Sinema at center of filibuster storm in Arizona

As arts patrons strolling around a First Friday walked through downtown Phoenix in early March, they passed a giant projection cast against a building: “Tell Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaDemocrats reject hardball tactics against Senate parliamentarian  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration This week: Democrats face mounting headaches MORE, End The Filibuster.”

Progressive groups in Arizona, fresh off Democratic wins over the last two cycles that represent a new high-water mark after a generation of Republican control, are exerting pressure on Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, one of the few Democrats who have maintained a steadfast opposition to reforming or removing the filibuster.

“As long as the filibuster is in place, it’s going to be impossible to see progress on voting rights, on immigration, on so many topics that affect people in Arizona,” said Emily Kirkland, who heads Progress Arizona, the group responsible for projecting anti-filibuster messages on buildings and monuments in Phoenix, Tempe and Tucson in recent months. “We’re really just trying to send a message to her that this is the way to cement the direction that Arizona has gone in, is by passing commonsense policies.”

ADVERTISEMENT

So far, Sinema is unmoved. Earlier this month, she told The Wall Street Journal she remained opposed to “erod[ing] the rules.”

Spokespeople in Sinema’s Senate office declined to comment.

Fred Yamashita, a Sinema ally who heads the Arizona AFL-CIO, said he had brought up the filibuster with Sinema in a recent conversation.

“She was again pretty clear on her position on the filibuster. I expressed our concern that so many of the important bills after this last relief package were going to take the filibuster or a different version of the filibuster in order to pass,” Yamashita said. “She has been there with and for labor, both as a member of the House and the Senate, so I do feel that there’s always that opportunity that she will end up coming down on the side of labor.”

Progress Arizona and the AFL-CIO are among more than 40 organizations that signed on to a letter earlier this year urging Sinema to change Senate rules.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Sinema, who got her start in politics as a progressive anti-war activist, has positioned herself as an atypical Democrat, one who demonstrates little interest in appeasing progressives who might otherwise be her best allies. 

“Her brand is to be the centrist person who works with both sides to get stuff done that helps Arizona families,” said one longtime adviser.

A rising cadre of Democratic leaders in the state legislature are just as likely to voice their frustration with the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate seat since Dennis DeConcini in 1988 than they are to praise her.

“She’s been hit pretty hard in our local press for standing with the filibuster instead of standing in support of our democracy and protecting voting rights,” said state Rep. Athena Salman (D), a leading progressive member of the state House. 

More recently, Arizona progressives were enraged when Sinema voted against an amendment to the most recent coronavirus relief package that would have raised the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

ADVERTISEMENT

“There is definitely groups that have been frustrated with some of her actions, if not votes,” Yamashita said. “Obviously the vote to not include the $15 an hour minimum wage in the relief package was disappointing to many.”

Sinema was one of eight Democrats to vote against the minimum wage hike, sponsored by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPelosi says House members would not vote on spending bill topline higher than Senate's Groups push lawmakers to use defense bill to end support for Saudis in Yemen civil war Congress must address the looming debt crisis MORE (I-Vt.). In a written statement at the time, Sinema — who experienced homelessness as a child — said raising the wage should be separate from a coronavirus relief package.

Sinema has explored working with Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (R-Utah) to raise the federal minimum wage to $11 an hour, which is still below Arizona’s $12.15 an hour wage.

Progressive groups say they have not given up hope of bringing Sinema around to their side. Yamashita said union members are contacting her offices, especially on the PRO Act, a top priority for organized labor that would likely need a revision to the filibuster to pass. Indivisible, another progressive group, is mounting its own call-in campaign.

“So far there has been no indication that she has been adjusting her stance on the filibuster,” Kirkland said. “Why prioritize that kind of rule over actually making a difference in people’s lives?”