Yeah, I couldn't believe it either. My girlfriend, a political junkie just like me, charged into the kitchen just the other day to ask me, "Did you know that Kyrsten Sinema spent two weeks doing an internship at a winery in California during the pandemic—and got paid for it?"
My response: "What. What!" Yes, said Kaili. She'd just heard about it during a comedy sketch on Jon Lovett's podcast. "How," I asked with extreme incredulity, "could we not have heard about this before?" She wondered the same thing. We're media professionals who follow the news obsessively, and it's not like we've had a whole lot else going on lately, what with COVID-19 and all. So W, we both marveled, TF?
Now at this point I'm guessing the story is probably news to you as well—and that in and of itself is a story. The gossipy D.C. media really has no lower bar when it comes to elevating stories about politicians behaving bizarrely, and a sitting U.S. senator taking time off in the middle of a global pandemic to make wine surely rates. But there has been virtually no coverage.
Credit to reporter Dave Levinthal at Insider for breaking the story … all the way back in May. (Again, I'm gobsmacked that I only learned of it in October, but that's the whole genesis of this piece.) Levinthal cracked the case thanks to a single line item in a new financial disclosure statement Sinema filed that month showing she'd earned $1,117.40 at Three Sticks Winery in Sonoma County.
Insider put the piece behind its paywall, so that may have slowed its uptake, but newsrooms all have subscriptions to one another's sites, and anyhow, there's always Twitter. How did this not light Twitter on fire?
Friend, it didn't. The next time anyone wrote about Sinema's wine country moonlighting wasn't until two and a half months later, when Paul Bomberger at the Press Democrat—the local paper in Sonoma—picked up on Insider's story. Bomberger's calls to Sinema's offices were ignored, but he did narrow down the timeframe of her internship to August of 2020 and was able to score a few quotes from a winemaker at Three Sticks, Ryan Prichard. ("She was full-in and a great asset to the team.")
After that, basically nothing. Politico's Playbook, which normally loves these sorts of tales, gave Bomberger's piece a one-sentence aside in a parenthetical a couple of days later. Perhaps that offhand treatment is why the many reporters who read Playbook each day somehow were not piqued, but come on. The story is as juicy as the grapes Sinema supposedly spent her days sorting.
A few smaller sites rehashed the original story, but John Gorgola at The Nation was just about the only person to really pick up the thread, wondering last month why Sinema chose this winery out of the 8,000 or 9,000 across the country. As Insider's Levinthal noted, one of the destinations listed on an invitation for a $5,000-a-person Sinema-headlined fundraiser the same month as her vineyard gig was Three Sticks.
And as Gorgola in turn pointed out, Three Sticks is owned by private equity titan William Price III. (His generational suffix—those triple vertical lines—is also how the hyper-exclusive winery, with a product that's seldom available for purchase, earned its name.) The investment firm Price founded, TPG Capital, has spent more than $10 million on lobbyists over the past decade. What's an extra $1,117.40 for another friendly ear to a man like that, especially for the target of a last-ditch persuasion campaign aimed at preserving a tax loophole beloved by Wall Street?
There, though, the trail more or less goes cold. Even the notoriously gabby Maureen Dowd only tucked in a brief reference to the story at the very end of her most recent column. But Kaili has many, many questions, and so do I—questions that reporters might like to start asking. Consider this a collaborative list from two political fiends burning with a need to know:
- A Sinema spokesperson told Insider "that the Senate Ethics Committee preapproved Sinema's work." Could we please see a copy of that letter?
- If Sinema, who makes a fetish of her love of wine (a fawning Axios piece recently described her as a "wine-drinking triathlete," as though quaffing vino were some unique trademark), were proud of her work, why didn't she announce her internship at the time?
- Relatedly, Sinema's a pretty regular Instagram user but didn't post a single photo from Three Sticks last summer. Beautiful wineries are inherently Instagrammable, so why no pics?
- There were extremely important races for president and Senate in her swingy home state last year. Why did she hie off to another (deep blue) state for two weeks not long before Election Day when Democrats were killing themselves to get out the vote in Arizona?
- Related to that, did Sinema spend any time during the August congressional recess meeting with constituents? That's what members of Congress claim they do, anyway, during their totally-not-a-vacation breaks.
- Did Sinema skip the Democratic National Convention to play winemaker? We don't know the exact dates of her internship, but the DNC was from Aug. 17-20 last year, and her high-dollar fundraiser in Sonoma was a three-day extravaganza running from August 21st through August 23rd. Did she wrap up work at the winery and then go mingle with rich donors?
- Did someone flag Sinema's financial disclosure for Insider, and if so who—and why?
- How many people applied for this internship? Did Sinema take a slot from someone else without her income ($174,000/year)? Someone who might actually be interested in a career in wine-making?
- Did she keep the money she made?
- This all went down during a pandemic (let's not forget), and before vaccines were available. What safety precautions did Sinema take? Did she think that risking exposure to COVID-19 while working a completely unnecessary side-hustle was worth it?
And above all else: How in the hell has this not been a bigger story? Every technicolor wig, every empty pronouncement, and every snide dig at fellow Democrats from Sinema merit endless attention from the Beltway press corps. But, somehow, not this—the story of the plucky senator doing a jus' reg'lar folks internship at a salt-of-the-earth winery.
Is this a Watergate-level scandal, just waiting to be blown open by a 21st century Deep Throat skulking down in the wine cellar? Of course not. But it's a really, really weird story, and given the outsize power Sinema holds as a highly disagreeable member of an evenly divided Senate, something this far out of the ordinary merits greater scrutiny. Now, let's see some.
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