In the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, only one candidate has any experience in Congress, and that’s Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. But in a recent Senate debate, Sanchez denied she’s the insider. She said she’s not the status quo.
“In fact,” she says, “Washington hasn’t changed me. I’ve been changing Congress for 20 years.”
You might say Loretta Sanchez began training for her current role early in life. Her sister, Linda, also a California congresswoman, says the younger kids in the family called her “the warden.” She says when they got chore assignments, “Loretta was sort of the supervisor that went around to make sure that we were doing them correctly and reported back to our parents if we were not.”
These days, Loretta Sanchez oversees defense spending and policy on the House Armed Services Committee. Despite the serious issues she deals with, the media seem fascinated by her annual Christmas cards — playful pictures of her posing with cat Gretzky atop a fireplace mantle or astride a motorcycle.
Sanchez complains that the media rarely seem to show up at six-hour meetings that “we have on trying to figure out how much we’re going to spend and whether we’re going to redo our nuclear arsenal.”
At the recent Senate debate in Stockton, Duf Sundheim, one of her Republican opponents, accused Sanchez of skipping a lot of committee meetings. Sanchez countered that she — like the rest of Congress — serves on multiple committees and can’t be in two places at once.
House Republicans back her up on that. The recently retired GOP chairman of Armed Services, Rep. Buck McKeon, says everyone is on two or three subcommittees and on several full committees, all with hearings, bill markups and votes. “It’s not easy to get there for everything,” he says.
Critics difficult to find in D.C.
Finding Sanchez critics of either party is difficult on Capitol Hill. Among Democrats in the California delegation, 17 have endorsed Sanchez — most of them from Southern California. Eight House Democrats from California have endorsed state Attorney General Kamala Harris, most of them from the Bay Area. Democrats who haven’t endorsed Sanchez declined to speak on tape. House Republicans were similarly silent on Sanchez.
But not Rep. Mike Turner. The Ohio Republican chairs Tactical Air and Land Forces, the subcommittee that oversees procurement of everything except ships. Sanchez is the top Democrat on that subcommittee. Turner calls Sanchez’ work “highly substantive.” He says Sanchez works to get “the right answer.” He says even if they come to different conclusions about testimony, he benefits from “her research, her inquisitiveness, her oversight” of the Defense Department. The two work so well together across the aisle that when Turner switched subcommittees, Democratic leaders asked Sanchez to switch, too.
Despite serving on Armed Services since she first came to Congress — back when it was called “the Committee on National Security” — Sanchez voted against authorizing the war in Iraq in 2002. She pushed the Pentagon to allow women to participate in combat. When you ask Sanchez which bills she can claim as her own, she talks about getting funding for a water reclamation plant in her district and oversight of the Pentagon. Most of all, she speaks about collaboration.
“If you don’t worry about the credit, you get a lot more done,” she says.
You have to collaborate when you’re not in charge. Marc Sandalow, associate academic director of the UC Washington Center, says there was a short window when Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act and Dodd/Frank banking reforms — the four years when Nancy Pelosi was speaker and Democrats controlled the House. Virtually the entire time Loretta Sanchez has been in the House, she’s been in the minority. “Minority members do not get a chance to bring bills to the floor,” he says. “Republicans won’t let them do that.”
Getting over the ‘appearance hump’
So why the perception of Sanchez being somewhat flaky? Sandalow says to blame D.C. because Washington remains a very buttoned-down, uptight place. “The kind of place where if you head to certain restaurants, and you’re not wearing a tie,” he says, “they hand you a tie to put on to make sure it’s appropriate. Loretta Sanchez is not part of that culture.”
How buttoned up? Sister Linda Sanchez remembers the day she was wearing a pair of what she described as “cool shoes” — strappy stilettos decorated with studs. The buzzer rang for votes, and one of her staff stopped her as she was running out the door. “She said, ‘You’re going to the floor in those shoes?’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m from California, damn straight I am.’ And she was just shocked. And down I went to the floor to vote.”
Linda Sanchez says that with a Congress that’s just 20 percent female, to be taken seriously, you have to get over the “appearance hump.” She says if a woman came to the floor with hair askew — like, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders — no one would listen to what she had to say. The only thing they’d remember was what she looked like.
She says there’s another layer of misperception for Latina members of Congress, based on old stereotypes that Latinas are “spicy or hot. And it’s really hard to overcome those preconceived ideas or those perceptions that get perpetuated that begin on a false note.”
Loretta Sanchez doesn’t always help herself. Her comments after the San Bernardino terrorist attack upset many Muslim-Americans. She also offended Native Americans during an incident that went viral on social media.
Sanchez describes herself as substantive, but with a sense of humor. “Sometimes people see that and they say, ‘Oh, my gosh, can I take her seriously?’ And the answer is, ask my colleagues. They’ll tell you I’m extremely serious about my work.”
Sanchez will find out how seriously voters take her on June 7. Under the state’s primary rules, the top two finishers face off in November.
In the meantime, our California Counts collaborative will host a U.S. Senate debate with California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Duf Sundheim, Tom Del Beccaro and Ron Unz. The debate will air live on 89.3FM and stream on KPCC.org at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10. Be sure to tune in then. And check KPBS's Facebook page around 6:15 p.m. that night for a special live pre-show.
Series: California Counts
California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.