president Russell Pearce — the anti-immigrant extremist responsible for Arizona’s infamous “papers please” law, and who was literally friends with a neo-Nazi — that she “love[d] him” and would “love to see him run for Congress.”

Sinema later declined to support a historic (and successful) campaign by state progressives to recall Pearce, explaining that he was her “boss.” Little surprise that observers suspected she was cravenly positioning for a congressional run.

Sinema Novo

In early 2012, Sinema abruptly quit the legislature to run for the US Congress. In contrast to her earlier career, the district whose seat she was gunning for was politically like a Neapolitan ice cream: roughly evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Her campaign for the newly drawn district would usher in the final stage of her political transformation.

First, she had to get through a vicious three-way Democratic primary. Vowing to “stand up to the powerful in Washington,” Sinema sounded some appealing but vague populist notes: she talked about her youthful poverty, promised to focus on creating jobs, supporting education, and helping families hang onto their homes, and said that “someone needs to speak up for us, for the forgotten middle class and the powerless in our society.” The needs of families, she said, “are more important than insider tax deals for corporations.” She also took care to note her bipartisan credentials, and at one point declared she’d be open to lowering corporate taxes.

Sinema received a slew of early high-profile endorsements, from EMILY’s List and the Human Rights Campaign to the state AFL-CIO and other unions. Fending off attacks on her previous antiwar organizing and fearmongering that her progressive history would be a liability in the general election, she won the nomination, and faced more of the same in the general.

While the GOP worked to paint her as an oddball extremist, Sinema attacked her opponent as a Tea Party radical who would cut education. She pitched herself as someone fed up with a dysfunctional Washington who could work with Republicans to create jobs, whether through infrastructure investment and pro-business tax incentives, or by cutting tax breaks for offshoring firms and raising taxes on the rich. It netted her a 4-point win, thanks to strong showings in Democratic areas and through sweeping the most competitive ones.

Upon entering Congress, Sinema wasted no time before moving sharply right. Less than a month in, she joined the United Solutions Caucus and signed onto a letter calling for bipartisan proposals to secure the country’s fiscal health, including “reforming” Social Security and Medicare, cutting corporate tax rates and regulations, and reducing government spending. She soon became a member of a series of similarly conservative, business-friendly congressional groups: the Blue Dog Coalition (then at its low point in terms of numbers and influence), No Labels, New Democrats, and Third Way, the Wall Street-funded neoliberal organization, of which she became honorary House cochair in 2015 (and did so again as a senator in 2019).

Sinema was instantly elevated to the coveted House Financial Services Committee — known as a quick ticket to largesse from the industry it oversees. Alluding to her childhood homelessness, she promised to “work to rebuild Arizona’s middle class” and “move our economy forward.”

“That is what prompted me to run for office, to be the voice of the forgotten middle and working class,” she had said upon winning her election. “The rich and powerful have a voice — trust me, I get badgered by their lobbyists all the time and I’m good at saying ‘no.’ It’s the rest of us who are now not getting heard because of the special interests.”

But that ability to say “no,” it turns out, was wildly overstated. Sinema largely spent the next five years on the committee carrying water for the financial services industry, whose presence in Arizona happened to be concentrated in Sinema’s newly won district. As activist and now Arizona state House member Pamela Powers Hannley pointed out at the time, one of Sinema’s earliest actions of significance on the committee was to approve a partial rollback of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, one literally written by Citibank and backed by the Chamber of Commerce, to allow them to trade certain derivatives and still get a taxpayer bailout if it all went wrong. She then made up one of the seventy Democrats to vote for it in the House.

Later that year, Sinema again struck a blow for the forgotten men and women of Wall Street against the power of Big Retirees, lending her vote to the successful House passage of the Retail Investor Protection Act, another Chamber-backed provision, this one meant to head off a rule preventing firms from giving retirees’ bad financial advice that happened to benefit their own bottom line. The bill was opposed not just by progressives, one of whom called it a “backdoor attempt to undermine investor protection,” but by the Obama administration, which repeatedly threatened to veto it. (By 2015, however, Sinema appeared to have firmly changed her mind on the measure).

Maybe the coup de grace came in 2018, when in the middle of her Senate campaign, Sinema became one of just thirty-three House Democrats to vote for the infamous Crapo banking bill, sponsored by right-wing Idaho Republican Mike Crapo. Written at the behest of “community banks” like, again, Citigroup, the bill was in effect a sprawling repeal of the Democrats’ own prized accomplishment, Dodd-Frank, that relaxed regulations on up to thirty-eight of the country’s biggest banks and weakened consumer protections, including against discrimination. Aptly, it had been nearly ten years after Wall Street had first crashed the world’s economy due to lax oversight by the time the bill cleared the House, and was so toxic numerous purple- and red-state Democrats voted against it. But not Sinema.

Always pointing to the needs of small businesses, farmers, community banks, even consumers, Sinema waged a one-woman war on regulations, cosponsoring, introducing, and voting for a slew of bills to repeal or delay them. Sometimes these efforts were expansive, covering all areas of government. Some tried to rein in the SEC. Some took aim at the EPA. Or there was her Fostering Innovation Act, which aimed to extend the period under which companies would be exempted from an Enron scandal–inspired rule to make public accountants check their books to head off fraud.

Far from giving voice to the voiceless against the din of the powerful, Sinema worked to do exactly the opposite. In 2015, she was one of a mere four Democrats to vote to give banks, businesses, and credit unions an advisory role on regulations at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Later that year, she signed on to a letter urging the CFPB to delay enforcement of a rule meant to make loan terms and purchase agreements more comprehensible to homebuyers; she requested that the rule go into effect only after the busiest home-buying time of the year was finished, which the agency did.

Even as she touted her own experiences with homelessness and poverty, Sinema repeatedly introduced a bill to loosen regulations on mobile home loans, letting predatory lenders slap their usually lower-income buyers with bigger fees and penalties, and charge them interest rates higher than their already extortionately high rates, measures that eventually passed in the Crapo bill. As she later told a local chamber of commerce in Tempe, in one instance, she had been inspired in her anti-regulatory endeavors by a tip from the president of the local branch of First International Bank.

In 2017, just one year before Sinema embarked on her Senate run, Americans for Financial Reform found she had voted for twelve of the nineteen bills that made it to a floor vote that year that “served the interests or wishes of Wall Street and the financial industry at the expense of the public interest” — one of the worst rates among House Democrats.

The industry loves her back. Sinema is as warmly received now at Chamber of Commerce events as she once was at antiwar rallies or prison reform protests. She’s won the Chamber’s Spirit of Enterprise award seven years in a row, an honor given to those select lawmakers who get at least a 70 percent score from the body. With a lifetime rating from the Chamber of 82 percent as of 2019, Sinema in fact has a better score than all but nine Democrats in all of Congress, which is why she’s one of the few Democrats to ever get the Chamber’s endorsement.

It’s probably not a coincidence that, as she’s proven herself a reliable foot soldier for the financial services industry in Congress, their generosity toward her has only increased. According to figures from the National Institute on Money in Politics, after receiving only $28,346 from securities and investment firms in 2012, that number climbed to $89,050 in 2014, then to $181,258 two years later, and over $890,000 two years after that.

“I spend a lot of time fundraising,” Sinema had told Chris Hayes in 2012. And sure enough, from her first year in Congress, when she rivaled Nancy Pelosi in money raised, to just before announcing her Senate bid, Sinema has been one of the most prolific fundraisers in the House.

Where once she dismissed taking private donations as literal “bribery,” she now began taking piles of money from health insurers, tech companies, private equity firms, and more. Americans for Financial Reform puts the total amount of her contributions from the wider finance sector for 2017–2018 alone at over $2.7 million, placing her in the top ten among all of Congress for the sector.

The Butterfly Emerges

But Sinema’s work on behalf of Wall Street is only one example of the way she turned away from almost everything she once believed in.

After starting her career attacking the way wealth was distributed in the country, Sinema now backed repealing the estate tax, something that, at the time, would have benefited the country’s top 0.2 percent wealthiest estates. Echoing the Republicans she partnered with to get it through the House, Sinema misleadingly pointed to small businesses and family farms as her reason for voting.

After starting out decrying the plight of the undocumented and defending an Iraqi refugee in court, she now talked about a “tough but fair path to citizenship” and securing the border, and voted to send more manpower and resources toward that goal. In one particularly controversial vote, she backed the Republican-led and Trump-endorsed push to subject Iraqi and Syrian refugees to vetting that was even more onerous than the already thorough, grueling process.

After making her first splash as an antiwar activist who called warmonger Joe Lieberman a “shame” to her party, Sinema wound up putting her decision on whether or not to vote for war in Syria up to an online poll, and voted for a series of gargantuan defense budgets, including one that authorized the military to train and equip “moderate” rebels in the country, who predictably turned out to be not so moderate. As she explained after that vote, her state was home to more than 150,000 defense sector and related jobs — though that doesn’t explain her later, outrage-inducing vote against the Iran deal in 2015.

After winning awards from environmental groups early on and getting press for environmental habits like reusing sandwich bags, Sinema has ended up with a 76 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, markedly low for a Democrat: the second lowest for the party in the current Senate after Joe Manchin, and lower than just five serving House Democrats. Among other things, Sinema cosponsored a $61 million cut from the EPA budget, and voted for various regulatory delays and rollbacks, including ones repealing Obama’s Clean Water Rule and blocking his Clean Power Plan.

And like many party centrists who cling to Obamacare when opposing more far-reaching reforms while helping to dismantle it when no one’s looking, Sinema has repeatedly joined with Republicans to pick apart the law, despite being handpicked by Obama in 2009 to help him fight for it. She joined the GOP to vote for delaying the individual mandate at the heart of the law (twice), to allow insurance companies to keep offering plans that didn’t meet the law’s new standards, to repeal the law’s tax on health insurers (a bill she introduced), to enlarge the size of firms who could count as small employers, and to repeal the medical device tax.

The last, she was finally able to do under Trump, and was personally singled out for thanks by the president of the Arizona Bioindustry Association. All this, despite being personally invited to the White House all the way back in 2010 to watch Obama sign the bill into law.

As with many politicians, it’s hard to discern if Sinema’s actions are driven by political considerations or genuine love of the game. On one hand, her district is only one-third Democrat, no doubt impacting the way she votes and the issues she champions. On the other, she turned down an offer in 2014 to switch to a more liberal, Democrat-heavy seat.

Come a Long Way

Sinema is now in the US Senate, seemingly a vindication of her political strategy to abandon everything she ever believed in and do the bidding of the country’s rich and powerful. Having entered politics to wage a decades-long campaign to affect “real political change,” somewhere along the way, that effort became a decades-long campaign to get Kyrsten Sinema elected to higher and higher office.

The result of that has been not just Sinema’s rise up the Democratic ranks, but a perpetual rightward slide that has made her one of the party’s most conservative members, even as its centrists, and her own state, are moving in a more progressive direction. The puzzling state of affairs is perhaps no better symbolized by Sinema’s gleeful vote weeks ago against the $15 minimum wage, a policy supported by a majority of Republicans, and which won more votes in Florida than Trump.

Far from simply antagonizing the Left, Sinema does all the things that most infuriate the Democratic Party’s squishy center: she went after Obamacare, didn’t bother to campaign with Hillary Clinton a week before the 2016 election, voted in line with Trump half the time, and wouldn’t even back her own Democratic counterpart in the Senate when he ran for reelection. Years back, groups like MoveOn threatened to primary Sinema for her rebellions. Once she became the first Democrat since 1988 to win a Senate race in Arizona, those voices seemed to go silent.

Her supporters, perhaps even Sinema herself, might argue that she’s playing the long game. Maybe she doesn’t really mean any of it and every favor for Wall Street, every vote to let polluters off the hook or give corporations more power over the lives of ordinary people is part of a finely tuned act to stay in her seat and keep someone much worse out.

Perhaps that’s true. But like the debate over whether Trump ever really believed the things he said and did or was merely playing along for points, at some point, it ceases to matter anymore.