She’d made too many inflammatory statements and was viewed as too much of a left-winger. Even when she entered the race for Arizona’s 9th Congressional District, many believed her past would come back to haunt her if she made it to the general election.
The final tally is still not finished in CD9. But with Sinema holding a narrow-but-growing lead, the political transformation that began years ago appears to have come to fruition.
“She’s definitely evolved,” said Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, who served in the House with Sinema during her first years in the Legislature. “She’s sort of reinvented herself over the last couple of years. She took a hard line … and then toward the end of her time in the Legislature, she moderated more.”
Sinema entered Arizona politics as a radical. She worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign, protested against the invasion of Afghanistan and ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature as an independent in 2002, when the Arizona Democratic Party dubbed her “too extreme” for central Phoenix. In 2004, she was elected as a Democrat, and quickly earned a reputation as a standard-bearer for the party’s progressive wing in the Legislature.
But when Sinema toned things down and started reaching across the aisle, things started to change. She began working with Republicans on bipartisan legislation, such as a 2006 bill sponsored by then-Rep. Jonathan Paton that permitted mothers to breastfeed in public. In later years, she even worked with former Sen. Russell Pearce, the illegal immigration hawk who became a lightning rod to the left, on bills to crack down on drop houses.
Lawmakers and lobbyists who observed Sinema over the years also noticed a change in the way she interacted with lawmakers. While she disagreed with Republicans on many issues, she could often be seen chatting away with conservative stalwarts like Sen. Andy Biggs and Rep. Eddie Farnsworth.
“She is a completely different person,” said lobbyist Mike Gardner, of the firm Triadvocates. “She learned a lot and changed a lot as a statesman, as a politician. She started out as this firebrand bomb- thrower. And then she realized that in order to get things done she needed to work with all sides. And she developed this really fascinating relationship with other smart people in the Legislature, like Biggs and Farnsworth.”
In her 2009 book, “Unite and Conquer,” Sinema wrote about her early role in the House as a “righteously indignant crusader” and “bomb- thrower.” When she realized she would never accomplish anything in that role, she wrote, she began to make a change.
Sinema said she believes her hallmark at the Legislature was the ability to reach across the aisle to Republicans to get things done.
“I don’t like losing, so I learned pretty quickly that the best way to win is to work with others. It’s not rocket science,” Sinema told the Arizona Capitol Times.
Lobbyist Stan Barnes, who runs the firm Copper State Consulting Group, said that, in his experiences at the Legislature, Sinema has usually been a center-left pragmatist who’s willing to work with Republicans to pass legislation that’s important to her.
“To her credit, she got clever about making Republican allies that could carry issues she cared about, understanding that it’s a Republican Legislature and that’s the way she could find success. It’s a hard thing to do as an elected official, because someone else is getting the credit,” said Barnes, a former Republican lawmaker.
Working across the aisle hasn’t come without a political cost.
Democratic activists castigated her for working with Pearce, and some opposed her in the three-way CD9 primary for reaching out to the sponsor of SB1070 to pass their drop house bill.
Sinema also said her personal views have mellowed through the years.
“That happens to everyone as they get older,” she said.
Sinema remained as a vocal advocate of progressive causes, and became arguably the most visible Democratic lawmaker in Arizona. But her comments became less acerbic over time.
“She has matured into a pleasantly aggressive candidate,” Barnes said.
“I think she’s learned a few things. Hopefully, she’s learned that she can’t run her mouth on any topic, anywhere at any time, without it coming back to haunt her.”
Some of those past comments did come back to haunt her in the CD9 race as opponents tried to paint her with her old radical brush. Republican nominee Vernon Parker and the GOP groups that jumped into the race frequently mentioned comments she made in a 2006 interview with a now- defunct magazine in which she called herself a “Prada socialist” and criticized women who “act like staying at home, leeching off their husbands or boyfriends, and just cashing checks is some kind of feminism.”
Sinema said the comments were meant to be tongue-in-cheek.
As evidenced by the closeness of the CD9 race — a competitive, but Democratic leaning, district — those attacks likely took a toll on Sinema. But observers said she was able to succeed through the same combination of hard work and political savviness she displayed in the Legislature.
While everyone acknowledges that Sinema has changed the way she operates, not everyone thinks her views have changed.
Farnsworth, a Gilbert Republican, paraphrased Sinema’s own words from her book, in which she talked about becoming more effective without compromising her beliefs.
“What transformation? She’s still liberal. She hasn’t changed that. I think she recognized that, as a liberal, if she’s dealing with conservatives, she has to moderate,” Farnsworth said. “She’s still a liberal. It doesn’t matter what she dresses up as.”
But Farnsworth said he respects his former colleague and the way she learned to work with people who have far different views than her own.
“We worked on a number of issues together,” he said. “We were almost diametrically opposed in our views, but we could work together.”
The question many observers have now is whether Sinema will carry her lessons with her to Congress, presuming her lead holds as election officials finish their count in CD9.
Chuck Coughlin, a lobbyist and Republican political strategist, said we’ll find out soon how sincere Sinema’s transformation was, provided that Parker doesn’t take a sudden lead in CD9.
“If she succeeds, then really this is the first chapter of that,” said Coughlin, who runs the firm HighGround.
But lobbyist Gardner has no doubts that the lessons Sinema learned are permanent.
“This is not an act for her. This is not something she preached just to get elected. This is really who she is,” he said.