Loretta Sanchez: 1960—: U.S. Representative Biography
An icon of the growing involvement in politics on the part of Hispanic Americans at the turn of the millennium, Loretta Sanchez is also very much an individualist who has stuck to her own beliefs even when they did not seem expedient. Sanchez came out of political obscurity to defeat an entrenched Anglo-American congressman in the 1996 national election. By the early 21st century, however, Sanchez was well entrenched in Congress herself, and she had become a figure of national renown.
Loretta Sanchez was born in Lynwood, California, on January 7, 1960, and has spent nearly all her life in southern California. When Sanchez was five the family moved to largely Anglo-American Anaheim. The daughter of two Mexican immigrants, a machinist father and a secretary mother, Sanchez spoke Spanish at home and first learned English in a Head Start education program. She had a strong personality from the start; her younger sister Linda fondly recalled her as a "bossy" presence (according to the Los Angeles Times) who would dress her younger sisters in new clothes.
The occasional discrimination the Sanchez children experienced dissolved in the face of their strong performance in school; both her parents took an active hand in their children's education, and Sanchez as an adult credited her parents for her success. Sanchez attended Chapman University in Orange, California, graduating in 1982 with an economics major and winning a Business Student of the Year Award. She moved on for a Master of Business Administration degree at American University in Washington, D.C., receiving her degree in 1984 with a finance concentration after spending a year in Italy in a management program operated by the European Community.
Married to a stock trader named Stephen Brixey, Sanchez used her husband's last name until she entered politics in the 1990s. Her first job after receiving her Master's degree was with the Orange County Transportation Department, where she shepherded to completion a project to raise funds for and construct highway emergency-assistance call boxes on county freeways. Sanchez then took a position as assistant vice president with Fieldman, Rolapp & Associates, an Orange County financial-analysis company, and worked for several years in finance and investment firms that did business with county and municipal governments. Much of her work involved analyzing the finances of such institutions as schools and municipal government departments.
In 1993, Sanchez founded her own consulting firm, Amiga Associates. By that time, however, the seeds of her second career had already been sown. Although a registered Republican up to that point, Sanchez was troubled by the tone of the party's 1992 national convention. Though sympathetic to conservative Republican positions in fiscal matters, Sanchez, who generally favors abortion rights and gay rights, switched to the Democratic Party and plunged into the political arena in 1994 with a run for Anaheim's city council. Nearly unknown and running under the name Loretta Sanchez Brixey, she made an unimpressive showing.
Completely undeterred, Sanchez jumped two years later into a much bigger arena: she challenged nine-term incumbent Republican representative Robert Dornan for the U.S. House seat in California's 46th District. Angered by Dornan's support of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 initiative passed by voters in 1994, Sanchez was given little chance at first. Upsetting a party-backed candidate in the primary, she enjoyed little support from the local Democratic party. And despite the district's shifting ethnic makeup—Mexican-Americans now consituted fully half its population—Dornan had always won comfortably by combining conservative stands on social issues with a fierce anti-Communism that appealed to the district's substantial Vietnamese-American minority.
But, emboldened by a 29 percent rise in Latino voter registration in California between 1992 and 1996, Sanchez ran a vigorous grassroots campaign and benefited from financial support from entertainment-industry figures (Mexican-American Linda Ronstadt among them) outraged by Dornan's sharp anti-gay and anti-abortion rhetoric; the campaign turned ugly as he sought to tar Sanchez as a Catholic who repudiated church teachings on those issues. Sanchez herself emphasized immigrant rights and such bread-and-butter issues as education and Medicare funding, and shocked observers in November with a 984-vote victory.
Dornan, unsurprisingly, demanded a recount, but then further alienated himself from district voters by alleging that the results had been tainted by the votes of large numbers of non-citizens and illegal immigrants in the election. His charges were aired repeatedly during a year-long congressional investigation, which, though it found some merit in the complaint, ultimately decided that the numbers involved had been too small to make a difference in the outcome. That set the stage for a contentious 1998 rematch between Dornan and Sanchez. Again some obsevers gave Dornan the edge; as an unknown first-term representative, Sanchez seemed vulnerable to the midterm jinx that usually results in the party in control of the White House (in this case President Bill Clinton's Democrats) losing seats in Congress.
"Look, he's old, he's the past," Sanchez told USA Today. "We're talking about the future here." Dornan argued that he was "the real Latino" in the race due to his anti-abortion stance, but Sanchez had cultivated a centrist record during her first term, voting, among other things, for a resolution to permit the posting of the Ten Commandments in school classrooms. Sanchez won the 1998 election going away, with 57 percent of the vote, and increased that margin to 60 percent in the year 2000.
In Congress Sanchez served on the Armed Services and Education committees; she developed a close relationship with northern California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who was emerging as a member of the Democratic House leadership. But Sanchez's rising political power derived as well from her status as, in the words of a 2000 Democratic National Convention delegate quoted in the Los Angeles Times, "a national Latino spokesperson." That status was underscored during the convention by the publicity that accompanied a controversy in which Sanchez became embroiled: she faced criticism for scheduling a fundraiser for a Hispanic political action committee at the Playboy Mansion and was dropped from her speaking slot at the convention as a result. The speaking slot was restored after Sanchez backed down and moved the fundraiser, but she in turn refused to speak.
To those who had followed her career, the controversy showed a combative side of Sanchez's personality that was quite characteristic. A direct woman who connects with voters partly by virtue of not taking politics too seriously, Sanchez recalled a meeting she had held with then-President Bill Clinton. "I think, if you're going to bother to do Congress, then you should be willing to fight. And I do fight," she told the Washington Post. "We were discussing education, and I told the president, 'If you really feel what you're telling me, then get off your butt and get this sold. Get out and do this!' I think he stopped and looked around and said, 'Did you guys hear that? I think she used the word 'butt.'" In the spring of 2002, a Congress that had just finished adjusting to the energy of one Representative Sanchez looked toward a possible welcome for another: Loretta Sanchez's younger sister, Linda, won the Democratic nomination for California's 39th District seat in Los Angeles County.
Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1998, p. A1; August 15, 2000, p. B3; November 16, 2000, p. B5; March 7, 2002, p. B10.
The Nation, October 26, 1998, p. 21.
New Republic, October 27, 1997, p. 13.
New York Times, March 3, 2002, p. 25.
Newsweek, November 25, 1996, p. 35.
USA Today, November 2, 1998, p. 10A.
Washington Post, August 15, 2000, p. A14; November 4, 2001, p. W5.
Newsmakers, Issue 3, Gale Group, 2000. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001 (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
Notable Hispanic American Women, Book 2, Gale, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001
—James M. Manheim
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