Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, in an interview with Univision 19 that aired this weekend, suggested that President Barack Obama’s endorsement of U.S. Senate rival Kamala Harris was in part based on race.
Sanchez was asked why the president had endorsed Harris in the unusual race between two Democrats this year. Speaking in Spanish, she noted that Obama and Harris are longtime friends, then added: “She is African American. He is, too.”
Sanchez, in a statement after the interview aired, said she “in no way” implied or intended to imply Obama endorsed Harris for racial reasons. “I was stating the fact that the endorsement was based on their long-term political relationship,” she said.
Her remarks come days after she ripped Obama for endorsing Harris, arguing he should be focused on helping Democrats win the presidential race rather than inserting himself in a contest between two party members.
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“California’s Senate seat does not belong to the political establishment – it belongs to the people of California,” Sanchez said, adding she believes voters will make their own choice in November.
Anxieties between African Americans and Latinos have been an underlying, yet seldom discussed, issue in California politics. Sanchez has aggressively courted Latinos in her campaign to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. She has spoken about her Mexican American roots and her ability to speak Spanish. “I think we need a Latina in the U.S. Senate,” Sanchez said in January.
She also has tapped the support of Republicans who view Harris as too liberal.
Harris, the state’s top law enforcement official and its highest-ranking black elected leader, has increasingly waded into the complex tensions between police officers and people of color.
Born to a Jamaican father and Indian mother, Harris said after the shooting of five officers in Dallas that she doesn’t know a black man, be he a relative, a colleague or a friend, that has not been subjected to racial profiling or an unfair stop.
She also has attributed the rise of hate crimes motivated by religion to a national ratcheting up of anger and division in political discourse.
In response to Sanchez’s interview with Univision, Harris’ campaign manager Juan Rodriguez said, “At a time when there is so much divisive rhetoric flowing through our politics, it’s especially disappointing to see a Democratic member of Congress make those comments.”
Sanchez has been criticized for making comments about race and ethnicity in the past.
In December, Muslim and immigrant rights activists called on Sanchez to apologize after she said that between 5 and 20 percent of Muslims want to form a caliphate to target Western norms. The California Immigrant Policy Center accused Sanchez of being “wildly off-the-mark” and said the claims were irresponsible and dangerous, when “Islamophobic rhetoric is spurring troubling incidents of hate.”
Sanchez said she based the figure on her experiences, talks with world leaders and “thoughtful and scholarly discussion about extremist trends” in books, articles and surveys.
Earlier in the year, at a political meeting with an Indian American group, Sanchez mimicked a racial stereotype of American Indians, putting her hand to her mouth and making a whooping sound.
In 2010, facing a challenge from Republican Van Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant, Sanchez said on 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.”
Sanchez apologized for her “poor choice of words” after Tran called it a “racial rampage.” Still, she accused Tran of taking “a cheap political shot.”
Obama’s endorsement, which he jointly made last week with Vice President Joe Biden, credited Harris as being a leading voice for criminal justice reform, challenging old dogma and insisting we be “smart on crime” by ending mass incarceration.
Harris’ campaign countered Sanchez’s rebuke of the president with a statement from four Latino officials. Former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, Speaker Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia applauded Harris for standing up for undocumented children and said Obama’s words were deserved.
“In this time that we see hate and division coursing through our politics on the national stage,” the statement said, “Californians deserve a senator like Kamala who fights to unite communities across our state with common purpose and gets real results for our people.”