Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: Harris vs. Sanchez is a tale of two Californias

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, center, was born in Lynwood, a poor city in southern Los Angeles County, and graduated from high school in working-class Anaheim. She is one of seven children born to Mexican immigrants, a machinist and a secretary.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, center, was born in Lynwood, a poor city in southern Los Angeles County, and graduated from high school in working-class Anaheim. She is one of seven children born to Mexican immigrants, a machinist and a secretary. The Associated Press

Are you a Kamala or a Loretta?

Attorney General Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez – the leading candidates for U.S. Senate next year – confront Californians with a choice. But it’s not a choice about competing policies.

Californians don’t have political arguments about what we believe any more. Harris and Sanchez are both Democrats in a one-party state, where today’s disputes are over just how many resources to devote to the causes we favor.

No, this is a choice about identity, personality and culture. This is about who you are. And where you live.

The contest between Harris – who grew up mostly in the Bay Area and has made her adult life there – and Sanchez – a Southern Californian to the core – shows how the differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles have changed and endured.

And while our race-obsessed media like to emphasize that Harris is black and South Asian and that Sanchez is Latina, the heart of the difference between the candidates, and their regions, is class.

Harris comes off as a 21st-century aristocrat – poised, disciplined, distant. Born and raised in the Bay Area by two academics who also were immigrants, she graduated from Howard University (the “Black Harvard”). In this, she’s representative of the rising Bay Area, an upper-middle-class island of advanced education in a struggling state.

Sanchez was born in Lynwood, a poor city in southern Los Angeles County, and graduated from high school in working-class Anaheim. One of seven children born to Mexican immigrants, a machinist and a secretary, she earned her degree from Chapman, an underdog college that more recently gained renown. She represents a Southern California that has become more working-class, with education levels stagnant, median income falling and fewer payroll jobs than two decades ago.

In these two regions, people rise differently. Harris has climbed the Bay Area’s established ladders in law and politics. Sanchez came out of nowhere to take on Orange County’s entrenched Republicans and knock Bob Dornan out of Congress in 1996.

Harris, who knows where she stands in the Bay Area’s clear pecking order, is direct and decisive. She entered the U.S. Senate race with a well-articulated plan. Sanchez, from a sprawling region where status is harder to discern, played Hamlet before entering the race.

They talk differently. Harris follows the Bay Area fashion by inventing jargon to obscure more than explain; her book talks endlessly about “rocking the crime pyramid.”

Sanchez is clearer, but bawdier. Her holiday cards show her riding a motorcycle and wearing a tank top. Southern Californians, blasé about loose-talking pols, have let Sanchez get away with saying impolitic things on race and ethnicity.

Now running statewide, she needs to clean up her act; she got into trouble for making a “war cry” gesture to describe Native Americans at the state party convention.

The reaction to Sanchez’s candidacy splits along geographic lines. Northern pundits question whether someone so gravitas-deficient can be considered a serious contender. Further south – where people know that politicians practically have to set themselves on fire to get on TV – pundits have shrugged, “Isn’t that just Loretta?”

Of course, not all of us are Kamalas and Lorettas. You might be a Rocky Chavez – the San Diego Republican military vet. I have a Kamala education, but, as a bombastic Southern Californian with working-class roots, I’m a Loretta at heart.

For now, the Kamalas are ascendant, as is Harris in the polls. Northern California politicians and interests are in charge in the state because northerners vote far more often than we apathetic southerners.

But if working-class Los Angeles were to awaken and assert itself at the polls, California might become a messier place, more freewheeling and fun. More like Loretta.

Joe Mathews is California and innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

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