Sen. Kyrsten Sinema grew up poor, so poor that, according to her telling, at least, at one point her family lived in an abandoned gas station without utilities or running water. On the campaign trail, the Arizona independent is quick to recount childhood struggles with poverty and homelessness, often recounting how she relied on free school meals subsidized by the government to survive.
Since her own impoverished upbringing, Sinema has championed the very same businesses exploiting Americans in poverty, chief among them the payday lending industry. Such lenders have donated more cash to Sinema than any other sitting senator.
Before taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash from payday lenders for her congressional races, Sinema joined forces with a sometime ally of the industry to form their own company.
In 2007, according to Arizona LLC filings, Sinema started a consulting firm with her friend and former Democratic state Rep. Chad Campbell, a major backer of industry-backed bills in the legislature who would go on to become a payday loan industry lobbyist in Arizona.
Sinema’s alliance with Campbell foreshadowed her political transformation, an evolution that, as her power grew in national politics, saw the onetime progressive shun her roots as a Green Party member and anti-war activist to embrace the very industries she once railed against.
The firm, Forza Consulting LLC, remains active, according to filings, though there is no public indication of corporate activity. Campbell and Sinema are the principals in the company, with Sinema listed as manager, alongside former Democratic state Rep. David Lujan.
“It was just a consulting company we had thought about creating,” Campbell, who served in the Arizona State Legislature from 2007 to 2015, told The Intercept. “And we never had a single thing with it ever. Never existed, in essence.” Hannah Hurley, a spokesperson for Sinema, said the same. “Forza Consulting was formed in the early 2000’s but never engaged in any business or transactions,” she said.
In Congress, Sinema consistently took positions aligned with payday lenders.
Payday lenders charge exorbitant fees for short-term loans with interest rates as high as 400 percent, named because borrowers are expected to pay off the loans with their next paycheck. The loans, however, are considered predatory and banned or restricted in 18 states because they can lead to a chain of further loans that bury borrowers in debt.
“The vast majority of payday and title loans result in another loan,” notes a 2016 report by the Center for American Progress. “Eighty percent of payday and auto title loans will be rolled over or followed by an additional loan within just two weeks of the initial loan, as borrowers are unable to afford other essential expenses. The median payday loan borrower is in debt for more than six months, and 15 percent of new loans will be followed by a series of at least 10 additional loans.”
Arizona has seen a decade-and-a-half-long fight over payday lending. The lending firms, often storefront operations, operated in the state thanks to a long-standing interest rate exemption. As the expiration date on the exemption approached, both industry advocates and opponents ramped up their work on the issue.
Among the earlier salvos was a 2007 bill in the Legislature that would allow payday lenders to continue operating in the state with capped interest rates and require additional screening measures. Opponents of the bill said it didn’t go far enough and left too much discretion in lenders’ hands. Its proponents dubbed the bill a thorough reform effort that provided necessary loan options for those facing difficult circumstances.
“Saying that people who are in hard financial straits need access to this kind of credit is sort of like giving a starving person rotten food,” Whitney Barkley-Denney, senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, told The Intercept. “It makes them sicker than they were in the first place. People who borrow with payday loans find themselves facing bankruptcy, foreclosure, and worse. So the solution to the problems so many people face is higher wages and better jobs, instead of loans that sink them further and further into financial insecurity.”
Among the supporters of the 2007 bill were a lobbyist representing payday lending interests, as well as Chad Campbell, then a state representative from Phoenix. The bill ultimately failed in the Legislature.
In 2008, another attempt by the loan industry to maintain its foothold in the state died at the hands of Arizona voters. Industry groups spent millions promoting Proposition 200, a ballot measure which would have rolled back interest rate caps set to take effect in 2010. Arizona voters defeated the measure by a 3-to-2 margin.
“Saying that people who are in hard financial straits need access to this kind of credit is sort of like giving a starving person rotten food.”
After 2010, the payday lending industry was forced to comply with newly lowered rates, but that didn’t stop loan providers from launching a renewed effort to claw back business.
In 2017, two years after Campbell left the Arizona Legislature, industry-backed workaround bills were advanced to create new loan options that function similarly to payday loans but with names like “flex loans” and “consumer lines of credit.” One bill that would have allowed loans with interest rates exceeding 100 percent was on a fast track to passing in 2017 but was eventually held at bay.
Around that time, Campbell began lobbying for payday loan interests. He was registered in Arizona between 2017 and 2020 as a lobbyist for the Arizona Financial Choice Association, an industry trade group advocating on behalf of the lenders and a chief backer of the failed 2008 ballot measure to allow payday lenders to keep operating. Campbell insisted that the group did not represent payday lenders.
“There is no payday lending. It’s not payday lending,” he said. “I actually helped kill payday lending in Arizona when I was in the Legislature, so I wouldn’t work for payday lending.”
The Arizona Financial Choice Association had come under fire in 2016, when Democratic state Rep. Debbie McCune Davis called for an investigation into its letter drive to support legislation backing the creation of “flex loans.” McCune Davis said that many of the signatories on letters delivered to state politicians didn’t understand the content of the bill, and in some cases, didn’t even understand what the letter was for. “Kyrsten did not engage in anything related to the interests of Arizona Financial Choice Association with Chad Campbell,” said Hurley.
“I was working on a compromise piece of legislation at the state level with the industry at the time,” Campbell said, discussing the period he was registered to lobby.
“By law, I had registered as a lobbyist because that’s how it works here,” Campbell said. “I just had to do it as a formality. But I never worked at the federal level with them in any capacity.”
“So, like I said, this had nothing to do with Kyrsten Sinema in any way shape or form.” Campbell said.
Community Choice Financial, one of the payday lenders represented by the Arizona Financial Choice Association, has donated $21,000 dollars to Sinema since 2016.
The donations were part of Sinema’s haul from payday lenders. She has received the most money of any active senator from the industry, $168,000, and comes in third as among lifetime industry recipients, behind Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Forza Consulting LLC, the firm Sinema started with Campbell, has not appeared on any of Sinema’s U.S. House or Senate disclosure forms, despite the company’s active status. Another consultancy she incorporated, Sinema Consulting LLC, does appear in disclosures.
Sinema and Campbell served together in the Arizona House of Representatives until 2010, a period that encompassed the first three years after Forza Consulting LLC’s founding in 2007. Sinema went on to the state Senate, then U.S. Congress, while Campbell stayed on in the state House for five more years.
Since their time in state politics, the pair have remained friends. Campbell, for his part, has consistently defended Sinema’s rightward turn. “She believes in the rules and believes in the processes, and she’ll figure out how to use those rules and processes to her advantage to get things done and bring people into alignment with her goals,” he told Mother Jones in 2021. Campbell has also sung Sinema’s praises to The Associated Press and the New York Times.
The two also have more recent financial ties. In 2014, Campbell was listed as a board member of the Arizona-based political mobilization organization Leading for Change. The same year, Sinema received more than $3,000 in income from the organization — a fee for leading a training. Campbell said he did not facilitate the job and that Sinema was connected to the organization long before he joined the board. “Kyrsten introduced Chad to the Leading for Change non-profit,” said Hurley.
Since ascending to the U.S. Senate, Sinema has used her increasingly powerful vote to advocate for concessions to the private equity industry, block filibuster reform, and doom progressives’ top priorities.
Last month, she split with the Democratic Party to once again become an independent — signaling that, in the new Congress, her political alignment may stray even further from the liberals of the Democratic Party.
Long before her departure from the party, Sinema consistently rebuffed consumer protection advocates’ attempts to regulate the payday lending industry and repeatedly championed lending groups. She attempted to block reform efforts and sponsored legislation to shield loan companies from federal oversight.
Sinema has used her increasingly powerful vote to advocate for concessions to the private equity industry, block filibuster reform, and doom progressives’ top priorities.
In 2016, she joined Republicans in signing a letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, condemning the agency’s work reining in payday lenders. In just two days — the day before the letter was sent and the day it went out — she received over $10,000 in donations from the payday lending industry.
In July of the same year, she voted against an amendment that would have stripped language from a House appropriations bill attempting to defund the CFPB’s efforts targeting predatory lenders. She also co-sponsored the Consumer Protection and Choice Act, which sought to shield payday lenders from the CFPB by substituting federal regulatory authority with pro-lender legislation.
Her repeated efforts to chisel away at the CFPB’s enforcement powers — and the means by which she pursued her campaign — soured Sinema’s relationship with progressives in Washington, including the ornery Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. Sinema had claimed the former representative supported her efforts to replace the CFPB with a bipartisan commission — a claim Frank said was false and elicited a fiery letter from him in 2015.
“I write this only because you misrepresented my position, seeking inaccurately to portray me as having switched on the matter,” Frank wrote. “I am not surprised when right-wing Republicans do this but disappointed that you joined them in this tactic.”
Update: February 14, 2022
This story was updated to include comment from a spokesperson for Sinema.