Months before Arizonans started filming Senator Kyrsten Sinema repeatedly refusing to answer their questions about her political positions, she told restaurant lobbyists about how important it is for senators to hear what their constituents have to say and for lawmakers to share their positions on issues and their reasoning.
“Senators need to hear from their constituents,” Sinema said in April. “Hearing from constituents early and often makes a world of difference. . . . You don’t want to assume that because someone is a Republican or because someone is a Democrat that you know exactly where they stand. They may have a public position on an issue, but it’s also that person’s job to represent his or her constituents. And you can provide them with key information to help them best represent their constituency.”
Urging constituents to “be polite,” Sinema continued: “There will be people who agree with you on an issue, there will also be people who disagree with you on an issue. My opinion is that that is normal and that is okay. But it’s always best to have a meeting so folks know what your position is and that you share with them the reason that you have this position. And having that meeting matters regardless of what the person’s opinion is on the issue overall.”
Sinema made the comments at the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) annual public affairs conference, a virtual event designed to help restaurant owners effectively lobby lawmakers. The senator spoke with Sean Kennedy, the NRA’s executive vice president of public affairs, whose wife’s fundraising firm raises money for her campaign and leadership PAC. Sinema had recently helped block $15 minimum wage legislation in March, a key priority for the restaurant lobby.
“We Need to Hold You Accountable”
Now, six months later, Sinema is ignoring her own advice, refusing to hear from or speak with constituents who are concerned that she has emerged as a key roadblock for Democrats as they seek to pass key portions of President Joe Biden’s economic, climate, and health care agenda in a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill.
Sinema hasn’t said much, if anything, publicly about what she does and doesn’t support in the legislation. She’s not hosting press conferences or town halls, and she isn’t talking to reporters in the halls of the Capitol.
Instead, her team has parceled out vague, anonymously sourced scooplets to Beltway news outlets about where she stands on policies that would help millions of people, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices (she’s opposed) and expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing services (she’s “less interested”).
On Friday, Sinema flew to Arizona in the middle of negotiations over the reconciliation bill because a spokesman said she had a doctor’s appointment for a foot injury. But while in Phoenix, she attended a fundraising retreat with donors at the Royal Palms Spa & Resort the following day. When constituents attempted to confront Sinema at the resort, she left via a back entrance, according to a video posted by activist group Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA).
On Sunday, protesters confronted Sinema outside the class she teaches at Arizona State University, calling on her to support Democrats’ Build Back Better plan, in another video posted by LUCHA.
Some of the protesters followed Sinema into a bathroom, and one, named Blanca, filmed herself trying to talk with the senator about a pathway to citizenship for immigrants and S. B. 1070, Arizona’s anti-immigrant, “show me your papers” law.
“I was brought here to the United States when I was three years old,” said Blanca. “In 2010, both of my grandparents got deported because of S. B. 1070. I’m here because I definitely believe that we need a pathway to citizenship. My grandfather passed away two weeks ago, and I was not able to go to Mexico and visit him because there is no pathway to citizenship.”
Blanca said that, “if we have the opportunity to pass it right now, then we need to do it because there’s millions of undocumented people just like me who share the same story or even worse,” adding, “We need to hold you accountable for what you promised us that you were going to pass when we knocked on doors for you.”
Sinema did not respond to the protesters. During her 2018 Senate campaign, Sinema — who was once a proud progressive who welcomed public activism — said that immigrants who are brought to the United States as minors, known as Dreamers, “deserve a path to citizenship.”
“I believe that our Dreamers are citizens in everything but paperwork,” said Sinema. “These are young people who are brought to our country through no choice of their own and often didn’t even learn that they weren’t citizens until it was time to go to college or go into the military.”
Democrats have explored including substantial immigration reforms in their reconciliation bill, but they likely won’t, because the Senate parliamentarian — an unelected adviser that Democrats could overrule or replace — has told them doing so would violate budget reconciliation rules. Sinema said in February, “There is no instance in which I would overrule a parliamentarian’s decision.”
“Is This What You Think Leadership Is?”
On Monday, Sinema released an angry statement about the bathroom confrontation. “Yesterday’s behavior was not legitimate protest,” she said, adding: “My students were unfairly and unlawfully victimized.”
The statement went on to note, “It is the duty of elected leaders to avoid fostering an environment in which honestly-held policy disagreements serve as the basis for vitriol — raising the temperature in political rhetoric and creating a permission structure for unacceptable behavior.”
While Sinema claimed that she and her team had met “several times” with the activist group that confronted her, according to a statement provided by LUCHA, “Sinema’s constituents have not been granted access to her office, they have been ignored, dismissed, and antagonized.”
The statement continued, “With all eyes on Arizona and Senator Sinema right now, many Arizonans are asking, is Sinema doing her job? The millions of Arizonans that include Black, brown, and indigenous communities who elected her do not think she is. Sinema has shown zero interest to engage with her constituents, or meet her colleagues halfway on critical legislation.”
Later on Monday, another Arizonan tried to speak with Sinema on her flight from Phoenix back to Washington, asking her to “commit to passing a reconciliation [bill] that could provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants.” Sinema did not respond.
Protesters followed Sinema out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
“Who would you leave behind?” one asked. “The seniors? The immigrants? People without dental care? Who would leave behind Senator Sinema? We just want to have a conversation. You’re just ignoring everybody. Is this what you think leadership is?”