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Did Kyrsten Sinema Really Think We’d All Just Forget How Progressive She Used to Be?

Kyrsten Sinema looks out at a crowd, smiling

In recent weeks, a lot of attention has been drawn to the old Kyrsten Sinema.

Right now, Sinema is best known for being an obstruction. She is currently fighting 96% of her Democratic colleagues in the Senate (not to mention the majority of her constituents) by blocking and even refusing to negotiate on a bill that would significantly change the lives of millions of Americans and U.S. residents for the better. She’s also voted against raising the minimum wage, argued in favor of the filibuster, and staunchly refused to raise corporate taxes.

It’s a far cry from the Kyrsten Sinema who said things like this in 2011:

Or this in 2018:

Going even further back to her roots, in a piece published this week, the New York Times cited a now-astonishing Hartford Courant article from 2003. The Times writes:

In 2003, Joe Lieberman, at the time one of the worst Democratic senators, traveled to Arizona to campaign for his party’s presidential nomination and was regularly greeted by antiwar demonstrators. “He’s a shame to Democrats,” said the organizer of a protest outside a Tucson hotel, a left-wing social worker named Kyrsten Sinema. “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?”

When Sinema was confronted by a small group of activists at Arizona State University this weekend, they told her, “We knocked on doors for you to get you elected. And just how we got you elected, we can get you out of office if you don’t support what you promised us.”

Why would these young progressive activists have fought so hard to get Sinema elected? Some presume it’s a sort of misguided reliance on identity politics. A truly terrible recent Axios article reads, “Progressives could be forgiven for presuming that Sinema, 45, the first openly bisexual member of Congress, who’s easy to spot in her trademark sleeveless dresses, wry wigs and acrylic glasses, would share their woke politics.”

In reality, as we can see in those tweets above, those “woke politics” used to be the kind of values Sinema herself espoused. That’s who she used to be. (Or it was at least the role she had chosen to play.) Now she’s turned into the exact Republican-chasing Joe Lieberman-type politician she once railed against.

So what happened? Obviously, money is part of it. Sinema once called it “common sense” to ask corporations and the ultra-wealthy to “pay their fair share.” Now she is adamantly refusing to do so, while holding frequent fundraisers attended pretty much exclusively by those same corporate and wealthy donors.

The Times notes that while “small-dollar Democratic donors, who tend to be to the left of Democratic voters overall” have come to play a major role in funding candidates and getting them elected, and that Sinema’s plan to tank Joe Biden’s agenda isn’t likely to win favor with those individual donors. But if Sinema had to choose between many small-dollar donors and big corporate PACs, she’s clearly made her choice. Maybe this route was easier. It definitely seems more fun, as her fundraisers are known for being wine-soaked parties.

For example, it recently came out that Sinema, bizarrely, held a job as an “intern” at a winery this past summer. Why would a sitting senator hold a summer internship that netted her a total of $1,117.40 in wages? Well, maybe because that winery also subsequently hosted an elite fundraiser with tickets costing $5,000 apiece–money that went to her campaign committee and her PAC.

But the Times puts forth another possibility for Sinema’s dedication to obstinance, and that’s basically that she’s built her identity around being a contrarian, that “she’s come to believe in bipartisanship for its own sake, divorced from any underlying policy goals.”

The paper points to Sinema’s “one book-length explication of her political philosophy,” written in 2009 and titled “Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win — and Last.”

“In ‘Unite and Conquer,’ Sinema describes entering the Republican-controlled Arizona State House as a strident progressive, accomplishing nothing, being miserable and then recalibrating so that she could collaborate with her Republican colleagues,” writes the Times’ Michelle Goldberg. “The book is vaguely New Agey. It places a lot of emphasis on deep breathing and extols what Sinema calls ‘Enso politics,’ after a Zen term for a circle symbolizing enlightenment.”

So how did Sinema go from a “New Agey” sort of Marianne Williamson-lite with a commitment to progressive policies to the centrist malcontent we see today?

Sinema describes finding self-actualization in learning to “open up my own ways of thinking to embrace a much larger possibility than the strict party-line rhetoric I’d been using.” She figured out how to have meetings with lobbyists that were “relaxed and comfortable,” whether or not they agreed. Her “new ethos” helped her to get more done and, “perhaps most importantly,” be “much happier,” she writes.

Yup, that all tracks. Sinema recently (and infamously) led negotiations with her Republican colleagues on the infrastructure bill currently stalled in the House. When discussions became stymied, she tried to loosen things up. As she herself described to CNN: “I would say, ‘it is unacceptable for us to give up here. Have a glass of wine.”

Sinema turned legislation negotiations into an aisle-crossing happy hour. That’s a fun story, except for the ending, which resulted in a severely whittled-down version of the original infrastructure package–and the fact that she’s now using that bill to try to hijack Biden’s Build Back Better package.

But it absolutely fits with this New Sinema, who apparently values “relaxed and comfortable” relationships with Republicans and lobbyists above enacting meaningful legislation through cooperating with her own party. In fact, “cooperating with her own party” doesn’t seem to interest her at all.

From the Times:

“Unite and Conquer” was about operating in the minority, not exercising power. Now that she’s part of a governing majority, Sinema is, ironically, recapitulating some of the pathologies she boasted about transcending. Rather than being part of a productive coalition, she’s once again operating as a defiantly contrary outsider. The bipartisanship that was once a source of liberation for her seems to have become a rigid identity.

Comparisons are frequently made between Sinema and the late John McCain, another Arizona senator known for being a “maverick” who wasn’t afraid to buck the party line to vote his conscience. Sinema, however, seems to want to be seen as a maverick, minus the conscience part. As the Times puts it, “There’s a difference, it turns out, between being a maverick and being a narcissist.”

Let’s not hold our breath waiting for Sinema to figure out the difference, or even to learn to care.

(image: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.