Finding Kyrsten Sinema

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. | Nigel Buchanan for Deseret Magazine

The enigmatic Arizona senator on Thursday refused to support filibuster reform, thus blocking her party’s efforts to pass new voting rights legislation. It’s the latest move that her supporters applaud as principled and her critics denounce as dangerously arrogant.

In a dusty basement of Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library, on a shelf of blue books with gilded trim, between a tract on the history of cosmetic surgery and a study of mystical metaphors in medieval poetry, rests the 1995 honors thesis of one Kyrsten Sinema. “Career Aspirations and Humanitarianism Among Gifted College Students” is a forgotten memento from the Arizona senator’s two years of undergraduate studies at BYU. Long before she became the most confounding actor in the drama of the Biden era, she was an Ezra Taft Benson scholar who completed her bachelor’s degree at 18. A child prodigy who, her thesis suggests, was very concerned with people like herself.

“It is ironic that part of our society suffers from a lack of resources,” the teenage Sinema writes, “yet we have within ourselves an often unrecognized, highly useful minority — the gifted.” A couple years earlier, at 16, she had graduated from high school as co-valedictorian. That is, she was gifted.

In the past year, practically every national media outlet in America has dedicated thousands of words to grapple with what, exactly, motivates Kyrsten Sinema. The New Yorker asked, “What does Kyrsten Sinema really want?” CNN had a nearly identical question on its mind: “Unsolved mystery: What does Kyrsten Sinema want?” Even “Saturday Night Live” got in on the action, with Cecily Strong donning a bright red dress, blue pearls and thick glasses to ask, “What do I want from this bill? I’ll never tell. Because I didn’t come to Congress to make friends — and so far, mission accomplished.”

 Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
Kyrsten Sinema, now a U.S. senator, was first sworn in as a U.S. representative by then-House Speaker John Boehner in January 2013.

No one can fully discern why Sinema has positioned herself as one of two Democratic senators opposing the party-approved social spending agenda, least of all her left-wing constituents, some of whom feel betrayed and plan to launch a primary challenger when she’s up for reelection in 2024. She hasn’t done much to ingratiate herself, with her obnoxious thumbs-down vote on a federal minimum wage increase, her lackadaisical approach to issues like immigration reform and voting rights, and her much-maligned defense of the filibuster, causing protests outside her Phoenix office, at a wedding and, most notoriously, inside a bathroom on Arizona State’s campus.

Yet the Biden administration needs Sinema’s vote to accomplish much of anything in the Senate, where the one-vote Democratic majority will get no support from Republicans on controversial legislation. Unlocking the Sinema puzzle could hold the key to the president’s success or failure. Though Sinema doesn’t seem too worried about his fate. Her college thesis and the story she has told herself and others suggest, rather, that she’s long believed she was destined to be an answer to the country’s woes — a humanitarian concerned with helping people less fortunate, the rare leader who can deliver our nation from partisan squabbles and enact meaningful, lasting change. If only others could see it. As she inquired in her thesis, “How do we find the gifted?”

Or, How do we find someone like Kyrsten Sinema? Late last year, I traveled to Florida and Arizona to try to figure that out.

 The Washington Post, Getty
The building in Defuniak Springs, Florida, where Kyrsten Sinema says she was raised without running water.

Here’s the story Sinema tells about herself. Once, in Tucson, a girl enjoyed a middle-class existence until, one day, her father lost his law license. Her parents divorced. Her mother married a man named Andy Howard, who moved the girl, her mother and two siblings to Florida, to his hometown, in search of work and opportunity. But the work was nowhere to be found.

The girl, now eight, and her family were forced to live in an abandoned gas station, owned by Howard’s parents. The building didn’t have water or electricity or a reliable place to cook. In their time of need, the family turned to the local ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for food and clothing. By the time the girl turned 11, though, the family’s situation improved. Howard found work and the family moved into a proper house. The girl excelled in school; she even skipped her junior year at Walton High School and graduated as co-valedictorian at 16. She used her academic gifts to earn a BYU scholarship and pursue higher education. She wanted to give back to people who had struggled, as she had, so she studied social work.

After a master’s degree from Arizona State in 1999 she got involved in local politics, first as a Green Party activist who fiercely opposed the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She ran for a seat on the Phoenix City Council in 2001 and lost. She lost again a year later, running as an independent for the Arizona state House.

 Andrew Harnik, Associated Press
Kyrsten Sinema sworn in as a U.S. senator, January 2019.

But Kyrsten Sinema was no quitter. In 2004, the same year she graduated from law school, she ran as a Democrat and finally won a seat in the state House. Early on, she struggled. Sinema tells us so in her 2009 autobiographical treatise, “Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win and Last.” She was a “bomb thrower” — someone who makes fiery, indignant speeches that accomplish nothing. So she reinvented herself. The new Sinema was a deal-maker unafraid to work with anyone on anything she saw as productive. Her strategy helped pass more legislation — and also boosted her political career. After six years in the House, she jumped to the Arizona Senate for two years, then to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012. And when Jeff Flake vacated his Senate seat in 2018, she jumped on it, too.

She’s always been upfront about who she is, and that starts with being different. She wears colorful wigs and sleeveless shirts on the Senate floor, in part to express this core component of her identity. She’s America’s first openly bisexual senator; a woman who is unafraid to bushwhack her own path — starting first and foremost with an ethos of “getting things done” in a gridlocked political system. She’s never been a fan of the so-called “identity politics” that have taken root in both parties. Her book dedicates an entire chapter to “Shedding the Heavy Mantle of Victimhood,” which concludes by railing against political tribalism.

She sees herself as a fearless, thoughtful leader who’s more concerned with crafting quality legislation than engaging in partisan blood sport. More in touch with real America, not the swamp. And her upbringing, she tells us, is a big part of that. “There’s really no other country in the world,” she once told a crowd in Phoenix, “where a little girl who grew up homeless living in a gas station could ever dream of serving in the United States Congress and run for the United States Senate.”

 J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
Sen Kyrsten Sinema with Republican senators after voting on a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure project.

There it is. The building from the stories. White and blocky, with a triangular roof and rusted light fixtures atop a weathered metal pole — the converted gas station where Kyrsten Sinema grew up. The woman who would eventually become a U.S. senator lived a cinder block existence here off a county highway near DeFuniak Springs, a Florida panhandle town of about 6,000. And beside the old shack, across from a bristling cotton field, John Howard stands beside his red pickup truck.

John is a relative of Sinema’s stepfather, Andy. He’s lived in or around DeFuniak Springs his whole life, including when Sinema’s family lived in what’s now his personal workshop. “We’re all Republicans,” he tells me. “I’m 73, and the last Democrat I voted for was Jimmy Carter.” Sinema usually leaves that part out when she talks about this place, and she talks about it plenty. This, after all, is the cornerstone of the story she presents to the world about her humble beginnings. John offers me a look inside.

“This was the livin’ room,” he says, pointing at the corner to the left, nearest the door. “They had a wood-burnin’ stove over here.” It’s hard to glean much, he admits, because he’s remade the space. It’s now just one big room, which wasn’t the case when Sinema lived here. In the other front corner, he says, was Sinema’s brother’s room. Beside that, she and her sister shared a room. John says the next spot over was the kitchen. Some of the beige, diamond-patterned tile still remains, chopped irregularly at the edges and speckled with either white paint or drops of plaster. And in the far right corner, opposite from Sinema’s parents’ room, is where a bathroom once stood. The remnants are all there: A crack in the concrete foundation where the tub once rested; paint-spattered pipes jutting from the walls; a concrete-filled hole for the “commode,” as John calls it; and the dusty, fraying remains of a dark-brown floor made of little six-sided tiles.

Seeing the fossilized pipes and remembering Sinema’s claims, I put the question to John Howard: Did Sinema and her family have power and water? “Oh, yeah,” he says, nodding his head and smirking. He’s not alone in disputing her story. New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin called her account into question when he discovered records showing her parents paid utility bills while they lived there. Sinema has proven extremely sensitive and defensive about the facts in question. Her website features testimony from her mother, stepfather, aunt and childhood friend, all backing up her version. But maybe the precise details don’t matter much in this instance, as Martin observed. “What is not in doubt,” he wrote, “is that Ms. Sinema and her family were living in deeply trying circumstances, relying on assistance from the local Mormon church to which they belonged.” John doesn’t dispute that, though he does seem as puzzled by his stepniece as just about everyone else. He offers this parting thought: “I keep hoping,” he says, “she changes to an independent or a Republican.”

Down the road at Walton High School, old yearbooks tell of someone intelligent and ambitious. In her three years at Walton, Sinema participated in the French club, the math club, color guard and a service organization called the Anchor Club. She was the vice president of her sophomore class and signed her name with an asterisk over the i. She was the co-valedictorian in 1993. But no one around town seems to remember her, save for at one secluded spot.

At the DeFuniak Springs ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the ward where Sinema grew up — the congregation is in the middle of a funeral lunch, but an older man with a powder-white beard and a pinstriped gray suit still has plenty to say. He introduces himself as Sandy Jack Brown, “the nicest guy in town.” He was Sinema’s Sunday School teacher, and he promptly corrects me when I call her Kursten. “It’s KEER-sten,” he says. “She’s one of the smartest gals I’ve ever had (in class).” From there, darn near everyone at the table wants to chime in, though always with the preface that they knew her long ago and don’t remember many details now. From across the table, Wendell Mitchell points toward the far side of the room. “I remember her dad coming and baptizing her, right down the hallway there.” Patricia Pollard recalls her being a very lively kid, always running around with the others. “And you knew she was gonna be smart,” she adds. “No doubt about it.”

The women at the table seem very impressed with Sinema, regardless of her political affiliation. “She was just vibrant, and she always cared about other people,” Meta Ambrose recalls, adding how proud she is whenever she sees Sinema on TV. “To see how she grew up — she became what she is. She didn’t just talk about it; she actually did it.” But as a bearded fellow with a ball cap proclaiming “I love my country but I fear my government” looks on, Mitchell pipes up from across the table to echo John Howard. “We’re really rootin’ for her to stick to her guns,” he says.

Sinema thanked a handful of teachers and mentors in the acknowledgments of her BYU thesis. One was Karen Gerdes, a social work professor. Gerdes eventually left BYU for Arizona State, where Sinema earned her four graduate degrees. “Kyrsten is wicked smart and very charismatic,” Gerdes says via email. “I experienced her as a hardworking and dedicated student and later the same as a colleague.” Sinema’s early associates from her time in Arizona agree. They have their criticisms of her recent decisions, but they have no doubt that she’s very intelligent and very driven.

David Wells met her shortly after joining the faculty at ASU in 1998. He was aiding the formation of a group called the Arizona Advocacy Network, whose goal at the time was to bring progressive groups together for better dialogue and better results. Sinema, Wells recalls, wasn’t a part of any particular group, but she was energetic, passionate and smart. Back then, while running her first campaign for elected office, she was the sort who likened taking donations of any kind to “bribery.” She and Wells became leaders in the Alliance for Peaceful Justice, which opposed the George W. Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s how she met Elizabeth Venable, a fellow left-wing activist who would eventually volunteer for Sinema. “She’s intensely smart. She seemed very compassionate — especially with the social work background,” Venable says. “She seemed to be very principled.”

 Rich Scuteri, Associated Press
Kyrsten Sinema before an Arizona State and University of Utah game, November 2018.

During those early activist years, Gerdes asked Sinema to speak to her community practice class. It was 2003, and Sinema had just lost her second election. Gerdes remembers she brought an interesting perspective to the class — which was about creating positive change in communities — because of her electoral failure. “The students loved it!” she says. The lecture focused on what it takes to succeed within a particular environment, and how to change course when necessary — a common topic in the social work world.

That lecture became practical for Sinema following her “bomb thrower” phase — though some of her fellow legislators don’t remember her speeches as particularly radical. “The role that she played there was much more than simply bomb throwing,” says Martin Quezada, an Arizona state senator who was a legislative staffer when Sinema was first elected. He admits that some people make a loud, obnoxious point for its own sake, but Sinema never did. “All of her big, impassioned speeches were on point.” But where Quezada and others saw an important contribution to the state’s political atmosphere, Sinema saw failure, and her activist friends noticed a new attitude taking shape.

“Her approach to power sort of changed along the way,” says Venable. “She started out as a Green Party candidate, which is hardly an approach leaning toward power. … I feel like that’s changed a lot.” Looking at her now, Gerdes can’t help but think back to that lecture about succeeding in a given setting. “My guess is Kyrsten understands better than any of us the environment she is in,” she says. “Not the national one or even the Arizona one, but the one in D.C., amongst the senators. (She knows) how to work within that particular system of people to be effective and productive.”

It’s precisely this inclination that’s allowed her to win every election since 2004 and the respect of some Republican colleagues — while also shrouding her political future in uncertainty.

When Mitt Romney became a senator in 2019, he didn’t know anything about Sinema. But since she was a fellow BYU grad and a fellow first-time senator from a neighboring state, he inquired with his friend Paul Ryan. The former Republican House Speaker served alongside Sinema throughout her three terms in the House of Representatives, and the way Romney remembers it, Ryan was a fan. He told Romney he had a lot of respect for her as someone who didn’t much care about partisan identity and focused instead on finding common ground. Romney has since seen it himself, along with the dazzling intellect that even her friends-turned-critics still find impressive.

“She obviously is a lot smarter than me because she graduated a lot faster than I did,” Romney says. “I mean, one of the smartest people in the building. And I don’t know that people recognize that, but she is a brilliant individual. ... As we negotiate on various topics, she digs down deeper and gets an understanding of the details in a far more comprehensive way than most of the other people in the negotiations,” he adds. “She can advance the project we’re working on in part because she understands it better than most people.”

 Samuel Corum, Getty
Sens. Mitt Romney and Kyrsten Sinema during a Senate hearing on COVID-19, March 2020.

Sinema often cites John McCain as a role model who was unafraid to buck his party for the sake of the country, but Arizona-based Democratic political consultant Adam Kinsey cites another pair of role models among the ghosts of Arizona senators past: Carl Hayden and Barry Goldwater. Hayden was a Democrat, Republican Goldwater the godfather of modern conservatism. In the 1960s, the two teamed up to deliver Arizona the water infrastructure that makes the state habitable today. If there’s any cohesion to Sinema’s political philosophy as backed up by her decisions, it’s informed by situations like that: Renewing a spirit of cooperation that’s been largely dead since the mid-’90s. “I think she loves the idea of building bridges and bringing back the old way the Senate used to do things,” Kinsey says, “where there was a little more working across the aisle.”

Her willingness to work with senate Republicans has courted both admiration and skepticism. Cameron Adams, president of the ASU Young Democrats, was a fan when Sinema was elected in 2018. The then-freshman even campaigned for her. But now a senior, Adams is tired of Sinema’s posturing. Adams wants to see results — not just compromise for its own sake. “Even the more moderate members of our group are kind of done with her now,” she says. “She talked a lot on her campaign about working for everyone to get things done. … But she’s talking a lot and not getting anything done. There’s nothing, no results to justify her actions anymore.”

 Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and other senators gather to discuss an infrastructure bill with President Joe Biden, June 2021.

And even when her approach succeeds, it isn’t hard to find examples of its shortcomings. The $1 trillion infrastructure bill she championed passed the Senate with 69 yeas, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But in the House, only eight Republicans signed on, and 26-year-old Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn, dubbed by the New Republic as the “future of the Republican Party,” promised to “primary the hell out of ” any Republicans who supported it. Cawthorn’s approach fits the zeitgeist of the moment better than Sinema’s, both within the Republican Party and American politics. “If one could really poke a hole in (Sinema’s) whole argument about trying to move on to a post-partisan, bipartisan new era in the Senate, I think that’s it,” Kinsey, the Arizona political consultant, says.

In an era where politicians are more cultural warriors than diplomats, bipartisanship, the thinking goes, can only accomplish so much. “(Bipartisanship) sounds nice. It’s a nice kind of sales pitch,” Quezada says of Sinema’s approach. “But it is definitely ignoring the reality.”

Still, as a long-professed champion of a living wage for all citizens — despite voting down a Democrat-endorsed provision in a COVID-19 relief bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour — Sinema has been working with Romney on a bipartisan proposal that would increase the federal minimum to $11 per hour. The fact that she and Romney share a cultural heritage makes cooperation especially easy. When a recent measure was brought to the Senate floor, Romney observed, “I think they’re kicking against the pricks,” a Biblical phrase familiar to Latter-day Saints. “Absolutely,” Sinema agreed. No one around them had any idea what they were talking about. “She knows the church hymns. She knows the church culture. She knows church doctrine. And so we have spoken about those common experiences,” Romney says.

Their friendship even resulted in a joint Halloween costume where he dressed up as Apple TV+ icon Ted Lasso and Sinema dressed up as his shady boss, Rebecca Welton — an idea, Romney says, that came from his staff and that Sinema agreed to. Her strategy makes tense negotiations easier, which is how she and Romney were able to propose their federal minimum wage increase bill and work together on the infrastructure bill. “She is very much driven by what she wants to accomplish for her state and for the country, regardless of the source,” Romney adds. “Whether it’s from a Republican or Democrat is less important to her than whether it’s right.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana who worked with Sinema on a parental leave plan, admires her bipartisanship as a value in and of itself. She’s willing to put aside large chunks of what she wants in favor of the even larger chunk that she and her Republican colleagues have in common, which Cassidy says is a rare feat in today’s Washington. She always searches out the positive, even in negative situations, and is a “gifted” listener whose greatest virtue is finding common ground. “Normally, we pay those people and call them arbiters,” he says. “She does it for free.”

Ironically, Sinema has also garnered a reputation for silence and noncooperation. Many grassroots organizations in Arizona that used to work well with her now say they can’t get an audience. Sinema disputes that characterization, but there’s no doubt that that’s the perception. “She sort of has spurned the activists who helped get her into office,” says Wells.

Early in 2021, Quezada and the Democratic leadership in the Arizona Senate requested a private meeting with Sinema. At first, Quezada says, her team said no. Then they agreed, but only virtually, and they required all the questions in advance. “So it wasn’t a conversation,” Quezada says. “It was more like an interview where she knew all of the questions first.”

And it’s not just about specific policy positions; the questions about what she believes are bigger, Wells says. “I’m not sure what her core values are anymore.”

On a Wednesday last fall, Fred Hernandez sat in a pavilion at the entrance to the Apache Wash Trail, which Sinema ranked as her favorite Arizona trail in 2018. An Arizona Cardinals lanyard dangled from his pocket. Binoculars hung from his neck. He comes here darn near every day, he told me, to listen to music and take in the landscape. With gray hair and a matching mustache and goatee, he looks good for a 79-year-old man who once worked in the mining and drilling industries. But his body is betraying him.

He only has one kidney, and he takes a prescription called Rayaldee to combat the effects. He pays about $400 per month for it. He voted for Sinema in part because of her promise to reduce prescription drug prices. When I spoke to him, that promise had gone unfulfilled. “I’m having second thoughts,” he says. “She promised she was gonna do something about that, but she hasn’t yet, and I don’t think she’s going to.”

Folks like Hernandez — the voters whose daily lives are impacted most by Sinema’s decisions in Washington — will decide her political future. “I’m gonna have to really think before I vote for her again,” Hernandez told me. As pretty much every political observer will tell you, that could change in the two and a half years before she’s up for reelection. It could change plenty in three months or even three days, too. But for that to happen, Sinema will have to convince voters that her commitment to bipartisanship above any particular policy goals is a worthwhile pursuit — and that’s a hard, high-minded sell.

Pretty much right after I spoke with Hernandez, though, the wins for Sinema started piling up. Aside from the infrastructure bill, she also threw her support behind instituting a corporate minimum tax and lowering prescription drug prices after months of stalling. But her drug pricing proposal is classic Sinema: Rather than the $450 billion House Democrats hoped to save on prescription drug prices, her preferred plan will save $200 billion. Why did Sinema fight to seemingly do less? Is she committed to moderation for moderation’s sake? She’ll have to answer those questions for people like Hernandez, who accuse her of being in the pocket of the pharmaceutical lobby.

Everyone has offered hypotheses to explain the cognitive dissonance. Branko Marcetic, writing in Jacobin magazine, charges that she’s chosen to “abandon everything she ever believed in and do the bidding of the country’s rich and powerful.” Politico Magazine’s Hank Stephenson offers a compelling case for raw ambition as the fuel for Sinema’s confounding positions. And many — perhaps most formidably Ryan Grim at The Intercept — have made the case that she’s simply a sellout to corporate cash.

 Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press
Within the next two years, Sen Kyrsten Sinema will have to convince voters that bipartisanship is a goal more essential than nearly every other political pursuit.

Yet for all the confusion and questions about what she wants, Sinema tries to make it clear — especially to her colleagues. “She definitely cuts a different profile,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in an interview with Politico. “But in dealing with her colleagues she’s not the enigma that the punditry wants to make her out to be.” Romney agrees. “I think her life and personality have given her the capacity not to be swayed by the crowd,” he says. “She grew up in a religion that was a minority. Her sexuality is a minority. Her gender is a minority in the Senate. Her style is different than the standard in the Senate. And she’s comfortable with walking her own path. … You know, we call that backbone, but I think it’s a degree of confidence in herself that is unusual and admirable.”

In short, her critics and some of her colleagues may not appreciate it, but Kyrsten Sinema trusts herself to do what’s best for everyone. That’s been clear for years, maybe all the way back to her BYU honors thesis, where the child prodigy observed, “Gifted individuals are a resource our society has only begun to tap.”

This story appears in the February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.