Capitol Alert

Senate candidate Loretta Sanchez appears to disparage American Indians

U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez was criticized after making a remark about American Indians that Attorney General Kamala Harris criticized.
U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez was criticized after making a remark about American Indians that Attorney General Kamala Harris criticized. Los Angeles Times

Two days after entering the race for the U.S. Senate, Rep. Loretta Sanchez met with an Indian American group on Saturday and mimicked a racial stereotype of American Indians.

In a video shown to The Sacramento Bee and posted online shortly after, Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, describes a pending meeting she had with an East Indian.

“I am going to his office, thinking that I am going to meet with a,” she said, holding her hand in front of her mouth and making an echo sound. “Right? ... because he said Indian American.

“And I go in there and it was great. It was just great because he said ‘I want to get my community involved.’ Involved. And that was the first time that we saw the Indian American community really come. ...”

Sanchez’s remarks came at the California Democratic Party’s convention in Anaheim, where the two Democrats seeking to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer were meeting with delegates to begin shaping the contours of the campaign.

The other candidate, Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose mother is from from India and father is African American, was provided an account of the event by a reporter after her news conference. She called it shocking. “I don’t know what to say to that,” she said.

Harris later in the evening condemned the comment. “It is shocking and there is no place for that in our public discourse,” she said.

Sanchez, asked about the gesture in the video on Saturday, explained her thinking.

“What I said was that I got a call from somebody from over the phone and he said I want to talk to you about having help from the Indian community, and I thought he meant the American Indian community, in the sense of the Native American Indian community,” she said.

Sanchez, 55, would not say if the gesture was an appropriate one for any group of people. When asked, she said only, “I think that Native Americans have an incredibly great history, and a great presence in our country, and many of them are supporting our election.”

Sanchez’s unscripted approach has caused her trouble in the past.

Facing a challenge in 2010 from Republican Van Tran, an immigrant from Vietnam, she said on Spanish-language TV that “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, who went on to lose that race, decried it as a “racial rampage.”

Sanchez responded by apologizing for her “poor choice of words” but had no such apology for Tran, who she said was taking “a cheap political shot.”

In 2000, as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention, she raised eyebrows by scheduling a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion. Al Gore, then the Democratic nominee for president, joined party leaders in complaining about the optics, and Sanchez’s slot as a featured speaker was revoked.

She agreed to move the event to Universal Studios, and her speaking spot was restored, but she declined, asserting that the ordeal had consumed “too much press.”

Before the video surfaced, Sanchez and others had been pressuring Harris to make herself more available to media. Sanchez has also been criticizing her opponent for her lack of federal experience, contrasting that to her years on the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.

“First and foremost she’s never been a legislator, so she has no legislative experience,” Sanchez said. “Secondly she has no foreign relations, military, homeland security experience. She doesn’t know ... the process of how to get things done in Washington, D.C.”

Her Senate campaign was already off to a rough start and was in doubt not 48 hours before the kickoff Thursday in Santa Ana.

After sending out an email Tuesday about the planned launch, Sanchez aides began calling reporters to explain it was a draft sent in error.

Bill Carrick, a strategist for her campaign, said that he wasn’t even sure whether she would run. But the next day, the campaign clarified Sanchez would be making an announcement at the same time and venue. Carrick could not be reached on Saturday afternoon.

Other Democrats still considering campaigns are Reps. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and John Garamendi of Walnut Grove.

Harris, in a speech to delegates, and then a nearly 25-minute news conference, said her experience as a career prosecutor and state attorney general has prepared her for the Senate.

“I think the voters are going to determine who is qualified to hold the office,” Harris, 50, said. “But I will say that over the course of the last five years, and before, I have traveled up and down the state of California talking with Californians about the issues they care about.”

Harris offered her support for the state’s $68 billion high-speed rail project, a priority of Gov. Jerry Brown and California Democrats. She also said she backed Brown’s tunnel plan to move water from Northern to Southern California.

On federal issues, Harris said she opposes giving President Barack Obama so-called fast-track authority to negotiate a trade agreement, siding with labor unions who have targeted Democrats who support it. Harris said she supports repealing the federal death penalty.

Harris came out against the Keystone XL oil pipeline but wants to see more analysis on hydraulic fracturing before taking a stand.

Christopher Cadelago: (916) 326-5538, @ccadelago

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