Arizona State Sen. Kyrsten Sinema recently resigned to try her hand in Washington, hoping to win a seat in the House of Representatives. Is it a big feat? Sure. But this 35-year-old is no stranger to hard work and hanging on tight through the twists and turns life has given her.
Sinema was born and raised in Tucson, where she lived with her mother, father, older brother and younger sister. At a young age, Sinema’s parents divorced. Both of her parents later remarried, but it was her mom that married one of Sinema’s brother’s teachers, who Sinema affectionately refers to as her “favorite.”
“Mr. Howard was his name and he was my favorite, and my mom married him, which I thought was pretty cool,” Sinema says.
After "Mr. Howard" joined the family, the new couple and the three kids moved to northwest Florida, where her new stepfather was from. The move presented obstacles, but gave the young Sinema a perspective she would never forget.
“When we first moved to Florida, my stepfather couldn’t find a job because he was really educated, but he [was] overqualified, so we were homeless for a couple years,” Sinema says. “We lived in an abandoned gas station with no running water and no electricity. And that was probably one of the best experiences of my life.”
It was this experience, Sinema says, that shaped her whole life.
“I care deeply about kids,” Sinema says. “I really want to live in a country and in a state and a community where kids are treated the way that they should be treated, where they are taken care of, and they have all of the opportunities that they need to be successful in school and in their careers.”
After two long years, Sinema’s stepfather found a job in the local school district when a position finally became available. Within three months the family had enough income to move into a small farmhouse.
“The fact that he had a job changed everything for us, and so when I think about people who are losing their jobs today, that’s really your security, right? Without your job you don’t have your home, and you don’t … you don’t have any security,” Sinema says.
Despite the tribulations of her childhood, Sinema graduated from high school early with the help of dual enrollment, and graduated from Bringham Young University with a Bachelor’s degree in social work at the young age of 18. Already on the fast track to starting her career, she moved back home to Arizona to pursue a job in social work with the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix, working with the kids she is so passionate about.
“Literally after one year, I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can’t do this,” Sinema says. “It was so hard to, and I couldn’t help all the families I wanted to help.”
What could she do in the face of such challenge? She went back to school at ASU for her master's in social work. The program was designed to take two years for a full-time student, but Sinema completed it in two years as a part-time student, taking her classes only at night. But she didn’t stop there. Sinema says she felt she needed even more tools to help people the way she wanted.
In search of these tools, Sinema went back to school again and received her law degree from ASU in just two and half years. During this time, she got her first taste of politics. While in law school, Sinema ran for the Arizona House of Representatives and won.
“I ran for the House of Representatives because I began to go down to the capital to lobby on behalf of the kids that I served in the Sunnyslope community. And when I got down to the capital, I began to realize that there weren’t enough people who cared about these kids,“ Sinema says.
“As I was listening to the folks at the capital, I thought to myself, ‘I would do a better job than that guy,’ and that’s how I ran.”
Although she was elected and working to accomplish goals she was passionate about, she says it wasn't glamorous. During her first term in the legislature in 2004-2005, Sinema was teaching a 7:30 a.m. class on ASU’s Tempe campus, studying for the bar exam and performing her duties as a Representative. While she refers to that semester as “horrible,” it all worked out in the end, with her students finishing strong and her passing the bar exam.
But she's battling against taking the legislative short straw: Sinema is a Democrat in a heavily Republican political arena.
“I just like to work hard,” Sinema says.
After serving three terms in the Arizona House, Sinema served in the state Senate, from which she recently resigned. Her eyes are now set on Washington as she runs for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I’ve been watching Washington for a long time, and they just don’t get it. I mean, the people in Congress don’t care about families. They don’t worry about people who are losing their jobs, people who are losing their homes.”
“You know, people are struggling to get their kids to college. They’re worried about being able to pay their mortgage, and Washington is just doing nothing to help them, nothing,” Sinema says. “So, that’s why I’m running — because I could do a better job than that guy.”
As if running for Congress wasn’t enough, true to her nature, Sinema is also teaching and studying for her Ph.D at ASU. It may put a lot on her plate, but Sinema says she feels lucky and privileged to be involved with such an amazing institution as well as being able to work with two incredible departments, the School of Social Work and the School of Justice and Social Inquiry.
“I just feel really lucky to be a part of two amazing departments,” Sinema says. “I love them both so much."
Through all the hard work, Sinema has had the support of her colleagues whom she respects and admires, including John Johnson, a former professor at ASU and a mentor figure to Sinema.
“She is quite amazing,” Johnson says. “She is a tireless worker. She has many talents that she pairs with ambition. She makes me tired just thinking about her schedule."
As tired as she may make others, Sinema shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and as for Congress, she has one thing to say.
“I certainly intend to win.”