Anger and frustration over Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s refusal to fall in line with other Senate Democrats and pass legislation central to President Biden’s agenda boiled over on Sunday, not in the marble halls of the U.S. Capitol but in a bathroom in Phoenix.
As she was exiting a classroom at ASU’s campus in downtown Phoenix, activists from the organization Living United for Change in Arizona, or Lucha, the Spanish word for fight, confronted Sinema. They told her that “we need a ‘build back better’ plan right now,” invoking the name of the $3.5 trillion domestic policy bill that would expand the social safety net.
“Actually, I am heading out,” Sinema told the activists as she walked into a bathroom. One person followed her into the bathroom, standing outside the stall that the senator entered, while another person stood at the entrance, recording the interaction.
“We knocked on doors for you,” the person filming told Sinema while she was in the stall. A toilet flushed, and Sinema ignored the people as she washed her hands. She then walked back to the classroom as the activists chanted, “Build back better! Back the bill!”
Seemingly unsuspecting women in the bathroom, meanwhile, conducted their business as usual, ignoring the argument between the high-profile U.S. senator and the activists that was unfolding in an otherwise drab facility.
🔴BREAKING: Blanca, an AZ immigrant youth confronts @SenatorSinema inside her classroom, where she teaches @ ASU. "in 2010 both my grandparents got deported bc of SB1070...my grandfather passed away 2 wks ago & I wasn't able to go to Mexico bc there is no pathway to citizenship." pic.twitter.com/JDZYY2fOD2— LUCHA Arizona (@LUCHA_AZ) October 3, 2021
The episode is representative of the dissatisfaction that many Arizona Democrats — and Democrats across the country — have voiced over Sinema’s resistance to the reconciliation bill. Sinema, along with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), has demanded that the $3.5 trillion price tag for the legislation be reduced, although Biden and liberals have said that the bill includes essential initiatives such as addressing climate change and increasing federal social safety-net programs.
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The bill had been set to include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But the Senate parliamentarian, a nonpartisan arbiter of the Senate’s rules, said last month that including the immigration measure was “not appropriate” for the bill, which Democrats are seeking to pass through budget reconciliation, a process that would allow them to pass the legislation with a simple majority instead of 60 votes.
Activists have continued to push party leaders to pass immigration reform, including through the spending bill.
The person filming on Sunday, who identified herself as Blanca, told Sinema that “we need this pathway to citizenship.” She explained that she was undocumented and had been brought to the United States as a child.
“We wouldn’t have to resort to confronting” Sinema, the activist group tweeted, “if she took meetings with the communities that elected her.”
“She’s been completely inaccessible,” Lucha wrote. “We’re sick of the political games, stop playing with our lives.”
Sinema has built a reputation for rarely holding town halls with constituents or speaking with the press, often brushing aside the Capitol Hill press corps.
In a statement Monday, Sinema called the incident “wholly inappropriate.”
“Yesterday’s behavior was not legitimate protest. It is unacceptable for activist organizations to instruct their members to jeopardize themselves by engaging in unlawful activities such as gaining entry to closed university buildings, disrupting learning environments, and filming students in a restroom,” she said. “In the 19 years I have been teaching at ASU, I have been committed to creating a safe and intellectually challenging environment for my students. Yesterday, that environment was breached. My students were unfairly and unlawfully victimized.”
Asked about the incident, Biden said Monday that the activists’ tactics were inappropriate, but he acknowledged that those without Secret Service protection are likely to encounter protests. He made the comments at the White House.
Democrats organized widely for Sinema in 2018, electing the state’s first Democratic senator in three decades. As Sinema has emerged as a roadblock for liberal initiatives, such as the reconciliation bill or an increase in the federal minimum wage, some Democrats in Arizona have argued that Sinema is ignoring the communities that got her elected, including the state’s large Hispanic and immigrant populations.
According to her university profile, Sinema teaches two classes at ASU during the fall semester, one held online and one with a series of five in-person lectures on weekends. Sunday’s was the third lecture for a graduate-level course that Sinema teaches on grant writing, according to a course catalogue.
The senator’s trip back to Arizona from Washington amid the ongoing negotiations over the legislation garnered criticism over the weekend, not for the lecture on Sunday but over her plans the evening before. The New York Times reported that on Saturday evening, Sinema was scheduled to attend a retreat with donors at an upscale resort in Phoenix. A spokesman for Sinema told the Times that she had left the capital on Friday to get treatment for a foot injury.