Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who won the newly created 9th District seat, has one of most unique biographies of any 2012 candidate: As a child, Sinema’s family lived in an abandoned gas station without running water or electricity; she went on to earn four college degrees and to serve in the state Legislature.
Sinema grew up in Tucson, Ariz. Her parents divorced, and her mother remarried a teacher. When her stepfather lost his job, the family took shelter in the gas station for two years. They eventually moved into a home, but remained poor. At 16, Sinema graduated as her high school’s valedictorian and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work from Brigham Young University, followed by a master’s in social work, a law degree and a doctorate in justice studies from Arizona State University—working full-time while taking classes.
After graduating from BYU at 18, she became a social worker in a central Phoenix school district. She currently works as a lawyer, an adjunct professor at Arizona State, and an instructor at the Center for Progressive Leadership, a Washington-based institute that trains activists in progressive policies.
Sinema, who says she overcame adversity by using Helen Keller as a role model, was motivated to enter politics to assist people with backgrounds similar to hers. “I’m a Democrat today … because they taught me the best of both ideas: help each other when you’re struggling, but work very hard on your own,” she said in an interview. In 2002, Sinema made an unsuccessful bid as a Independent candidate for the Arizona House. She ran again and won in 2004, and remained there until 2010, when she was elected to the state Senate.
Sinema was known in the Legislature for her liberal politics. She sponsored several bills aimed at reining in the efforts of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known nationally for his antipathy to illegal immigration. But she also earned a reputation as someone willing to work with Republicans to pass legislation on human trafficking and other issues. Sinema, who is openly bisexual, also was active on gay-rights issues.
Saying she was frustrated with the partisan divide in Congress, Sinema quit the state Senate to run for the 9th District seat in January 2012. She edged out two other Democrats in the August primary—former Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Andrei Cherny, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, and state Sen. David Schapira. Her general-election opponent was Vernon Parker, a former Paradise Valley mayor who served in both Bush administrations.
The 9th District has a large number of registered independents—15,000 more than there are Republicans and 21,000 more than Democrats. Sinema and Parker fiercely competed for the independent vote, with each painting the other as extreme in attack ads. Even as they ran negative ads, both promised to be the more bipartisan lawmaker. The Arizona Republic endorsed Sinema, saying that her nonpartisan style was a better fit. “For Sinema, it’s always about the issue, not the personalities,” the newspaper said.
Alissa Skelton contributed to this article.