California Elections

Does Loretta Sanchez have what it takes to be California’s senator?

Loretta Sanchez wants your vote

I'm the most qualified for the U.S. Senate, says Rep. Loretta Sanchez. The 20-year veteran of Congress is running against California Attorney General Kamala Harris in the June 7 primary.
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I'm the most qualified for the U.S. Senate, says Rep. Loretta Sanchez. The 20-year veteran of Congress is running against California Attorney General Kamala Harris in the June 7 primary.

Whether she’s sending out cat Christmas cards, mimicking a Native American war whoop, or suggesting that up to 20 percent of Muslims might resort to violence to overthrow the Western way of life, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California is known as much for her personality as her policy.

But as the Orange County Democrat runs to take the place of the retiring Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate, she’s betting Californians will look at her record in the House and find her more capable of representing the state than Attorney General Kamala Harris, whom she faces in the June 7 primary election.

“Loretta Sanchez tends to say what’s on her mind – sometimes that’s helpful to her, sometimes not,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “That penchant tends to obscure her more substantive work in Congress.”

Under California election rules, Sanchez and Harris, both Democrats, could end up as the contenders in the November general election, too.

Sanchez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, is a national leader on issues of military sexual assault and expanding women’s combat roles. She’s a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Homeland Security Committee.

Sanchez also is well regarded in Orange County for steering federal dollars back to her district. She’s considered a friend to business.

“She’s served as the only Democrat from Orange County in Congress for a long time and she’s done well in that role,” said Curt Pringle, former Republican speaker of the state Assembly who was mayor of Anaheim for eight years.

“She does sometimes step in it,” said Pringle, who now owns a lobbying and public relations firm in Anaheim. “But those of us who have watched her – she has been in Congress since 1996 – understand that while once in a while she trips over something, it doesn’t necessarily diminish her broader value.”

Sanchez is in a tough position against Harris, who is leading in the polls and who won the California Democratic Party’s endorsement at last month’s state party convention with nearly 80 percent of the votes. Ted Vaill, a delegate from Malibu, recalled Sanchez mimicking a stereotypical American Indian war whoop at the Democratic convention last year (she later apologized). “Loretta Sanchez is a dingbat,” he said.

Sanchez, though, has been underestimated in the past, and she stands to benefit from how California’s election system works. The two candidates who get the most votes in the June primary – regardless of their party – advance to face one another in the November general election.

With the Republicans in the race trailing in polls and fundraising, Sanchez is in a strong position to make the November runoff election against Harris.

“We will be either number one or number two in the June primary,” Sanchez said in an interview. “And by November, when people understand I’m one of them, that I’m not the establishment, that I have the experience, that I know how to work with everybody, that I am an independent thinker – I believe when they know that, the majority of Californians will vote Loretta Sanchez.”

Sanchez is the second of seven children born to Mexican immigrants. Her sister, Linda Sanchez of Whittier, is also in the House. They are the only sisters ever to both serve in Congress.

The U.S. Senate needs

Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California

Sanchez recalled cleaning houses with her mother on the weekends to help her brother afford to live in the dormitory at the University of Southern California. She credits the Head Start program for families in poverty for giving her a boost and speaks in Congress about the importance of the program.

“Her background – immigrant family, hardworking, a big family, religious faith – mirrors the life that a lot of our carpenters have,” said John Hanna, government affairs director for the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, which endorsed Sanchez.

Sanchez, 56, grew up in Anaheim and graduated from Chapman University in Orange. She has an MBA from American University in Washington and worked as a financial analyst. She burst to political prominence with her 1996 upset of combative arch-conservative Congressman “B-1” Bob Dornan, and has been in the House since, known for a quirky and iconoclastic style, including offbeat and at times coquettish Christmas cards.

The cards often star Gretzky, her cat. One featured Sanchez in a tank top on a motorcycle with Gretzky on the handlebars. In another card, Sanchez snuggled in bed with Gretzky, with Sanchez in pink flannel pajamas and the cat wearing a Santa cap.

She’s been known to get into hot water, horrifying Democratic Party leaders by scheduling a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion during the party’s 2000 national convention in Los Angeles. Al Gore, the party’s nominee for president at the time, objected, and Sanchez lost her spot as a featured speaker at the convention.

Sanchez drew criticism in December for suggesting on “PoliticKING with Larry King” that up to 20 percent of Muslims are potential terrorists.

“We know that there is a small group, and we don’t know how big that is – it can be anywhere between 5 and 20 percent, from the people that I speak to – that Islam is their religion and who have a desire for a caliphate and to institute that in any way possible, and in particular go after what they consider Western norms – our way of life,” Sanchez said, adding, “They are willing to use, and they do use, terrorism, and it is in the name of a very wrong way of looking at Islam.”

In an interview with McClatchy, Sanchez sought to clarify the comments by emphasizing that she told King she does not know how many Muslims are extremists. She has previously pointed to the Harvard University Press book “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue” by Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris, as one of her sources, in which noted atheist author Harris estimates 20 percent of global Muslims are “Islamists.”

Sanchez, in her interview with McClatchy, also addressed remarks she made in January while campaigning in Sacramento, where Sanchez declared: “I think we need a Latina in the U.S. Senate.”

“The U.S. Senate needs this Latina,” Sanchez said in the interview. “Why, because I have the life experience of Californians, the international and military and counterterrorism experience and because I’m the only candidate with a voting record, the only one that knows how to work the Congress.”

Sanchez voted against invading Iraq and against the Patriot Act. She’s a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally moderate Democrats in Congress, and said “everything must be on the table” in dealing with deficit issues. She tends to be a reliable vote for House Democratic leaders and had a 75 percent score from the influential liberal group Americans for Democratic Action for her voting record in 2014, the most recent year tracked.

The military concerns on which she has most energetically engaged are people issues, such as equal pay and sexual harassment, rather than matters of strategy and technology

Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute

Sanchez has been endorsed by 17 of the 39 California Democrats in the U.S. House. The bulk of that support comes from Southern California but her backers also include Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, who has praised her willingness to go after federal money for water and transportation projects.

Harris, for her part, lists endorsements from eight California House Democrats (the others are steering clear of the race). The list of Harris backers includes Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, who said in an interview that he is positive about Sanchez as well but agreed to endorse Harris when she got in the race first.

Bera said Sanchez “has done a lot on Armed Services and Homeland Security – that’s been her focus.”

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute think tank near Washington, said Sanchez consistently supported troop funding despite her opposition to the Iraq war and to the surge in forces.

“Loretta Sanchez is a liberal whose positions on defense tend to mirror her views on domestic issues,” said Thompson, who is also a defense industry consultant. “The military concerns on which she has most energetically engaged are people issues, such as equal pay and sexual harassment, rather than matters of strategy and technology.”

Sanchez’ opponent in her 2010 House race, Van Tran, criticized her for getting only a single bill passed during her time in Congress, a measure to name a post office in Santa Ana. Sanchez, though, has been successful at getting her amendments into the National Defense Authorization Act, the sprawling budget that sets policy for the Department of Defense.

Greg Jacob, former policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network, said his group often went to Sanchez for assistance in fighting the epidemic of sexual assault in the military.

“Congresswoman Sanchez has always been at the leading edge of the fight in regard to this issue,” said Jacob, a Marine Corps combat veteran who closely tracked her work on the Armed Services Committee. “She is a real strong member of the committee; she drives a lot of the debate.”

Sanchez is also a leader in the effort to expand military roles for women, said retired Col. Ellen Haring, program director of the Combat Integration Initiative at Women in International Security.

“I think the only other woman in Congress who works as hard on women’s veterans and servicewoman’s issues is Congresswoman (Martha) McSally – who is very junior,” Haring said.

Sanchez is the second ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, a position largely based on seniority. She fought to become the top Democrat on the committee and came in second in a three-way vote of the House Democratic caucus in 2010, losing to Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state on a 97 to 86 vote.

Sanchez attributed the result to Democrats in Congress who didn’t think she should challenge Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, another Latino who was in line for the job.

“It’s the most macho committee in the Congress,” Sanchez said.

She is not a left ideologue, which is probably a handicap for her in a primary.

Buck McKeon, former Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee

Buck McKeon, a Santa Clarita Republican who chaired the Armed Services Committee before retiring from Congress in 2014, said Sanchez works with Republicans.

“She is not a left ideologue, which is probably a handicap for her in a primary,” said McKeon, who is now a lobbyist in Washington.

Since announcing for Senate last May, Sanchez has spent more time in California and less in Washington. She missed 20 percent of the House votes last year (15 percent in the months before announcing her run), according to a GovTrack analysis, and 35 percent so far this year.

She’s missed a total of about 7 percent of the votes since coming to Congress in 1997, according to GovTrack, compared to a median of 2.3 percent for her colleagues. She said she missed a flurry of votes last year when she briefly got sick and is proud of her voting record in Congress.

Her campaign is trying to win over undecideds like Chris Bowen of West Hollywood, who heard Sanchez speak to the Stonewall Young Democrats, a gay rights group

He said he was appalled at Sanchez’ comments about Muslims but felt better after discovering she had sources for her statistics. He said he was impressed after hearing her speak.

Bowen is not sure whether he’ll support her, but pointed to Sanchez’ votes against the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, and her backing of Apple in its court fight with the FBI.

“You would expect these types of stances from someone from Berkeley or something like that,” he said. “But not from Orange County. And for her to continue getting elected by healthy margins is really impressive.”

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham