Kyrsten Sinema: a confounding legacy of activism and obstruction

Kyrsten Sinema
Kyrsten Sinema. (Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America via Wikimedia Commons)

Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) was the first out bisexual elected to Congress in 2012 and the first out bisexual elected to the Senate in 2018. Sinema was also the first woman to be elected to the Senate from Arizona and the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Arizona in 33 years. She is currently one of three out queer senators, along with Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Laphonza Butler (D-CA). Sinema is one of three independents in the Senate, the others being Bernie Sanders and Angus King, both of whom also caucus with the Democrats. But on Super Tuesday, in a video posted on Twitter/X, Sinema announced she will leave the Senate at the conclusion of her term in 2025, and not seek re-election.

Many will not be sorry to see the controversial Arizona senator leave. Throughout the Biden administration, Sinema has been viewed increasingly as an obstructionist, impeding implementation of key aspects of the Biden agenda, first as a Blue Dog Democrat and now as an independent increasingly at odds with both constituents who complain she is too wedded to the donor class and Democratic colleagues who thought she was more interested in working with moderate Republicans than with them.

At one point, the woman who rose to prominence as a groundbreaking progressive was tagged “the Senate’s newest super villain” by The Nation’s D.C. correspondent and Arizonan, Aída Chávez, after her smug thumbs down to raising the minimum wage. Yet Sinema grew up poor and, at times, homeless. Raised a Mormon, Sinema went to Brigham Young University as an undergraduate on a scholarship, finishing with honors at only 18 and eventually leaving the Mormon church for atheism.

Sinema was one of the most influential lawmakers of Biden’s first two years as a bipartisan queen. She helped Republicans shrink Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, refused to sign onto corporate tax hikes, and helped Democrats reshape prescription drug policy. She cut major bipartisan deals on infrastructure and on gun control. But changing from a Democrat to an independent in 2022 blunted her power and ostracized her from both sides.

When Sinema ascended to the Senate, she had spent years working for LGBTQ+ rights and other social justice issues in Arizona and nationally. She fought for marriage equality back in 2006 as a 29-year-old member of the Arizona state legislature. Her innovative stances and her then-strong progressive politics drew many LGBTQ Arizonans and progressive allies to support her.

That support came from national sources as well, like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and LGBTQ+ Victory Fund. For her part, Sinema worked with LGBTQ+ groups. For years, she participated in training and a leadership development program for the Victory Fund. Sinema speaks about the struggles of growing up LGBTQ+ and how to support each other: “When you grow up LGBTQ, finding common ground with people you sometimes disagree with, that’s all you’ve ever known.”

In 2006, Sinema led the effort to successfully defeat Proposition 107, which would have banned same-sex marriages in Arizona and negatively impacted unmarried couples, common law marriages and domestic partnerships. This was the first successful defeat of a ballot proposition involving LGBTQ+ rights in the nation.

In 2022, Sinema’s bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act headed to the president’s desk after earning strong bipartisan passage in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House. Sinema’s bipartisan legislation ensured same-sex couples are afforded the same protections as all marriages while protecting and respecting religious liberties. 

“We’re one step closer to our bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act securing into law marriage and religious protections for all Americans. I look forward to seeing it signed into law by the President to bring certainty and peace of mind to countless loving marriages,” Sinema said at the time.

Sinema’s rise to the Senate was hard won — and filled with leftist activism. While working as a spokesperson for the Arizona Green Party, Sinema worked to repeal the death penalty. Sinema has served as an advisory board member of the Arizona Death Penalty Forum. In 2013, Sinema co-sponsored a letter opposing Saudi Arabia for “the use of torture and capital punishment against the LGBTQ community.”

Sinema has a long history of anti-war stances and has organized 15 anti-war rallies prior to the Iraq War. It was Sinema’s history as an anti-war activist and Marxist, that Republican Martha McSally, a former Air Force pilot a dozen years Sinema’s senior, had run against in the 2018 election. The conservative National Review laid out Sinema’s progressive history in a sneeringly misogynist and dismissive essay titled “The Ridiculous Kyrsten Sinema.” It was a reprise of her Republican opponent’s attack ads against her in 2012, which accused Sinema of being an “anti-American hippie” who practiced “Pagan rituals.”

McSally portrayed Sinema as too extreme for the purple state. The vote was close enough that, like the 2020 presidential election, it took several days to count all the ballots. And McSally called for a recount.

Sinema promised to be an independent voice for all Arizonans. It’s been frustrating to most sentient people left of center to watch Sinema shift from far-left Green Party idealist and LGBTQ+ activist to cynical DINO centrist. Some claim Sinema was driven out by Democrats, but Sinema was driven out by painting herself into a political corner.

Despite claims that nearly half of voters are independents, there’s little room for actual independents in Congress. Back in September, Sinema began to look at her re-election chances against Democratic challenger Ruben Gallego and GOP challenger and recent gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. The votes and donors weren’t there.

Sinema was long a firebrand in Congress. She came to politics after a stint as a social worker and another as a defense attorney. She has more degrees than anyone else in Congress — including an MSW, MBA, JD and PhD. She teaches law classes in addition to her Senate job.

At Sinema’s election to the Senate, Annise Parker, the former mayor of Houston and the CEO of Victory Fund, told The Arizona Republic that Sinema’s win was the highest profile for Victory Fund. Parker said, “The world is changing, but there are many states in the country where you can be fired simply for being LGBT. There’s a growing trend to try to allow sanctioned discrimination.”

Parker said, “As we see those things, it makes it more important to have those who are from the community advocating in the halls of power.”

Now Sinema’s queer voice is leaving the Senate, as is California senator Laphonza Butler. In 2018, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the first openly lesbian and LGBTQ person to be elected to the Senate had welcomed Sinema, writing on Twitter, “Very happy to say I’m no longer the *only* openly LGBTQ U.S. Senator. Congratulations to @kyrstensinema on a well-deserved victory. The upper chamber is lucky to have your steady leadership.”

Now, Baldwin will be the sole LGBTQ+ person in the Senate again and Sinema, the fashionista and LGBTQ+ activist and anti-war zealot will be gone, leaving in her wake a dozen years of groundbreaking work along with confounding disappointment.

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