AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, our second profile of a new member of Congress, Arizona Democrat Krysten Sinema. She's a trained social worker who rose quickly to the state legislature. She also grew up homeless for a time.

Peter O'Dowd from member station KJZZ has the rest of her story.

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: Sinema is also young, just 36. And on this rainy, winter morning, she's holding a regular coffee meeting with voters in Central Arizona's new 9th Congressional District.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello. Congratulations.

O'DOWD: The next time they'll meet, she'll officially be Congresswoman Sinema.

REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT KYRSTEN SINEMA: So I want to start today by giving you a couple updates. So we won the election, right? That was good. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

O'DOWD: Update number two, Sinema's got a place to live in D.C. and in office, plus she marvels at the number of women, minorities and members of the LGBT community that will join her in the freshman class. Sinema is the first openly bisexual member of Congress.

SINEMA: I'm just really proud of the Democratic caucus. I look around in our meetings, and I think we really look like America.

O'DOWD: For a while, it was unclear if the Democrat would make it this far. It took nearly a week after Election Day for Sinema to learn she'd beaten her Tea Party opponent by 10,000 votes.

SINEMA: How often can you say a kid who was homeless is going to Congress?

O'DOWD: Sinema grew up in a Mormon family. Though she's no longer affiliated with any religion, she says her family's conservative roots helped launch her career. Amid recession in the 1980s, her parents divorced. When the bank foreclosed on their home, Sinema moved into an abandoned gas station with her mom and stepdad. She says for two years, they had no toilet or electricity.

SINEMA: I kind of grew up with a mix of two things. One was kind of this individual work ethic that my father and my stepfather and my mother all taught me, which was never depend on anyone else to do things for you and work really hard on your own.

O'DOWD: And Sinema did work hard. She graduated from college at 18. She got a job as a social worker, then a law degree. In 2004, she ran for the state Legislature and won. This year, she threw in a Ph.D. for good measure.

SINEMA: At the same time, I benefited from the help of church and family and government my whole life.

O'DOWD: Democrat David Lujan was a colleague of Sinema's at the state Capitol. He says she was the smartest person there and the hardest working.

SENATOR DAVID LUJAN: I had no doubt she would be in Congress someday.

O'DOWD: Early on, Sinema formed a reputation as an outspoken advocate for women's rights and same-sex marriage. But Lujan says she also learned to moderate her tone and found Republicans to co-sponsor her bills. Even critics say they respect Sinema's charm and political skill. But Republican state Senator Frank Antenori says it's a masterful ruse.

SENATOR FRANK ANTENORI: She created this transformation as going from one of the most left-wing leftists of the state House into one of the more moderate Democrats in the state Senate, which she was a facade.

O'DOWD: And perhaps shrewd. Her district is made up of almost equal parts: Republicans, Democrats and independents. GOP political analyst Kris Mayes says to win, Sinema had to seek the middle.

KRISTIN MAYES: It is representative of a changing Arizona, such that you're going to see a much more diverse cast of characters go to Congress from Arizona than ever before.

O'DOWD: Back at the coffee shop, Sinema wraps up her hour-long chat with supporters that ranged from immigration reform to access to education. After they leave, I asked Sinema to consider the public's fascination with her.

SINEMA: I speak my mind. I'm not really afraid of things. I actually don't think that's that unusual. And I think it's not a surprise here in Arizona.

O'DOWD: The real surprise may come later. Will Sinema continue a path of moderation? Or will this new-generation congresswoman end up too liberal for Arizona voters?

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Phoenix.

CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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