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The senator who is breaking the Internet (and liberal hearts) has a wild backstory

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema speaks on the phone at the Capitol in Washington on March 5.ANNA MONEYMAKER/NYT

As a matter of procedure, US Senators do not need to walk up to the well of the chamber and give a thumbs down or a thumbs up to register their vote.

As any viewer of C-SPAN 2 can attest, the process of voting, particularly on major bills, is a rather informal, almost charming extension of the Senate being the most exclusive legislative body in the world. There are only 100 of them voting, so there is no reason to rush anyone or have fancy electronic contraptions. All that needs to be done is to call a senator’s name, and they can verbally announce their vote or come up to the clerk later and quietly register their view as if they were ordering coffee.


However, as many Americans noticed, on Friday as the Senate voted on whether to raise the federal minimum wage, one senator decided to make a little spectacle out of her vote.

Kyrsten Sinema gave a dramatic thumbs down moments after literally bringing a chocolate cake to the Senate (reportedly as a gift for the Senate staff who worked through the night to read the entire COVID-19 relief bill out loud). Among the eight members of the Democratic caucus who voted against raising the minimum wage, Sinema has by far the most constituents who are currently earning the minimum wage, which in Arizona is $11.

While Sinema didn’t sink the bill alone, her antics made her a focal point of wrath from those on the progressive left.

Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib tweeted about the Sinema thumbs down, saying “no one should ever be this happy to vote against uplifting people out of poverty.”

But Tlaib probably knows a thing or two about Sinema, as everyone does in Washington these days. She has crafted herself to be one half of a pair of Democratic senators who seem to have the ability to derail the entire Democratic agenda in the next two years.


Yes, Democrats amazingly took majority control of the Senate by winning two seats in Georgia, but any bill still has to get a thumbs up from Sinema and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

The thing is that while Manchin is politically forced to be a centrist given that he represents such a deeply Republican state, he actually is a centrist. He was centrist even in his earliest days in state house politics when Democrats ran everything in Charleston. During his time in the Senate, he has been a leader for centrist organizations, like No Labels.

In other words, he has always been this way.

Sinema, however, has not.

Sinema began her career in politics working in Ralph Nader’s Green Party. Her politics were so far to the left that she ran as an independent the first time she ran for state representative before later running as a Democrat and winning. Soon, she was in the Arizona state Senate, where she once said she was the most liberal member of the body, and that was probably true. She also led the fight against a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in her state.

When she won a seat in Congress for 2013, she did so as a barrier breaker, becoming the first openly bisexual woman to ever serve. And guess what? It was a year later she tweeted that raising the minimum wage was a “no brainer” because, she argued, no one should work full time and live in poverty. This is the same argument advocates have made about the current minimum wage.


While there were some grumblings on the left about her bipartisan approach when she ran for Senate in 2018, she faced little opposition from Democrats for the open seat.

In 2020, however, Sinema came into her own nationally. She became known as the woman who wore colorful wigs on the staid Senate floor (since she wasn’t getting her hair cut during the lockdown.) When she presided over the Senate wearing a shirt reading “Dangerous Creature,” Mitt Romney was overheard telling her that she was “breaking the Internet.”

To which, she replied, “good.”

As a human and not a politician, Sinema is deeply impressive. For a while, she grew up in an abandoned gas station, she graduated from college in two years, and holds an M.B.A., a law degree, and a Ph.D. doctorate in justice studies. She also competes in Ironman competitions and has qualified for the Boston Marathon.

But by going to the middle, her shift in ideology and outlook has disappointed liberals. Still, it may have been logical enough given that she is representing all of Arizona, which retains a strong conservative bent despite voters there recently electing Democrats.

Though, while Sinema was giving her thumbs down, Arizona’s other Democratic Senator, Mark Kelly, did vote for the minimum wage increase. And, unlike Sinema, he is up for reelection next year.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.