By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
In December, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema changed her party affiliation from Democrat to independent.
Now that Sinema is no longer passing herself off as a Democrat, the field is open for Arizona U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a real Democrat, to become that party’s Senate candidate in the upcoming 2024 election.
But—oops—not so fast. The Arizona race is thought to be pivotal to control of the Senate. If Sinema, the independent, runs as a third-party candidate in what is sure to be a hotly contested race, she could play the role of spoiler for Gallego’s chances in the general election.
Sinema—Consensus Builder or Legislative Sabateur?
Though Sinema pretends to worship bipartisanship, that appears to be a smokescreen for enhancing her own power and the conservative interests of those who fund her rather than furthering the policy goals of her party and the people who elected her.
Sinema helped block a bill cutting prescription-drug prices. She upheld a filibuster of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. She forced President Biden’s plans for an expansive Build Back Better Act to be watered down. She voted against repealing former President Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy. And she cast the deciding vote against a minimum-wage increase. Adding insult to injury—as if shoving her vote in everyone’s face—she killed the minimum wage increase with a John McCain-style thumbs down and an ever-so-cute curtsy, as if taking a bow for her reactionary vote.
Sinema has styled herself as an independent thinker, but her thoughts—when she deigns to share them at all—reveal someone who is either an extremely shallow thinker or a person using evasion to hide her true agenda.
The Atlantic has recited her claim that she is “guided by an unchanging set of ‘values’…freedom, opportunity, and security.” These are not values but slogans containing no meaning unless one sets out the details of how one defines them—which Sinema does not do.
When it comes to legislating, Sinema calls herself a pragmatic dealmaker, a problem solver, and a consensus builder. She refers to herself as getting things done. But getting things done is not a plus if they are the wrong things. And given Sinema’s funding by corporate interests and conservatives, one must ask precisely whose problems is she devoted to solving.
According to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics, in 2021 Sinema received nearly $500,000 from the pharmaceutical and financial service industries. And according to The Business Insider, in 2022, her campaign received $5,800 from Clarence Thomas’s favorite right-wing billionaire, Harlan Crow. So, it is not surprising that Sinema opposed the Democrats’ drug pricing plan. Or that she worked to water down President Biden’s Build Back Better plan which was opposed by the corporations, executives and lobbyists who fill her coffers.
After the Uvalde, Tex. mass school shooting, Sinema was central in brokering a deal with Republicans that enhanced penalties for straw purchases (using a proxy to buy a firearm when one can’t pass the required background check), added extra background checks for 18 to 21-year-olds, and closed a loophole that had allowed some domestic abusers to own a firearm even if they had a protective order against them. Kudos to her for that.
However, the legislation did nothing about the worst danger: military-style rifles. Legislation to address that would have been blocked by a Republican filibuster.
Sinema told the New York Times that she would not pursue further limitations to deal with military-style rifles. She said: “I don’t spend my time in the world of fantasy. I spend my time in the world of the possible.” But if the filibuster, requiring 60 votes for passage of legislation, had been limited or eliminated, such a ban could have passed by a simple majority vote. It was Sinema’s protection of the filibuster that made such a ban a “fantasy.” She herself was cynically determining what was possible.
Sinema has refused to defend—or even explain—her actions to anyone. According to The New Republic, her constituents “have to stalk her in public to earn a moment of her time.” Some even have followed her into a bathroom to make her listen to their concerns.
Although Sinema will not defend her actions, she’s been more than willing to defend her refusal to explain them, telling The Atlantic: “There are some folks who really enjoy talking to the press so they can tell them what they think or whatever. I’m not that interested in telling people what I think.”
But Sinema’s constituents have a right to know what she thinks—especially if she is taking positions or votes that go counter to the agendas she was elected to pursue. Her cavalier dismissal of that right is arrogant beyond measure.
A Match-Up of Opposites
U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a progressive, is currently running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for Senate in Arizona. He is all that Kyrsten Sinema is not.
Gallego is committed to promoting Democratic policies. He has voted in line with President Biden’s positions 100 percent of the time. His priorities are not a rigid bipartisanship but substantive items like caring for homeless populations, addressing the lack of affordable housing, dealing with opioid addiction, mental illness, and immigration reform.
Unlike Sinema, Gallego does not treat bipartisanship as an end goal. He told Cronkite News-Arizona PBS, “I’d rather get something done for the people of Arizona than be able to have some symbolic gesture that’s a half-measure but at least I can say it’s bipartisan. I think that’s just political theater.”
He told the New Yorker, “Many times, politicians focus on this idea of how politics should be but not necessarily on the outcome. That ends up hurting people that need help. Sometimes you have to maybe not work hand in hand with your loyal opposition. Maybe you should focus on making people’s lives better…sometimes you should just care about the outcome.”
The son of immigrants from Columbia and Mexico, Ruben Gallego and three sisters were raised by a single mother in Chicago. His father left when they were young. He and his three sisters had to depend upon free lunch programs to be sure they ate.
Gallego described his family life to The New Yorker: “We had a two-bedroom apartment for five people. I was the only male, so I slept on the floor. I went to college. You know, it was a weird situation—we were poor, but we were working… I don’t think we thought of ourselves as poor. Now we understand that it was not great.” Gallego attended Harvard on a scholarship, but also had a work-study job cleaning other students’ rooms.
He also served in the Marine Corps, was deployed to Iraq in 2005, and was in the fiercest fighting of the Iraq War. His battalion suffered the most casualties of any battalion.
Gallego’s work and goals in his political career are informed by these life experiences.
Like Gallego, Kyrsten Sinema was smart, graduating high school at 16 and college just before turning 19. She also had the grades to apply to Harvard, but was prevented by her family, who sent her to Brigham Young University instead.
She too had a difficult early life. Her father, an attorney, was disbarred. Her mother, a Mormon, left him, remarried, and moved the family from Arizona to Florida. Because her stepfather had trouble finding work, Sinema and her family lived in a former gas station for almost three years. She and her siblings were dependent upon the Mormon church for hand-me-down clothes, and on food stamps.
But apparently Sinema did not develop Gallego’s empathy. Gallego put this well to The New Yorker: “it’s weird to see somebody who I think went through the same thing just be, like, I’m not going to worry about these people anymore. I’m going to worry about these people who are already doing well, and already have power. It’s as if she literally forgot the lessons of being poor.”
Since Sinema declared herself an independent, Gallego, thus far unopposed, seems to have a clear field to obtain the Democratic senatorial candidacy for Arizona.
Sinema has not yet declared whether she will run for Senate in 2024, and no third-party candidate has ever won a statewide office in Arizona. But if she runs as an independent, Sinema could be a spoiler, throwing the race—and the Senate majority—to the Republicans.
Considering her connections to corporate interests, it would not be surprising if she decides to do so. Of course, there’s always the joker in the deck—she could change parties yet again and make a run for the Republican nomination—though that would be giving away her game.
Arizona Republican consultant Chuck Coughlin told the New York Times that in order to win, Sinema “needs 20 to 25 percent of Democratic voters, 25 to 30 percent of Republicans, and 50 to 60 percent of self-identified independents.” She is unlikely to get that.
Democratic pollster Jill Normington has predicted that Sinema would come in last in a three-way race.
However, independents comprise 33.7 percent of Arizona’s voters. To the degree Sinema is able to tap into the independents, she could deprive Gallego of those votes, throwing the election to the Republican candidate—and losing the Democrats their narrow Senate majority, one of the few bulwarks the nation has left to protect it against autocracy.
If Sinema decides to be a spoiler, she currently has almost four times as much money at her disposal as Gallego does.
On the other hand, in Gallego’s first official fundraising quarter, he outraised Sinema $3.7 million to $2.1 million. In a statement to The Hill, he pointed out: “Despite getting bankrolled by Wall Street lobbyists and corporate executives, Sinema couldn’t come close to our grassroots fundraising operation.”
According to Gallego’s campaign, he received more than 106,000 individual donations over that first quarter—99 percent of them small donors who can give again—demonstrating the size of his grassroots support and ability to build a campaign infrastructure that can win statewide.
Arizona is thought to be a must-win state in 2024 if the Democrats are to keep control of the Senate. The very narrow races for governor and attorney-general in 2022 have turned the state purple. Perhaps Gallego can turn it a true blue.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.