For Rep. Sanchez, a hot-tomato label means a hot potato

Times Staff Writer

Pacing next to the desk and U.S. flag in her district office in Garden Grove, the paradox that is Rep. Loretta Sanchez was on full display.

The congresswoman ticked off a meaty legislative to-do list: immigration reform, port safety, stopping sex trafficking, revamping “terrible management” at the Department of Homeland Security. She was articulate and sharp, even magnetic.

At the same time, she was shedding a red St. John Knits suit and shimmying into an ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese tunic and pants, for her next event. Meaning that she was telling a female reporter about her chairmanship of the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism while wearing only pants and a black bra.


Was this a glimpse of Loretta Sanchez, siren, a politician known for her strenuous workout regimen and fondness for come-hither heels? Or was this Loretta Sanchez, harried congresswoman, too wrapped up in important national issues to take a break in the name of modesty?

Few members of Congress, if any, are such a walking Rorschach test. In the decade that Sanchez has represented central Orange County, the Democrat has been viewed alternately as a masterful fundraiser, legislative lightweight, political mentor, headstrong politician, leading Latina voice and one of Congress’ “babes.”

Her latest headline-maker, quitting the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, mixes two familiar elements in Sanchez’s career: politics and the risque.

Sanchez had told Politico, a new website covering Capitol Hill, that her departure was due in part to Rep. Joe Baca’s demeaning manner toward women and his gossiping that she was a “whore,” both of which he has denied.

Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert then devoted an entire “Colbert Report” segment to pondering, “Is Loretta Sanchez a whore?” (No, the comedian decided.) Last week, several caucus members unsuccessfully tried to oust Baca, a Democrat from Rialto, as the group’s chairman, the Hill newspaper reported.

In the coming months, Sanchez will be tested on whether her reputation will be more coquette or congresswoman. Entrenched in the House majority for the first time, she is allied with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and sits on two of the most prominent committees: Armed Services and Homeland Security, being the second-ranking Democrat on the latter.

Sanchez, 47, has also recently considered a gubernatorial run, creating a committee, People for Loretta 2010, that allows her to raise money. Among her biggest hurdles to a statewide win, she said while rushing from her office to Little Saigon’s Tet Festival: “I don’t sit on the fence and nuance things, and sometimes voters don’t like that.” The plain-speaking Sanchez is an intriguing study at a time when female politicians have reached new heights -- House speaker and viable presidential contender, to name but two -- but she still gets criticized for a flirtatious nature.

“I think that traditionally what the public has seen as far as a woman in politics is someone that dresses a certain way and has a certain demeanor and is always very serious, because that’s what it took to break through,” Sanchez said. “I think you’re seeing a whole new set of women ... feeling much more comfortable about being themselves versus being some blob that will blend in.”

Fred Smoller, a Chapman University political scientist who backed the appointment of Sanchez to the school’s Board of Trustees in 2001, said that if the congresswoman were male, she would be described as “feisty and independent” and be taken more seriously.

“My God, if we can have a former action hero as governor, why not someone who served 10 years in Congress?”

Sanchez sauntered onto the national stage in 1996 with the nickname “Dragon Slayer” after ousting longtime incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Dornan. Her victory coincided with the national emergence of Latinos as a voting power -- within once-homogenous Orange County, as well -- and gave her a prominent platform.

She trumpeted a rousing personal narrative: shy second child of seven born to Mexican immigrants who won a scholarship to Chapman University in Orange, earned an MBA from American University in Washington, D.C., and became a financial consultant. (Sanchez’s husband of 14 years, Stephen Brixey, filed for divorce in 2004, citing irreconcilable differences.)

After taking office, she expressed a disappointment in an interview with the New York Times: “The news stories tend to say I won because I’m Latina or because Bob Dornan was extreme -- not because I was strategic or smart.”

That disappointment lingered, even as Sanchez pummeled a new GOP challenger every two years in a district where Democrats hold a slight registration edge, but which President Bush won in 2004 and which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took last year, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan California Target Book.

A close talker with a penchant for patting arms and gripping shoulders, Sanchez has a style that some label friendly and others flirtatious. With animated eyes and a build she describes on her MySpace page as “5’4"/Slim/Slender,” she was initially labeled by Washingtonian magazine as one of the House’s new “babes.”

But the magazine’s subsequent surveys of Capitol Hill aides have also placed Sanchez on lists such as “No Altar Boy/Girl” and “No Rocket Scientist.” A reporter once asked Sanchez who would play her on television. Jennifer Lopez, she replied, since “I’ve got a big booty.”

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) said critics fixate on her sister’s personality because they “can’t pick apart the substance of who she is as a person or her work.... Everyone complains about how boring members of Congress are, but as soon as someone exhibits a personality, puts their own stamp on something, everyone comes out with a dagger.”

Sanchez has indeed been skewered as squandering her national platform -- and reaping publicity for, of all things, her cheeky holiday cards. Starring her long-haired cat, Gretzky, they have shown the pair in a red convertible, in bed and most recently on a beach chair -- with the feline in her lap -- under the phrase “Pet the Cat.”

“She is not accused of anything except being in-your-face: ‘She stands too close. She’s too flirtatious,’ ” said Carol Hardy-Fanta, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts. “There are so few women in Congress that when one’s a little flamboyant, she stands out.”

Other sore spots: Sanchez doles out endorsements sparingly, despite being one of the GOP-dominant county’s few Democrats with little competition. And a onetime business associate who was her first campaign manager, Howard Kieffer, had gone to prison for federal tax fraud in 1989.

Then there is Bunnygate. During the 2000 Democratic National Convention, Sanchez riled party members by scheduling a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion; the Bunnies were to don more modest cocktail attire. Democratic leaders took away her speaking slot at the convention. Sanchez moved the event and again was offered a speaking slot. She declined. A staffer for the congresswoman christened the office goldfish “Hef.”

“Show me three important national pieces of legislation that have come out of her office,” said UC Irvine political scientist Mark Petracca. “If I were her, I’d be scared. You had an excuse all these years” -- being in the minority party -- “and you could play frivolous. Not anymore.”

Among her legislative accomplishments, Sanchez lists a resolution that rebuked the Vietnamese government for confiscating private property; voting against the Iraq war and opposing the president’s plan for a troop surge; and made an issue of military sexual assault laws and -- before it dominated headlines -- how military tribunals operate.

There is little dispute about her fundraising prowess. In her most recent race, Sanchez pocketed $1.3 million, a formidable war chest for an election that was dismissed as a cakewalk. Republican challenger Tan Nguyen mustered a little more than $500,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Backed heavily by unions, Sanchez helped sister Linda, a former labor organizer, top a tough Democratic field in 2002. Sanchez’s mentoring is often credited with launching fellow O.C. Democrats Lou Correa and Joe Dunn to Sacramento.

“She could charm wallets out of pockets,” said John Hanna, a trustee for the Rancho Santiago Community College District in Santa Ana. It’s a skill that has blocked county Republicans from wooing a viable challenger.

Though Sanchez’s key supporters are Latino, she has won over the district’s Vietnamese American leaders by so doggedly criticizing their homeland’s human rights record that she has been repeatedly denied a visa.

When Nguyen asked Tony Lam, a former Westminster councilman, for his endorsement in their November race, Lam said: “I told him, ‘You’re not ready yet. There’s no way you can run against her.’ ”

That hasn’t kept some from speculating that a strong Vietnamese American candidate such as Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove) could unseat her. But Sanchez has also nurtured a strong relationship with her district by spending her weekends jumping from parades to banquets to festivals to ribbon-cuttings -- events that Dornan, her predecessor, often eschewed.

On a recent Saturday, after she shook hands at the Tet Festival, Sanchez again donned the red knit suit and headed to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Long Beach before attending a formal event in her district. As Sanchez chatted with a patient about his mother’s enchiladas and planted a kiss on his forehead, a hospital staffer whispered that the congresswoman shows up far more often than other politicians.

Sanchez also helped another patient dial his cellphone and later teased a doctor: “You’re Vietnamese? Why aren’t you at the Tet Festival?”

In the lobby, punctuating each word with a gesture, she said she couldn’t grasp the policy wonks in Congress dreading time among the kind of constituents who relish her candor and unpredictability.

“They say I’m a legislator. She crinkled her nose for emphasis. “Well, I’m a politician and a legislator.”