Q&A TED Fellows

That’s Ms. Congresswoman to you!: Fellows Friday with Kyrsten Sinema

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Kyrsten Sinema

Former Arizona State Senator Kyrsten Sinema built her political career by seeking shared values with her opposition, while looking out for the interests of families in need. Now newly elected to the US House of Representatives for Arizona’s 9th congressional district, the Democratic Congresswoman-elect, long a champion of LGBT issues, makes history as the first openly bisexual member of Congress.

Tell us a bit about your personal journey into politics. What has been your driving force?

I didn’t really have an interest in politics when I first entered the workforce. What I wanted to do was help people who grew up like me.

When I was a kid growing up in Tucson, my father lost his job and we lost everything — including our home. We lived in an abandoned gas station for two years until we were able to get back on our feet. I worked hard to get good scholarships and got to Arizona State University with the help of Pell Grants. After I graduated, I got to work as a social worker in a part of town that was mostly populated by hardworking immigrant and refugee communities.

I got frustrated because I saw that no matter how hard these families worked, the system always worked against them. For them, making the choice between taking care of a sick family member and putting food on the table was a daily reality. And their kids’ pathway to success was being closed off by a system that underfunded their education.

After talking to my local elected representatives, I could see that nothing was going to change. Since then, I have worked a social worker and as a lawmaker with those families in mind. They are the reason I do what I do.

What does it mean to you to be the first openly bisexual member of Congress? What effect do you think this might have on LGBT issues in Arizona and beyond?

I’m thrilled that the 113th Congress is the most inclusive in our nation’s history — and I’m honored to be a part of that. My goal is to help make our country become more inclusive by helping to restore our middle class and protecting opportunity for every person. Arizona has had a unique history of electing openly LGBT folks from every party, in every level of government. We’re proud to see representation becoming more diverse with each election year. We now have more people of color, people of different faiths and different orientations serving in our state than ever before. It’s great step in the right direction.

Can you set the scene of finding out that you had won the race? Where were you, and what ran through your head in that moment?

While we were 2,100 votes ahead on election night, many votes remained to be counted. Over the next few days, our lead grew. Now that’s a nice feeling! On Monday morning, the race still hadn’t been “called” by the Associated Press. I got on a plane to go East for freshmen orientation, and when I landed and turned on my phone, I saw that I had 78 new text messages. I knew immediately it was about the election, and my first thought was, “Let’s get to work!”

What surprised you most about campaigning for the House of Representatives?

I was humbled by the force of our community, which stood up to millions of dollars in negative advertising. Our campaign faced a staggering number of TV attack ads aimed at my character. It was surprising to see huge wealthy corporations fuel that kind of ugly campaign. While this was happening, thousands of volunteers fueled our campaign by knocking on doors and making phone calls to talk to their neighbors about what this election was really about. In the end, it was ordinary people that helped us win this election, and that’s who I am going to look out for in Congress.

What issues do you hold nearest and dearest that you will be taking with you to Washington?

The number one thing I will take with me is my experience as a social worker who saw what happened to families who couldn’t find jobs, struggled to take care of their health and saw opportunity slipping away for their kids. I ran for Congress because politicians were fighting with each other instead of looking out for these families. In our campaign we said that if we wanted to change Congress, we have to change the people we send there. I think that’s what happened in this election. I’m optimistic about what we can accomplish in the 113th Congress by putting our sole focus on the families that elected us to get things done.

In your TED2012 Fellows Talk, you discussed building trust with politicians and companies by finding shared values. Can you talk a bit more about this approach, and give an example of what can be accomplished with it?

It’s the approach that I’ve learned works best in communities with so many diverse and differing opinions. There’s no better proof of this than my work in Arizona’s state legislature.

While I was always in the minority party and I disagreed with many of my colleagues on important issues, the one thing that we had in common was our love for our state and country. We were all elected to do something good for our communities. I took that simple principle to form authentic relationships with folks who were very different from me. It was through those relationships that we learned what we could accomplish together.

I’m thankful to have learned this early on, because it was through that work that I was able to pass bills that helped families and veterans — and stopped bills that hurt education and kids’ healthcare.

In what ways has the TED Fellowship experience affected your life and work?

I’ve had the great privilege of learning from some of the brightest innovators in the country. The exchange of ideas and ingenuity that TED promotes is exactly what we need in American government today — an openness to new ideas, and a willingness to experiment.

What are you most excited about once you take office? What are you most nervous about?

I’m excited to sit at the table with my new colleagues and get to know them right away. There’s a lot of work to do and little time to waste.