Arizona congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema was in glamorous company at the Human Rights Campaign’s recent Los Angeles gala. With speakers that included Olympians Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy, and congresswoman Maxine Waters, it would have been understandable if Sinema was outshone at the event. Instead, the young politician won over the crowd with a speech that combined passion for LGBT equality with an equal amount of humor.
Fawning over a fellow speaker, actor Josh Duhamel, she said, “I didn’t know he [once] was married to Fergie. Lucky girl.” After making a football reference, she adds, “The whole room is like, ‘What’s a football?’ Except those ladies over there.” Bada-bing.
Sinema, 42, stressed a point that’s become a running theme in her political career, one she hopes will help her become Arizona’s first female U.S. senator and America’s first bisexual senator: Progressives have to work with Republicans. Sinema started out as a Green Party candidate before becoming a Democrat as a state legislator, and is known for having political pals on both sides of the aisle and, to the consternation of some on the left, occasionally votes with them.
Her maverick style is part John McCain — if the ailing senator doesn’t retire and Sinema wins in November, she would be the junior senator to his senior — and part cynical pragmatist. In the Arizona legislature she would give impassioned speeches about voting for certain Democratic-sponsored legislation, only to be later buried by GOP votes. When she started engaging with her state’s numerous Republicans, she began to see progress.
“In 2006, Arizona was the first state in the country to defeat a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality at the ballot box,” Sinema proudly tells The Advocate. “I chaired that effort with my friend and former legislator Steve May, and we were successful because we took it out of a partisan context and instead connected with voters where they were. We focused on how this issue affects everyday Arizonans and set an example for the nation on how we are all more alike than different.”
Sinema reminded her constituents the constitutional amendment would void domestic partnerships, which harms opposite-sex couples too. It’s not a message from Harvey Milk’s playbook, but it worked. “Sometimes it surprises people when they hear I’m friends with colleagues from across the political spectrum,” she says. “That’s the way I’ve always been — willing to work with anyone to get the job done.”
Bipartisan tendencies are natural for Arizona, but they also belie a liberal streak within the candidate. In a state where congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was nearly assassinated in a mass shooting, it’s still brave to say, as Sinema does, that “I haven’t taken money from the [National Rifle Association] and I never will.”
The politician doesn’t temper words when it comes to convicted criminal Joe Arpaio, a racist who profiled Latinos for decades as Maricopa County sheriff.
“Arizonans know the impact Arpaio’s dangerous and divisive actions have had on our state,” she says. “I’ve never been afraid to stand up to Joe Arpaio.”
Progressives will be pleased with Sinema’s stance on sexual harassment inside Congress and the policy of using taxpayer money to fund settlements for victims. She introduced legislation that would garnish wages of politicians who use public money to cover up their offenses. “There is no excuse for that behavior, and taxpayers should never be on the hook for the inappropriate and criminal actions of politicians in Washington.”
Sinema has her sights set on advancing LGBT rights, but with a president who wants to ban trans people from the military and refuses to even acknowledge Pride, it’s hard to imagine legislative advances in the next two years. She is less pessimistic, since as a cosponsor of the Equality Act she successfully pulled conservatives to her side as a blueprint for action. Sinema believes her identity was an asset in that fight and can assist in all battles that lie ahead in the House and the Senate.
“Growing up LGBT is often to be tried by fire and to wrestle with the fundamental question of who you are,” Sinema says. “Virtually all of us have faced bullying, discrimination, exclusion, or worse. When you grow up like this, working to find common ground with people you sometimes disagree with is all you’ve ever known. That’s why LGBT leaders are some of the hardest-working, most effective leaders you’ll find.”
Neal Broverman is the executive editor of The Advocate.