Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez said in an interview with a Spanish-language television station that she believes President Obama may have endorsed rival Kamala Harris in California's U.S. Senate race because they are both black, injecting a dose of racial politics into a historic contest that in November will elect the state's first African American or Latino senator.
Sanchez made the comment during a taped interview for public affairs show "Conexión" that aired Friday on Univision 19 in Sacramento. The remarks follow a blistering statement Sanchez issued after the endorsement earlier this week, accusing the president of being part of the nation's "entrenched political establishment."
In the interview, the congresswoman noted that Obama and Harris have been longtime friends, but said that race was also a factor in his endorsement:
"I think they have, what he said they have, is a friendship of many years. She is African American, as is he. They know each other through meetings," Sanchez said in Spanish during the interview.
Harris is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India. She is the highest-ranking black politician in California and could become the second black woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. President Obama is the first African American president in U.S. history.
"At a time when there is so much divisive rhetoric flowing through our politics, it's especially disappointing to see a Democratic member of Congress make those comments," Juan Rodriguez, Harris' campaign manager, said of Sanchez's interview.
Through a spokesperson, Sanchez released a statement Friday night about her views on the endorsement.
"In no way did I imply or intend to imply that President Obama endorsed Kamala Harris for racial reasons," Sanchez said. "I was stating the fact that the endorsement was based on their long-term political relationship."
The remark by the congresswoman, who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, could prove problematic to her uphill campaign against Harris, especially following a string of earlier gaffes that angered Native Americans and Muslims.
Sanchez's off-the-cuff style was once thought to be a potential advantage in an era dominated by scripted politicians. But this latest incident could cause unwanted political heartburn for Sanchez in a state as diverse and left-leaning as California — and at a time of heightened racial tensions nationwide.
Among the estimated 39 million Californians, African Americans account for 6.5% of the population, compared with 73% who are white and 15% who are Asian, according to the U.S. Census. Latinos, who may be of different races, account for 38.8% of Californians.
Amid the series of fatal confrontations between police and African American men over the last month, Harris has embraced her role as California's most influential black politician. She repeatedly and very publicly said that as a black woman she is well aware of the discrimination, racial profiling and unjustified police traffic stops that her relatives, friends and colleagues face even today.
Sanchez's comment may only help Harris build on her dominating lead. Harris won the June Senate primary, beating Sanchez by more than 20% of the vote. She currently has a 3-1 edge in fundraising.
The two Democrats will face off in the November election, setting the stage for the highest-profile contest between two members of the same party since California adopted a top-two primary election system.
On Tuesday, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced their support for Harris in the Senate race, praising her record as California's attorney general. Harris has been a longtime political ally of the president, including serving as the California co-chair of his 2008 presidential campaign.
Sanchez responded by accusing the president of being part of a political establishment that she said has failed to work for Californians. Sanchez said Democratic leaders have favored Harris from the outset, and that they would rather have a "coronation" for Harris instead of a legitimate Senate election.
She reiterated those thoughts in the Univision interview airing Friday night.
"I don't know why the leadership of the party did not want a Latino; they did not speak with us," Sanchez said. "They chose [Harris] from the beginning."
Sanchez has had a history of stirring up controversy throughout her 20 years in Congress as well as during the ongoing Senate campaign.
In May 2015, Sanchez was speaking to party activists at the California Democratic Party convention when she tapped her hand to her mouth in imitation of a Native American "war cry." She made the controversial gesture while joking with a group of Indian Americans about confusing an Indian American with an American Indian. Sanchez was forced to call a news conference the next day to apologize.
Shortly after the December terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Sanchez suggested in an interview with Larry King that 5% to 20% of Muslims support a caliphate — a strict Islamic state. The comment was promptly criticized by Muslim groups. Sanchez stood by her comment, saying the figures she mentioned had not been repudiated by any credible source.
In her 2010 congressional reelection campaign against Republican Van Tran, Sanchez said in a Spanish-language interview on Univision said that "Vietnamese and Republicans" were attempting "to take this seat from us ... and give it to this Van Tran, who is very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic."
Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant, called her statements "offensive" and "divisive."
And in 2000, Sanchez was chastised by Democratic Party leaders because of her plan, later abandoned, to throw a party at the Playboy Mansion during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
Sanchez has in the past dismissed critics who question whether she has the temperament to be a senator, saying she is not afraid to speak her mind and has a "fun-loving" perspective on life.
8:59 p.m.: This article was updated with a response from Loretta Sanchez and an additional excerpt from Sanchez's Univision interview.
7:21 p.m.: This article was updated with a response from Kamala Harris' campaign.