“Utter betrayal”: Angry activists who helped elect Kyrsten Sinema say "she has no values"

Sinema once criticized the filibuster and mocked Joe Lieberman. Now she’s helping kill progressive legislation

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published July 3, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)speaking to members of the press as they arrive at the U.S. Capitol after a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on June 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)speaking to members of the press as they arrive at the U.S. Capitol after a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on June 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat who has perplexed the nation, once criticized the filibuster's 60-vote threshold and urged Democrats to pass critical legislation with a simple majority. But the onetime Green Party activist and self-described "Prada socialist" has transformed, somehow or other, into one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, and the activists who helped elect her can't help but feel a sense of "betrayal."

Sinema, a former state representative, in 2010 lamented the "false pressure" to reach a 60-vote supermajority to pass significant legislation in a video unearthed by the progressive advocacy group More Perfect Union. Sinema urged Democrats to use the budget reconciliation process to pass major bills like health care reform instead of "kowtowing to Joe Lieberman," the centrist senator who served as a roadblock to the party's major proposals despite caucusing with Democrats throughout his career.

When Lieberman briefly ran president in 2003, Sinema described him as "pathetic."

"He's a shame to Democrats," she told a reporter 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?"

Past comments like those have puzzled Arizonans who have watched Sinema ascend to the Senate only to become a Lieberman-like figure herself. The shift has particularly stung for activists who helped register and turn out a record number of voters in the 2018 election, when Sinema narrowly defeated Republican Martha McSally. Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), a grassroots group that led a coalition that knocked on 2.5 million doors that year, say they've been shut out by Sinema since she was elected.

Sinema "will not take meetings with us personally," César Fierros, the group's communications manager, told Salon, adding that meetings with her team have been "incredibly dismissive" and even "combative." By comparison, he said the group has had an "open line of communication" with newly-elected Sen. Mark Kelly (who also defeated McSally, in 2020, leaving the latter in the improbable position of losing two Senate races two years apart).

"From the beginning, our members and our community went out to knock on doors for Sen. Kelly and showed up at the polls," Fierros said. "We have high expectations because that is what our community deserves. Our members expect our senators to address the needs of their community."

Sinema's stance on the filibuster has further soured relations with the group.

"Sinema's choice to obstruct the Biden agenda during her time in the Senate can only be described as a complete and utter betrayal to the good people of Arizona that cast a vote for her in 2018," Fierros said. "Her delusional defense of the filibuster is a major roadblock to not only the real reforms we campaigned for when electing Sinema but also the defense of our democracy. With so much on the line, the senator continues to turn her back on promises made for true progress on voting rights, minimum wage and immigration reform."

Many young LGBTQ activists who were inspired by Sinema, the first bisexual woman in the Senate, also say she has broken her campaign promises by defending the filibuster rule, undercutting her support for legislation like the pro-LGBTQ Equality Act.

Joan Arrow, a trans LGBTQ activist, was never politically inclined before the Trump presidency but quickly rallied behind Sinema's historic candidacy and volunteered for her campaign.

"I wasn't out of the closet yet," Arrow said in an interview with Salon. But "I knew that if I was going to be safe coming out of the closet, I'm going to need members of the LGBTQ community and allies in positions of power who would vote for something like the Equality Act, who would put my interests first. I trusted the promises she made in her campaign. I knocked on doors for her, I argued up and down that she was better than Martha McSally. And now that she's in a position of power, I really feel left behind."

Sinema is a co-sponsor of the Equality Act, which would grant civil rights protections to the LGBTQ community. But her defense of the filibuster means the bill has virtually no hope of advancing in the Senate after 50 Republicans used the rule to block debate on the legislation. Meanwhile, Republicans have introduced more than 250 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation in state legislatures, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which warned that 2021 is set to become the "worst year for LGBTQ state legislative attacks."

Arrow, who now works with the Arizona Coalition to End the Filibuster, organized a coalition of over 140 LGBTQ groups and activists to sign an open letter calling on Sinema to "take the necessary next step of ending the filibuster," warning that if she refuses "we will have no choice but to seriously consider whether our support for you, including financial donations, may better serve our community if directed to another Democrat who will use their power as a U.S. senator to stand up for our rights."

The letter was cathartic for many LGBTQ activists who felt frustrated with Sinema's direction, Arrow said.

"I felt incredibly betrayed," she said. "Almost everyone I've spoken to has really echoed that feeling of betrayal. LGBTQ Arizonans need people to do what they say they're going to do, and when you have this historic candidate in our community getting elected to the Senate, who then turns tail and abandons everyone who lifted her up into that position — the LGBTQ Arizonans I've spoken to, we feel betrayed."

The Equality Act is just one of the major pieces of Democratic legislation that has languished in Congress as a result of the filibuster. Republicans have also filibustered the For the People Act, a sweeping voting rights bill, and the threat of a filibuster has impeded progress on policing reform and the PRO Act, which would strengthen unions.

"LGBTQ issues are the same as anybody else's," Brianna Westbrook, a vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party who helped organize the letter, said in an interview with Salon. "LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, in particular, are two communities that really intersect with multiple social and economic classes and the filibuster is a barrier that's really restricting not only the Equality Act but other legislation that's important to the LGBTQ community like raising the wage, immigration reform, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and allowing LGBTQ people to organize their workplaces."

Progressive groups have poured millions into campaigns to ramp up pressure on Sinema to reverse her position on the filibuster. Operatives who helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York have launched the No Excuses PAC, which threatens to back primary challengers to Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., if they continue to "join with Republicans" against their own party's agenda. Another group has launched the Pressure PAC to raise money for an eventual progressive primary challenger to Sinema. Just Democracy, a coalition of more than 40 civil rights groups, last month launched a $1.5 million ad campaign to urge Sinema to "deliver on her campaign promise to protect voting rights and stand up for Arizonans."

Sinema "campaigned for her seat by telling Black and brown Arizonans that she'd have our backs in office," Stephany Spaulding, a Just Democracy coalition member and founder of Truth & Conciliation, told Salon. Sinema promised to "support fair wages, more and better jobs, climate justice ... promises that compelled Black and Brown people to turn out in record numbers. But instead of having our backs, Sinema turned her back on us. Her insistence on letting Republicans use the Jim Crow filibuster keeps her from delivering on the promises she made — the filibuster is a ubiquitous barrier to progress on all issues."

Sinema's opposition to eliminating the filibuster to advance voting rights legislation comes as Republicans this year have introduced more than 350 bills to restrict voting access. In Arizona, Republicans voted to strip power from the Democratic secretary of state and to implement new voting restrictions amid a dubious "forensic audit" of an election where no evidence of widespread fraud has been detected. The Supreme Court on Thursday dealt another blow to the Voting Rights Act, upholding previously enacted absentee voting restrictions and making it more difficult to challenge new state restrictions in the future.

"Senators like Sinema who insist on prioritizing 'bipartisanship' over crucial legislation aimed at strengthening our democracy are resurrecting the legacy of segregationists," Spaulding said. "Instead of protecting our democracy, they're placing a Jim Crow relic over the most fundamental right we have as Americans: the right to vote."

Sinema has so far appeared entirely unmoved by the pressure campaigns, doubling down on her position in a Washington Post op-ed last month, arguing that the "best way to achieve durable, lasting results" was through "bipartisan cooperation."

"I think she truly sees that if you can forge bipartisan compromise, it's going to be much more sustainable in terms of legislation. It's going to be able to withstand a turnover in party control," David Lujan, a former Arizona state legislator who served alongside Sinema, said in an interview with Salon.

But Lujan said he also questions that strategy, "especially when you have Republicans who despise Democrats and think that they're pedophiles and are harming kids in tunnels. How do you negotiate with people that believe that?" In an era of "ultra-polarized" politics, Lujan added, "I don't know if her approach is necessarily going to work."

Sinema argued in the op-ed that eliminating the filibuster would produce only "temporary victories" that were "destined to be reversed" if Republicans retake control of Congress, and noted that Democrats had filibustered police reform and COVID relief proposals under Trump "to force continued negotiations toward better solutions."

Eliminating the filibuster to expand health care could open the door to Republicans passing legislation "dividing Medicaid into block grants, slashing earned Social Security and Medicare benefits, or defunding women's reproductive health services," Sinema wrote. Eliminating it to protect the environment or strengthen education could open the door to Republicans defunding or abolishing entire agencies and programs.

But most of the programs she mentioned can already be cut or eliminated with a simple majority, using the budget reconciliation process, if Republicans regain a majority in Congress. In fact, that's what they unsuccessfully tried to do with their attempts to repeal Obamacare.

"It's a lot harder to repeal legislation after it's been enacted," Westbrook said. "We saw the amount of blowback Republicans received anytime they tried to dismantle the ACA. When you get legislation that materially changes the lives of human beings, you're going to have people fighting tooth and nail to make sure that legislation stays in. I think it's a bad move to not take the opportunity that you have as an elected official in this moment to pass as much legislation as humanly possible. I see that premise that she's basically put in that article as, 'I won't do anything.' That's not the job we elected her to do."

Sinema has tried to forge a bipartisan track herself, working on a bipartisan bill with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, to raise the federal minimum wage to $11 after she joined Republicans and some Democrats in scuttling President Biden's $15 proposal. She was also involved in negotiations on a bipartisan infrastructure bill. But the wage bill has gone nowhere and Republicans are already threatening to blow up the bipartisan deal, which provides a fraction of the funding originally proposed by Biden, because Democrats plan to pass a larger bill including their top priorities using the budget reconciliation process.

Sinema argued that voters expect her to be "independent — like Arizona — and to work with anyone to achieve lasting results." But her minimum wage bill would do little to help working people in Arizona, where the minimum wage already exceeds $11 despite years of Republican control, and the bipartisan deal rejected many top Democratic priorities that they now plan to advance themselves.

"Arizonans are linking the issues to the filibuster because they understand what Sen. Sinema does not — that broken rules and systems impact people's everyday lives," Spaulding said. "They know the dangerous consequences of keeping the filibuster intact and allowing it to stop progress on policies that affect their loved ones directly."

Sinema says that her critics have it all wrong and there was no big transformation ahead of the current filibuster fight.

"I held the same view during three terms in the U.S. House, and said the same after I was elected to the Senate in 2018," she wrote in the Post op-ed. "If anyone expected me to reverse my position because my party now controls the Senate, they should know that my approach to legislating in Congress is the same whether in the minority or majority."

On this, she has a point. Critics who questioning how the former Ralph Nader acolyte, who organized anti-war protests during the Bush era, became a conservative Democrat are ignoring much of her career in government. Sinema has also developed a persona of sorts, touting her working-class credentials by frequently recounting her childhood living in poverty. Republicans have helped shape Sinema's leftist image as well, frequently referencing her activist days and painting her as a radical leftist in unsuccessful efforts to defeat her.

Sinema is a former social worker and criminal defense lawyer who tried to run for Phoenix City Council and later the state House as an independent, failing both times. Sinema's "first political compromise," as the socialist magazine Jacobin described it, came when she registered as a Democrat to run for a state House seat in 2004, beginning a long journey that led to a "complete 180 on almost every position she ever took on almost any issue."

Lujan denied that Sinema has "changed what she believes in," but agreed that he saw a shift after she was elected to the legislature and was met with a Republican supermajority that "shut out" the Democratic minority.

"When she first entered the legislature, if you look at the bills that she filed back then, you'd find that was a pretty progressive list of bills that never got a hearing or went anywhere," he said, adding that she soon started to introduce "more moderate legislation."

Despite serving as a Democrat in a deeply red state, Sinema pulled off some big unlikely wins.

The first was when she led the opposition effort to a 2006 ballot initiative that would have prohibited same-sex marriage.

"Everyone I think at the time predicted that it was going to pass easily, but Kyrsten and our group were successful in defeating the measure," Lujan recalled, noting that it was the first such measure defeated in the country.

"She did that by messaging people that maybe traditionally would not have opposed that measure," he said. "She really tried to cross party lines and ideological lines to have people join in opposing the measure. That was probably the first time I saw the value in that approach."

Another "turning point" for Sinema was when she introduced a measure to prohibit state investments in Darfur and got strong bipartisan support to pass the bill.

"That was probably the first bill she got through the legislature," Lujan said. "She then really started to look at, 'What's legislation that I can work across the aisle and find compromise on to get something done?'"

That shift was accompanied by embracing the state's top Republicans. Sinema even defended then-state Senate President Russell Pearce, an anti-immigration extremist, saying that she "love[d] him" and "would love to see him run for Congress," declining to join a successful recall campaign against him because he was her "boss."

Though she moved further right in the legislature while pushing progressive legislation, the shift was more dramatic after she quit the legislature to run for Congress in a more politically diverse district. After winning that election she joined numerous bipartisan groups that called for "reforming" Social Security and Medicare, cutting corporate taxes and regulations, and reducing spending. She joined numerous centrist or business-friendly groups like the Blue Dog Coalition, the Problem Solvers Caucus, No Labels and Third Way.

After joining the House Financial Services Committee, Sinema quickly came under fire from progressives in her state for backing a bill written by Citigroup and supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to roll back some Dodd-Frank financial reforms. She later supported an even larger rollback of the law that deregulated most of the country's largest banks. In 2015, was one of just four Democrats to support giving the financial industry an advisory role on Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regulations. The financial industry responded by boosting its campaign contributions to Sinema from just $28,346 in 2012 to more than $890,000 by 2016. She has also won the Chamber of Commerce "Spirit of Enterprise" award, for members who vote with the group more than 70% of the time, seven years in a row and was the lone Democrat to receive the award last year It was a startling departure from an activist who decried the ills of capitalism two decades earlier.

She has also voted to repeal the estate tax, which only applies to individuals with assets over $11.7 million, repeatedly supported increased military spending, and voted to repeal Obama's Clean Water Plan and block his Clean Power Plan. Sinema joined Republicans to delay the Obamacare individual mandate and allow insurers to offer plans that don't meet the Obamacare standards while introducing a bill to repeal the law's tax on insurers.

After being recruited by Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to run for Senate, Sinema immediately expressed opposition to Schumer serving as the party leader. After winning a close race over McSally in 2018, Sinema voted with Trump half the time and broke with her party more often than any other Democrat besides Manchin, particularly in approving Trump's nominees. She was singled out for praise by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and an ExxonMobil lobbyist was caught on video naming Sinema as one of 11 senators "crucial" to the oil giant's opposition to climate change legislation.

Even Biden, who has touted bipartisanship as much as anyone, recently called out Sinema and Manchin as "two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends."

Lujan said that Sinema's conservative bent could help her among the more moderate electorate in Arizona, but said he didn't see it as a political calculation.

"I think her approach to getting elected was the right approach, and I think she's taking the approach that she feels is the one that's going to help her get re-elected," he said. "But I also think she actually, truly believes that it's the right approach to take, that you're going to have better legislation if you work in a bipartisan fashion."

It remains to be seen whether that approach will pay off. In a poll earlier this year, a large majority of Arizonans said it was more important to pass major legislation than to preserve rules like the filibuster. And while Sinema's popularity lags behind Kelly's, a recent poll showed that her approval rating is significantly higher among Republicans than it is among Democrats and independents.

Sinema seems to have traded her progressive support "for a boost from Republicans in opinion polls," Arrow said. But she's skeptical that will work. "She's not going to get supported by those Republicans: They're going to vote for someone who represents their values. Sinema is going to find herself alone, because she's shown everyone on both sides of the aisle that she has no values."

Westbrook argued that while Sinema's decisions are politically "calculated," her calculus is "outdated."

"She is not changing with the electorate," she said. "Arizona is changing, the dynamics are changing. The people that Sinema should be appealing to are the people are disengaged in the political system. Those are the people that are going to get her back to Washington."

Lujan expressed doubt that pressure from progressives would change Sinema's mind, predicting that the senator would continue pursuing a bipartisan path "until she figures out that it's not working" herself.

"Then I actually think, if she does not have success in getting things done, she will look to see if maybe that's not the right approach. That's my hope," he said. "She is going to work very hard to forge bipartisan solutions, but I think she's also very pragmatic. My hope is that if it's not working, she will begin to see that it makes sense to do away with the filibuster rule."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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