KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema says her shift to independent shouldn't be a surprise

Kyrsten Sinema
U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in April 2022.

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema says she is leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent.

In a video release sent early Friday morning, the state’s senior senator says registering as an independent is a reflection of who she’s always been.

In an op-ed published in the Arizona Republic, Sinema says she’s “joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.” 

The Show spoke with Sen. Sinema on Friday morning and began by asking how long she’d been thinking about making this switch.

KYRSTEN SINEMA: You know, Mark, this is really a natural extension of the work I’ve been doing in the United States Senate for the last number of years. So I’m not sure this should come as a surprise to anyone. When I ran for the Senate back in 2018, I promised Arizonans I’d be an independent voice for our state. That’s exactly what I’ve done. And so I think today’s decision and announcement is just a reflection of that.

MARK BRODIE: How do you envision this working sort of mechanically in the Senate? Do you envision yourself sort of following the Bernie Sanders-Angus King model? Do you envision charting a different kind of course?

SINEMA: It won’t surprise Arizonans, Mark, when I say that I’m not interested in following the footsteps of anyone else. Arizona is a special state, and we’ve always been a very independent people, and I expect that the way I behave in the Senate — which is to show up to work every day, working hard for the people of our state — that won’t change at all. So I think you’ll see from me exactly what you’ve seen from me in recent years, which is a willingness to work with anyone of any political party to solve problems and get things done.

BRODIE: There are certain things, though that have to happen that really sort of only happen — in terms of finding out about bills and hearing what colleagues have to say — in sort of that party environment, aren’t there? Are you still interested in doing any of that?

SINEMA: Well, Mark, I demonstrated to the folks across Arizona, and indeed our country, that I’ve been incredibly effective at advancing Arizona’s priorities and our nation’s priorities, and I’ve been able to do that because of my deep relationships based on trust with my colleagues of all political persuasions. That’s not gonna change at all. So you and I both know Arizonans don’t really care at all about the inner mechanics of Washington, D.C. What they care about are the results. And I expect that not much will change it all, for me or for them, when it comes to delivering results for Arizona.

BRODIE: I’m curious what some of your colleagues have said, especially those with whom you’ve worked closely on pretty big pieces of legislation over the last number of months and years?

SINEMA: Well, it will be no surprise to you, Mark, that many of my colleagues were not surprised about today’s announcement. I’ve been an independent voice for Arizona. I’ll continue to be that. So I don’t think folks were that surprised about this change in my party registration. Because everyone knows it will have no change on the way that I do my work, or what I hope to continue to do, which is to be very effective advancing Arizona’s priorities in the United States Senate.

BRODIE: So you said that this was sort of a natural extension for you, but I’m wondering if there was — was there something that happened that made you say, “I just can’t do this anymore. I just can’t be a member of the Democrat party anymore”?

SINEMA: Well, that might be an exciting story, Mark, but it’s not true. The reality is that like many Arizonans, and in fact many Americans, I’ve never fit neatly into a partisan box. And I think that’s true for many of us throughout the state and indeed across the U.S. That we’re not interested in just following one party doctrine or party dogma. And today’s registration as an independent is in line not only with my values but with the values, I believe, of most Arizonans.

BRODIE: Does this affect in any way your decision of whether or not or how to seek re-election in two years?

SINEMA: You know, I’m not at all focused on campaigns or elections right now. We’ve got so much work left to do in the United States Senate. As you know and Arizonans know, I’ve got a lot on my plate right now — working on immigration; working to get a budget that works for our state and our country; and ensuring that our men and women in the military are taken care of and paid appropriately. So I am 100% focused on that work. Arizonans know that I’m a workhorse, and I kind of put my head down and just stay focused on the work. That’s exactly what I’m doing now, and that’s what they can expect from me moving forward.

BRODIE: So you mention one of those bills that I know you’re working on right now dealing with immigration and the so-called dreamer population. Are you optimistic that you’re going to be able to get something done on that?

SINEMA: You know, I can’t predict what’s going to happen on that piece of legislation, Mark, but what I can tell you is that Sen. Thom Tillis and I are working with a large group of colleagues in both parties who recognize the failure of this administration to secure our border, address the asylum crisis and settle the status of dreamers requires our action. And so we are going to continue to work very hard over the coming weeks to try and find a compromise that can solve those challenges and help settle not just the status of dreamers in Arizona, but also create a system that is more fair and humane for migrants, and of course, ensures a secure border. As we’ve seen in Arizona, it’s been — gosh —about 40 years since we’ve had a handle on the border appropriately. And every administration in both political parties has really faced failure after failure on this issue. So it’s our goal to try and bridge that partisan divide and find a solution.

BRODIE: Does the passage of Prop. 308 in Arizona last month, which gives some of these students the ability to go to college and pay in-state tuition but still kind of leaves a lot of them in limbo — does that influence the speed with which you’re trying to get something on this done?

SINEMA: Well, Mark, I was delighted that prop 308 passed. And like many Arizonans, I was disappointed back in 2006 when dreamers were blocked out of in-state tuition. As a professor at Arizona State University for the last 20+ years, I know how hard kids from all backgrounds work to get their college education, and I don’t want to ever see any of them denied that fair opportunity to get that education and be productive members of our community. So passing Prop. 308 was a huge victory for the people of Arizona not just for those dreamers and their families, but for our whole state and our economy. So I think there is renewed interest and renewed energy and urgency to make sure that not only can these kids get a college education, but that we can be smart and make sure that we’re integrating them into employment and helping them be fully productive members of the Arizona society.

BRODIE: All right, that is Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Senator, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

SINEMA: Thanks so much, Mark. Have a great day.

Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona announced Friday that she now has registered as an independent, but she does not plan to caucus with Republicans, ensuring Democrats will retain their narrow voting majority in the Senate.

Sinema has modeled her political approach on the renegade style of the late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and has frustrated Democratic colleagues at times with her overtures to Republicans and opposition to Democratic priorities. Rather than assailing the Democratic Party in her statement, she said she was “declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.”

At the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre praised Sinema as a “key partner” in passing some of President Joe Biden's priorities and said the switch “does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate. ... We have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her.”

While unusual for a sitting senator to switch party affiliation, the move does appear to hold more impact on Sinema’s own political brand than the operations of the Senate.

In a video explaining her decision, she said: “Registering as an independent and showing up to work with the title of independent is a reflection of who I’ve always been. ... Nothing’s going to change for me.’’

The first-term senator wrote in the Arizona Republic that she came into office pledging “to be independent and work with anyone to achieve lasting results. I committed I would not demonize people I disagreed with, engage in name-calling, or get distracted by political drama. I promised I would never bend to party pressure.”

She wrote that her approach is “rare in Washington and has upset partisans in both parties” but “has delivered lasting results for Arizona.” Sinema also said that she has “never fit perfectly in either national party.”

While bold and to some extent rare to have a senator switch party affiliation, the move appears to hold more impact on Sinema’s own political brand than the operations of the Senate.

Before Sinema's announcement, Democrats were set to hold a 51-49 edge in the new Senate come January after the victory Tuesday by Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia's runoff election. Until then, the Senate will remain even, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tiebreaking vote for Democrats.

Sinema told Politico in an interview that she will not caucus with Republicans and that she plans to keep voting as she has since winning election to the Senate in 2018 after three House terms.

She is expected to maintain her committee assignments through the Democratic majority, according to a Senate Democratic aide. Two current independents, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, caucus with Democrats and gain their committee seniority through the Democrats.

She is facing reelection in 2024 and is likely to be matched against a well-funded primary challenger after angering much of the Democratic base by blocking or watering down progressive priorities such as a minimum wage increase and President Joe Biden’s big social spending initiatives. She has not said whether she plans to seek another term.

Sinema’s most prominent potential primary challenger is Rep. Ruben Gallego, who has a long history of feuding with her.

The senator wrote that she was joining "the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.”

Sinema bemoaned “the national parties' rigid partisanship” and said “pressures in both parties pull leaders to the edges — allowing the loudest, most extreme voices to determine their respective parties’ priorities, and expecting the rest of us to fall in line.”

“In catering to the fringes, neither party has demonstrated much tolerance for diversity of thought. Bipartisan compromise is seen as a rarely acceptable last resort, rather than the best way to achieve lasting progress,” she wrote.

She added: “My approach is rare in Washington, and has upset partisans in both parties."

Along with West Virginia's Joe Manchin, she has been one of two moderate Democrats in the 50-50 Senate, and her willingness to buck the rest of her party has at times limited the ambitions of Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Sinema is a staunch defender of the filibuster, a Senate rule effectively requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation in the 100-member Senate. Many Democrats, including Biden, say the filibuster leads to gridlock by giving a minority of lawmakers the ability to veto.

Last January, leaders of the Arizona Democratic Party voted to censure Sinema, citing “her failure to do whatever it takes to ensure the health of our democracy″ — namely her refusal to go along with fellow Democrats to alter the Senate rule so they could overcome Republican opposition to a voting rights bill.

While that rebuke was symbolic, it came only a few years since Sinema was heralded for bringing the Arizona Senate seat back into the Democratic fold for the first time in a generation. The move also previewed the persistent opposition that Sinema was likely face within her own party in 2024.

More stories from KJZZ

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.