8 things to know about Senate hopeful Loretta Sanchez’s 20-year political career

Rep. Loretta Sanchez at the 2015 California Democratic Party convention in Anaheim.
(Patrick T. Fallon/ For The Los Angeles Times)

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez says her expertise on national defense and global security in an era of worldwide volatility and deadly terrorist attacks makes her the clear choice in California’s U.S. Senate race.

Throughout her campaign, Sanchez has held up her votes against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as examples of her political courage amid intense pressure to support those measures. In the House of Representatives, Sanchez also fought to allow women in combat and to protect members of the military from sexual assaults. She has also supported efforts to reduce the federal deficit.

Her rival in the November election is fellow Democrat Kamala Harris, the clear front runner, who has served as California’s attorney general and San Francisco’s district attorney and has received endorsements from the California Democratic Party and Gov. Jerry Brown. Sanchez, however, argues that Harris lacks experience in the cutthroat politics involved in the legislative process, casting doubt on her ability to be effective in Washington.

Here are some of the noteworthy milestones in Sanchez’s political career, including those that landed her in hot water:

1. Voted against the Iraq War and Patriot Act

A U.S. Marine stands watch as others take a moment to rest after taking over two houses in a pre–dawn mission in the Jolan Heights area of Fallouja, Iraq in 2004. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

In 2002, Sanchez was among the 133 House members who voted against the authorization for the use of military force against Iraq.

The resolution passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, however. Among those voting in favor were then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. 

"People forget how difficult, how hard, and how unpopular that vote really was," Sanchez said while speaking at a Democratic Foundation of Orange County luncheon in 2015. "I was spit at. I had to have bodyguards when I came back to Orange County.”

President George W. Bush had requested congressional approval, saying it was necessary to pressure Iraqi President Saddam Hussein — by force, if necessary — to destroy his suspected weapons of mass destruction programs.

Sanchez said her experience on the House Armed Services Committee made her question the long-term implications of an invasion, and whether the U.S. might find itself bogged down in a war in the Middle East.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez discussing her position on the Iraq War in 2003 on C-SPAN.

Sanchez said she had been just as skeptical of the Patriot Act, the legislation approved by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, which gave law enforcement agencies vastly expanded powers to track terror suspects. 

She said the information later made public by former National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden revealed that federal authorities  collected massive amounts of data on phone calls made by law-abiding Americans.

2. Advocate for women in the military

A female marine stands in formation along with her male compatriots on November 10, 2010, at Camp Delaram in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)
(Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)

Sanchez, the second ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and chair of the Women in the Military Caucus, has spent years advocating for the U.S. military to end its policy prohibiting women from combat positions. She introduced legislation in 2011, 2012 and 2014 to do just that, though none of the bills went anywhere. 

Sanchez argued that the combat exclusion policy failed to recognize that women had already been serving on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. The policy also hindered the ability of women in the military to advance up the the chain of command, since combat experience is required for certain promotions.

In December, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced an end to the Pentagon's formal ban on women in combat jobs, allowing them to serve in all artillery, infantry and other frontline units for the first time. 

In September, the Marines released a study of women in combat skills tests that concluded that women hurt combat capability. The Marines had requested to be exempted from the policy, but the request was denied.

Sanchez also worked on a bill with Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) to provide federal whistleblower protections for people who report sexual assaults in the military. The legislation passed the House unanimously and was later folded into a defense policy bill.

In 2013, a bill proposed by Sanchez to require commanders to include sexual harassment in performance evaluations and to hold them accountable for the climate in their units was adopted into the bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act.

3. Voted to shield gun makers from lawsuits

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In 2005, Sanchez voted in favor of legislation that shielded the gun industry from liability for the criminal or negligent acts of gun owners, with certain exceptions.

The law, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, was approved by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush. The bill superseded existing laws in California and other states that allowed victims of gun violence to sue gun makers and dealers.  

Sanchez said the measure protects lawful businesses from being hit with frivolous lawsuits, comparing it to allowing a person injured by a drunk driver to sue a car manufacturer.

She also defended her record on gun control, saying she has supported a ban on high-capacity magazines and has backed requiring background checks for people who buy weapons at gun shows. Sanchez said she has consistently received poor grades from the pro-gun National Rifle Assn.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has endorsed Harris in the Senate race, and the group’s president, Dan Gross, referred to the 2005 vote by Sanchez when it was announced.

“While her opponent may feel the gun industry, whose products kill 90 Americans every day, deserves a free pass in the form of special legal protections — Kamala Harris doesn't,” Gross said in the statement.

Still, the Brady Campaign endorsed Sanchez’s 2006 reelection bid for Congress — just a year after the 2005 vote — as well as her reelection campaigns in 2008 and 2010. The Brady Campaign also gave the Orange County congresswoman a thumbs-up grade on gun issues in 2014.

4. Beat conservative firebrand ‘B-1 Bob’ Dornan

Loretta Sanchez, with her campaign manager John Shallman, arrives in Washington in 1996 for orientation sessions for new members of Congress. (Alex Garcia / Los Angeles Times)
Loretta Sanchez, with her campaign manager John Shallman, arrives in Washington in 1996 for orientation sessions for new members of Congress. (Alex Garcia / Los Angeles Times)

In 1996, Sanchez was a little-known financial analyst from Anaheim when she ousted Orange County conservative Rep. Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan for Congress, beating him by just 984 votes.

Few had given her any chance against the bombastic former Air Force pilot, who earned his nickname after he became a top pitchman for the 1980s-era jet bomber.

Sanchez’s own Democratic Party endorsed another candidate in the primary, and her only political experience before that was a failed bid for Anaheim City Council.

Dornan gained a national following in part for his stands against abortion, gay rights and liberalism and for his fervent support of the military, anti-communism and gun rights. During his successful 1992 reelection campaign he said that “every lesbian spear-chucker in this country is hoping I get defeated.” 

President Bill Clinton, labor groups, environmentalists, advocates of abortion rights and gay rights and celebrities all campaigned on Sanchez's behalf.

The newly elected congresswoman arrived in Washington in 1996 as a Democratic superstar, and as an incarnation of the political ascension of Latinos in Orange County, California and across the U.S.

She survived a bitter fight with Dornan as he attempted to overturn the results. He claimed the election was tainted by illegal ballots cast by noncitizens. Sanchez defeated him a second time him in a rematch in 1998. 

5. A Playboy Mansion fundraiser and other political dust ups

Playboy Mansion (Jim Bartsch)

In 2000, Sanchez angered Democratic Party leaders and presidential nominee Al Gore by scheduling a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Sanchez, co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, was stripped of her speaking role at the convention because of her steadfast refusal to relocate the fundraiser for Hispanic Unity USA, a political action committee that was raising money for a Latino voter registration drive. 

In a letter, then party chairman Joe Andrew chastised Sanchez, saying that Democrats and women’s groups found the planned fundraiser at the estate of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner to be “neither appropriate nor reflective of our party’s values.”

Sanchez’s supporters noted that many Democrats, including Gore, had accepted campaign contributions from Playboy executives. 

Sanchez ultimately moved the event. She regained a spot on the convention speakers’ list the next day, but refused to accept it.

It wasn’t the last time Sanchez was involved in a political stir:

  • In 2007, Sanchez quit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus saying that it was, in part, due to caucus chairman Rep. Joe Baca’s demeaning manner toward women and his gossiping that she was a "whore,” which he denied.
  • At the California Democratic Party convention in May 2015, Sanchez was speaking to party activists when she tapped her hand to her mouth in imitation of a Native American “war cry” when describing the difference between Native Americans and Indian Americans. She was forced to apologize.
  • For years, Sanchez sent out racy Christmas cards featuring her cat Gretzky. In one, the congresswoman was sitting on a motorcycle wearing a tank top, with Gretzky perched on the handlebars.
  • Following the deadly terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, Sanchez said 5% to 20% of Muslims worldwide supported the idea of a caliphate — a strict Islamic state. The congresswoman was criticized by immigrant rights group and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Sanchez said the figures she mentioned have not been repudiated by any credible source.

6. Voted for controversial deficit reduction plan

Sanchez has tried to cultivate an image as a moderate on budget issues, joining a group called the “Blue Dog Coalition” dedicated to fiscal conservatism.

She supported a failed effort to reduce the federal debt that was based on the recommendations of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission, which President Obama appointed in 2010 to address the nation’s debt challenges. The recommendations included spending caps, increasing gas taxes and, among the more controversial proposals, raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits.

Sanchez also was one of 63 members of her party who opposed the 2008 bank bailout.

She did vote for the 2009 economic stimulus package, the auto bailout and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to tighten the regulation of Wall Street and the finance industry.

7. Missed congressional committee meetings

A Times review of Sanchez’s attendance in Congress shows she missed 13 of 18 House Homeland Security Committee meetings from January through early November 2015, tied for the second-worst attendance on the committee. She missed the vast majority of her subcommittee meetings and half of the full meetings in the 2013-14 congressional term.

Sanchez also missed more floor votes in the House — more than one in five — than all but two other members in 2015, according to Congressional Quarterly. That's a drop from her previous terms in Congress, when she cast votes more than 90% of the time in all but one year.

Sanchez told the Times in December that she doesn't recall missing many Homeland Security hearings, but added that her responsibilities on the Armed Services committee expanded greatly when the ranking Democrat was away from Congress because of two hip surgeries. 

Sanchez said she also spent more time in California, in part because her father has Alzheimer's and because her elderly mother also needs care.

8. Lacks a signature bill, but delivered for water project

Gov. Jerry Brown holds glasses of reclaimed at the Orange County Water District Groundwater Replenishment System. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Last year, CQ Roll Call classified Sanchez as among the "debate shapers and swing votes” on its list of the “25 Most Influential Women in Congress.”

But the Orange County Democrat has not offered a successful signature bill that members of Congress covet, though her party held power for four years of her 20-year tenure.

Still, Sanchez boasts of delivering federal funding for Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System. The treated water is used to recharge the local groundwater basin and provides enough water for nearly 850,000 residents.

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