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How have Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema's politics evolved over the years?


Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has announced she's leaving the party to become an independent. She's always been an independent thinker in a state that proudly encouraged so-called maverick politicians. Let's talk more about this with Ron Hansen, national political reporter with the Arizona Republic. Good morning, Ron.

RON HANSEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

SCHMITZ: So you've covered Senator Sinema for a long time. She's always been resistant to labels and expectations. How have her politics evolved over the years?

HANSEN: You know, she began in state government in a 2002 run that didn't succeed with voters. And she ran as a Green Party candidate. And she was very vocal during the invasion of Iraq and opposed that maneuver at the time. She ran as a Democrat in 2004 for the state house, won and began the first of three terms - or four terms there, where she kind of moved from someone who was active in trying to, you know, pull together a liberal agenda and then kind of drifted more to the pragmatic lane where she felt like she could actually get some legislation passed at the time, which is rare for Democrats in Arizona.

SCHMITZ: Right. And some are saying that Arizona Democrats themselves pushed her out of the party. You know, we know that protesters have followed her, filmed her, taunted her for years. Do you think there's any validity to that having led to her departure?

HANSEN: You know, I think it's a case of both sides, really, were uncomfortable with each other. Kyrsten Sinema has worked a room full of Republicans or business leaders who probably leaned to the right many times. I've seen her chat with people like Andy Biggs or Matt Salmon, both very conservative congressmen. And she's comfortable in that kind of environment. With Democrats, it was harder to find her, especially in recent years, in anything that would be an unscripted kind of event that was open to activists, the grassroots types. She really didn't participate in those kind of state meetings where things could go further to the left. It was just clear that both sides really didn't want to hear what the other wanted on some things that were pressure points for them.

SCHMITZ: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders says that he suspects Sinema left the Democrats for political aspirations. What do you think he means by that?

HANSEN: I suspect he means that this is purely a poll-driven exercise by someone who knew she could not win a Democratic primary. There's a fair amount of polling that has come out in recent days since her announcement that suggests that her popularity had sunk so low that there was very low chance that she could win a Democratic primary. This kind of extends it. She would be on the ballot in November as an independent if she chooses to run and sort of continues her viability at least a bit longer if things don't break in a dramatic way.

SCHMITZ: In an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, which is your paper, on Friday, Senator Sinema wrote, Americans are told that we must subscribe wholesale to policy views the parties hold, views that have been pulled further and further towards the extremes. Is that a popular view in Arizona?

HANSEN: It seems like that's a good message that she is saying, that she rejects extremism in both parties. That's the kind of thing that is consistent with the independent label that she now officially wears. And, you know, it's consistent with her legislative record, especially in the past year, where she has worked with both parties to try and pull together some pretty significant legislation. What that means as a practical matter on the ground is a little harder to figure. She doesn't really work closely with Democratic activists, as I said earlier. And her allies in the Senate on the Democratic side have been a little harder to find. She does have a decent relationship with Senator Mark Kelly. She worked to get him reelected here in Arizona in November. But it's been more in a behind-the-scenes capacity.

SCHMITZ: And quickly, Senator Sinema has said she will continue to caucus with the Democrats and vote with them on both issues. How do you expect her departure will impact the Democrats' agenda in the Senate?

HANSEN: You know, in the Senate, I think that it can - it keeps them on a path that they can move forward with, legislate with, judicial nominees and that sort of thing. But with the Republicans taking the House, it's going to be hard for the Democrats to move much farther legislatively. The filibuster is the thing that really created a lot of angst and anger for Democratic activists. In some ways, that becomes moot with a Republican House.

SCHMITZ: That's Ron Hansen of the Arizona Republic. Thank you so much for taking your time.

HANSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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