Rep. Kyrsten Sinema Central Phoenix Democrat, States Youngest Lawmaker, Is No Political Rookie
By Jim Small
A freshman Democrat from District 15 in central Phoenix, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has stepped right into some of the more heated debates on the House floor. A bisexual, she made an emotional plea for the House not to approve HCM 2005, which urges Congress to pass a federal Constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage. A recent law school graduate with an eye toward being a criminal defense attorney, she has spoken out on many bills that she feels infringe on the rights of the accused. Ms. Sinema was interviewed on March 7 by Arizona Capitol Times to discuss her first-term experiences at the Legislature.
You recently received your law degree from ASU what type of law did you specialize in and do you plan on passing the Bar exam and practicing?
I graduated in December criminal defense and I took the Bar two weeks ago, so, hopefully I passed it. Well see. Actually, the day that [the House voted on HCM 2005] was the day before the Bar. It was a real bad day. Im the only person I know who went to work the day before the Bar. I should have been at a hotel, crying under a table like everyone else. I will practice criminal defense when were not in session. I find out if I passed in May. Theres high expectations because the whole state knows I took the Bar, pretty much, so I better pass.
What attracted you to politics?
I was just born involved in politics. My family is conservative Mormon, and so I was born although the Mormon faith is not inherently political, their faith requires some political stands, and those are ones that I happen to disagree with vehemently so I was just political from a very early age. But I think my political views really became sharper and more solidified during my eight years as a social worker, when I practiced in the Sunnyslope community. One of the things that I found on a daily basis is that I was really hampered in my ability to assist the community and to help people work toward self-sufficiency, which I think is the ultimate goal of social work, to help people until theyre able to become self-sufficient, and then they dont need your services. I felt like my hands were tied in providing that service because of the political structure, society and the law werent allowing me to have the space to create the self-sufficiency for my clients.
At 28, youre the youngest lawmaker at the Capitol. What impact does that have (positive and negative)?
I dont think it has a positive or negative impact. The people who are most concerned about my age are the media, frankly. It doesnt seem to have a big difference here in terms of members or Republicans versus Democrats. In the short time that Ive been here, people have seen that, although I am definitely progressive in my political views, Im also smart. If youre intelligent and articulate and can make a point based on law, fact and reason, age really is not that important. I havent felt a detriment from my age at all. People comment on it, but its never hurt me in any way, because I think people realize that, while I might be younger than everyone else here, I am no political rookie. Im not inexperienced in the world I graduated with my undergraduate degree when I was 18. Ive been a professional for 10 years, so I have experience, I have education I have three degrees no ones really going to say Im a young fish or anything, because I come to the table at least with what other people come to the table with, and, in some cases, I think more. I think [my age is] important, because I think young people can bring something very significant to politics, and thats a fresh, new, innovative way of looking at things, and I think thats something I bring here. But, again, I also bring, I think, a little maturity thats beyond my years.
How were you able to get your undergraduate degree by age 18?
I graduated high school when I was 16. When I was in high school I started high school at 14, the same age as everyone else I went to community college in the summers instead of hanging out at the beach like everyone else did. My third year of high school, when I was sixteen, I went to college full-time instead of going to high school, so I graduated [high school] a year early and I also graduated with 66 college credits because I had been attending community college since I was 13 I went to community college before I went to high school. When I went to college to get my undergraduate degree, I already had the equivalent of an [associates degree], so within two years I was able to complete my degree and graduate at 18.
Why the switch from Independent to Democrat from your first legislative campaign [lost to Democrats Ken Clark and Wally Straughn in 2002] to last years?
Well, you saw the results from the first campaign, didnt you? Nothing about my political beliefs changed, nothing about my ideology changed. It was a practical decision. One of the reasons I chose not to run as a Democrat the first time I ran was because I felt the Democratic Party had lost a lot of its ideals. It had moved too far to the center and had abandoned the issues of importance to its base working class people, Latinos, African Americans, women and had really lost its commitment to those groups. Theres been a change. The party has definitely moved back and is embracing its roots. A big part of that was the momentum that was leading up to the last election. I dont think the partys fully there yet, but I think at the state level the partys doing much better. Were back towards arguing about whats good for families, and that includes helping small businesses, making sure the economys healthy, but its really about focusing on individuals and whats good for families in Arizona.
Now that youve made it to the Legislature, what do you think of the process and the daily activities?
Lately, its been a madhouse. At the beginning, as it always is in the beginning, it was a little slow and everyone was playing nice and we were all very cordial to each other. There have been a few things about the process that are difficult for me, and one of those would be, for instance, we had a [Committee of the Whole] session last Tuesday [March 1], and I felt in that COW session, there was a concerted effort to stifle debate and discussion, and I actually made a comment about it in caucus later that day. That concerns me, because were elected to represent our constituents, and that includes the full range of democracy. Representative democracy means that the people in my district elected me to be their voice and I cant be their voice if theres a concerted effort to not allow us to speak. I had to stand up and wave and practically scream to get recognized, but I did, and I got recognized the whole rest of that COW session, and the reason I did was because those were bills that hurt Arizona families, that I think are bad public policy and, even if they are going to pass, I have a duty and responsibility to myself and to my constituency to make sure that Arizona knows that District 15 and many people throughout the state dont believe in what happened. That has been one of the most concerning things to me the effort to truncate, to kind of smoosh democracy into a two-hour time period. It just doesnt fit. Last week and this week were pretty bad, and I do know that we have this huge backlog of bills theres so many bills to caucus and theres lots of bills to COW, but, frankly, if were going to be here until two in the morning because thats how long it takes to debate the bad bills, okay then, thats how long were going to be here. Ive got some caffeine in my fridge and Im ready to stay, because thats what were here for. I dont ever want to become a legislator who just rubber-stamps whats happening. I just want to see democracy preserved. The idea is that were just going to rush things through for the good of the order, and what I believe [is] that the good of the order is actually respecting democracy and allowing a full debate to occur.
How does your social work background impact the legislation you support?
I think both my law degree and my social work degrees have an impact on what I do. They are a reflection of what I believe in, but they also help shape the way I look at things. Yeah, Im not going to like [the Republican budget], because it strips money from family builders, which is a child abuse prevention program. It takes money from childcare subsidies, which is the number one key to helping low-income women get out of poverty and into the workforce. All these little programs and building blocks that really help create self-sufficiency, those are the kind of things Im going to work to protect. In terms of social work, its really helped me continue to view legislation through the eyes of what is best for all Arizona families. You hear a lot of talk about families down here I just wish we talked about all the families. Not everyones family is raised in the East Valley with a two-parent, two-income household and a two-car garage with plenty of money for soccer after school. In fact, I know very few of those families, and in my work as a social worker, I worked in the Sunnyslope community, which is largely undocumented, and very hard-working first-generation, monolingual Spanish-speaking families, and its not the same world as it is out in Gilbert. I am looking at legislation through the eyes of the at-risk people and the underserved, not through the eyes of middle-class-white-bread America.
If there were one thing you could change about the state, what would it be?
I dont think that Arizona has a history of adequately funding the vital programs and resources in our state education, health care, social service programs. These are all the building blocks of a healthy and safe community and we dont fund them adequately and we havent for years. Its been like 20 years since weve done adequate funding for those programs. I think the Legislature is very short sighted. If we want to have I think Democrats and Republicans alike would agree that we want to have a strong and vibrant economy in the future, we just differ on how to get there. Some Republicans believe the way to get there is through tax cuts for corporations and for the wealthy. I believe the way to get there is through a very strong education system, because then we have an intelligent and articulate workforce who can then go and work at those high-paying jobs. I think that cutting taxes is going to hurt us because then we cant fund education. I believe that our chronic underfunding of the system and by the system, I mean all of Arizonas systems has relegated us to a place of mediocrity. We can never become a great state when were funding things in a mediocre manner. We have to be strong, we have to be bold, and that means that we have to invest in the future, and we dont.
What is the biggest problem facing the state in the future?
I think its funding, its chronic underfunding. Theres other issues: I think we have a huge water crisis coming that the Legislature refuses to acknowledge and deal with. You know, you cant ignore water forever.
I think thats important, but I do think the number one important issue facing the state is chronic underfunding. If we do not have a balanced, reasoned tax system that provides adequate resources for a state budget so we can truly fund the important programs, like infrastructure for Arizonas future, were never going to be able to have a vibrant economy. We need to do an overhaul of our entire tax system.
In what way?
Right now, we get taxes in the system in three ways: we have sales taxes, we have property tax and we have income tax. Its kind of like a three-legged chair, but its not balanced. Theres a heavy burden, of course, on sales tax, which is a regressive form of taxation and it hurts low-income and moderate-income people the most. I spend every dollar I earn, not because I want to, but because I need to. For upper income people, they spend a very small portion of their income. Most of their income is not spent in the marketplace, its spent to invest into some stocks and bonds, so its not put back into the marketplace for taxation. So, sales tax is really a regressive form of taxation. By far, its our strongest leg of that chair its going to tip over if we keep funding it that way. What we need to do is truly balance our sales tax, property tax and income taxes. One of the issues going through right now is a [Rep. Steve] Huffman bill that has passed through the House already that would reduce the valuation for property taxes for businesses. While that is a good idea in the long term, because property taxes are high for businesses in Arizona, if you just reduce property taxes for businesses in Arizona without compensating for that in the system, you have whats called deficit, which means you cant fund. Were already underfunded, so now were going to be pulling even more money [out]. What we really need to do is reinstate a statewide property tax. The Legislature eliminated it; I believe, in the late eighties, early nineties. It would help us with education, as well. We need to restructure the income tax system. I think that the highest five per cent of wage earners paying more taxes in this state is not a big deal, and if I were up there, Id be happy to pay it. Im nowhere near there, and Im happy to pay more taxes, and the reason is I believe it pays for things we need in the state, like education, healthcare and social services. If we dont balance that three-legged chair, were going to have serious problems, even bigger than were having now. Were going to have huge, major fiscal crises, because were moving away from a sales-based economy to a service-based economy, and you know how we tax sales but we dont tax services? Thats going to be a bigger problem in the future as we move more and more towards services. Were losing at all ends. What I think we need to do is hire some really, really smart economists who understand long term tax systems. We need to go through and fix the loopholes, fix the Swiss cheese, and get a balanced tax system that actually addresses all three of the revenue streams and is fair. We can do that by next week, Im sure. No problem.
Why is there so much legislative opposition to gay marriage and domestic partnerships?
I think its fear. I dont mean that in a derogatory way. Perhaps its fear of the unknown. Perhaps its fear of change. Perhaps its fear of losing what you know. But I do think that its based on fear. I think that, in my opinion, there are three targets in the Legislature: theres immigrants, LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer/questionable] people and the poor. Now, we have a long history of targeting the poor at the Arizona Legislature, so thats less of a surprise, but the target on LGBTQ people and the target on immigrants has, in my opinion, increased exponentially in the past couple of years especially against the immigrant population. There are amazing numbers of bills that are targeted and persecuting those perceived to be immigrants. I would argue that the legislation that is anti-immigrant and the legislation that is anti-LGBTQ is based on the same thing: its fear. Because those are the people who are not here at the Legislature. How many immigrants do you see walking around at the Legislature? Perhaps someone whos cleaning the building at night, but thats it. These are communities that are not represented theyre minority communities that are very small and theres a history of oppression of these communities. I think thats one of the reasons that we see this targeting. I think in particular, though, in Arizona and throughout the country, the reason we see so much targeting toward LGBTQ people and any kind of legislation that would positively impact that community would be as a response to the fear that gays are going to take over marriage or destroy marriage as an institution, which is not anyones interest. Theres no one in the LGBT community saying, I cant wait to destroy marriage. What people in the LGBT community are saying, though, is, We would like to participate in some of the responsibilities that are attendant with this, and I just think that this response throughout the country is a backlash to the movement that weve seen moving forward some of the equal rights for LGBTQ people in the past two decades. Weve seen a lot of advancements and a lot of movement toward protecting that class of minority, and this is a response to the thought that its moving too far or too fast.
When you say immigrants, are you talking about those here legally, illegally, or a combination of the two?
All. I mean immigrants and those perceived to be immigrants. In my opinion, for instance, with Prop. 200, it targets undocumented residents. Or, as some people like to say, illegal aliens. I dont like that term I think undocumented residents is a better term. Its not as divisive. But, Prop. 200 will hurt a whole lot more than just undocumented residents. It hurts children of undocumented residents who are citizens, and its designed to do that. And it also hurts anyone who is perceived to be a member of that community. So, [Rep.] Steve Gallardo, for example, was born, raised here in Arizona, but he really could be targeted under Prop. 200 because he looks a certain way.