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The attacks on Arizona Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema’s upbringing, explained

Questions have emerged about whether she misrepresented part of her story.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic Senate candidate in Arizona, recently said she won’t back Minority Leader Chuck Schumer if elected.
US Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) speaks during a discussion on immigration reform on October 23, 2013.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Kyrsten Sinema, a three-term Democratic Congress member vying for the open Arizona Senate seat, has surprised many with her steady polling lead over Republican rival Martha McSally — no small feat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in roughly three decades.

Sinema has made some serious revisions to her public image before getting to this point, however. Once an avid Green Party supporter who backed Ralph Nader, she is now one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, even voting with President Trump a few times on key immigration issues. But her shifting political positions aren’t the only thing facing heightened scrutiny lately.

She has gotten pushback about the portrayal of her upbringing, with questions centering on how she’s characterized a time in her life when she and her family were homeless in Florida.

Sinema isn’t the first Democrat to encounter hard questions about their self-proclaimed personal narrative. Julia Salazar, a Democratic socialist candidate for New York state Senate, emphasized her Jewish, working-class immigrant background despite protests from family members who said she was misrepresenting aspects of her heritage. Like Salazar, Sinema has had to counter doubts about how she’s framed a part of her childhood.

“For nearly three years, we lived in an old, abandoned gas station without running water or electricity,” Sinema has said about a period of childhood hardship. Since she’s launched her Senate campaign, however, members of her extended family and a New York Times report have spurred questions about the veracity of her statement and implied that she’s exaggerated aspects of it. Sinema and her immediate family, meanwhile, say that’s not the case.

“It’s disappointing that Congresswoman McSally’s allies have mocked Kyrsten’s family for being poor — and have tried to turn her childhood into a political issue. It’s disrespectful and a new low for their campaign,” said James Owens, a communications director for the Sinema campaign. A representative for McSally’s campaign referred a request for comment to the Republican National Committee.

“Kyrsten Sinema’s own family says she’s been lying about her upbringing for political gain,” said RNC spokesperson Michael Ahrens. “If the campaign is upset that it’s hurt her credibility with voters, they should take that up with the Washington Post and the New York Times, which put the story on its front page.”

Eager for ways to chip away at Sinema’s strong standing, Republicans have seized on these reports as yet another indicator that she’s manipulated parts of her image to become a more appealing political candidate. It’s part of a larger GOP strategy to undercut something Sinema desperately needs if she wants to sway key independents and win the Senate seat in November: her credibility.

There have been some questions about how Sinema has portrayed her upbringing

Sinema has put her recollections of a difficult childhood at the forefront of her campaign, highlighting them in an ad announcing her candidacy for Senate:

My mom struggled to take care of us kids on her own. First we lost our car. Then we lost our home. For nearly three years, we lived in an old abandoned gas station without running water or electricity. Sometimes we didn’t have enough food to eat. But we got by, thanks to help from family, church, and sometimes, even the government.

Sinema emphasizes how her background makes her different from other candidates. “I never believed that being homeless was going to stop me from being who I wanted to be,” she says, noting that the “American dream” is about both putting in the work and helping others when people have the capacity to do so.

In an August Washington Post story, however, members of her extended family suggested that her descriptions aren’t exactly accurate. Specifically, they’ve contradicted Sinema’s account about the building where she and her family lived, noting that it actually had running water and electricity.

Sinema’s step-aunt Susie Fleming told the Post that the candidate’s memory of the building was a bit off. “I realize this tugs at people’s heartstrings and that was what she was going for, but, you know, it’s not the truth,” Fleming said. Both Fleming and her brother, John Howard, say the building was equipped with utilities. After making these comments, however, Fleming later directed The Post to a statement from Andy Howard, Sinema’s step-father — who supports Sinema’s account — and indicated that he would have more knowledge of the family’s living conditions.

The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin also analyzed court filings from 1985 and 1986, which included records submitted by Sinema’s mother and stepfather to a judge handling her parents’ divorce. The records documented payments they made on electric, phone, and gas bills. Sinema’s campaign notes, however, that these documents were not bills or proof of service.

Sinema has been using this part of her narrative as a key element of both her image and her political positioning — which might explain the focus on this story. Citing her background, she has spoken extensively about the need to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” while noting that her family relied on help from others like the church and even the government as they were struggling to make ends meet. “I worked really hard but I still needed a little help,” she says.

As the Washington Post’s Amy Gardner, Sean Sullivan, and Alice Crites write, it’s the kind of message that could hit a sweet spot for both Democratic voters who favor a social safety net and Republican ones who argue that personal responsibility is important for upward mobility. GOP critics, meanwhile, say it’s another sign that Sinema — and the framing she’s used — can’t be trusted.

Republicans have seized on this line of attack as yet another dig at Sinema’s “history of deceit”

Republicans have wasted no time capitalizing on the potentially spotty aspects of Sinema’s story about her past — and linking it with some of the about-faces she’s made on other political issues. It’s the latest iteration of an ongoing argument they’ve been making about Sinema’s credibility.

“Remember when she flip-flopped on the border wall?” read a statement from the Arizona Republican Party. “Or when she flip-flopped on Luke Air Force base? She has a long history of deceit and this doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

Many Republicans, including former Mitch McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes and the National Republican Senatorial Committee — spotlighted the New York Times piece.

“The accusations against Sinema are part of a larger line of attack that Martha McSally and Republicans are making against Sinema, which is simply that she is not credible,” says the University of Virginia Center for Politics’s Kyle Kondik. “For instance, a major theme of the advertising being used against Sinema has been to argue that she is more left-wing than she lets on. The message, basically, is that Sinema is not the moderate that she has presented herself as — again, from the GOP perspective.”

These critiques aren’t entirely without basis.

Much like many Democratic lawmakers angling for seats in historically red states, Sinema has had to shift her policy positions increasingly rightward and frame herself as someone who’s about as moderate as it gets. She has often said she’ll work with “literally anyone” to get things done.

With her Green Party days in the past, Sinema is now a member of the Blue Dog Coalition in the House — a collection of some of the most conservative Democrats in the lower chamber. According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, she ranks fourth — just behind Texas’s Henry Cuellar, Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb, and Minnesota’s Collin Peterson — in Democrats most likely to side with Trump, doing so 62 percent of the time.

Many Democrats have criticized her for this, although they acknowledge that it’s a calculus she’s had to make in order to win over a more conservative electorate.

“There’s this narrative that people don’t really know who she is,” says Nathan Brown, a Republican campaign operative.

Ironically, similar critiques were levied against McSally during the Republican primary when she, too, moved further right in order to curry favor with more die-hard Trump supporters.

These attacks are missing the point

While calling out political candidates for inconsistencies is commonplace, the framing of the attacks on Sinema have taken a turn that seems to miss the point. Republicans, eager to spotlight a potential misrepresentation of her past, have made their attacks not only about questioning the candidate’s experience with poverty but mocking it.

A blog post on the Republican Party’s website illustrates this dynamic. While highlighting the findings of Martin’s New York Times story, the post makes fun of Sinema’s childhood and features the tone-deaf headline, “Help me, I’m poor!” (a reference to the movie Bridesmaids).

It’s an approach that Sinema’s communications director James Owens and other Democrats have slammed. Owens notes, too, that documents showed Sinema’s mother had only $13 in her bank account.

As Slate’s Josh Voorhees writes, the focus has seemingly moved from poking holes in Sinema’s credibility to arguing whether she was “homeless enough.”

“Over the years there have been questions raised about the ‘amenities’ that came with the tiny building,” the Arizona Republica’s E.J. Montini writes in an op-ed that analyzed reports on the gas station where Sinema’s family lived. “That is, if ‘amenities’ is even remotely the right word.”

The Times and the Arizona Republic both note that while there may be contention over the exact specifics that Sinema has used to describe her upbringing, there’s little disagreement that she endured “deeply trying circumstances.” While concerns about Sinema’s authenticity are fair game, the attempts to interrogate just how poor she really was seem like a pretty crass approach to this argument.

“It seems like people are focusing too much on the details and just how homeless Sinema was — it doesn’t take away from the fact that she and her family were poor and living in unfortunate circumstances,” says Mike Noble, the chief pollster at the Phoenix-based firm OH Predictive Insights.

Republican strategist Brown says, “I think that generally the question of morality probably affects people who are nonpartisan the most. Can you believe someone on policy if you can’t believe someone to tell the truth?”

It remains to be seen just how independents— a crucial set of Arizona voters — will factor in this aspect of Sinema’s narrative at the ballot box in November.

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