Almost a decade ago I did the last of my bi-annual reports on the >best and the worst Democratic freshmen in Congress. In July, 2013. Names you might remember from the list of the 10 best: Matt Cartwright (D-PA), Alan Grayson (D-FL), Mark Pocan (D-WI)... And from the 10 worst freshmen:
Cheri Bustos (IL)
Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ)
Sean Patrick Maloney (NY)
Patrick Murphy (FL)
Scott Peters (CA)
Kyrsten Sinema (AZ)
At the time, it was important for readers to understand how members made the two lists: "Freshmen who voted in the House Financial Services Committee-- so somewhat privately-- to gut Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms and then piled onto a plane with Democratic corruptionist Joe Crowley to celebrate with Wall Street banksters, are never going to get on a 10 Best list." On the other hand, an early signifier of who we were looking for to include among the 10 best, were freshmen who signed onto the Grayson-Takano No Cuts Letter. It stated flatly-- no wiggle-room-- that "we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits-- including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need." Signatories, besides Grayson and Takano, included Matt Cartwright, Keith Ellison (MN),Raul Grijalva (AZ), Barbara Lee (CA), Ed Markey (MA), Jim McGovern (MA), Jerry Nadler (NY), Maxine Waters (CA).
The letter, I wrote at the time, was "the gold standard for Members of Congress willing to put their own careers on the line to protect working families." I warned to not look for House caucus leaders like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joe Crowley, Steny Hoyer or Steve Israel to be on a list like it. "They have very different considerations than just what's best for the millions of working families at the backbone of American prosperity. It's especially important because Boehner is being pressured from the right for more and deeper cuts and because Obama is looking for a way to keep the amount of cuts but to redistribute them more to his own liking. The fatal flaw [with this kind of Austerity]-- and it is proving very fatal throughout Europe-- is that the government should be working on growth and stimulating job creation, not obsessing over already shrinking budget deficits in the middle of a severe economic crisis for working people."
At the time, Grayson said to me that "With the Norquist pledge, the Republicans have lined up on the side of millionaires, billionaires and multinational corporations. With our No Cuts pledge, we are lined up on the side of seniors, sick people, and poor people. We are comforting the afflicted, and they are comforting the comfortable."
Right from the start, Sinema knew which side she was on. As I have been-- she and I served on the board of a non-profit together before she ever ran for Congress-- David Sirota has been watching her for many years. In a piece for Jacobin a few months ago, Kyrsten Sinema Went to Washington and Became a Monster, he accepted the part of her myth that paints her as "a Green Party member and a committed antiwar activist." She was never a committed anything-- other than committed to her own career aspirations. Members of the Arizona legislature warned me from the very beginning that she was the most dishonest, self-serving phony in Phoenix and that she would say anything to push her agenda ahead, her agenda being one item: Kyrsten Sinema.
Sirota's theory is that she was just fine and went to Washington and turned into a swamp monster. My recollection is different. Going to Washington revealed what she already was: a swamp monster. She was not the earnest do-gooder pledging to be a voice for the voiceless he saw her as. He wrote that her vote against raising the minimum wage is "newsworthy for how it caps off one of the most grotesque political journeys in the modern history of the country. I personally witnessed a portion of that journey many years ago when I founded the Progressive States Network (PSN)." He wasn't the only one who was taken in by Sinema's successful sociopath routine. Kyrsten Sinema was a political version of the Rhoda character in the 1956 film The Bad Seed, and 8 year old superficially adorable monster, at a time when adorable 8 year olds were not portrayed in popular culture as monsters.
"Unlike many corporatists in Washington," wrote Sirota, "Sinema did not get her start as a standard-issue business-friendly cyborg created in a Westworld-style factory at the local chamber of commerce. She was a Green Party icon and social worker who had been elected to Arizona’s legislature as a proud, unabashed progressive. She even became a board member of our organization, which was designed to counter groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and champion a progressive economic agenda." He wasn't the only one who got taken in by her Rhoda act. By the time he caught on, it was too late.
Soon after creating a progressive image for herself in the legislature, Sinema got herself elected to Congress in 2012 and early on touted herself as a leading proponent of raising the minimum wage in a state whose voters soon after approved such a wage increase.
But as she got comfortable in the Washington swamp, Sinema began to change her tune.
She voted to help corporate lobbyists harm lots of the marginalized people she claimed she got into politics to protect. She broke with her party to help the financial industry roll back already weak regulations passed in the wake of the financial crisis. She became one of the top recipients of campaign cash from predatory lenders, and helped Republicans advance legislation to protect those lenders.
In all, Sinema cast votes with Trump priorities half the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. Her elevation to the Senate Banking Committee was considered a big win for Wall Street. Last summer, the US Chamber of Commerce awarded Sinema its “inaugural Abraham Lincoln Leadership for America Award and Jefferson-Hamilton Award for Bipartisanship.”
All of this culminated in the COVID-19 relief bill, where she has played a particularly pernicious role.
Sinema-- who told PSN she was a “a social worker in an immigrant and refugee community” and cast herself as a defender of those groups-- voted with Republicans last month to block survival aid from going to undocumented immigrants.
Despite her previous public advocacy for a higher minimum wage, Sinema has been making process arguments for weeks against including the $15 minimum wage in the COVID bill.
“The minimum wage provision is not appropriate for the reconciliation process,” Sinema told Politico last month. “It is not a budget item. And it shouldn’t be in there.”
Democrats are only using the budget reconciliation process for Biden’s coronavirus relief package because Sinema and a handful of other conservative Democrats refuse to end the filibuster. With the filibuster intact, Republicans can block most legislation unless Democrats can find sixty votes. The reconciliation process is maddeningly complex, but it allows bills to pass with a majority vote.
Instead of eliminating the filibuster, Sinema told Politico she wants to give the minority party even more power to hold up legislation. “I want to restore the 60-vote threshold for all elements of the Senate’s work,” she said.
She also declared that she would oppose the vice president using her power as presiding officer to overrule the Senate parliamentarian to advance the minimum wage legislation, even though it would boost the pay of roughly 839,000 workers in Sinema’s own state.
“There is no instance in which I would overrule a parliamentarian’s decision,” she said.
And then came the now-infamous thumbs-down photo op. The move was apparently an attempt to channel late Sen. John McCain’s high-profile vote to stop his own Republican Party from repealing the Affordable Care Act. But other than the fact that both Arizona senators made the same gesture, that’s where the similarities end.
McCain’s vote preserved medical protections for millions of Americans. Sinema, with her thumbs-down, was voting to preserve poverty wages for millions of workers.
She cast the high-profile vote to stop her own party from even debating giving a raise to millions of workers who deserve it. There was no Arizona-specific imperative for her to cast this vote. If anything, Kelly’s vote during his reelection bid suggests it would have been better local politics for her to support it. There was also no cost to it. A $15 minimum wage is popular nationally and in any case, she’s not up for reelection until 2024. But she just decided to windmill dunk on workers anyway.
This was misplaced political grandstanding at its finest-- and it helped create a final COVID relief bill that delivers some help to workers and families, some huge subsidies to private insurance corporations, but asks the powerful to sacrifice nothing in service of structurally improving a dystopian economy.
...Sinema's journey is now complete. She has become a timeless cautionary tale about what happens in a political process that typically selects the most cynical among us.
The result is a government run by those whose purported principles seem to change at a moment’s notice, because, in truth, they have no principles other than their own advancement.
In a different era, advancement in the Democratic Party often required politicians to stand with workers and the poor. Today, that’s changed. Everyone in Washington knows the most reliable path to advancement is to serve power with a hearty thumbs-down anytime a proposal asks the wealthy to sacrifice anything.
Sinema is more than happy to provide that on camera in the well of the US Senate. She seems overjoyed to show the world that she has “gone Washington”-- and dishonored everything she purported to care about during her political ascent. In the process, workers struggling to survive got yet another thumb shoved directly into their eye.
Sinema went from being a phony in the Arizona state legislature to the worst freshman in Congress and eventually the worst Democrat in the House and is now the worst Democrat in the Senate. We need to be way more aware of the bad seeds among us. Liberals seem almost embarrassed to consider psychology in politics-- which helps explains why our legislative bodies are so systemically dysfunctional.