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Progressive To Filibuster Defender: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's Political Evolution


This weekend, we've been taking a look at two of the people who hold a lot of sway when it comes to the key issues being pushed by Democrats and the Biden White House. When it comes to moving forward on infrastructure spending, a budget proposal, measures to protect voting rights and reform immigration law, two Democratic senators have been at the center of it all - Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Yesterday, we took a look at Senator Manchin's path to this point. And today, we're going to dig into Senator Sinema's biography, which, we should say, could not be more different than his. She came to politics with a compelling personal story about a hard climb out of childhood poverty to become the holder of four advanced degrees. She's been a social worker, a street activist with a flair for the theatrical and the first openly bisexual woman elected to Congress.

To tell us more, we called on Tim Murphy, senior reporter for Mother Jones, for which he published a long profile of Senator Sinema. He started by describing Sinema early in her career.

TIM MURPHY: Kyrsten Sinema started off in Arizona politics in sort of the fringe of the fringe. You know, she was a spokesperson for Ralph Nader's presidential campaign in 2000. She ran for office as a member of the Green Party. She ran again for local office as an independent. She was somebody who was out on the streets protesting the actions of the Democratic Party.

But she eventually started to settle down. You know, she started to make adjustments when - the third time she ran for office, she ran for office as a Democrat, and she won. She started off in the state legislature, still as a bit of - you know, to the left and a progressive that she felt like she was kind of irrelevant. And so she started to adjust how she did her politics and focus on interpersonal relationships with Republicans in a Republican-dominated chamber in order to start to get things done.

MARTIN: How and why did she become such a staunch proponent of rules-based bipartisanship, which is sort of exemplified by her sort of staunch defense of the filibuster? How did that happen?

MURPHY: It's been a long process for her. You know, it does go back to Arizona. And the legislature she was a part of was just a really, really conservative Republican legislature that was just doing everything within its power that it wanted to do, passing sweeping things like SB 1070, the anti-immigrant legislation. And so Sinema was just in this position in the minority of just fending things off. And she just sort of developed this distrust of legislatures that are using their power in very partisan ways to do these big things in very alienating ways. So her years in the minority - and she's been in the minority of a legislature every single year of her career until this year - has really shaped how she views being in the majority.

MARTIN: I've seen a number of articles quoting progressives who feel that she is a turncoat, that she projects herself as a progressive but that - because of her stances, these progressive measures can't actually get passed even if they could, if she were to help them or, at the very least, as somebody who's putting procedure over principle or over policy. What does she say about that?

MURPHY: The way that she's approaching these big-ticket policy fights in D.C. right now is - the word she uses is durable. She sees progressives in her own state, activists, supporters in her home state, you know, pushing her to - you know, to act on these big-ticket Democratic policy proposals. And her pushback is, OK, but if we pass this, it'll just get repealed two years from now or four years from now. And she views that, as somebody with experience in sort of unstable legislatures, as kind of a destabilizing kind of democracy. So she has gone all in on, we're only doing this if we can do it in a bipartisan way. She views things that get 60 votes as more durable, more bipartisan, less likely to be overturned in 2022 or 2024.

MARTIN: So one of the issues that's a focus issue right now, which is this question of voting rights - I mean, Texas state Democrats left the state as a group to prevent the state legislature from passing a bill that they say is racist in its intent, as is intended to suppress the votes of certain people, core Democratic constituencies. They're in Washington, D.C., now urging lawmakers to pass a bill to protect voting rights. It's my understanding that to this point - maybe you have different information - the senator hasn't met with them yet. And I'm just wondering, you know, how that's going over. And is that a crucible issue for her?

MURPHY: It is. And Sinema herself has been under enormous pressure from people in her home state, including the secretary of state, to act on this. You know, she is at once, you know, somebody elected by a very narrow margin in Arizona who has obviously criticized ex-President Trump's interference in the election but also somebody with enormous power to move along voting rights to sort of safeguard these elections from any kind of malfeasance like we saw.

So she's under enormous pressure. And that's sort of where her theory of politics and bipartisanship really comes to a big test because she places a lot of, you know, her success on being able to work with people like Ted Cruz on various issues. But, of course, Ted Cruz is leading the charge, you know, against expanding voting rights. So it's one thing to sit down and do kind of like a spin class with these people, but it's another to actually be able to move the ball on these big issues.

MARTIN: That was Tim Murphy. He's a senior reporter for Mother Jones. And as we said, he's written an expansive profile of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Tim Murphy, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

MURPHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.