By Dan Merica, Kyung Lah and Anna-Maja Rappard, CNN
Updated: Fri, 11 Jun 2021 00:25:40 GMT
Alejandra Gomez worked tirelessly to get Democrats, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, elected in 2018. But now she feels betrayed.
The 39-year-old co-executive director of the community organizing group LUCHA went door to door in the sweltering Arizona heat in 2018, turning out the Democratic voters that helped get Sinema elected to the Senate. The work was arduous and the hours long, but Gomez and others believed deeply in the need to defeat Republican Martha McSally, who had aligned herself with then-President Donald Trump.
Her work paid off -- Sinema won by nearly 3 percentage points. But it is what happened next -- the Arizona Democrat has become one of the most unmovable roadblocks on Democratic priorities in Washington -- that has shocked people who considered themselves ardent Sinema supporters a few short years ago.
Gomez now has another label for the woman she helped elect: A wolf in sheep's clothing.
"What has happened is a complete slap in the face to our members, to the work they have done and to the change that they are trying to make in our communities," Gomez said. "If she is not part of the solution, she is part of the problem. And what we are seeing is that she is touting herself as a bipartisan leader, but we have yet to see where the bipartisanship stands. She has done nothing."
In an evenly divided Senate, each individual senator wields considerable power. But the bulk of that influence has fallen on the shoulders of Democratic senators like Sinema, willing to buck their party on key priorities. The positioning has elevated the senator's profile -- she is now often talked about nationally as someone President Joe Biden's administration must court and is at the center of talks over a sweeping infrastructure bill.
But back home, her refusal to support a number of Democratic priorities -- from getting rid of the filibuster to raising the minimum wage to $15-an-hour -- has created deep distrust with her party's base and even spurred groups like LUCHA to look for alternatives to run against her in the Democratic primary when she is up for reelection in 2024.
"We are prepared to support a viable candidate that is ready to actually stand for our communities," Gomez said.
When asked if challenging Sinema was worth the risk of losing the seat to a Republican, Gomez didn't flinch.
"We already have a Republican in that seat," she said.
From Green Party to Senate centrist
Sinema, whose Senate office declined to comment for this story, is partially a product of a politically changing Arizona.
The Democrat began her career as a member of the Arizona Green Party and became an outspoken proponent of liberal positions, including writing a letter to the Arizona Republic editor that "until the average American realizes that capitalism damages her livelihood while augmenting the livelihoods of the wealthy, the Almighty Dollar will continue to rule."
Her political career began with a loss -- she finished fifth in a five-person race for an Arizona House of Representative seat in 2002 -- but her fortunes began to turn around in 2004, when she joined the Democratic Party and won a state House seat. Sinema served in the position for six years before jumping to the Arizona Senate in 2010. The Arizona Democrat then won her US House seat two years later in 2012, and subsequentially won reelection fairly easily over the next four years.
During that time, Arizona -- once a Republican bastion that produced the likes of Barry Goldwater and John McCain -- began to shift to the left, spurred by a growing Latino population and voters moving to the desert from more liberal states like California and Illinois.
While Sinema's win in 2018, in many ways, signaled that political shift was coming, the would-be senator's politics began to move toward the center during her time in the House. The Arizona Democrat joined the Blue Dog Coalition, a group for Democrats who identify as centrists, and The Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group that fashions itself as dealmakers across party lines.
Sinema won the support of nearly all Democratic groups ahead of her Senate run, touted as a top tier recruit and someone who could win in a state that had not been too favorable to Democrats. But she ran a careful campaign, avoiding numerous contentious issues and, in the eyes of national Democrats, banking that the national anti-Trump sentiment would be enough to win.
Her election, like many in 2018, brought out people who had never been involved in politics, spurred by Trump's White House victory two years earlier and the sense that the midterms could show the country rejected his kind of leadership. With that help, however, Sinema won, becoming the first woman to represent Arizona in the Senate.
The fact that so many new political activists helped Democrats get elected in 2018, argued Julie Erfle, an Arizona communications consultant and AZMirror columnist, is part of the reason so many of Sinema's one-time supporters feel deflated.
"They're upset at Sen. Sinema because they believe that she's holding the party back and she's really a hindrance to some of these policies," Erfle said, adding that she, too, is "a little puzzled" at the senator's political positioning because there are very few signs that Republicans are willing to strike the compromise that Sinema says she is looking for.
Few issues have targeted liberal anger at Sinema more than the Senate filibuster, a rule that requires 60 votes to pass most legislation. Many Democrats want to change the filibuster rule and allow most legislation to pass with a simple majority. Sinema has opposed those changes, and recently stood alongside Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn to say Democrats are pushing a "false choice" in the debate over the filibuster.
"The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively -- and I would think that most would agree that the Senate is not a particularly well-oiled machine, right -- the way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior," she told reporters in Texas while touring the US-Mexico border.
The blowback was swift, with Dan Pfeiffer, once a top aide to President Barack Obama, arguing Sinema's statement was "telling every Democratic activist and grassroots donor that helped get her elected to go screw themelves."
Erfle described herself as "a little frustrated."
"I really hoped that she wouldn't have dug in this far on saying no to (changing) the filibuster," said the columnist. "I think that there is room to reform the filibuster. I would personally like to see it gone, but if it's not gone, at least reform to make it a real filibuster."
Sinema's problems are not exclusively in Arizona, with national Democratic operatives regularly and publicly calling the lawmaker out for her actions.
This happened most viscerally earlier this year when Sinema joined seven other Senate Democrats to vote against raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Even though the Arizona Democrat was part of a broader group, it was her vote -- which she made with what looked like a gleeful thumbs down and knee bend on the Senate floor -- that incensed liberal Democrats, even if she said she cast the vote because she wanted the measure separated from the coronavirus relief bill.
"Senator Sinema a little too happy for poverty wages to remain," Roots Action, a progressive outside group, tweeted with a GIF of Sinema casting her vote.
Rep. Mark Pocan, a progressive Democrat who represents Madison, Wisconsin, went a step further by retweeting a message Sinema published in 2014 where she pledged to raise the minimum wage.
"A full-time minimum-wage earner makes less than $16k a year," Sinema wrote back then. "This one's a no-brainer. Tell Congress to #RaiseTheWage!"
"Just wow," Pocan tweeted, capturing just how befuddled progressives have become with the Arizona senator.
And back home, with Gomez and Lucha, the way she did it infuriated them.
"To see her curtsy and dance and walk away so flippantly," said Gomez, "she was sending that message to millions of Americans and to Arizonans that she doesn't care."
In response, liberals have geared up to oust the same senator they helped elect in 2018, hoping to knock her off her Senate perch as a warning to other moderates.
"There was a real excitement to the campaign she ran. She seemed like she was going to be a progressive stalwart and a new kind of progressive fighter in the Senate," said Corbin Trent, who joined with other progressives to launch the No Excuses PAC as a venture to oust both Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, another Democrat holding up the party's priorities. "That is what is especially disappointing."
The super PAC is now running radio ads in Arizona accusing Sinema of "flip-flopping" and being "more committed to protecting Washington inaction and dysfunction."
"Right now, what she is fighting to protect is her own political relevance," Trent told CNN. "She is basically on a political campaign to protect the power of an individual senator."
Sinema has stridently stood by her political positioning. She defended her vote against a federal minimum wage increased by saying it should be "separate from the COVID-focused reconciliation bill" and her spokeswoman, Hannah Hurley, has slammed liberals for commenting on the "body language" and "physical demeanor" around her vote.
But it was a picture the senator posted to Instagram in April that activists back at home believe truly captures the way she feels about them: Sinema is seen wearing a ring that says "F*** Off" as she is sitting at what appears to be a restaurant and sipping a drink.
"Her message to them," said Gomez, "was clear from her ring."