One of the most enduring parables in American culture is about “going Washington” — it is a tale of the earnest do-gooder deciding to run for office on a pledge to be a voice for the voiceless, then getting to the Beltway and quickly becoming a swamp monster selling out the folks back home.
There are countless examples of this phenomenon, but we should understand that there has maybe never been such a pure personification of this cliché as Kyrsten Sinema — and she managed to capture the entire trope in one iconic moment that should never, ever be forgotten.
Sinema has gone viral for not merely joining seven other Democratic senators in blocking an already doomed motion to debate a $15 minimum wage, but for making an NBA-dunk-contest-like spectacle of casting that unnecessary vote to crush millions of workers.
I’m sure this won’t come back haunt the Democrats. pic.twitter.com/xmtNk3cwih
— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) March 5, 2021
Sinema’s display is notable not just for the spectacle, not just because she represents a state President Joe Biden won, and not just because she decided to break with her own Democratic colleague Mark Kelly, who is running for reelection. Her vote is also 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).
“Making a Difference for Underserved and Marginalized Communities”
Unlike many corporatists in Washington, 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.
To really understand who Sinema was back then, watch this 2009 interview she did with PSN.
She explains that she got into politics because she saw underprivileged people in her community and became enraged that “they just weren’t able to get past that place of poverty and dependence to a place of self-sufficiency and interdependence.” She said that she has been focused on “making a difference for the communities that have historically been underserved and marginalized in Arizona.”
“As we learn how to talk about these issues from a perspective of just an average voter, who cares about how much they’re making and whether or not their kids can go to college, I think we’re able to tap into the feelings of voters in a much more humane way and a much more authentic way,” she said.
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.
— Kyrsten Sinema (@kyrstensinema) March 12, 2014
Rise Of A Swamp Monster
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.
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.
Much More Than a Thumbs-Down
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 spokesperson Hannah Hurley told HuffPost that it was sexist to write about the senator’s animated thumbs-down no vote against the $15 minimum wage: “Commentary about a female senator’s body language, clothing, or physical demeanor does not belong in a serious media outlet,” she said. Hurley later doubled down on her statement on Twitter.
I stand by what I said: commentary about a female Senator's body language, clothing, or physical demeanor does not belong in a serious media outlet.
— Hannah L. Hurley (@HannahLHurley) March 6, 2021
This is the worst kind of transparent damage control you get from flacks who know their bosses screwed up big time. Sinema’s critics are not critiquing her body language; they are outraged at her enthusiastically voting against a proposal to help minimum wage workers — roughly 58 percent of whom are women. Sinema did not have to vote against them, but chose to — and worse, she opted to make a performance out of it.
If you watch Sinema’s behavior on the Senate floor yesterday, it’s clear the problem wasn’t simply how she signaled her no vote — it was how she seemed to engineer the entire episode, knowingly or unknowingly, for maximum dramatic effect.
She strode into the Senate chamber and exchanged pleasantries with GOP leader Mitch McConnell, the human personification of Washington’s utter disregard of the underserved and marginalized she once pledged to serve. Sinema then made her conspicuous show of thumbs-downing the measure and strode off like a movie star, not looking back at the devastation left in her wake.
The whole thing was a perfect encapsulation of Beltway callousness, a one-act, twenty-second drama of the hopes and dreams of everyday people being crushed for the sake of pointless political gamesmanship.
A Thumb in Workers’ Eyes
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.