Kyrsten Sinema had a lot on her mind as she drove to work on Election Day in 2001, the year she ran for city council in Phoenix.
But all worries about turnout and vote tallies dissipated in an instant when Sinema, now a Democratic candidate for the House, heard a voice on NPR report that the World Trade Center had been struck.
“We asked the teachers to turn off the televisions,” she said. “Each child had a parent, and those parents should have the right to determine how and when their children learn about these tragedies.”
Sinema came in last place in that election, garnering barely 2 percent of the vote. She ran as an independent but had the support of the local Green Party, for which she once served as a spokeswoman.
Eleven years later, as Sinema — now an established state lawmaker — competes in the three-way Democratic primary for a newly created, toss-up district in central Arizona, she points to both strategic and moral imperatives for military action. She speaks of the need to leave all options on the table with regard to Iran — and even calls for military intervention in Sudan and Somalia.
“You should never take military intervention off the table,” Sinema said in an extended interview. “When you do so, you give an out to a rogue nation or rogue actors.”
But in the days and weeks after 9/11, as talk of retaliation reached a fever pitch, Sinema and others in Phoenix began organizing what would eventually become the Arizona Alliance for Peaceful Justice (AAPJ). The group’s mission statement at the time called military action “an inappropriate response to terrorism” and advocated for using the legal system — not violence — to bring Osama bin Laden and others to justice.
Internal communications from AAPJ and related groups, obtained by The Hill, show that Sinema spent the first few years after 9/11 as a passionate and vocal advocate for a nonviolent response to the terrorist attacks and an opponent of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I'm not sure how familiar you are with the Arizona Alliance for Peaceful Justice, but we are a peaceful justice group opposed to the use of violence and weapons in all situations,” she wrote in June 2002. “You might know that we believe in world disarmament.”
The email was in response to a woman who brought a gun to a protest Sinema organized to oppose President George W. Bush’s lifting of domestic spying restrictions by the FBI.
“I don’t agree with that. I never have,” Sinema said recently of the assertion that weapons and violence are always inappropriate.
Sinema said she had been speaking on behalf of the group, not herself. She added that AAPJ soon grew so extreme that she severed her relationship with the group before she was elected to the state legislature in 2004.
But two years later, Sinema exchanged messages with a woman in an online social justice group debating the similarities between the anti-war movement and the immigration-reform movement.
“As one of the core organizers against the war from day one (September 12, 2011), I have always and will always continue to oppose war in all its forms,” Sinema wrote in April 2006.
And in an editorial in The Arizona Republic in 2003, she called Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush “the real Saddam and Osama lovers,” blasting their administrations for arming former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussien with chemical and biological weapons.
Sinema, an attorney who is also completing a doctoral dissertation about the Rwandan genocide, said that while her views have evolved, her approach to dealing with global quagmires remains consistent. She said she favors aggressive diplomacy, crippling sanctions to combat proliferation, and swift, multilateral intervention as a last resort.
Drawing a distinction between full-out war and military intervention, Sinema said she would have voted for the joint resolution authorizing military force in Afghanistan that Congress approved three days after 9/11.
But she makes no excuses about her vociferous opposition to the Iraq war, arguing that unlike the Gulf War, which she said she supported, there was neither a strategic nor a humanitarian reason for the 2003 incursion.
Offering evidence of her comfort with using force when merited, Sinema said she has long called for military intervention in Sudan, where she said genocide is being carried out – a charge she also leveled at the Iranian government. She said military action would be warranted in Somalia, too, and that she wished U.S. troops had intervened earlier in Rwanda and in World War II.
With political polarization making it harder for moderates to survive, most Democratic candidates in 2012 have found themselves facing challenges from the left, while Republicans are getting hammered by more conservative opponents.
Sinema is the rare Democratic candidate being attacked from the right before the Democratic primary is even over.
Her history with liberal activism – particularly on issues of national security – has prompted her Democratic opponents to question her viability in the general election for a seat that could swing to the GOP if the Democratic nominee clashes with Arizona’s conservative-leaning electorate.
As the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, prepared to publish an article in April accusing Sinema of being anti-Israel, she circulated a memo accusing one of her opponents, former Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny, of spreading misinformation about her and employing underhanded campaign tactics.
Her campaign observed that when Cherny ran unsuccessfully for California’s state Assembly in 2002, major Democratic officials yanked their endorsements for Cherny while others jumped in to back his opponent after Cherny's campaign launched direct mail attacks that were denounced as false and offensive. Among those who criticized Cherny was Antonio Villaraigosa, the former assembly speaker and current mayor of Los Angeles.
“Frank dishonesty about his Democratic opponents,” was how Sinema put it, adding that she was disappointed but not surprised to see the same tactics deployed against her.
A third face in the Democratic primary is state Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, who on Monday secured the endorsement of Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva (D).
“We really have a deep bench of candidates this year,” said one Arizona Democratic operative not working on the race. “The problem is they’re all running in the same district.”
- This post was updated at 12:59 p.m.