When Sen. Kyrsten Sinema walked onto the Senate floor in March to vote against the inclusion of a minimum-wage hike in President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, the “no” vote itself didn’t come as much of a surprise.
The first-term Democratic U.S. senator from Arizona had signaled that she believed a wage increase should be considered on its own, not as part of the pandemic package, and promised she would “keep working with colleagues in both parties” to make it happen.
But the flair with which 44-year-old Sinema, a triathlete with a penchant for vibrantly hued wigs, voted to reject the proposal stunned progressives already wary about whether she had their backs.
After showing up for the vote carrying a chocolate cake, Sinema entered the chamber, walked to the front, paused, formed a thumbs down — a gesture often used by voting senators — and curtsied.
The backlash was swift.
“Just wow,” Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin progressive, wrote on Twitter, linking to a 2014 post from Sinema calling to raise the minimum wage.
“No one should ever be this happy to vote against uplifting people out of poverty,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat and “squad” member, wrote later that day, linking to a video clip.
The Huffington Post reported that Sinema was facing criticism for an “exaggerated thumbs-down hand gesture.” The Washington Post referred to Sinema’s “combustible thumb.” A Tucson Sentinel columnist called it the “curtsy heard ‘round the world.” An Arizona Republic columnist said that rather than grant people a living wage, Sinema “would rather they eat cake.” Within a couple of weeks, the liberal magazine The Nation published what it called the “origin story of the Senate’s newest super villain.”
Sinema said nothing publicly. Her office told the Huffington Post that “commentary about a female senator’s body language, clothing, or physical demeanor does not belong in a serious media outlet.”
A spokesperson did tell an Arizona newspaper that the cake was for Senate staffers who had worked overnight. But neither the senator nor her office explained the rest: The much-dissected curtsy was not a comment on the minimum wage but rather Sinema acknowledging the nonpartisan staffers, who had read aloud the 628-page COVID-19 relief bill at a Republican senator’s request and who were thanking her for the cake as she voted, according to those in the Senate that day.
With a cake and a curtsy — and little explanation — Sinema’s transformation into a super villain to the left was complete.
In 2018, Sinema, a former state lawmaker and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was the first woman Arizona had elected to the Senate and the first Democrat in 30 years. She had years before, as a member of the minority party in the state house, decided she needed to tone down her “bomb thrower” image to get things done. For a time she succeeded, though some of the resulting political victories were short-lived.
Now, Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin are critical moderate votes in an evenly split Senate, and Democrats need both to pass key pieces of President Joe Biden’s agenda, including infrastructure and care packages, and a sweeping voting-rights bill for which Sinema was an original cosponsor. In this political climate, it is becoming increasingly unclear whether Sinema’s continued desire to hear from her Republican colleagues, but not explain herself to her more liberal constituents, is the best way to achieve the kind of durable change she has sought during her political career.
Manchin and Sinema are also the only outspoken Democratic holdouts for scrapping the filibuster, a procedural hurdle that effectively requires 60 votes to pass most pieces of major legislation. With Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent statement that he is “100 percent” focused “on stopping” Biden priorities, chances for bipartisan success seem slim.
David Lujan, a Democrat who served with Sinema in the statehouse representing their Phoenix-area district, said in an interview last month that the senator is as “politically astute as anybody.” If he had to pick one issue that might bring her around to changing the filibuster, it would be the voting-rights bill she cosponsored. “If she realizes that there’s just no way to compromise, I think she will consider: What are the other options to be able to get [this] done?” he said.