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Split on Sinema: LGBTQ groups divided over rebuke of bisexual senator

While some queer advocacy groups have threatened to pull their support for the Arizona senator, others have refrained from criticizing her for blocking filibuster reform.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., arrives for a Senate vote at the Capitol on Oct. 28, 2021.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., arrives for a Senate vote at the Capitol on Oct. 28, 2021.Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP

Progressive criticism of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., reached new and unprecedented highs this week, following the Arizona senator’s refusal to vote in favor of changing Senate rules to enact voting rights legislation on Wednesday.

Emily’s List — a women’s rights group that supports female Democratic candidates and was the largest contributor to Sinema’s 2018 Senate campaign — and abortion rights group NARAL said Thursday they were pulling their support from her. Two groups who were key to helping energize voters for her Senate run in 2018, Living United for Change in Arizona and Stand up America, compared her actions to the likes of staunch segregationist George Wallace. Many Democratic lawmakers have publicly lambasted Sinema, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has suggested that he’d support primary challengers against her.

But major LGBTQ advocacy groups — which are normally united on advancing a progressive agenda — have been divided in their response to the openly bisexual senator’s actions this week.

“I’m saddened, I’m heartbroken, I’m frustrated,” said Kierra Johnson, executive director of advocacy group the National LGBTQ Task Force. “Senator Sinema was someone that we grew to love — and grew to trust and experienced as a champion who walked side by side with us — so it feels extra painful to not see her exercise her full power to ensure that queer people and poor people and Black folks have full access to participating in our democracy through the right to vote.”

Amending the Senate’s filibuster rule would have allowed the Democrats to pass legislation without any Republican support. And although the Arizona senator has voiced support for the new voting rights bill, her refusal to change the Senate filibuster rule, along with that of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., effectively killed it. 

Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, said Sinema’s actions this week “won’t be forgotten.” 

“Senator Sinema turned her back on LGBTQ voters and all marginalized people who helped put her in office hoping she’d represent and protect their voices,” she said in an email.

LPAC — a political action group that is dedicated to electing queer women to political office — threatened to follow in the footsteps of Emily’s List and NARAL, stripping Sinema of its endorsement.

In response to the LGBTQ backlash, a spokesperson for Sinema, Hannah Hurley, said that the Arizona senator “believes that different people of good faith can have honest disagreements about policy and strategy, and that honest disagreements are normal.” 

Hurley also referred NBC News to a statement Sinema made on filibuster reform last week. Then, Sinema took to the Senate floor and lamented that dismantling or amending the filibuster would lead to further political partisanship.

“While I continue to support these bills,” she said of the two proposed voting rights measures, “I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country.”

But without explicitly calling for filibuster reform, Annise Parker, president and CEO of political action group the LGBTQ Victory Fund, contends that Sinema “doesn’t have the right” to kill the voting rights legislation without providing an alternative.

“Instead of being an obstructionist, she has to help,” she said. “If she cares about voting rights, she has to do something to make sure that this passes.”

Despite the blowback, not all LGBTQ groups criticized Sinema this week.

In response to Sinema voting down filibuster reform, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, said in a statement that it endorses “whatever actions are required” to pass the voting rights reform. However, unlike the majority of the group’s counterparts, the organization did not name Sinema in its statement or rebuke her.

LGBTQ advocate Josue Andonaegui, who lives in Phoenix, said he was not surprised that the Human Rights Campaign’s statement left out Sinema’s name. He spearheaded an open letter, signed by more than 50 Arizona LGBTQ advocates and allies, to the group Wednesday, urging it to “take the necessary next step of publicly calling on Senator Sinema” to support ending the filibuster.

“Arizona is looking with a magnifying glass right now — not just Sinema, but the people who are standing on the wrong side of history,” he said, speaking of the group.

“People are seeing what they are doing, and they will be held accountable,” Andonaegui added.

But the Human Rights Campaign was not alone in its refrain.

While referring to the failed voting rights legislation as “simply nonnegotiable,” the leading LGBTQ civil rights group Lambda Legal also abstained from denouncing Sinema.

“We remain eager to meet with Senator Sinema to hear her plan for getting comprehensive voting rights legislation passed absent filibuster reform,” Sharon McGowan, the chief strategy officer and legal director of the group, said in an email.

Both the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal declined to make staffers available to speak over the phone. 

David Wells, a political science professor at Arizona State University, argues in favor of the approach of the two groups, saying that the strong rebukes of Sinema have the potential to “harden” her position.

Wells worked closely with Sinema in the late 1990s and the early 2000s and has maintained contact with her team through her Senate run in 2018. He suggests that Sinema’s stance on the filibuster plays into her broader agenda of appealing to a divided political base in Arizona.

“There’s lots of indication that the state has moved in a direction where Democrats are much more competitive than they used to be on a consistent basis, but it’s still not a progressive state. So, she really needs people who have sometimes in the past voted Republican to also vote for her, for her to feel like she has a good chance of being re-elected,” he said.

Sinema was the first Democratic senator elected in the state of Arizona since 1995. 

However, Wells added, Sinema’s position may hinder her chances if she were challenged in a primary election.

“When I talk to Democrats, it’s rare I’ll find one who’s happy with her,” he said.

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