Progressives upset with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema took their protests directly to the Arizona Democrat this weekend, ambushing her in public spaces three times to get answers on immigration reform and spending on social programs.
Camera-toting activists followed Sinema into a bathroom Sunday at Arizona State University, where she teaches a class, confronted her on a flight Monday and then again inside the airport after she landed.
In each case, they were mostly ignored by Sinema, who issued a statement Monday that said voters are free to “petition, protest or criticize my policy positions and decisions,” but what activists did Sunday was “not legitimate protest.”
“It is unacceptable for activist organizations to instruct their members to jeopardize themselves by engaging in unlawful activities such as gaining entry to closed university buildings, disrupting learning environments, and filming students in a restroom,” her statement said.
But Kunoor Ojha, an activist with D.C. grassroots organization People’s Watch, said personally asking a senator to support particular programs is “not a super, super big ask.”
“This is just us asking our lawmakers to support the president’s agenda,” said Ojha, who confronted Sinema as she was walking off her flight from Arizona.
The confrontations come as Sinema and another centrist Democrat continue to block Senate approval of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan, a 10-year, $3.5 trillion social spending package. The other senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was greeted last week by West Virginians on kayaks who paddled up to his houseboat on the D.C. waterfront to ask him for support.
Both Sinema and Manchin have said they support the goals of the plan, but not at the current cost of $3.5 trillion over 10 years. The White House has insisted that the plan will pay for itself by increasing taxes on corporations and people earning more than $400,000, but Sinema has balked at the revenue proposals.
Ojha pressed that point with Sinema, asking her at the airport, “What you plan on cutting from Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan?”
“Do you want to cut climate priorities? Is it elder care that you want to cut? Is it childcare? Are you trying to cut Medicare?” Ojha can be heard asking Sinema, who is on her phone for much of the time.
The videotaped confrontations were the most memorable demonstrations against Sinema, but not the only ones in the past week.
Living United for Change Arizona (LUCHA) demonstrators on Thursday unfurled a banner on the bridge above University Drive in the middle of the Tempe campus, asking Sinema to support the administration plan. The same group rallied Saturday outside the Royal Palms Resort and Spa in Phoenix, where Sinema was holding a fundraiser.
It was members of LUCHA who confronted Sinema at ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus Sunday, following her into the ladies’ room and pressing her on immigration reform, economic security and other parts of the administration’s bill.
LUCHA’s videos went viral on social media, garnering tens of thousands of impressions.
Politicians defending Sinema said there is a place for debate, but that LUCHA had crossed the line.
Fellow Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly said in a tweet that it was “completely inappropriate.” President Joe Biden said the weekend confrontations were not “appropriate tactics,” while noting that being confronted by constituents is “part of the process.”
“The only people it doesn’t happen to are people who have Secret Service standing around them,” he said in a press briefing Monday.
Former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe, called the Sunday protest “juvenile.” Kolbe, who represented the Tucson area as a Republican from 1985-2007, said his advice to elected officials is to “try not to get into the confrontation.”
“If you can defuse that, if you can get people to sit down and have a dialogue with you, a discussion, I think that’s very constructive,” Kolbe said. “You just have to handle these on a case-by-case basis.”
But people who “would pursue somebody into the restroom are not being constructive. They’re not being helpful,” he said.
“She certainly has a responsibility to communicate that to her constituents,” Kolbe said. “But there’s a time and a place for everything. When you’re in the middle of this negotiation (over the Build Back Better plan), this may not be the most perfect time to do that.”
Protesters would argue there is no better time to state their case. Ojha said calling the protests “unconstructive” misses the point.
“I think it’s important to remember the stakes of the legislation that we’re all advocating for,” she said.
“We’re talking about a future for our children, ensuring that we have a livable planet, making sure that our kids can grow up without asthma, because they don’t have clean air to breathe,” she said. “It’s important to remember the substance of the arguments that we’re having right now. And I think that that’s getting lost in the conversation.”
Karina Ruiz, who was on Sinema’s flight back to Washington, D.C., asked the senator for a commitment to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t want to disturb you, but at the same time, I just want to see if I can get a commitment from you, senator,” she asked Sinema, who had her head down, facing away from Ruiz for almost all of the two-minute video.
Ojha said that Sinema’s constituents have a right to know where she stands on the issues, particularly those who worked for her election, as many of the weekend protesters said they had done.
“The same folks who are raising these questions across the country today are also the same folks who worked so hard day and night in order to ensure election results that would allow us to legislate,” Ojha said.
“All that we are asking for is for the opportunity to be heard so that the very campaign that we supported can deliver on its promises,” she said.