Loretta Sanchez, a congresswoman from Santa Ana, paused briefly and then smiled after taking a question recently on what distinguishes her from fellow Democrat Kamala Harris, the early favorite to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.
A writer for a bilingual news website observed that Harris, the state attorney general, “has done a good job in the eyes of many people.” What could Californians expect to hear should Sanchez risk her two-decade House career to challenge for the Senate?
“Kamala Harris has no federal experience,” Sanchez replied to the crowd of Democratic activists in San Francisco, looking and sounding like a candidate. She then criticized Harris for her inability to speak Spanish.
“So with 30, 40 percent of the population, she can’t talk to them,” Sanchez added in Spanish. “Understanding the (Latino) community is quite important.”
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The answer, unscripted and emphatic, was quintessential Sanchez, a force in Orange County politics since she unseated a heavily favored congressman, conservative firebrand Bob Dornan, by fewer than 1,000 votes in 1996. In addition to stirring anticipation about a Senate run, the Bay Area appearance reinforced her reputation as a hard-nosed campaigner with connections she could tap for needed resources.
Sanchez, 55, has said she’ll decide whether to enter the race as soon as this week. Those also mulling bids include Democratic Reps. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, John Garamendi of Walnut Grove and Adam Schiff of Burbank. Assemblyman Rocky Chávez of Oceanside is the only major Republican in the contest.
Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, where Sanchez graduated and now teaches and serves on the board, said she is scrappy when she’s perceived as the underdog.
“That’s exactly when she gets feisty,” Smoller said. “‘I am the outsider … and I am representing people the establishment would ignore.’
“She has that independent streak, the Loretta character where she isn’t undisciplined, but she also isn’t controlled,” he added. “It’s part of her authenticity. There is little virtue in being something she’s not: stilted or scripted.”
Sanchez’s direct approach has helped her withstand repeated challenges at home, where she regularly returns to participate in local events. Yet a statewide race could magnify any miscues, particularly against a disciplined campaigner like Harris.
Criticizing an opponent for not being bilingual could bother voters, said Mike Schroeder, a former state GOP chairman and lawyer for Dornan.
He said Sanchez’s relatively business-friendly record could help win support from middle-of-the-road independents as well as some Republicans, but she would need to “stay on message and not (come) out in a way that would alienate any community.”
In 2010, facing a challenge from Republican Van Tran, an immigrant from Vietnam, Sanchez said on the Spanish-language network Univision that “the Vietnamese and Republicans” were attempting “to take this seat from us … and give it to this Van Tran, who is very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic.”
Tran decried it as a “racial rampage.” Sanchez apologized for her “poor choice of words” but not to Tran, who she said was taking “a cheap political shot.”
Republican George Andrews, a former Orange County operative who served as Tran’s campaign manager, said he came away from the race viewing Sanchez as a relentless campaigner whose mercurial style has at times caused people to underestimate her.
“She’s not like most other members of Congress. She thinks in terms of campaign strategy,” Andrews said. Still, he noted that she hasn’t yet competed in a top-of-the-ticket race. “You have seen candidates crumble when they have had to deal with the statewide press,” he said.
Wylie Aitken, Sanchez’s confidant, financier, attorney and original campaign chairman, said she is looking at the race “very, very seriously, and doing all of the appropriate due diligence.” He said one thing Sanchez won’t do is change.
“Knowing Loretta all these years, I can say she is consistent,” Aitken said. “She will say what’s on her mind, because with Loretta, what you see is what you get.”
In the personality-driven world of politics, Sanchez has developed a following outside of Washington, D.C. Her holiday greeting cards, including past iterations featuring her late cat, Gretzky (1991-2010), have inspired Internet sideshows.
Sanchez in last year’s version is pictured with her husband, retired Army Col. Jack Einwechter, decked out in Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim gear. “She’s always an angel in Congress …” the card read.
She and her sister, Rep. Linda Sánchez, a Whittier Democrat who unlike Loretta uses an accent in her name, wrote a book about their lives and careers as the first (and only) sisters to serve in Congress.
As vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention in 2000, Loretta Sanchez stirred controversy by scheduling a Hispanic Unity USA PAC fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.
Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee for president, joined party leaders in complaining about the optics, and Sanchez’s slot as a featured speaker was revoked. It was restored after she agreed to move the fundraiser to Universal Studios, but she ultimately declined to speak, asserting that the ordeal had consumed “too much press.” A DNC spokeswoman at the time lamented the loss, calling Sanchez “one of our rising stars.”
Sanchez touts her work on the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. She’s a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and co-chairs the Immigration Task Force. In her campaigns, she highlights her votes opposing the bank bailout and authorizing military force in Iraq. She also has stressed her efforts to protect human rights in Vietnam and curb sexual assaults in the U.S. military.
In her San Francisco appearance this month, sponsored by Latino groups, she reiterated her commitment to protecting the health care overhaul, held up Orange County’s wastewater treatment system as a model and spoke about the need for federal immigration reform.
Sanchez said she’s hopeful the courts will clear President Barack Obama’s executive action to shield millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation. “We are ready to go to get people into these programs,” she said.
Sanchez would provide an “interesting mix of being serious on content, but also being very engaging on a personal level,” said Arturo Vargas, president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Vargas said he would like to see additional viable Democrats join the race.
“This should not be a coronation,” he said, comparing it to the still uncompetitive Democratic presidential field. “Is Kamala Harris the Hillary Clinton of California? I think that’s something the (state Democratic) party needs to ask. Is that the best strategy for itself?”
Whoever ends up campaigning for the office must “act like nearly 40 percent of the state is Latino,” Vargas said. “It’s a very immigrant state, and (they) need to reflect that in the policy priorities that he or she pushes.”
Residence: Santa Ana
Education: Master’s of business administration, American University, 1984; economics degree, Chapman University in Orange, 1982.
Experience: Congresswoman, 1997-present; financial consultant, 1984-1996.
Committees: Armed Services; Homeland Security.
Subcommittees: Border and Maritime Security; Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies; Strategic Forces. Ranking Democrat on Tactical Air and Land Forces.
Highlights: Upset nine-term Republican Rep. Bob Dornan in 1996, then defeated him in a rematch. In addition to her committee work, Sanchez has stressed her efforts to improve access to affordable higher education, pass comprehensive immigration reform, curb sexual assaults in the U.S. military and protect human rights in Vietnam.