Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from Orange County, rocked the political world nearly two decades ago when she narrowly ousted a sharp-tongued Republican congressman and then defended the seat in a rematch.
Harnessing the growing influence of fellow Latinos here, she was a fresh-faced businesswoman who still stitched her own dresses. Over the years in Washington, Sanchez climbed the ranks of the Homeland Security and the House Armed Services committees.
But she kept an eye on California, flirting with gubernatorial runs in the 2003 recall and then in 2010.
On Thursday, Sanchez took the plunge for statewide office, formally declaring her candidacy to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and pledging to use her 10 terms of experience to fight for workers, families, women, minorities and young people. The announcement, which was still in doubt not 48 hours before the event, offers the prospect of a competitive election against Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris.
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In a brief speech at the Santa Ana train station, Sanchez said she would be the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate and the first Hispanic American sent to the chamber from California. She answered some media questions in Spanish and then, hounded by a pair of Vietnamese journalists, said her elevation to the Senate would only magnify her advocacy on human rights issues.
“There are two kinds of candidates. Those who want to be something and those who want to do something. I am running for Senate because I am a doer,” Sanchez said, promising to be a “relentless force fighting for you.”
Sanchez described her family as the embodiment of the American dream. She and her sister, Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Whittier, were two of seven children born to Mexican immigrants. Their father worked in a factory and her mother later went back to school to become a teacher.
Her years in office have given her a deep understanding of the issues people here face, she said, mentioning the drought, terrorist threats, budget deficits and an immigration system in disrepair. Though the government has done a good job of securing the borders, she said, it’s time to overhaul immigration laws to ensure people living and working here can obtain legal status.
Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo, chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, which unsuccessfully tried to encourage former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to run, said that the excitement generated by a Latina candidate could translate into increased voter turnout in 2016, especially among Latinos. “And that’s good for all California Democrats,” Alejo said.
After previously criticizing Harris’ federal inexperience, Sanchez threw only glancing blows at her kickoff event, asserting that she was working on the housing crisis long before Harris secured large financial settlements with lenders. Without uttering her name, Sanchez suggested Harris was the hand-picked favorite of the party establishment, and that she has been unwilling to answer questions and too cautious in sharing her positions.
“In California, I believe that insiders don’t pick our leaders,” Sanchez said. “The voters elect our leaders.”
Sanchez touted her experience, but she declined to go into the policy differences between her and Harris. Still, when she opened the floor to questions, she added the quip – “unlike others.”
Nathan Click, Harris’ campaign spokesman, said the state attorney general looks forward to a “lively discussion about who is best equipped to help change the culture of dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and make a difference in the lives of Californians.”
Wylie Aitken, Sanchez’s campaign chairman and a key financial supporter going back to the 1996 race against former Rep. Bob Dornan, said he felt like the stars have finally aligned for Sanchez.
“I think she’s accomplished all of the things she feels she can accomplish in the House, and this is a great opportunity to make herself available to the remainder of the state,” Aitken said.
While Sanchez is regarded as a skilled fundraiser, taking in more than all of her challengers since 2000, analysts said she will need to broaden her network to catch and keep pace with Harris, who has consolidated support and raised more than $2.5 million.
“It’s all about money at this point, and Sanchez is far behind,” said Fred Smoller, a political scientist at Chapman University in Orange.
The Republicans in the race are Assemblyman Rocky Chávez of Oceanside and former state party chairman Tom Del Beccaro.
Smoller said one question is whether Sanchez could convince Southern California Republicans, who may be familiar with her relatively moderate stances on business issues, to open their wallets by arguing the seat will remain with Democrats, and that it’s better to have one from their region. Harris, a career prosecutor, is from San Francisco. Sanchez “needs to make the race about regionalism,” Smoller said.
She also could find natural allies in organized labor, as well as groups that fund women and Latinos, such as The Latino Victory Project, co-founded by Eva Longoria and Henry Muñoz.
“Just think,” Sanchez said, “if every Latino in this state would send $1 today to our campaign we would have more resources than we would need.”