U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema spent most of Tuesday in Tucson, meeting officials from the VA Medical Center and the city of Tucson.
The 42-year-old Democrat, who is quick to remind locals that she grew up in the Old Pueblo, came in from the cold and talked politics with the Arizona Daily Star at a local Eegee’s.
Nearly a week after President Trump announced an emergency declaration along the southern border, Sinema said she had two major concerns — sidestepping Congress’ traditional role in appropriating funds for national security and using funds set aside for military readiness to fund border security.
“It is our job to address the issues of immigration and border security. Now, admittedly, Congress has massively failed in that effort over the last 30 years. We should step up and do our job,” she said.
Sinema said she’s concerned that Luke Air Force Base could lose tens of millions of dollars in funding already approved by Congress to bring another squadron of F-35s to the region.
“At Luke Air Force Base, we fought very hard last year to get an additional $40 million appropriated for the expansion of the F-35 project. We are currently slated to finish the expansion of Luke Air Force Base by March of 2021 that would allow us to bring in six squadrons of F-35s. That’s important for military readiness, for national security,” she said.
During the interview, Sinema didn’t discuss any strategies to overturn the emergency declaration directly.
Locally, Sinema has approached federal officials asking for an explanation for the increasing military buildup along the border, specifically the installation of rows of razor wire in Nogales, which local leaders want torn down.
“We asked to see a copy of their resolution and committed to reaching out to the Department of Homeland Security to ask them what was the rationale for increasing this physical barrier, and what was the security benefit that would come from such an action.”
Roughly two weeks since they first reached out to the Department of Homeland Security, Sinema and her staff still don’t have any numbers.
“We’re waiting to hear back from them,” she said.
Sampling a small lemon-flavored frozen Eegee’s, Sinema spent her morning with VA officials, touring the medical center’s mental health unit.
A former social worker, Sinema said she was concerned that the number of veterans who are homeless in Tucson has increased in the last year.
Many offered the freshman senator their theories, but few came with concrete data.
“No one’s really done a thorough analysis of why veteran homelessness is increasing,” she said.
She also pressed the staff on why the Tucson VA was given the lowest possible rating — one star — by the Department of Veterans Affairs last year.
There has been progress in addressing issues, albeit slowly.
“I think the director is committed to improving the rating. I think there’s still a lot of opportunity to grow. They’re not there yet,” she said.
Ratings from locals veterans are part of the problem.
“One thing that they indicated is that customer satisfaction was a part of that ranking system, and they felt like that was pulling on their score. My response is that that score matters. If your customers are not satisfied you need to do a better job at satisfying the people that you serve,” Sinema said.
Asked about her Senate office, Sinema said she still has plans to open a Tucson office — she’s already hired several staffers — but has been hamstrung by federal bureaucratic loopholes.
“In the short term, we’ll be leasing space from a federal office in downtown Tucson. We’ve identified the space,” she said.
And while they are currently working out of their homes, Sinema said her long-term strategy is to have her staffers on the road every week.
“They’ll be spending time on the road every week in smaller communities, down in Sahuarita, down in Benson, et cetera,” she said.