WASHINGTON – Twenty years ago, a Green Party activist running for the Phoenix City Council named Kyrsten Sinema likened raising campaign cash to “bribery.”
Now a first-term senator from Arizona, she no longer has such qualms.
Once a self-styled “Prada socialist" labeled as “too extreme” by Arizona's Democratic Party, Sinema has found new power as a centrist in a 50-50 Senate where there are no votes to spare, forcing President Joe Biden to downsize his agenda and other Democratic ambitions.
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. That prowess is also a reason that corporate interests eager to influence Democrats’ now-$1.85 trillion package of social and climate initiatives have rushed to provide her financial support.
Throughout months of exhaustive negotiations, Sinema has offered only limited explanation for opposing policies Democrats have campaigned on for years, angering many of her colleagues.
But her actions also have won her new allies, making Sinema a magnet for campaign donations from powerful interests with millions at stake in how the legislation turns out.
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.
Yet her embrace of influential donors she once rejected perplexes many in her party.
“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.
After winning a seats in the Arizona House in 2004, her political persona began to shift. 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.
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. The roughly $3 million she collected during that period is the best cash haul of her career outside the 2018 election, when she was first on the ballot for U.S. Senate.
But there were signs of her gravitating to business interests 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.
Among the donors:
—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. Almost all of the Amgen donations were clustered in late June, when Democrats were pushing legislation that would have curtailed pharmaceutical company earnings by allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices. Sinema's opposition was instrumental in leading lawmakers to pursue a scaled-back version that is now advancing in the House. The new plan would allow Medicare to negotiate the price of about 100 drugs within a few years, while limiting monthly insulin copayments to $35 for many.
Company CEO Robert Bradway gave Sinema $5,000; two company lobbyists gave an additional $3,000.
—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. That includes Goldman President John Waldron, who gave a maximum $5,800 donation 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. That made Ryan, whose employees and PAC had not previously given to Sinema, one of her top corporate donors. 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, R-Ariz., to issue millions of dollars in tax refunds to a Ryan client.
Checks have also come in from Jimmy Haslam III, a longtime Republican donor and owner of the Cleveland Browns, and his wife, Susan, who gave $8,700 to Sinema in June and September; Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, twins who run a private equity firm and are perhaps best known for successfully suing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who each gave $5,800 apiece in July; and Stanley Hubbard, a billionaire Minnesota TV and radio station mogul who has given millions of dollars to GOP causes, who donated $2,900 in September.
Sinema has drawn the ire of her colleagues in Congress, who say she blocked proposals that almost all Democratic lawmakers support.
“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 longtime Democratic Party financiers have also grown frustrated with her.
“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.