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Bunnygate: And the Winner Is . . .

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Democratic National Convention that ended in Los Angeles this past week likely will be remembered for two things: the nomination of Al Gore and the scolding of Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

In an odd twist, it may be that the congresswoman from Garden Grove got more of a bounce from the convention than the leader of the political party that sought to quash her Playboy Mansion fund-raiser plans.

By now, the details of Bunnygate should be familiar: Sanchez said no when Democratic leaders insisted she move a bipartisan fund-raiser from the mansion--or else. She was yanked from a coveted convention speaking role. She relented--but handed back her time slot anyway, saying she didn’t want people to think that was why she’d changed her mind.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew of Indiana threatened sanctions, hinting that her party co-chair post was in jeopardy. State Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres and convention Co-chairwoman Gloria Molina, a Los Angeles County supervisor, accused her of insulting the values of the Latino community by holding an event at such a notorious venue.

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It was the most attention drawn to Sanchez since she defeated conservative firebrand Rep. Robert K. Dornan in 1996.

When the dust settled, however, Sanchez was still standing. Her relocated fund-raiser at CityWalk in Universal City raised more than $500,000 for Latino voter registration efforts. She found herself surrounded by supporters defending her free speech rights, while her critics pondered how she’d managed to turn a planning misstep into a rallying cry for political independence.

“I’ve talked to all my members and they’re saying she’s gutsy and she came out looking very good,” said Manuel Pena of Santa Ana, who represents a dozen minority chambers of commerce in Orange County. “It’s the old ‘Si se puede’ [Yes you can]. She said more with fewer words to the constituency she wanted to reach than being on the agenda.”

Party leaders patched things up publicly, expressing relief that she’d moved her party as asked.

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“We’re looking forward to working with her for the fall election,” spokeswoman Jenny Backus said.

Political observers said Sanchez is too well-known a national Latino symbol and too good a fund-raiser for the party to distance itself. And as the sole Democratic member of Congress from Republican-rich Orange County, she’s the only game in town in an election year when Democrats are within striking distance of gaining a legislative majority.

Besides, if Democrats ended up looking bad, many observers said, it wasn’t Sanchez’s doing but overreaction by party officials.

‘They Like the Fighter Shaking Things Up’

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“They want to embrace the laissez faire liberal attitudes they think attract independent-minded voters, and at the same time become paragons of morality,” Republican consultant Stu Mollrich of Newport Beach said. “All they’ve done is shine a spotlight on a real problem they have.”

Party officials who worked overtime crafting the image and messages of the convention--including Torres and Molina--were upset that Sanchez didn’t toe the line, said longtime Democratic activist George Urch, a Sanchez constituent. But that kind of insider pique doesn’t play well in her district, he said.

“People in this district like representatives who are independent and take on the establishment,” Urch said. “That’s why they loved Bob [Dornan]. They like the fighter shaking things up. Their reaction is: ‘They’re not going to jam this down her throat and tell her what to do.’ ”

Randy Smith, a Republican and local lobbyist, said Sanchez showed “a lot of class and guts” by standing up to campaign staffers for Gore, who denounced the event’s original location.

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“I’m sure she scored points with Latinos and her constituency,” Smith said. “I just wish she were [still] a Republican,” he added, alluding to Sanchez’s change in party affiliation in 1992.

That Sanchez didn’t read from a prepared script shouldn’t have surprised national leaders, her supporters said.

Sanchez displayed her independent streak in March by backing state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente) in her successful primary challenge to longtime Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park). She also supported primary winner Maryanne Connelly in an open New Jersey House race over a challenger backed by Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who joined the condemnation of Sanchez’s Playboy venue.

Even after agreeing to move her event, Sanchez announced that she’d most likely hold another Hispanic Unity fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion, and take advantage of the furor to raise more funds for a worthy cause. She stood firm in her belief that she’d done no wrong, telling Latino delegates who gave her a hero’s welcome late in the convention: “It was our fund-raiser, not theirs.”

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Pena said Sanchez represents “a new breed of Latinos in politics who think about what they can do, not what they’re going to get.”

“She’s not the one playing sour grapes, she’s backing Gore all the way,” Pena said last week at a reception honoring Sanchez among the Orange County delegation. “If anything, she’s helped Latinos to be even more united behind [the ticket].”

National Democrats are expected to embrace Sanchez in the fall and funnel money her way to deflect a challenge from Republican Gloria Matta Tuchman. A longshot candidate, Tuchman nonetheless has an elective track record in the district--she gathered 46% of the vote in the central Orange County district when she ran for state superintendent of public instruction in 1998.

But some political observers said the payback for Sanchez could come later, if Gore wins the presidency. If she wants to end her bicoastal commute and move to Washington, D.C., to take a post with the administration, they said, a reputation as a loose cannon could hurt her chances.

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“She was not controllable at a time when it was important to the party, and they won’t forget that,” said one Democratic operative who asked not to be identified.

If Gore loses, it could be worse for Sanchez if party operatives conduct the inevitable search for what went wrong--and remember that the biggest flap of Gore’s defining convention came in the shape of a bunny.

* More perspectives on Loretta Sanchez. B16-17


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