Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Loretta Sanchez runs against Kamala Harris and herself

Loretta Sanchez
Loretta Sanchez dmorain@sacbee.com

Rep. Loretta Sanchez is, as pundits are wont to say, authentic, the sort of politician you could imagine inviting to a backyard barbecue.

The clichés apply: She’s unvarnished, she shoots from the lip and won’t be accused of being politically correct. It’s part of her appeal, as she runs for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer, and it is part of her problem, as was evident the other day when she brought her campaign to Sacramento.

“No onions. No beans,” she told the waiter, ordering soup at Café Á Côté, in the Ban Roll-On building. She’s allergic to one. I didn’t ask about the other. She settled for cream of mushroom, with french fries.

Later, appearing before a gathering hosted by the Latino Journal, she said, as my colleague Christopher Cadelago reported, “I think we need a Latina in the U.S. Senate.” Not much subtlety there.

My guess is that Californians would prefer to have an excellent senator, one who has sufficient gravitas to represent the most populous and diverse state in the nation. If that person happens to be a Latina, so much the better.

Sanchez, rightly proud of her heritage, is one of seven kids and an alumna of Head Start and the same Anaheim public schools she represents in Congress. Her immigrant parents have the distinction of being the only couple in American history to have ever sent two daughters to Congress.

With her younger sister, Rep. Linda Sánchez, a Democrat from Los Angeles County, she seeks more research funding for Alzheimer’s disease, in honor of what her father did for his daughters and sons, though he cannot remember who they are.

Loretta Sanchez is the anti-Harris. Attorney General Kamala Harris, the presumed front-runner, is ever so smooth, careful and never misspeaks.

Harris would never hold a fundraiser at Hugh Hefner’s mansion, or make a faux Indian war whoop, as Sanchez did last year when she flippantly tried to explain the difference between Native Americans and Americans of Indian descent. Harris, whose mother emigrated here from India, called the remark shocking. Whether it will matter is anyone’s guess in this weird campaign dominated by a reality show billionaire with fescue-like hair.

Sanchez upset Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan in 1996 by 984 votes and has held the Orange County seat ever since. Mindful of her constituency, she is a Blue Dog Democrat and works with the House moderates and occasionally votes with Republicans on some budget issues.

That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, except that Harris will seek to exploit certain votes as she tries to gain the endorsement of the California Democratic Party at its convention next month, and win over the Democratic base in the June primary.

Look for Harris to take a page from Hillary Clinton, who has used Bernie Sanders’ 2005 vote for legislation that shields the gun industry from liability as she batters him for his pro-gun stands. Sanchez joined Sanders and Republicans to vote for that legislation.

On occasion, Sanchez has cast votes for the tobacco industry and regularly accepts tobacco money. Harris wouldn’t take tobacco money, not that the industry is offering it to her. Sanchez prefers to cite her votes against the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and the Wall Street bailout.

On a matter closer to home, one that any California senator must understand, I asked her about Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two 30-mile long tunnels to move water past the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It wasn’t a trick question. The answer rambled.

“I think he has a little bit of a problem trying to build them,” she said. “I would be supportive. From what I understand, it enables us to get water, cleaner water, less murkier water. You send in good water, send in to the Bay Area, get it dirtier, and then we pump it. So it would bypass some of that saline and other, not contaminated water, but not as pure water, let’s say. So, one, it would be less cost for cleaning.”

It went on.

Harris answered the same question the other day, cogently:

“Yes, I do (support the tunnels),” she said. “I think it is a smart idea. However, I think we have to monitor it and be diligent in terms of any cost overruns.”

Sanchez bases her candidacy on her experience and talks about the Beltway people she knows and works with, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. She also cites her role on the Armed Services Committee and interest in national security.

After the slaughter in San Bernardino by a couple inspired by Islamic radicals, she remarked that 5 to 20 percent of Muslims support a caliphate. She wasn’t seeking to fuel the anti-Muslim backlash, but rather “stated a fact,” she said.

“Some people have told me that between 5 to 20 percent of worldwide Muslims are for a caliphate and that they are sympathetic to terrorism,” she said. “This is what people have told me. … Tell me where I’m wrong. Show me a study.”

Unless someone else enters the race – and time is short for that – Californians will decide in June among two or three underfunded Republicans and two Democrats. The top two will face one another in November in the most important California race of the year.

One Democrat takes stands and can be politically incorrect. The other is sophisticated and ever so careful. In this weird political year, it’s anyone’s guess whether those traits will help or hurt.