PHOENIX -- This January, Arizona will send a very different type of Congresswoman to Washington, D.C. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema was a social worker who rose quickly through the state legislature.
She also grew up homeless for a time.
And now, at 36, she’s about to hit the national stage as the first person to represent Arizona’s new 9th Congressional District.
On a rainy Saturday morning in December, Sinema sat with her legs dangling from a table at a Phoenix coffee shop.
“So we won the election,” she said, eliciting laughter and applause from about a dozen supporters. “That was good.”
Sinema’s also got a place to live in Washington, D.C., and a new Congressional office.
She told her audience that she marvels at the number of women, minorities and members of the LGBT community that will join her in the freshman class.
“I’m really proud of the Democratic caucus,” said Sinema, who will be the first openly bisexual member of Congress. “I look around in our meetings and I think 'we really look like America.'”
For a while it was unclear if the Democrat and native Arizonan would make it this far. It took nearly a week after Election Day for Sinema to learn she’d beaten her Tea Party opponent by 10,000 votes.
Sinema grew up in a Mormon family. Though she’s no longer affiliated with any religion, she said her family’s conservative roots helped launch her career. Amid recession in the 1980s, her parents divorced. When the bank foreclosed on their home, Sinema moved into an abandoned gas station in Florida with her mom and stepdad. For two years they had no toilet or electricity, she said.
“I kind of grew up with this mix of two things,” Sinema said of her childhood. “One was this individual work ethic that my father mother and stepfather all taught me, which was never rely on anyone else to do anything for you and work really hard on your own.”
The representative-elect graduated from Brigham Young University at 18. She got a job as a social worker in Phoenix schools; then a law degree. In 2004, she ran for the state legislature and won. This year, while campaigning for Congress, she threw in a Ph.D. for good measure.
Along the way, Sinema said, “I benefited from the help of church and family and government my whole life.”
Sinema’s ascent makes sense to David Lujan, a fellow Democrat in the state legislature, who said, “I had no doubt she would be in Congress someday.”
Sinema was the smartest person at the capitol, Lujan said, and the hardest working.
This caused jealously among colleagues, Lujan explained. “I saw that on both sides of the aisle.”
Early on, Sinema formed a reputation as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and same-sex marriage. But she also learned to moderate her tone and found Republicans to co-sponsor her bills, Lujan and other political observers said. Even before critics attack her views on issues, they often say they respect Sinema’s charm and political skill.
Republican Sate Senator Frank Antenori is among Sinema’s critics. He said her bipartisan image was a masterful political calculation, because most of the bills Sinema found Republican support for were non-controversial.
“She created this transformation as going to one of the most left-wing leftists of the state House, into one of the more moderate Democrats in the state Senate -- which was a façade,” Antenori said.
And perhaps shrewd, according to Kris Mayes, a longtime observer of state politics who served as a Republican on the state Corporation Commission.
With Sinema’s 9th District made up of almost equal parts Republicans, Democrats and Independents, Sinema had to seek the middle, Mayes said.
“It is representative of a changing Arizona,” she added. “Such that you are going to see a much more diverse cast of characters from Arizona than ever before.”
Back at the Phoenix coffee shop, Sinema wrapped up her hour-long chat with supporters. She debriefed them on topics ranging from immigration reform to education access. After they left, sipped from her vanilla soy latte and considered the public’s interest in her career.
“I speak my mind,” she said. “I’m not really afraid of things. I actually don’t think that’s unusual. And I don’t think it’s that much of a surprise in Arizona.”
The real surprise may come later. Both supporters and critics will be watching to see if Sinema continues a path of moderation, or if her politics end up too liberal for Arizona voters.