Kyrsten Silena (USA Senator) addresses an Aviation and Space Subcommittee meeting on “The state of airline safety: Federal oversight of commercial aviation.” On March 27, 2019, at Capitol Hill in Washington DC.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Twenty years ago, a Green Party activist running for the Phoenix City Council named Kyrsten Sinema likened raising campaign cash to “bribery.”

She is now a senator for Arizona’s first term.

Once a self-styled “Prada socialist” labeled as “too extreme” by Arizona’s Democratic PartySinema, a centrist, has gained new power in the 50-50 Senate, where there is no vote to spare. This forces President Joe BidenTo reduce his ambitions and those of the Democratic Party.

Her outsize authority highlights one senator’s ability to exploit her party’s narrow hold on the chamber and bend the will of the majority. Corporate interests are eager to have an influence. Democrats’ now-$1.85 trillion package of social and climate initiatives have rushed to provide her financial support.

Sinema, after months of exhausting negotiations, has only offered a limited explanation of why Democrats oppose policies they have campaigned for for many years. She angered many colleagues.

Her actions have also won Sinema new friends, and Sinema is now a magnet to campaign donations from wealthy interests that have millions of dollars at stake.

Sinema notably opposed two parts of Biden’s initial proposal that have broad public support: an increase in the tax rates for corporations and wealthy individuals, and an expansive plan that would have substantially reduced the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare recipients.

The concessions she helped win align with the interests of many of her donors who have made Sinema the Senate’s No. 3 recipient of money — nearly $500,000 — this year from the pharmaceutical and financial services sectors, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.

Sinema’s office declined to make her available for an interview. In a statement, her office said she has consistently supported “pro-growth economic policies” and “protecting medical innovation.” They disputed the relevance of comments Sinema made early in her political career in a race she lost.

“Senator Sinema makes decisions based on one consideration: what’s best for Arizona,” spokesman John LaBombard said.

Many in her party are puzzled by her acceptance of powerful donors that she had previously rejected.

“It creates the perception of a conflict of interest and perception of industry groups having influence,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who was co-chair of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. “How does she explain the role of all of these contributions?”

A former social worker who served on Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party presidential campaign, Sinema didn’t seek office as a Democrat until after two unsuccessful Arizona bids as a progressive or independent.

Her political image began to change after she won a seat in the Arizona House. Gradually retooling herself as a moderate, Sinema rose through the Legislature’s Democratic minority while positioning herself for higher office as the state transitioned from a Republican stronghold to an electoral battleground.

Then-U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema talks to 8th graders at Arizona's Sunnyslope School where she once worked as a social worker.
Kyrsten Sienema (the former-U.S. Rep.) speaks with 8th graders from Arizona’s Sunnyslope School, where she used to be a social worker.
Laura Segall (The Washington Post via Getty Images).

Since her 2012 election to the U.S. House, the candidate who once railed against capitalism’s “Almighty Dollar” has welcomed the contributions of industry groups and corporate political action committees. She’s raised at least $3 million from CEOs, businesses executives, investors, lobbyists and finance sector workers, campaign finance records show.

Sinema’s swelling campaign account comes as many in her party have refused such contributions, denouncing them as evidence of deep-seated corruption in Washington.

While Sinema is hardly alone in raising money from special interests during a major legislative battle, what is notable is the scope of Sinema’s fundraising windfall between April and September. Her objections to Biden’s legislation then gave her massive sway over the future of his bill. She collected $3 million during this period, which is more than her entire career except for the 2018 election when she was the first to vote for U.S. Senate.

However, there was evidence that she had been drawn to business earlier.

Last year, she helped initiate a bipartisan caucus to raise “awareness of the benefits of personalized medicine,” a pricey form of precision treatments for diseases that are hard to cure. Her current opposition to tax increases on corporate and high-earners comes after she voted in 2017 against President Donald Trump’s tax cut legislation, which lowered the corporate rate to its current 21 percent while also giving a rebate to high earners.

The donors include:

—Executives and a PAC for the drugmaker Amgen have given at least $21,500 in 2021, making Sinema second only to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California in receiving contributions from the company this year. The Amgen donations almost all came together in the last few months of June as Democrats were pushing for legislation that would allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug costs. Sinema’s opposition was instrumental in leading lawmakers to pursue a scaled-back version that is now advancing in the House. This plan would enable Medicare to negotiate prices for about 100 drugs within just a few years and limit monthly insulin copayments at $35 per person.

Sinema received $5,000 from Robert Bradway (CEO of company) and $3000 each from Sinema’s lobbyists.

—Sinema has taken in at least $27,000 this year from major drugmakers including Takeda, GlaxoSmithKline, Genentech and Eli Lilly. Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the preeminent trade organization representing drugmakers, has been a major source of funding for a group that is running ads praising Sinema as “independent and effective for Arizona,” records show.

—Twelve executives for the investment bank Goldman Sachs have donated $37,000 to Sinema since May. John Waldron from Goldman Sachs, the president of Goldman, donated $5,800 to Sinema in August. Sinema’s office said that while she doesn’t support raising corporate taxes, she does support establishing a corporate minimum tax so that businesses can’t altogether avoid paying their fair share, which is now included in Biden’s plan.

—Executives, managers and a corporate PAC for Ryan LLC, a global tax consulting firm, poured over $72,000 into Sinema’s campaign account in late August and September. Ryan was a top corporate donor to Sinema because her employees and PAC hadn’t previously donated. The Texas-based company advertises itself as “liberating our clients from the burden of being overtaxed.” In August, USA Today reported that the company officials are ensnared in an FBI inquiry over whether they pressured the administration of Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, a Republican, was authorized to refund millions to Ryan clients in tax.

In September, Jimmy Haslam III and Susan Haslam III gave $2,900 each to Sinema.

Sinema’s colleagues in Congress have reacted furiously to her decision to block proposals almost all Democratic legislators support.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Sinema (D-AZ) heads back to a bipartisan meeting on infrastructure in the basement of the U.S. Capitol building after the original talks fell through with the White House on June 8, 2021 in Washington, DC.
U.S. senator Kirsten Sinema (D.AZ) returns to a bipartisan conference on infrastructure in the basement U.S. Capitol building. This meeting was held after talks collapsed with the White House June 8, 2021, in Washington DC.
Samuel Corum via Getty Images

“It would be a tragedy for us to not fix the unjust corporate tax system so that corporations and individuals pay their fair share,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who played an major role in negotiating the bill.

Sanders focused on Sinema’s support for the priorities of the pharmaceutical industry.

“It is beyond comprehension that there’s any member of the United States Congress who is not prepared to vote to make sure that we lower prescription drug costs,” he said last month. He added that he hoped Sinema “does what the people in Arizona want.”

Some of her long-standing supporters have grown disillusioned.

“With all the tension in the party, people have long memories,” said Michael Smith, a donor from Los Angeles, whose partner, James Costos, served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Spain.


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