U.S. Senator-elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona
U.S. Senator-elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona

Sen­a­tor Kyrsten Sine­ma, the Demo­c­rat-turned-Inde­pen­dent from Ari­zona, has man­aged to be in the mid­dle of Sen­ate deal­mak­ing on infra­struc­ture and gun safe­ty, while serv­ing as a stub­born obsta­cle to pro­gres­sive reform on oth­er fronts.

She has declared her­self pro-choice and cospon­sored the John Lewis Vot­ing Rights Act, yet stands stead­fast for the fil­i­buster used by Repub­li­cans to block Con­gress from tak­ing action on on vot­ing rights and repro­duc­tive rights.

She has won praise from the Repub­li­can side of the aisle, while one angry pro­gres­sive pro­test­er has gone so far as to fol­low the sen­a­tor into a bathroom.

Sine­ma is being called out by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ruben Gal­lego, D‑Arizona, a pop­u­lar pro­gres­sive from the Phoenix area who has announced that he is run­ning for Sinema’s seat in what promis­es to be a mar­quee Sen­ate race next year.

“Sup­port­ing leg­is­la­tion you know won’t pass as long as the fil­i­buster is in place isn’t just use­less: It’s insult­ing,” Gal­lego said in a state­ment last week.

An even­ly divid­ed Sen­ate has bestowed unusu­al influ­ence on Sen­a­tors Sine­ma and Joe Manchin, D‑West Vir­ginia, both self-described centrists.

Manchin basks in the lime­light and appears on net­works’ Sun­day talk shows, while Sine­ma dodges inter­views and oper­ates backstage.

Last Sep­tem­ber, how­ev­er, Democ­rats watched in dis­may as Sine­ma jour­neyed to the McConnell Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville, and was intro­duced by its name­sake, Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell. The Repub­li­can stal­wart intro­duced and show­ered praise on his first term colleague.

“I’ve only known Kyrsten for four years… but she is, in my view, the most effec­tive first-term sen­a­tor I’ve seen,” said McConnell, in the Sen­ate for thir­ty-eight years. “She is, today, what we have too few of in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, a gen­uine mod­er­ate and dealmaker.”

A not­ed naysay­er, McConnell praised Sinema’s role in the Senate’s accom­plish­ments under ten­u­ous Demo­c­ra­t­ic control.

She was, said Mitch, “right in the mid­dle of, if not the prin­ci­pal leader of the $1.2 tril­lion infra­struc­ture pack­age and first gun reform plan in 28 years.”

Why the praise? McConnell was obvi­ous­ly try­ing to get the “gen­tle­la­dy from Ari­zona” to switch par­ties, and once again make him the Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader. While she has con­tin­ued to cau­cus with the Democ­rats, she has been a Repub­li­can ally on the two vital issues men­tioned above.

A key Repub­li­can goal, dat­ing back to the Rea­gan years, has been to sup­press vot­ing by Demo­c­ra­t­ic-lean­ing con­stituen­cies, from African Amer­i­cans to young peo­ple to the work­ing poor. They’ve deployed bar­ri­ers rang­ing from bans on bal­lot drop box­es to pro­hibit­ing stu­dent iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards for vot­er ID purposes.

They’ve also ger­ry­man­dered House dis­tricts and leg­isla­tive bound­aries with­in states that they have leg­isla­tive majori­ties in, to the detri­ment of urban voters.

The Repub­li­cans, thanks to McConnell’s con­nivance, packed the Supreme Court. He blocked the con­fir­ma­tion of Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s nom­i­nee to suc­ceed deceased U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Antonin “Nino” Scalia, and pushed through Sen­ate con­fir­ma­tion of Jus­tice Amy Comey Bar­rett less than a month before Joe Biden was elect­ed Pres­i­dent. Bar­rett and Neil Gor­such were part of the major­i­ty that hand­ed down Dobbs, which over­turned the land­mark Roe v. Wade decision.

Sine­ma took the stage after McConnell’s glow­ing introduction.

She made no apolo­gies for stands that blocked the John Lewis Vot­ing Rights Act and choice from Sen­ate floor action. In fact, she dissed pro­gres­sive Demo­c­ra­t­ic col­leagues with these words: “Those of you who are par­ents in the room know the best thing you can do for your child is not give them every­thing they want. And that’s impor­tant to the U.S. Sen­ate as well.”

The Ari­zona sen­a­tor made the case for a “slow and delib­er­a­tive” Sen­ate which resists “par­ti­san pres­sure” and keeps the major­i­ty from going “too far.”

In prac­ti­cal terms, that means a six­ty-vote major­i­ty is need­ed to get non-bud­get leg­is­la­tion through the “world’s great­est delib­er­a­tive body.”

Watch C‑SPAN and you’ll see votes on judi­cial and cab­i­net nom­i­nees sub­ject to votes that lim­it debate. The votes are dull com­pared to days when the Senate’s “Sol­id South” had to hold the floor against civ­il rights. Sen­a­tor Strom Thur­mond, R‑Louisiana, holds the record, speak­ing for twen­ty-four hours and eigh­teen min­utes. Sen­a­tor Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter, R‑Arizona, once asked Thur­mond to yield the floor on a pro­ce­dur­al point, so Strom could rush to the bath­room and relieve himself.

In 1934, Louisiana Sen­a­tor Huey Long spiced up debate with a fif­teen-hour stemwinder, with the King­fish giv­ing out recipes for Cajun cooking.

Recent­ly, how­ev­er, the longest speech has been a dull thir­teen hour stemwinder by Sen­a­tor Rand Paul, R‑Kentucky, McConnell’s seatmate.

Sine­ma did work, in tan­dem with Sen­a­tor Tam­my Bald­win, D‑Wisconsin, in round­ing up Sen­ate votes to enshrine fed­er­al recog­ni­tion of same-sex mar­riage. Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas has sug­gest­ed that the Roe v. Wade rever­sal should open the door to “revis­it” the court’s 2015 deci­sion (in Oberge­fell) mak­ing mar­riage equal­i­ty legal across the country.

Not so on repro­duc­tive rights. Said Gal­lego in a state­ment: “If you’re not will­ing to do the only thing that will actu­al­ly pro­tect abor­tion rights at a time when they are under attack, how can you call your­self pro-choice? You’re either pro-choice or pro-fil­i­buster… you can’t be both. Not anymore.”

The 2024 Ari­zona Sen­ate race looks like anoth­er don­ny­brook. Sine­ma has not declared if she is run­ning for reelec­tion, but raised $2.1 mil­lion in the first quar­ter of 2023. She has tapped Repub­li­can sources. A total of $280,000 came from employ­ees of the Black­stone Group, the invest­ment colos­sus, with $196,000 from the Car­lyle Group, which enriched for­mer Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush.

She had near­ly $10 mil­lion in the bank at the start of the year. Gal­lego report­ed rais­ing $3.7 mil­lion in the just-com­plet­ed quar­ter, with $2.7 mil­lion cash on hand.

Just one Repub­li­can has declared, Pinal Coun­ty Sher­iff Mark Lamb, an out­spo­ken Trump sup­port­er. The Ari­zona GOP has under­gone con­vul­sions, field­ing a 2022 tick­et of elec­tion deniers, all of whom lost. Defeat­ed guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Kari Lake has refused to acknowl­edge defeat, and is a pos­si­ble Sen­ate nominee.

Sine­ma has been lots of things in her polit­i­cal life: She start­ed as a Green Par­ty activist in 2000, fol­lowed by ser­vice as a Demo­c­rat in the Ari­zona Leg­is­la­ture and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. She switched her vot­er reg­is­tra­tion to inde­pen­dent last Decem­ber. She has, how­ev­er, kept her com­mit­tee assign­ments and con­tin­ued to cau­cus with the Democ­rats, as mentioned.

She declared her inde­pen­dence in her McConnell Cen­ter speech: “If you don’t fit in in today’s Wash­ing­ton, trust me. They want to kick you out. I’ve nev­er real­ly want­ed to fit in. Not in Wash­ing­ton and not any­where else.”

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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