Kyrsten Sinema Began as an Activist, But Now Arizona Latinos Say Mark Kelly is the One Who Listens

In 2006, just two years after leaving the Green Party to join the Democratic Party, when she considered herself "the most liberal legislator in the state of Arizona" and proudly boasted that she was a "former socialist," Kyrsten Sinema showed up to a march against former Sheriff Joe Arpaio at 6 a.m.

Walking 20 miles with two dozen day laborers, others wilted under the Arizona sun. But Sinema, who would go on to protest the so-called "Show Me Your Papers" SB 1070 law in 2010, kept marching.

Latino activists in the state now say that portrait of Sinema just serves to make her about face with advocates and the immigrant community even more confounding. In fact, when comparing Arizona's two influential moderate Democratic senators, Mark Kelly and Sinema, they say only one gives Hispanic community members the time of day, and it's not Sinema.

"Sinema is in the camp of she doesn't really feel she needs Latinos to win her elections," said LUCHA Arizona co-executive director Alejandra Gomez, whose group is part of the One Arizona table that was launched in response to SB 1070 and has registered 550,000 voters over the last decade.

"She also has been very vocal that she also will not listen to the community or share how she is going to vote," Gomez said, "that her vote is going to be based on her own analysis."

But grassroots activists like Gomez say Kelly's approach is vastly different.

While his votes, like Sinema's, have at times drawn the ire of immigration advocates, Kelly has convened conference calls with an informal "Latino kitchen cabinet" of community members, and is seen as being open to dialogue and opposing viewpoints.

These calls, local leaders say, allow for lively debate, for Kelly and his team to listen to the stories arising from their communities, and for him to hear the reasons why his votes are important to their lives.

"We have regular meetings with Kelly's team," Alicia Contreras, executive director of Corazon, which is part of the Faith in Action national network, told Newsweek. "In my experience recently, over the last year and this year, we have had radio silence with Sinema's office. We want to build that relationship, but have so far been unsuccessful."

Contreras said that if they could meet with Sinema's office, they would seek to get on the same page on economic dignity, COVID equity, and an approach to get 11 million undocumented immigrations on a pathway to citizenship, including better alignment on caring for asylum seekers.

Corazon would also want to speak to her about the minimum wage increase she voted against and paid leave policies she supported in the past, which "as a queer woman would not have covered her," Contreras said.

After unsuccessfully trying for more than a year, LUCHA Arizona recently finally managed to get a meeting with Sinema's team, but later said little was accomplished. Along with many in the immigrant rights movement across the country, the group is pushing hard for a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants.

After her meeting with LUCHA Arizona, Sinema introduced a bipartisan immigration bill on Tuesday with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. While it would seek to manage the flow of asylum seekers, it does not include a path to citizenship for groups like Dreamers, farmworkers, or essential workers, which many Democrats believe is a starting point for negotiations.

Sinema and Cornyn said they are open to broader legislation or stand-alone bills that incorporate other popular immigration planks, but Sinema stressed the importance of maintaining a bipartisan approach.

"We know that this crisis at the border is not a Democratic or Republican problem," Sinema said on a call with reporters last week.

Activists are as yet uncertain of her legislative direction going forward.

"It's unclear where that dialogue is going to go," Gomez said of LUCHA's communication with Sinema's office, because of "her working with Senator Cornyn to put forward a bill that is not representative of what the administration is trying to do to move forward a path to citizenship."

But Chris Newman, the general counsel of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), who was at the march with Sinema 15 years ago, said the senior senator from Arizona has real bonafides on immigration.

"Nothing that Kyrsten has done since becoming a senator has erased my gratitude for her work fighting against what turned out to be the beginnings of Trumpism," he told Newsweek. "You can't erase her role in the past, even as you're criticizing her in this moment. Plenty of people who begin as progressives disappoint people. I don't know where Kyrsten is now but I know where she came from when she was one of the few fighting back."

Contreras acknowledged that when Sinema was a professor at Arizona State University she attended protests at the state capitol, SB 1070 vigils, and listened to stories and community members' experiences with racism and racial-profiling that were hallmarks of the law.

But the disconnect between then and now is what frustrates activists.

"As she has risen in leadership, her relationship with Latinx and immigrant communities has changed over the last ten years plus," Contreras said. "What is holding her back? What is that tension? What is the fear in sitting down with Arizonans?"

Sinema's office did not respond to multiple requests from Newsweek for comment. Senator Mark Kelly's office also declined to comment for the story.

But Chuck Coughlin, who served as a campaign manager and advisor for former Republican Governor Jan Brewer and is the president of HighGround, told Newsweek that in contrast to Kelly, Sinema is not interested in "base management," but rather is looking ahead to future Republican challenges, which explains her very public tacks to the right.

A HighGround survey last month revealed the political dynamics at play within the state. While nearly 36% of Republicans approve of Sinema, only about 12% of GOP voters approve of Kelly. But where Kelly has a 77% approval with Democrats, Sinema sits at only 55% approval, though she holds a 5-point advantage with independents.

"You think of where she came from, the left of the left, and what she's philosophically gone through, she's trying a new path," Coughlin said.

While Sinema may not believe she could be beaten in a Democratic primary, Coughlin argued, her challenge is to maintain enough balance among unaffiliated voters to be able to manage the rise of a Republican opponent. That approach reminds Coughlin of another moderate maverick from the Copper State, longtime former senator John McCain.

"It's sort of McCain-esque," Coughlin said. "John was not a base hunter—he was about opportunity for all. So she's using that as a role model. But she's not John McCain—that's hard to do."

Political observers in the state cast Kelly as "cautious" and well aware that he is up for reelection next year. One longtime Arizona Democrat who knows both Kelly and Sinema said his "Latino kitchen cabinet" meetings come from a "genuine interest" in the viewpoints of local leaders in a rapidly changing state that just turned blue in November for the first time since 1996.

But the source said Kelly had the additional advantage of being newer to the Senate and the opportunity to improve upon Sinema's approach to the community.

"Sure there are electoral considerations, it's better to have allies than to have people out there criticizing you," the source said, asking for anonymity to characterize the relationship of two powerful senators to the Latino community. "But he's also learned lessons from seeing Sinema's approach the last few years—how fraught Latino groups' relationships are with Sinema–clearly it's not the best approach."

Newman, who defended Sinema on her regard for Latinos and immigrants, said that if Congress gets to a place on immigration where she is the deciding vote, he knows what she will do.

"I have no doubt that in a moment of truth Kyrsten will be on the right side of the immigrant rights fight," he said.

But the Arizona Democrat who has known Sinema for just as long, isn't sure about what's at her core on Latino issues anymore.

"I think it did genuinely start with creating public good," the source said. "I'm not sure now, because she doesn't let people know her anymore."

mark kelly kyrsten sinema
Senator Mark Kelly and Senator Kyrsten Sinema approach Latino outreach in diverging ways in the key state of Arizona Right, Courtney Pedroza, Left, Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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