Kyrsten Sinema: A success story like nobody else’s
PHOENIX — Something is bugging Kyrsten Sinema.
It tugged at her while she spoke to kids at the elementary school where she once served as a social worker. It rubbed her wrong while she told the pack of teachers and staff members trailing her into the parking lot afterward about the time she got pulled over by a police officer on her way home from a similar speech. He asked for her license. She had left it in the school office.
“You’re a shambles,” she recalls the policeman telling her.
“Officer, yes, I am!” she told him.
Just then, it dawns on her what’s been bothering her all morning.
“I didn’t zip my dress! I’m like, there’s something itching,” she says. “Oh, it’s my dress!”
Now she’s digging under the ruffles of her jacket collar and waving over a photographer for help. Ah, relief. The whole thing cracks her up.
Sinema likes to crack herself her up. She likes to crack everyone else up, too, even though this last tendency — the aspirationally comedic — is forever getting her in trouble.
“I think there’s this pressure to get rid of the fun that makes us human,” Sinema says a few minutes later. “It hasn’t worked on me.”
Sinema is a bracingly unfiltered talker, a precocious achiever, a high-energy persuader, an adjunct professor, a lawyer, a marathon runner, a lover of designer clothes. She is a holder of many, many degrees — this she’s happy to tell you in a humble-braggy sort of way. And she can be a lot of fun to hang out with, a rambling, kind of kooky monologist who can pivot from whimsical and wacky to substantive and earnest without a pause.
Krysten Sinema is also — and it irks her to no end that this is such an object of fascination — an openly bisexual woman. And not just any openly bisexual woman, but the first openly bisexual person to be elected to Congress, an undoubtedly historic figure whose very presence on Capitol Hill could serve as an inspiration when she is sworn in Thursday and joins six openly gay and lesbian members in the most demographically diverse Congress in U.S. history.
In an era when gay men and lesbians getting elected to public office is trending from “oh, wow” to almost ho-hum, it’s a real bummer for this 36-year-old Arizona Democrat that news reports around the world have distilled her to a single distinguishing characteristic based on her sexual orientation (although Sinema has been open about her sexuality for years and welcomed the endorsement and financial support of gay rights groups). And when Sinema is bothered, she isn’t that fun-loving, self-deprecating, laugh riot with the quirky ways. She can turn lecturing, hectoring, defensive, accusatory, pouty and curiously repetitive. Even a softball question about how her sexual orientation has informed her thinking about public policy — she was, after all, the architect of a successful campaign to block a same-sex marriage ban in Arizona — peeves her.
“I don’t have a story to tell,” she snaps. “I don’t think this is relevant or significant. I’m confused when these questions come up.”
What’s curious about Sinema’s pique is that it only extends the conversation. She just keeps talking and talking and talking . . . and talking.
“I’m not a pioneer. I’m just a regular person who works hard. Nor am I a poster child. I’m not forging away or pioneering . . . .”
“I don’t understand why it’s a big deal . . . .”
Okay. Got it.
“I don’t understand what the mystique is . . . .”
After listening to Sinema go on for 20 minutes or so, one has to wonder: If she keeps this up, isn’t it possible that all these huffy and lengthy protestations about her sexual orientation not being a big deal end up making it into, well, a very, very big deal, indeed?
Home was abandoned gas station
Sinema does have another story to tell and it’s a terrific story. It often gets reduced to a simple Point A to Point B construct: Little girl grows up poor, becomes big success. But it’s more nuanced than that.
She was born in Tucson and moved to Florida after her parents went through what she describes as “a tough divorce.” Her mother later married the vice principal at her elementary school. They were middle class for a time, but her stepfather, the man she still refers to as Mr. Howard, lost his job, and Sinema says the family became “homeless.” For more than two years — starting when she was in third grade — they squatted in an abandoned gas station outside the town of Defuniak Springs on the Florida Panhandle, she says.
They had no electricity and no running water, she says, but, “we had a toilet.” How that toilet was flushed with no running water, she wouldn’t say. They showered in an uncle’s trailer “down the road,” she says, and her clothes were hand-me-downs from a girl named Monyca — that’s Monyca with a “y,” she says — who attended the same Mormon church as her family.
A large, old-fashioned chalkboard sufficed as a makeshift wall for the makeshift bedroom that she shared with her sister, she says. How did they prepare food? Sinema hesitates. “You know, you could make fires,” she says. “There are lots of people like that in this country. We don’t talk about it, but it’s true.”
The family’s circumstances eventually improved, she says, and they moved into a small farmhouse. She excelled at school, winning an Ezra Taft Benson Scholarship to attend Brigham Young University. “It’s like the most prestigious scholarship they have,” Sinema relates. “I think it’s a mix of academic achievement and service to others.”
Sinema says she left the Mormon Church after graduating from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree, the start of an educational odyssey that has also led to a master’s degree in social work, a law degree and doctorate in justice studies at Arizona State University. Her parents and stepparents have remained in the church. Her father and stepmother are currently on a Mormon mission in the Philippines, she says.
“I have great respect for the LDS church — their commitment to family and taking care of each other is exemplary,” Sinema says. “I just don’t believe the tenets of the faith that they believe.”
Debates percolate on the Internet about Sinema’s spiritual beliefs, a dynamic fueled by the vague responses she gives when asked about this aspect of her life. The fascination with Sinema’s spiritual life is another source of pique for her. She is frequently referred to as agnostic or non-theist. But when I asked, she wouldn’t go into detail, saying merely, “I am not a member of a faith community.” What she does believe, she says, is that Americans deserve “freedom of religion and freedom from religion.”
Somewhere along the way, though she says she doesn’t know exactly when, Sinema also came to identify as bisexual.
“For me it just doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter if that other person is a man or a woman,” she says.
Sinema, who says she is single, doesn’t adhere to common notions about the categories of sexual orientation. Instead, she blends them.
“Bisexuals are gay people — we’re all gay,” she says. “Some people don’t like that.”
‘This is a horrible game’
It’s an oddly cool Arizona afternoon and Sinema is driving her Toyota Prius — “I’m an environmentalist; I recycle,” she says — through Sunnyslope, the hardscrabble neighborhood she grew to know so well as a young social worker fresh out of BYU. The families she helped to find housing and clothes migrated from places such as Oaxaca and Sinaloa. Here is a tan stucco apartment complex where a sixth-grader she had been working with was killed in the crossfire of a police chase. A few blocks away, she’s flashing back to the mother who lost two boys in separate hit-and-run accidents.
She goes for long morning runs through the neighborhood still, grinding up the hilly streets, past the squat, shabby rentals and up the hillside where the houses that look like centerfolds from Architectural Digest rise into the sky. She chuckles about Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican and erstwhile vice-presidential candidate who claimed a suspiciously fast marathon time. “I will tell you this, I’m not fast, but I’m honest about it,” she says. “You don’t need to lie. I guarantee you he knows exactly what his time is.”
On her runs, Sinema can smell the poverty. Poverty smells like cheap laundry soap, she says. It smells like vagrants and stray cats. Like the poverty she grew up with, the poverty she runs past motivates her. This is what drives her, she says, not her sexual orientation or beliefs about religion or anything else.
“I don’t think religion or my orientation shaped my world view,” she says. “They’re parts of who I am, but they’re not driving the force.”
She started out in politics as a quixotic outsider, waging losing campaigns for the Phoenix City Council in 2001 and as an independent for the Arizona Legislature in 2002, a race in which she finished fifth with just 8 percent of the vote.
“There were concerns about the Democrats not being as strong as they should be on issues of environmental protection, either running away from it or not stepping up,” says her friend Sandy Bahr.
After being elected to the state legislature in 2004 as a Democrat, Sinema became a self-described “bomb thrower” because that’s what the “party elders” told her she should be, she says. “That’s what they taught me. . . . After about 10 minutes, I go, ‘This is a horrible game.’ ”
And that’s when she decided to play nice, a strategy that allowed her to actually get some things done, even though her party is hopelessly outnumbered to the point that fellow Democrats don’t even expect Democrats to get anything passed. Notably, she got lawmakers from both parties to back a bill that was eventually signed into law requiring state pension funds to divest their portfolios from some companies doing business in Sudan because of the genocide in Darfur.
“There was an evolution in her style from being very direct and combative. . . . Now she has many conservative friends,” Eddie Farnsworth, one of the Arizona Legislature’s most conservative members, said in an interview.
Her sexual orientation drew some attention, Farnsworth says, but she refused to be defined by it. “She doesn’t wear that on the sleeve of her persona,” says Farnsworth, a staunch opponent of gay marriage.
Sinema’s gestures toward bipartisanship haven’t endeared her to some progressives. Randy Parraz, an Arizona activist, accuses Sinema of not doing enough to support the successful recall of the once-powerful state senator Russell Pearce, author of the state’s controversial “papers please” immigration law. “She just didn’t show up,” Parraz says.
Parraz says he clashed with Sinema over his group’s plans to stage a media event critical of Pearce at the capitol a few days after the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords. Sinema called to tell him that it would be inappropriate, Parraz says. “That ended with her raising her voice, almost like a small child who didn’t get her way,” Parraz recalls. “You’re talking to someone who thinks she knows everything. It’s her way or the highway.”
Sinema’s signature triumph came at the ballot box, rather than in the legislature. In 2006, she spearheaded the effort to defeat a same-sex marriage ban, the first time such a proposal was defeated at the state level. She managed to do it by developing a strategy that shifted the focus away from sexual orientation, an approach that she says was intensely criticized by some gay rights activists. Instead, Sinema and other opponents argued that the proposition would hurt unmarried heterosexual couples because it would prevent them from participating in medical decisions for their partners.
“She had to change the conversation,” says Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who credits Sinema with playing a key role in the proposition’s defeat.
Sinema’s wedge into national politics came courtesy of a redistricting plan that created a congressional district almost evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and independents. In a tense, tight primary followed by a tense, tight general election, Sinema crafted a message built around economic empowerment.
“I just focused on what matters to families,” she says. “That’s what voters care about. . . . It’s not what church you’re going to or what your orientation is. . . . All you have to do is talk about what matters to people.”
Her Republican opponent, a former official in both Bush administrations named Vernon Parker, and his opponents wanted to talk about Sinema’s predilection for — as one local columnist puts it — “lodging a Prada pump in her esophagus.” Attack ads dredged up a pretty loopy interview Sinema gave in 2006 to a now-defunct fashion magazine, 944. In the interview she dissed stay-at-home moms, saying “these women who act like staying at home, leeching off their husbands or boyfriends, and just cashing the checks is some sort of feminism because they’re choosing to live that life.” Sinema, who delights in her collection of stylishly funky glasses and has said she owns more than 100 pairs of shoes, also described herself as “a Prada socialist.”
Sinema brushed off the comments as a failed attempt at humor. She refused to engage in Republican calls for her to elaborate on her comments about representing people charged with murder in her work as a criminal defense attorney by disclosing which alleged killers she’d represented. (Her spokesman did not respond to a request for this article to discuss her criminal defense work, either.)
The attacks didn’t stick, though that wasn’t a certainty on election night when the race was too close to call. It took a week before it was official: Kyrsten Sinema had made history.
Sinema has never made much money, she says. She laughs about the fellow congresswoman who asked her recently whether she’d paid someone to come to her hotel room to pouf her blond hair to the impossibly high peak she’s formed it into again today. But she likes nice things. “That’s why I have, like, five jobs,” says the lawyer, professor, legislator and activist.
Hoping to fix a few things
Her $174,900 salary as a member of Congress will be the largest of her life, by a mile. So she was particularly annoyed recently, when she ran into a fellow member of Congress on a plane ride home who didn’t think their salaries were sufficient and was considering living in his office. “I said: ‘That’s dirty. Why would you do that? That’s crazy.’ ”
Sinema is not sure what her schedule will be like in Washington. “I don’t know if you’ve looked at the calendar,” she says one afternoon. “With the Republicans in charge, they don’t do much.”
Her plans are modest; she’d like to fix some things. One afternoon in one of the urban hipster coffee shops that she uses as an office for now, her cadence quickens as she laments how former military service members have to complete civilian certification processes for skills they’d already acquired during their time in uniform.
She pounds the table. “Total waste of time and money! Right?” Here, she’s at her best. Utterly practical, utterly persuasive. A force. During her appearance at the school, she charms by speaking the language of her audience. Everything is “awesome!” or “crazy!” or “cool!” The kids smile and follow every word because it doesn’t sound like a put-on.
Sinema doesn’t have a television, but these kids do. And one, clearly a kid who doesn’t turn away during political ads, wants to know if it’s true that Sinema hates stay-at-home moms. Not so, Sinema assures them — her own mother was a stay-at-home mom.
“They also called me a communist, which is not true. I’m a Democrat,” Sinema says. “There’s a difference.”
But what she really wants them to know is that if they study, they can make it. Just like her.
“I got straight A’s,” she says. “Okay, I got one B in fifth grade because I was talking too much in math class. I was chatty.”