By Sinema’s own description, she was “a bomb-thrower” during her first year in the legislature, which Republicans controlled then as they do now. “I’d stand up four or five times a week on the floor of the House and give scathing speeches about how this bill and that bill were complete and utter travesties of justice, and the paper would capture one or two of the quotes, and then we’d vote on the offending bills and they’d pass with supermajorities,” Sinema wrote in Unite and Conquer: How to Win and Build Coalitions That Last, a book she published in 2009. “Meanwhile, everyone else went to lunch. In short, my first legislative session was a bust.” Republicans did not take her seriously, Lujan told me.
By the next session, Sinema had changed her approach. The result, according to colleagues in both parties, was a more effective lawmaker able to operate in what was then a deeply red state, and enact meaningful, if not transformative, legislation. She helped pass laws that protect women who choose to breastfeed in public and forced government pension funds to divest from Sudan during the genocide in Darfur. Sinema had developed a keen sense of the needs of her district—and those of her colleagues. Lynne Pancrazi, a friend and fellow Democrat, told me how, during her own first week in the legislature, Sinema stopped her from opposing a Republican bill favored by farmers and ranchers. “You can’t vote against it, Lynne,” Sinema said, reminding her to first check with industry leaders in her heavily agricultural district. “What she was trying to tell me,” Pancrazi recalled, “was I needed to vote with my constituents.”
Sinema applied this pragmatic approach outside the legislature as well. Two years after being elected to the legislature, she spearheaded the opposition to a ballot initiative to adopt a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Sinema centered the campaign’s message on how the initiative would be detrimental to an elderly unmarried straight couple. The effort succeeded, making Arizona the first state in the nation to defeat a same-sex-marriage ban at the ballot box. Despite the win, Sinema received blowback from progressives, who accused her, she wrote, of “throwing the gay community under the bus.”
After six years in the state House, Sinema won a seat in the state Senate but remained for only a year. In 2012, she resigned to run for a seat representing a newly drawn congressional district. Republicans tried to use her past to tar her, dredging up interviews in which she had referred to herself as a “Prada socialist.” The tactic, which Republicans have continued to employ against her, failed, and Sinema narrowly won.
On Capitol Hill, she made an immediate impression, chatting frequently with reporters off the House floor—The Washington Post called her “a bracingly unfiltered talker” during her first year in Congress—and positioning herself as close as possible to the center. She joined not only the moderate New Democrat Coalition but also the more fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. As in the state legislature, she partnered with Republicans to achieve modest successes; Biggs, for example, credited her with helping win Democratic votes for so-called right-to-try legislation, which makes it easier for terminally ill patients to access experimental drugs.