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Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema tried her hand as winery intern in Sonoma County

Winemaking doesn’t seem like it blends with policymaking. But maybe the former can offer a much-needed respite from the latter.

Last summer, Three Sticks Winery in Sonoma had an unexpected name among its paid student interns. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, worked a two-week intern stint at the beginning of the annual wine grape harvest.

Three Sticks winemaker Ryan Prichard said Sinema did everything the other interns did: grape sampling, sorting fruit, cleaning equipment, getting the wine cellar ready to receive newly picked grapes.

For her manual labor, Sinema was paid the entry-level intern rate of $1,117.40, Prichard confirmed.

Her winery work didn’t surface publicly until May when Business Insider reported about a federal financial disclosure by Sinema, who is paid $174,000 a year as a senator, revealing the paid internship. A spokesperson for the senator told the Insider the Senate Ethics Committee had preapproved the winery intern work.

Messages left by me to Sinema’s offices in Washington and Phoenix to learn about why she sought the summer work at the Sonoma winery were not returned.

Let me quickly digress to be sure everybody is up to speed on Sinema and why she’s gained national prominence as a junior senator. Sinema, who was elected to Congress in 2018, has made a name for herself for her staunch bipartisanship and unwillingness to ditch the filibuster, a maneuver that would allow her Democratic party to clear the way in the Senate to pass President Joe Biden’s centerpiece policies over fervent Republican opposition.

Bipartisanship, that longtime hallmark of the Senate, has gotten almost impossible to achieve since Biden took office in January, after defeating President Donald Trump, a Republican.

The 100-member Senate is evenly split between Republicans and the Democratic caucus, which includes two independents. In order for the Democrats to pass most critical bills, such as national voting rights legislation aimed at curbing restrictions on voting championed by Republicans, they’ll almost certainly need to try to toss the filibuster. The tactic of parliamentary procedure allows one senator to delay or prevent debate or votes on a specific bill unless 60 senators vote to end debate.

The filibuster is a powerful legislative device, but it isn’t part of the Constitution. It came about in 1806 due to a change in Senate rules and it was first used in 1837.

Sinema and a colleague in the Senate, Joe Manchin, a Democrat of West Virginia, have staked out their positions. They won’t abandon bipartisanship or the filibuster. With critical legislation on voting rights, infrastructure and immigration in the offing, the political odd couple have faced plenty of criticism within their own party for a continuing commitment to work with Republicans — no matter if it endangers passage of those policies.

Many Democrats have seized, in particular, on the voting rights issue, suggesting that if Republican-backed restrictions on voting are left in place, that party will gain a stranglehold on both houses of Congress for years to come. They also point out that both Democrats and Republicans have already weakened the filibuster, with Democrats disallowing it for most judicial appointments and Republicans ending it for Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court.

Sinema and Manchin, however, point to the filibuster’s importance in forcing the parties to compromise.

“The filibuster compels moderation and helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles,” Simena wrote in a June 21 opinion piece in the Washington Post.

Back in Northern California, far away from the U.S. Capitol, Sinema took part of her August 2020 recess from legislative work to see firsthand what winemaking looks like from the bottom-up in Wine Country.

She was one of six or seven interns who worked with the small team, including Prichard, at Three Sticks.

“She really just jumped in as a student intern,” he said. “She was really gung-ho.”

Three Sticks is a boutique winery owned by Bill Price and his family that produces about 10,000 cases a year of pinot noir and chardonnay wines. The winery started in 2002 and has a tasting room just off the square in Sonoma.

Three Sticks sells most of its wine to consumers who are members of its wine club. The wines also are available on a selective basis in restaurants around the country.

Prichard said Sinema was familiar with Three Sticks’ wines, spends time in the historic city and so reached out to the winery to inquire about an internship.

“She was interested in learning the process of winemaking,” he said, noting she was a hard worker in the wine cellar.

Sinema’s connection to Sonoma is unclear. She’s apparently returning in August for a fundraiser at MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa, a luxury property in Sonoma, where overnight rates start in the summer at $950. It’s a spot where she held an event last year.

Her temporary work at Three Sticks added to Sinema's growing list of firsts: Arizona’s first female senator, the state’s first Democratic senator since 1995, the first out bisexual person elected to the U.S. Senate and the nation’s first senator to work as an intern at the Sonoma winery.

“She was full-in and a great asset to the team,” Prichard said. “It ended up being a great experience for us. Hope she enjoyed it.”

Asked if he’d consider hiring another federal lawmaker interested in winemaking as a winery intern, the winemaker replied with a chuckle,

“We’d vet them and see if they are Three Sticks’ material.”

Send your tips and ideas as this column chronicles the local economic post-pandemic recovery to paul.bomberger@pressdemocrat.com. Call or text 215-237-4448. Or you can message @BiznewsPaulB on Twitter.

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