by Marion Chubon
Who does Kyrsten Sinema work for? I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here. I want us all to start asking ourselves this question. Not as a challenge from the left, as the press and other Democrats have tried to frame any criticism of Sinema over the years, dating back to when she was still a Congresswoman representing Arizona’s 8th District. Some have tried to reduce any questioning about her policies and votes, policies that have life and death consequences for people, as “purity tests.” We were told to wait until she won her election and then she could act like the Democrat we need. But if anything, her bad policies, safely 5-6 years out from facing re-election, have made us even more worried than we were during her campaign. Her voters deserve answers and we aren’t getting them.
This issue is more than just a matter of disgruntled voters who don’t think she is progressive enough. People are dying, poverty is increasing, climate change threatens us all, although poor communities will suffer the most, civil liberties are being wiped away, and the window for taking action is almost closed. This isn’t a matter of not liking a few votes. We are in emergency mode. Senator Sinema didn’t get the memo.
On August 5th, the Pima County Democratic Party Executive Committee (EC) voted to send a letter to Senator Kyrsten Sinema to ask that she remove her support for Operation Safe Return. You can read about it here. Legislative District 3 Secretary, Andrew Gardner, brought the resolution to the EC, an identical resolution had already been passed by LD3. During the vote, all the people who spoke expressed a commitment to the message of the letter, agreeing that the bill was in violation of the values of Democrats, but expressed a concern that “we” hadn’t done enough to reach out to Senator Sinema.
Another common concern from some Democrats is that our disagreements could be “used against her by the GOP.” This line of reasoning is very familiar to me having been a part of a small group of people who work hard for the Democratic Party and also, who publicly express disagreements with Sinema’s votes and lack of accessibility. I have written about that group’s philosophy about representation time and again. They work for us. It’s simple. They will work for donors unless we demand otherwise. Engagement is not only our right, but our responsibility. And the GOP doesn’t need us to attack Democrats. Our complaints about inhumane treatment of migrants will never make it into their messaging. They will call any Democrat an open border socialist.
As the representative on the EC for my legislative district, LD10, I’ve heard a small amount of pushback about the EC vote from people who are the unknown heroes that get Democrats elected. They do the backbreaking, inglorious work of walking and knocking, updating databases, pulling “turfs”, analyzing data, writing to and calling voters, running social media for LD’s, training volunteers, making phone calls, etc. Their concerns are practical; we just need to elect Democrats! Anything that can potentially hurt that, is seen as a threat. I do not take those concerns lightly. It is actually because of their backbreaking work that I feel a need to continue pressuring Sinema. Here’s why.
Back in April of last year, in the heat of a primary election, then Congresswoman Sinema’s votes on immigration in the house were concerning a great deal of us who saw the rise of power with impunity of the Department of Homeland Security. We started reaching out to her via social media. Very “hey, can we talk?” And when I say “we” I mean the members of a group I started called “McSally Take a Stand.” You can read about us and what we did here but the bottom line is we started out asking for a Town Hall from McSally. We changed the narrative about what to expect from a representative. It was in that vein in April of last year that I attended the weekly meeting of the largest Democratic club in Pima County, the Democrats of Greater Tucson, to see Representative Sinema. My question was simple and I asked it in front of a packed crowd:
“I am Marion Chubon and I am the President of Represent Me AZ. We have been very frustrated with Martha McSally’s lack of accessibility. Will you be available to constituents in Tucson if we elect you to be our Senator.” Her response was that she absolutely would be available to us.
Then I received a call after the primary from her chief of staff, Michelle Davidson. She wanted me to connect her to some people who could be recorded in a video for a campaign ad. Someone gave her my name as someone who might be able to help because of the work we did. I gave her some suggestions, including some suggestions about how to debate McSally. I also said “while I’ve got you on the phone” we have some concerns about her statements in support of ICE, Border Patrol and some votes like her vote on Kate’s law, that even the Koch controlled Cato Institute found the law to be a severe affront to civil liberties particularly of children, humanitarian aid workers and non violent immigrants. She snapped and said “she would vote for Kate’s Law again to keep criminals off the streets.” I was taken aback. I then said some of the grassroots activists would love to have a sit down with her about this. She quipped back “why so you can yell at her?” Those are the exact words that Martha McSally’s district director said to us about attending our town hall or any town hall.
In September of 2018, I returned to the Democrats of Greater Tucson, this time as its featured speaker. I spoke on the topic of our responsibility to engage, challenge and demand from our representatives the values we hold. I asked the question “what positions of the Democratic Party are Democrats unwilling to compromise on?” People responded with many answers, but when someone said “immigration,” I countered that our Democratic nominee for the seat vacated by Jeff Flake does not vote consistent with what Democrats say we are committed to with regard to immigration. I pointed to a tweet from Senator Sinema as an indication that we must have direct contact with our candidates about their positions. The tweet attempted to wash away the agency that was embroiled in the family separation policy and its aftermath. We have since learned so much more about the agency. I captured the highlights of the abuses here. Sinema hasn’t wavered on her support of them. Some scoffed at the idea that a pro ICE vote or tweet would signal to immigrants and those enraged by the family separations that she is ok with xenophobia.
During her campaign, I spoke with people who are in mixed status families, meaning they were citizens but one or more members of their family lived here without documentation. They said that they couldn’t vote for Sinema because she saw them as criminals. I talked three people in just one day into voting for her while canvassing. My tally was probably 10-15 total. My promise to one Pima College Student whose mother, father and older sister are not documented; I will personally guarantee that my organization will continue to advocate so that Sinema sees her family as Arizonans. That Sinema gets that they deserve to feel safe and deserve to work and go to school or the grocery store without fear of deportation. I also very publicly pled with people who were disillusioned by Sinema to vote for her.
So she won. Yay us!
Then she testified her support for anti-abortion judge Michael Liburdi
She confirmed blatantly anti Roe v Wade William Barr as Attorney General
Then she voted to confirm David Bernhardt, fossil fuel lobbyist, as Sec of the Interior.
Protecting women’s choice and the environment were supposed to be the two issues where Democrats could count on her vote. NARAL denounced her support for Liburdi and her vote for Barr, environmentalists were outraged by her vote for Bernhardt and suddenly the fallacy of the Democrat who had to campaign to the right, but would legislate for our values was shattered. I’m not going to go into the reasons why her votes did matter, despite the protests of her largest apologists. But the sheen of the attractive, Democratic Senator was tarnishing fast.
To make matters worse, AG Barr fulfilled what many warned would be his anti-immigrant position by removing due process for asylum seekers. He confirmed he won’t defend the ACA in suits against it, reinstituted the death penalty, he took away workplace protections for LGBTQ+ workers, he misled Congress (some say he lied) he also may be involved in the Epstein deal in New York. He’s filthy.
She also joined Republicans in voting for an anti BDS bill that was mostly a symbolic signal to states to go ahead and violate our 1st Amendment right to protest. Federal Courts have ruled multiple times that these state laws are unconstitutional.
But our biggest concerns about Sinema – in light of the humanitarian crimes against migrants, asylum seekers and the state sanctioned racial profiling of anybody who looks like they could be undocumented, Sinema remained loyal to DHS. She funded increases in 2018 with little oversight. She refused to comment on abuses, and worse she voted for a House Resolution signaling support of the embattled ICE. This vote came one month after the Trump “Zero Tolerance Policy” separated thousands of children from their parents, subjecting them to abuses at the hands of ICE with no plan to reunite the children with their parents. Toddlers screamed through the night for their parents, for some context. Most Democrats voted “present” but Sinema voted “yes.”
Then she signed on to Operation Safe Return. This bill in the Senate violates Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1967. It is a fast track deportation mechanism for asylum seekers and gives too much autonomy to Border Patrol. It was denounced by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU. It is this issue that motivated members of the Democratic party to send her a letter encouraging her to remove her support. She has yet to acknowledge the month old repsectful request from the 2nd largest Democratic organization in the state.
So what is an increasingly agitated voter to do?
Our model is to reach out to our Senator and tell her how we feel. Again, we appealed to her and failing to reach her, appealed to people with access to her to approach her and let her know that we don’t appreciate these votes. She will only vote for our values if we tell her what they are. So we called, tweeted, posted on Facebook, called some more, asked when her office in Tucson would be open so we could meet with her, and we got the same responses we got when appealing to Martha McSally. “Check out our website.” Ok, when is the office going to be open. I was told by her Tucson District Director it would open in June when I met him by chance when he signed a petition I was circulating. June came and went. Then we heard July. Then we were told that they don’t know. Also, Sinema had zero public events scheduled in Tucson. Her staff hosted some office hours at a library. Twice. In 9 months.
Sinema ignores Tucson, the area that arguably facilitated her win. We fought hard and the margin that she beat McSally by in McSally’s District is the margin by which she won the Senate seat. That was due in large part to the work of activists like those that make up our group who worked day and night to expose McSally. So it was shocking for us to learn that she was coming for a “coffee” to help propel the campaign of Mayoral hopeful Regina Romero. Sinema coming after the deadline to mail in ballots for the primary seemed like a publicity stunt. She stayed for 15 minutes. I went to make sure she had a copy of the resolution passed by Pima County EC and to remind her of her promise to be accessible to us in Tucson.
Some took photos with her, and one particularly persistent activist whose writing and research inspires our group, approached her about the concentration camps and her continued silence and monetary support of the camps. He was blocked by her staff. He, like many of us, know that DHS is literally killing people. People are dying because of the unfettered support of the agency under this administration.
I went outside to get some air and Sinema was climbing into a waiting car. Michelle Davidson was there and so I reminded her that we had spoken, gave her a copy of the resolution and asked when an office would be opening. She was not happy to be speaking to me. She said “October. We just got the permits. It was a delay caused by the Senate, not us.” I asked “will she be having any town halls between now and then? That’s 10 months without access.” “I don’t know” she snapped. “We have hundreds of staffers ready to take your questions. Have you called?” I said “Yeah. I have. So have others. We have been calling about DHS, about the concentration camps, and we ask what her positions are and they say ‘I am not sure, but please go to her website.’” She then said combatively
“so… is it that you aren’t getting your questions answered or you’re just not getting the answer you want?”
That was it for me. I said, “ok. I get it. I get your deal,” and I walked away, questioning whether Sinema is reachable.
So imagine.. I am someone who has more access than most because of the work I’ve done over the course of nearly three years. I am in spaces that most people don’t get to be in. 99.9% of Arizonans don’t have access at all. So as I said at the beginning of this piece, this is why I push her. She works for us! Her actions imply she thinks we work for her.
When we couldn’t reach Martha McSally, we shifted from engaging and lobbying her to exposing and replacing her. We put everything into it. We continue to reserve our greatest strategies for the harmful Republicans in office. But we should be able to reach Democrats, right? Those of us who volunteer with Represent Me AZ lost supporters when we applied the same standards to Sinema that we were applauded for when applied to McSally. And that is despite respectfully approaching Sinema with the assumption that we are on the same team. We have not tried to turn voters against her. All of our actions have been out of a commitment to appeal to her, to lobby her, to tell her that our collective power will provide the cover she will need to combat the voters on the right that will be afraid to vote for someone who doesn’t hate immigrants or gun control. We appealed to her in hopes that she would change her mind on some issues, to use her influence to move the collective narrative in these next 5 years so that she can vote like the Democrat all of her supporters said she would be. She can use her platform to change the narrative about immigrants and over-policing the same way the narrative on universal healthcare, marijuana legalization, and gay marriage have changed in the last decade. That’s what progress looks like.
And if Kyrsten Sinema isn’t putting human life and caring for our communities and environment as her priorities, what are her priorities?
According to those fearful of any criticism of any Democrat, she is “doing what it takes to make way for Mark Kelly, or “she needs to win over Republicans,” and we must keep our “eye on the prize.” But what kind of prize is Arizona’s contribution to the degradation of our health and safety or the torture of migrants?
What we promote is organizing and using our collective power to appeal to our electeds, not for the sake of power itself, but for the sake of caring for all people. It is the principle we organized around that fateful day in front of Martha McSally’s office in November of 2016. Our core values are clear and we hold electeds to those values because we say they include everyone. We will always question who our electeds work for and who they dismiss as unimportant. All the dedicated people who work tirelessly for Democrats expect a minimum of representation that includes access and answering to the voters. If Senator Sinema is going to act like Martha McSally, voting for xenophobic, racist laws, giving blank checks to DHS to expand concentration camps, sell out abortion rights and our environment, not make statements to voters about gun control and not answer to constituents for her votes, then we are left with no choice but to apply the same tactics dealing with her that we did dealing with McSally.