Last week, as Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema restated her opposition to reforming the filibuster as a way to pass voting rights protections, a dozen union activists from Unite Here Local 11 began a hunger strike outside the state capitol in Phoenix.
Readers may remember Marilyn Wilbur, who was one of the people I interviewed for my feature article in The Nation about how the union helped turn Arizona blue in the last presidential election. Wilbur—a military veteran who has battled through bouts of cancer in the past, has diabetes, and was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor—was one of those fasting to protest assaults on voting rights that Arizona’s GOP legislators, in tandem with legislators in numerous other states around the country, have enacted since Trump lost the 2020 election.
The hunger strikers are hoping that Sinema takes note of their actions. “We’ve knocked on doors, e-mailed, called, did the Freedom Ride [a bus trip to DC to highlight the escalating assault on voting rights], marched, been to her office,” Wilbur said on day five of her fast. “This is just another form of nonviolent resistance and putting our bodies on the line. Being retired military, I know something about putting my life on the line. This is important. This is serious enough that I’m willing to put my life on the line.”
Sinema’s victory in 2018 was hailed as a turning point in Arizona politics, the moment when a red state that had long been flirting with purple status began to turn definitively blue. But she has, in recent weeks, alienated pretty much every core part of the activist alliance that helped propel her to that victory. Along with Joe Manchin, she opposed the Build Back Better Act, bizarrely drawing a red line at efforts to lower drug prices and to raise corporate taxes on large companies—positions that drew a pointed, and personal, rebuke from Bernie Sanders. Now, she has become the lead voice within the Democratic Party pushing back at Biden and Schumer’s efforts to limit the filibuster so as to allow a majority vote on critical legislation such as voting rights protection.
Earlier this week, Emily’s List announced that unless Sinema shifted her position on the filibuster, they would not support her reelection efforts. And UNITE HERE, which was one of the activist, on-the-ground unions most important to building support for her in 2018, is equally furious.
Local 11 Copresident Susan Minato says the union has repeatedly reached out to Sinema to express members’ deep dismay at the prospect that the several voter protection bills circulating in D.C. won’t pass in the Senate. “We’ve started focusing more on her,” says Minato, “because she’s made it more and more public that she would not support any rules changes in the filibuster.”
In recent weeks, the union and its allies have put out television commercials warning Arizonans of the dangers of proposed state legislation that would, if passed, allow partisan third-party vendors such as the Cyber Ninjas—the now-defunct company that presided over the much-derided Arizona “audit” of Maricopa County’s 2020 election results—access to voters’ personal records, including the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. They have, on these commercials, specifically suggested that concerned voters call Sinema’s office and demand that she support federal voter protection laws. These laws would invalidate many of these state efforts to hand control over the election process and its machinery to Trumpist hacks who buy into Trump’s “stop the steal” propaganda.
Union leaders say they are currently focusing more on the midterms than on 2024; but, at the very least, they are underwhelmed with Sinema’s inflexible pro-filibuster stance.
Local 11 hasn’t made a decision yet as to whether to support a primary challenge against Sinema when she runs for reelection in 2024, but Minato acknowledges that sentiments are running high about the senator’s behavior. “We’re super-angry,” she explains. “Because we take our work in democracy very seriously. The issue of voting is the bedrock of democracy. Can we justify supporting any senator that is stopping the business of the Senate?”
Meanwhile, the hunger strikers, who marched in Phoenix with members of the King family in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this past Saturday, continue to decline food. They anticipate that their food strike will go on through the end of the week, as the US Senate debates the voting rights legislation. They hope that Senator Sinema will acknowledge their actions—but so far they have received nothing but radio silence from her.
On Tuesday, the hunger strikers and their supporters delivered a 200-serving cake iced with the message “voting rights now” to Sinema’s office. They also brought with them handwritten letters to the senator expressing their concern over her inaction on voting rights. The senator’s staff refused to accept either the cake or the letters.
Wilbur talks about her 18-year-old son. She doesn’t want him to come of age in a world where legislators are rolling back generations’ worth of hard-fought-for political rights. And she doesn’t want him to have to be fighting to regain these rights for the rest of his life.
“I would like for my senator to do the right thing,” Wilbur says. “At some point in time in all of our lives, we have to look at the things we do and what we want to be remembered by.”