One of the first questions to arise when Loretta Sanchez floated her name as a potential U.S. Senate candidate was whether the Orange County congresswoman’s flamboyant personality might keep her from being taken seriously in a run for statewide office.
Her playful and uncensored manner can be a refreshing trait in an era when politicians keep constant guard against smartphone-captured gaffes. But three days after the launch of her Senate candidacy, that style is already threatening to undercut Sanchez’s campaign.
On Sunday, Sanchez apologized at the state Democratic convention in Anaheim for tapping her hand to her mouth in imitation of an ululating Native American “war cry” in remarks to a group of party activists the day before.
Bracketed by giant video screens, Sanchez told delegates spread across the vast convention floor that it was hard for political figures who open their hearts and don’t hide behind handlers “to put yourself out there and to do what leaders need to do.”
“And yes, sooner or later, we make mistakes, because you know what? We’re all humans,” she told the crowd in a speech that, by necessity, became a squandered opportunity to frame her campaign to succeed Democrat Barbara Boxer.
The world can’t be changed, Sanchez continued, “from behind a desk. So in this crazy and exciting rush of meetings yesterday, I said something offensive, and for that I sincerely apologize.”
The scene couldn’t have played out better for Sanchez’s chief Senate rival, state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, a fellow Democrat who had denounced the congresswoman’s hand gesture as “shocking” and unfit for public discourse.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Harris had been awash in cheers from the same delegates as she outlined a federal agenda that ran the gamut of the party faithful’s priorities, including civil rights and a higher minimum wage.
It mattered little that Uduak-Joe Ntuk, a Long Beach delegate who shot and circulated video of Sanchez’s misstep, had raised money for the Harris campaign — or that Sanchez was warmly applauded by the audience. The damage was done.
One of the clearest signs of that was Sanchez’s refusal to rule out the possibility of switching to a run for reelection to the House if her Senate campaign is in trouble by the time candidacy filing papers are due next March.
“I am running for the United States Senate,” Sanchez said more than once when the question arose Sunday at a news conference.
Sanchez’s stumble Saturday occurred at a restaurant gathering of Indian American Democrats. She was joking with the group about an occasion when she confused a Native American with an Indian American. The political backlash soured the mood of her “mambo and margaritas” reception later in the day.
The dust-up came as little surprise to those who recalled Sanchez’s racy Christmas cards or the furor over her plan, later abandoned, to throw a party at the Playboy Mansion during the Democratic National Convention in 2000.
For Sanchez, a 10-term congresswoman who has never run for statewide office, the main problem now will be less with voters than with potential donors. Her campaign could require $20 million or more, all of it in donations of no more than $2,700, the federal limit.
Harris, who romped to reelection in November, has a head start in fundraising and endorsements, along with the experience of running twice for statewide office — all of which effectively makes her an early front-runner, said Rose Kapolczynski, who managed Boxer’s four Senate campaigns.
“There’s a flow in a primary,” said Kapolczynski, who is unaligned in next year’s Senate contest. “As the front-runner gains support, support begets support. Support begets money. Money begets money. And Loretta needs to disrupt that dynamic in order to have a chance.”
Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro hinted Sunday that Sanchez’s remark had harmed her longstanding ties with Native Americans, a major source of money in state and federal campaigns.
“She knows better, and we are very disappointed,” he said in an emailed statement.
In her contrition statement, Sanchez told delegates that Native Americans “know that I have always had their backs. And they know what many of you don’t know — that like so many Mexican Americans, I am proudly Native American on my mother’s side.”
In the absence of policy contrasts between Sanchez and Harris, both liberals, personality and biography will, by default, play a large part in what voters decide in the June 2016 primary. Regardless of party, the candidates who finish first and second will compete in a November runoff.
While Harris and Sanchez are the most prominent candidates now, the field could grow in the months ahead, and the dynamics will shift. Republicans already in the race include state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside and former state party chairman Tom Del Beccaro. Democrats who might still run include Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles.
Bill Carrick, a Sanchez advisor, said that with a candidate so free-speaking, “you’re going to have a little turbulence now and then.”
But he suggested that could ultimately prove more appealing to voters than Harris, a tightly disciplined candidate who has shunned all but the most controlled public settings.
“It’s clearly an asset that [Sanchez] is willing to be open and talk to voters, activists and the media,” he said. “Clearly, there’s another whole theory of politics, which is the less exposure you have to the media and the public, the better off you are going to be.”
Times staff writers Peter Jamison and David Zahniser contributed to this report.