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Youth, Experience Face Off in Race for 7th District

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To Corinne Sanchez, brisk, long walks are a blessing in the midst of 60-hour work weeks, an escape from her busy social services agency to the streets around her Sylmar home.

The walks take her back to her college days, when she was a sprinter and a gymnast.

But she said she regrets that she no longer walks at night, because she no longer feels safe.

That fear is shared by many in the northeast San Fernando Valley, said Sanchez, who cited the need for safer streets as one of the main reasons she is running for the 7th District seat on the Los Angeles City Council.

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“In talking to people, they feel there are not enough police, there are not enough animal regulation people to call when pit bulls are running loose attacking law-abiding people,” said Sanchez, who has been attacked twice by dogs.

At 52, the director of the health service agency El Proyecto Del Barrio has sprinted out of nowhere to emerge as one of the front-runners in the April 13 election to fill the seat vacated when Richard Alarcon was elected to the state Senate.

A former city transportation commissioner, but a relative newcomer to politics, Sanchez has snagged key endorsements from Alarcon, county Supervisor Gloria Molina and council members Mike Feuer, Laura Chick and Cindy Miscikowski.

Those who know and support her say Sanchez may not yet be a household name, but she is well-respected by many Valley leaders as someone who has worked for more than two decades to make life better for the Valley’s poorest residents.

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“She took El Proyecto Del Barrio from a $500,000 organization and turned it into a $10-million organization,” Alarcon said. “Her accomplishments are visible.”

From one clinic and job agency, Sanchez has expanded the nonprofit El Proyecto to three offices and four clinics covering the entire San Fernando Valley in the 21 years since she became president of the agency. She receives a $93,000 annual salary and oversees 130 employees. Most of the agency’s funding comes from local, state and federal governments.

Sanchez said her agency has helped place 75,000 in jobs, provided health care to 32,000 women and children, tutored 50,000 children and provided drug and alcohol rehabilitation treatment for 100,000 people.

“She has provided real leadership,” said Leroy Chase, president of the Boys & Girls Club of the San Fernando Valley. “She is someone who can walk into a major corporation or a classroom and be accepted by big-business executives and young people alike,” he said.

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Sanchez, who is engaged to be married to an insurance broker, said that after two decades of community service, she wants to work for the district from within the City Council.

Helped Formulate Latino Studies

Sanchez was born in San Bernardino, one of eight children. Her father was a machinist for the Santa Fe Railroad. Her mother worked as a housekeeper.

She attended Cal State Long Beach, where she earned a teaching degree and got caught up in the burgeoning Chicano studies movement.

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“I was awakened to my culture and history at that time, to be proud of being from Mexico. But there were no textbooks, no classes. So I became a strong advocate for that.”

She played a role in establishing the first Mexican American studies program at Cal State Long Beach, served as an intern with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., and marched against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights and abortion rights.

Sanchez worked for a group that advocated the creation of minority studies programs at colleges and universities throughout the West.

One of the services provided by El Proyecto that caught her interest was drug rehabilitation.

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“I have a brother who was very into drugs,” she said. “He was a heroin addict. So it was a natural attraction for me to help other drug addicts.”

She said she loves her job.

“I see tangible outcomes in providing services to people,” Sanchez said. “The biggest satisfaction is seeing people getting jobs and seeing women and children getting health care and counseling services.”

After serving as Alarcon’s campaign treasurer in his first council race, Sanchez jumped at the chance to succeed him.

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“I looked at who was running, and I didn’t see people who were qualified to run,” she said.

As head of El Proyecto, Sanchez said, she has experienced firsthand the frustration of dealing with a bloated and difficult-to-navigate city bureaucracy.

If elected, she would fight crime, in part, by providing more money for alternatives, including sports programs and jobs.

“Providing jobs is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and the cycle of crime,” she said.

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Sanchez, a licensed attorney who practices part time, said she would also push to get more street lights for one of the darkest districts of the city and more animal control workers for an area with a disproportionate number of stray dogs.

The northeast Valley in particular, she said, has not received its fair share of city resources.

“When I go to other areas of the city, I see streets cleaner and trees trimmer, then I wonder why don’t our streets look like that or our trees look like that. I want to change that.”

Strong Base of Support Among Valley Leaders

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Sanchez is one of six candidates on the ballot seeking to represent the 7th District, which includes Pacoima, Sylmar, Panorama City, Van Nuys, Lake View Terrace and Sun Valley.

She faces stiff competition from Alex Padilla, a legislative aide to Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, (D-Sylmar). Padilla has the backing of Mayor Richard Riordan, the County Federation of Labor, and Cardenas, among others.

“Those two are clearly the front-runners, if you measure by who has raised more money and received bigger endorsements and attention from the media,” said Fernando Guerra, the head of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

While Padilla cut his teeth on grass-roots political campaigns in support of the Valley’s Latino leaders, Sanchez has been their peer, both in age and experience, successfully winning government support for her massive network of social service programs, her supporters say.

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Sanchez said Padilla lacks her experience in getting things done. Padilla said she lacks the experience of growing up in the northeast Valley.

Sanchez has a strong base of support in the Valley, including doctors, lawyers, judges, social-service workers and elected officials who have helped give her the lead in fund-raising. She has raised more than $110,000 so far, a third of what she hopes to have for the April 13 election. Even so, a strong field of candidates is likely to force a runoff in June, observers predict.

Barring an upset, the winner will become a key part of the new Latino power base at City Hall, where the influence of Latinos has waned with the loss of Alarcon to the Senate, the coming retirement of Richard Alatorre and the legal problems of Mike Hernandez, who plans to leave office in two years.

The new Latino leaders will also play a key role in the 2001 mayoral election, when Latinos will be expected to stake a claim to the top city office, Guerra said.

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“This is clearly the beginning of a new generation of Latino leadership,” Guerra said.


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