The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A ‘bootstraps’ story like no other: Kyrsten Sinema lived in a shuttered country store and gas station. Now she’s running for Senate.

From the time she was 8 until she was 11, Kyrsten Sinema lived with her brother, sister, mother and stepfather in this 864-square-foot cinder-block building on her step-grandparents’ property. (William Widmer for The Washington Post)

DEFUNIAK SPRINGS, Fla. — The simple, cinder-block structure looks like it hasn’t been used in decades. A board covers one large window, and broken glass hangs in another. Rotten beams frame the roof. Out front, a tall, rusted light pole rises from an oval concrete pad, a ghostly reminder of the gas pumps that stood there long ago.

This former gas station and country store on a rolling ribbon of rural highway in the Florida Panhandle, across the road from an endless vista of cotton fields, is a main character in Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s life story.

The Arizona Democrat, a rising star and formidable campaigner who is giving up her House seat to run in one of the year’s most-watched Senate races, lived there when she was a child after a sudden tumble out of the middle class.

Sinema, now 42, talks about the experience frequently on the campaign trail, crediting those difficult years with forming her political philosophy: that people should “work really hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and be able to turn to the government for help when they are most vulnerable.

It’s a message she has used to position herself as a leader who can speak with authority to both disaffected voters who have had to rely on the social safety net and conservatives who oppose government aid.

Her pitch must resonate widely in Arizona if she is to succeed in her bid to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake and take a seat that has been in GOP hands for more than two decades.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) detailed her life story in her campaign announcement for Arizona's U.S. Senate seat. (Video: Kyrsten Sinema)

Sinema described her years in poverty in a video that began her Senate campaign last year. “For nearly three years, we lived in an old, abandoned gas station without running water or electricity,” Sinema said. “Sometimes, we didn’t have enough food to eat, but we got by thanks to help from family, church and, sometimes, even the government.”

“There’s really no other country in the world where a little girl who grew up homeless living in a gas station could ever dream of serving in the United States Congress and run for the United States Senate,” Sinema said while campaigning in Phoenix in July.

Her distinctive approach to crafting a centrist platform appears to have put her in a strong position. Public polls have shown Sinema leading Republican Martha McSally since April, and some GOP party leaders privately voice nervousness about her potential strength in the general election.

On Tuesday, Sinema consolidated support in the Democratic Party, winning the nomination by about 60 points. McSally secured her party’s nomination with 53 percent of the Republican vote. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the Arizona race — one of the Democrats’ best hopes for gaining control of the Senate — as a “toss-up.”

The way Sinema has described her early years in DeFuniak Springs, the hometown of her stepfather, has surprised a few members of his family, who say she does not adequately credit their efforts to give her a home.

“The child grew up being taken care of,” said Susie Fleming, Sinema’s step-aunt, who still lives in DeFuniak Springs. “I realize this tugs at people’s heartstrings and that was what she was going for, but, you know, it’s not the truth.”

“When they decided to move out here, my dad said, ‘We’ll remodel the building and y’all can live in it,’ ” Fleming said, adding, “I just get angry when she says it was an abandoned gas station.” Fleming and one of her brothers, John Howard, both said they recall that the structure had utilities.

Sinema stands by her description. “A gas station is not a home,” she said in the interview. “It was not designed to be a home. We had to live there because we didn’t have another place to live.”

Sinema’s account is backed by her parents, other relatives and friends, some of whom were not willing to be interviewed by The Washington Post but provided statements through her campaign.

“Kyrsten is right about this challenging time in our lives,” Sinema’s mother and stepfather, Marilyn and Andy Howard, who live in Utah now, wrote in a statement. “After we married, we left Tucson with the anticipation of a job in Florida which did not materialize. With no source of income, we lived in Andy’s parents’ closed country gas station without electricity, bathroom facilities or running water.”

All of Sinema’s friends and relatives interviewed for this article, even those with differing recollections, agree that the tough years her family experienced shaped her deeply.

Ron Wiley, an uncle on her mother’s side, said, “What’s she done recently, I think, is to explain that people can and will get out of poverty.”

'First we lost our car, then we lost our home'

It was 1984 when 8-year-old Sinema saw her family’s middle-class life in Tucson unravel after her father lost his job.

“First we lost our car, then we lost our home,” she says in her campaign video. Her parents had divorced, and her mother soon married Howard, a Baptist who had converted to Mormonism, his new wife’s religion.

The same year, they moved with the children — Sinema, her older brother, Dan, and her younger sister, Julie — to the outskirts of DeFuniak Springs, a rural community about an hour east of Pensacola.

They were welcomed by her stepfather’s relatives, moving into the cinder-block building on a property owned by Howard’s parents, across the driveway from their house.

Sinema and her family lived for about three years in the structure while Howard, who had been a teacher and assistant principal in Arizona, sought work. After working part-time jobs for two years, he secured a full-time position with the local school district in 1986, according to employment records and Sinema’s campaign.

In addition to Howard’s parents, three of his siblings resided in the area, along with numerous nieces and nephews.

John Howard, Andy’s brother, lived in a trailer on the same property. He recalls his two children playing with Sinema and her siblings. He said the extended family “would all have suppers together and share work in the yard together.”

A small, close-knit Mormon community also offered help.

“Most of the food that we had during that time came from the church,” Sinema said in the interview. “The LDS church has a pantry where they keep a lot of nonperishable food items,” she added, referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sinema recalls that period as the formative experience of her life — years of hardship that guided her career choice and her politics.

“All that really helped me realize how quickly things change for families,” she said in the interview.

She credits her success to hard work, as well as to the food stamps, scholarships and other help that she says she and her family received along the way.

“I was one of those people who needed some assistance when I was a kid,” she said in Phoenix.

'Pretty tough circumstances'

When Andy Howard’s parents bought the land in 1977, the cinder-block building was called Tom’s Country Store and sold basic provisions, animal feed and gasoline, two neighbors said. Howard’s parents ran it briefly, but it had been shuttered for years by the time Sinema’s family moved in.

Sinema remembers that her stepfather built a makeshift bunk bed for her and her sister and that they shared a sleeping space separated from the kitchen area by an old-fashioned chalkboard on wheels.

She and her siblings walked across the driveway to her step-grandparents’ house on Saturday nights to take turns showering before Sunday church, she recalls.

The four family members who lived in the building with Sinema — her mother, stepfather and two siblings — declined to speak to The Post.

But her paternal grandfather, Gerald Sinema, said Sinema’s brother described to him using a hose as a source of water. “They lived in pretty tough circumstances,” he said.

Fleming, Sinema’s step-aunt who said she talks to Sinema “occasionally,” first told The Post that she recalled that the building had water and power, but later referred to the statement from her brother Andy Howard, saying he would have more direct knowledge of their circumstances.

“It doesn’t matter if they lived there 6 months or 2 years, it was tough for kids who lived in a bustling city like Tucson to move to a quaint town like DeFuniak Springs. I’m sure my perception is totally different” than a child’s, she wrote.

John Howard, who owns the property now and lives in his parents’ former house with his wife, said he recalls that the building had both water and electricity when Sinema lived there.

His parents “had freezers in the back of the store for their own personal use,” he said.

The local power company said records from that time are not publicly available, and the water utility did not begin providing service to the property until 2002, an official said. Many rural properties relied on well water, people in the community said.

Howard declined to allow a tour of the former store and gas station, which he said is used for storage. He said he hasn’t talked to Sinema since she left DeFuniak Springs for college, other than when she visited for a friend’s funeral and she and her brother Dan stayed with him.

“It just bothers me a little bit that someone would say that about family, period,” he said of Sinema’s recollections. “It doesn’t really make sense to me.” But, he added, “kids do see things differently than adults.”

In her interview with The Post, Sinema expressed gratitude for the support her family received from Andy Howard’s parents.

“Mawmaw and Pawpaw were in­cred­ibly kind and generous to us,” she said.

A star student and voracious reader

Despite her family’s struggles, Sinema fit in quickly at Walton County schools, becoming a star student and developing a reputation as a voracious reader. Photos from that time frequently show her with a book in her hand.

Sinema appears in picture after picture in her high school yearbooks — a member of academic clubs, the yearbook staff, the marching band. Her academic talents propelled her through high school by 16 and through Brigham Young University in just two years. She earned four graduate degrees — in social work, law, business and justice studies.

She went on to serve as a spokeswoman for the Arizona Green Party in 2000 and a state legislator before securing a congressional seat in 2012.

“They had some hard times, but she overcame it all, got a brilliant education,” said Gerald Sinema, who lives in Phoenix. “You can’t believe how proud I am of her.”

Former colleagues remember Sinema discussing her difficult childhood with them years before she ran for Congress. David Lujan, a Democrat who served with Sinema in the statehouse, said she described her experience when he was taking guardianship of a young boy who had been homeless.

“I remember her talking and sharing her advice,” said Lujan, adding, “She had been homeless . . . and she would talk about the challenges.”

James Owens, Sinema’s campaign spokesman, noted that state and federal definitions of homelessness include lacking permanent housing or living in structures not designed for sleeping accommodations.

When Sinema was 11, her family moved out of the old gas station and country store.

Her stepfather had secured a job in 1986 as a computer instructor with the county school system, earning a starting salary of $25,879, school records show. In July 1987, he and Marilyn bought 60 acres about six miles down the road with the help of a local Mormon bishop, who helped the family obtain a mortgage, according to the campaign.

In her interview with The Post, Sinema recalled how thrilled she was, saying, “The farmhouse had a toilet and it had electricity and it was great.”

Gardner reported from Florida and Utah. Sullivan reported from Arizona and Washington. Crites reported from Washington.