DEFUNIAK SPRINGS, Fla. ‚ÄĒ The simple, cinder-block structure looks like it hasn‚Äôt been used in decades. A board covers one large window, and broken glass hangs in another. Rotten beams frame the roof. Out front, a tall, rusted light pole rises from an oval concrete pad, a ghostly reminder of the gas pumps that stood there long ago.
This former gas station and country store on a rolling ribbon of rural highway in the Florida Panhandle, across the road from an endless vista of cotton fields, is a main character in Rep. Kyrsten Sinema‚Äôs life story.
The Arizona Democrat, a rising star and formidable campaigner who is giving up her House seat to run in one of the year‚Äôs most-watched Senate races, lived there when she was a child after a sudden tumble out of the middle class.
Sinema, now 42, talks about the experience frequently on the campaign trail, crediting those difficult years with forming her political philosophy: that people should ‚Äúwork really hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps‚ÄĚ and be able to turn to the government for help when they are most vulnerable.
It‚Äôs a message she has used to position herself as a leader who can speak with authority to both disaffected voters who have had to rely on the social safety net and conservatives who oppose government aid.
Her pitch must resonate widely in Arizona if she is to succeed in her bid to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake and take a seat that has been in GOP hands for more than two decades.
Sinema described her years in poverty in a video that began her Senate campaign last year. ‚ÄúFor nearly three years, we lived in an old, abandoned gas station without running water or electricity,‚ÄĚ Sinema said. ‚ÄúSometimes, we didn‚Äôt have enough food to eat, but we got by thanks to help from family, church and, sometimes, even the government.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs really no other country in the world where a little girl who grew up homeless living in a gas station could ever dream of serving in the United States Congress and run for the United States Senate,‚ÄĚ Sinema said while campaigning in Phoenix in July.
Her distinctive approach to crafting a centrist platform appears to have put her in a strong position. Public polls have shown Sinema leading Republican Martha McSally since April, and some GOP party leaders privately voice nervousness about her potential strength in the general election.
On Tuesday, Sinema consolidated support in the Democratic Party, winning the nomination by about 60 points. McSally secured her party‚Äôs nomination with 53 percent of the Republican vote. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the Arizona race ‚ÄĒ one of the Democrats‚Äô best hopes for gaining control of the Senate ‚ÄĒ as a ‚Äútoss-up.‚ÄĚ
The way Sinema has described her early years in DeFuniak Springs, the hometown of her stepfather, has surprised a few members of his family, who say she does not adequately credit their efforts to give her a home.
‚ÄúThe child grew up being taken care of,‚ÄĚ said Susie Fleming, Sinema‚Äôs step-aunt, who still lives in DeFuniak Springs. ‚ÄúI realize this tugs at people‚Äôs heartstrings and that was what she was going for, but, you know, it‚Äôs not the truth.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWhen they decided to move out here, my dad said, ‚ÄėWe‚Äôll remodel the building and y‚Äôall can live in it,‚Äô‚ÄČ‚ÄĚ Fleming said, adding, ‚ÄúI just get angry when she says it was an abandoned gas station.‚ÄĚ Fleming and one of her brothers, John Howard, both said they recall that the structure had utilities.
Sinema stands by her description. ‚ÄúA gas station is not a home,‚ÄĚ she said in the interview. ‚ÄúIt was not designed to be a home. We had to live there because we didn‚Äôt have another place to live.‚ÄĚ
Sinema‚Äôs account is backed by her parents, other relatives and friends, some of whom were not willing to be interviewed by The Washington Post but provided statements through her campaign.
‚ÄúKyrsten is right about this challenging time in our lives,‚ÄĚ Sinema‚Äôs mother and stepfather, Marilyn and Andy Howard, who live in Utah now, wrote in a statement. ‚ÄúAfter we married, we left Tucson with the anticipation of a job in Florida which did not materialize. With no source of income, we lived in Andy‚Äôs parents‚Äô closed country gas station without electricity, bathroom facilities or running water.‚ÄĚ
All of Sinema‚Äôs friends and relatives interviewed for this article, even those with differing recollections, agree that the tough years her family experienced shaped her deeply.
Ron Wiley, an uncle on her mother‚Äôs side, said, ‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs she done recently, I think, is to explain that people can and will get out of poverty.‚ÄĚ
It was 1984 when 8-year-old Sinema saw her family‚Äôs middle-class life in Tucson unravel after her father lost his job.
‚ÄúFirst we lost our car, then we lost our home,‚ÄĚ she says in her campaign video. Her parents had divorced, and her mother soon married Howard, a Baptist who had converted to Mormonism, his new wife‚Äôs religion.
The same year, they moved with the children ‚ÄĒ Sinema, her older brother, Dan, and her younger sister, Julie ‚ÄĒ to the outskirts of DeFuniak Springs, a rural community about an hour east of Pensacola.
They were welcomed by her stepfather‚Äôs relatives, moving into the cinder-block building on a property owned by Howard‚Äôs parents, across the driveway from their house.
Sinema and her family lived for about three years in the structure while Howard, who had been a teacher and assistant principal in Arizona, sought work. After working part-time jobs for two years, he secured a full-time position with the local school district in 1986, according to employment records and Sinema‚Äôs campaign.
In addition to Howard‚Äôs parents, three of his siblings resided in the area, along with numerous nieces and nephews.
John Howard, Andy‚Äôs brother, lived in a trailer on the same property. He recalls his two children playing with Sinema and her siblings. He said the extended family ‚Äúwould all have suppers together and share work in the yard together.‚ÄĚ
A small, close-knit Mormon community also offered help.
‚ÄúMost of the food that we had during that time came from the church,‚ÄĚ Sinema said in the interview. ‚ÄúThe LDS church has a pantry where they keep a lot of nonperishable food items,‚ÄĚ she added, referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sinema recalls that period as the formative experience of her life ‚ÄĒ years of hardship that guided her career choice and her politics.
‚ÄúAll that really helped me realize how quickly things change for families,‚ÄĚ she said in the interview.
She credits her success to hard work, as well as to the food stamps, scholarships and other help that she says she and her family received along the way.
‚ÄúI was one of those people who needed some assistance when I was a kid,‚ÄĚ she said in Phoenix.
Gardner reported from Florida and Utah. Sullivan reported from Arizona and Washington. Crites reported from Washington.