Loretta Sanchez won election to the U.S. House of Representatives—her first political office—by toppling a polarizing, longtime incumbent. During her 20-year tenure in the House, Sanchez established herself as an advocate for women in the military and specialized in national security policy, rising to become one of the most senior Democrats on two influential committees—Armed Services and Homeland Security. In 2003, she made history when her sister, Linda, won election to the House, making the pair the first sisters to serve in Congress.
Loretta Sanchez was born in Lynwood, California, on January 7, 1960, the oldest daughter of Ignacio Sandoval Sanchez and Maria Socorro Macias Sanchez.1 Her father worked as a machinist at a plastics and rubber factory; her mother worked as a secretary and elementary school teacher. Loretta, the second oldest of seven children, grew up in the family’s modest house in Anaheim.2 Her brother, Frank, recalled that his sister “was a role model for all the girls; she was an overachiever. In a way, she was always a politician. She taught [her sisters] Linda and Martha that you have to grease the wheel before you get it to move.”3 Loretta graduated from Katella High School in Anaheim, and went to college at Chapman University in Orange, California, where she earned a BS in economics in 1982. Two years later, Sanchez earned an MBA from American University in Washington, DC. From 1984 to 1987, she worked as a special projects manager at the Orange County transportation authority. Sanchez then entered the private sector in the investment banking industry and, later, worked as a strategist at a leading consulting company. She married Stephen Brixey III, a securities trader, and the couple settled in Orange County, California. They had no children and divorced in 2004 after 14 years of marriage. Sanchez married Jack Einwechter, a retired U.S. Army colonel, in 2011.4
Sanchez had started out as a registered Republican and fiscal conservative, but she broke with the GOP in 1992, believing the party had marginalized immigrants and women. Her first attempt at political office was a 1994 campaign as a Democrat for a seat on the Anaheim city council; Sanchez finished eighth out of 16 contenders.
In 1996, Sanchez declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination in the race for a U.S. congressional district encompassing central Orange County—including much of Anaheim and Santa Ana, as well as attractions such as Anaheim Stadium and Disneyland. Long considered a bulwark of white, suburban, middle class values, Orange County had been reshaped by an influx of immigrant populations in the late 20th century. By the 1990s the 46th District’s population was nearly 30 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian.5
During the primary campaign, Sanchez touted her business credentials, particularly her effort to secure funding from national companies to establish programs between local grade schools and state colleges in Orange County.6 Despite her lack of political experience, she defeated three male contenders in the Democratic primary with a plurality of 35 percent of the vote.
In the general election Sanchez faced 12-term incumbent Republican Bob Dornan, a controversial and outspoken conservative known as “B-1 Bob” as much for the Air Force bomber built in his district as for his pro-defense positions generally. Though a polarizing nationally known figure (he often served as a substitute host on conservative icon Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and made what one political publication observed was a “quixotic” presidential campaign in 1996), Dornan was nevertheless heavily favored against Sanchez. Assuming he would safely win re-election, Dornan was out of the district for much of the campaign cycle. Political observers later noted that he seemed to underappreciate Sanchez’s challenge.7
Sanchez’s platform included support for small- and medium-sized businesses, investment in high-tech research, and federal funding for school improvements. Sanchez appealed to the district’s traditionally conservative voters with a tough-on-crime agenda; she also advocated a ban on assault weapons and the elimination of the gun show loophole. She sought to boost Hispanic voter turnout, which increased from 14 to 20 percent of the total vote, compared to the previous election. And she won the support of labor unions, progressives, and Hollywood donors—out raising Dornan by almost $70,000. In the waning days of the campaign, President William J. (Bill) Clinton came to the district on her behalf. On election night Sanchez trailed by several hundred votes, but a count of absentee ballots during the next week, put her over the top. Sanchez prevailed with a 984-vote margin out of more than 100,000 cast, eking out a 47 to 46 percent win.8
For more than a year, Sanchez (who some colleagues had dubbed the “dragon slayer”) had to contend with Dornan’s formal challenge to her election and his complaints in the press that she “ran a dirty campaign and she is unqualified.”9 In February 1998, the House voted overwhelmingly to dismiss Dornan’s charge that illegal votes had tipped the election toward Sanchez.10
Later that year, now as an incumbent, she faced Dornan again in a general election rematch which ranked as one of the most expensive races in the country. Sanchez prevailed with a convincing 56 to 39 percent margin. Her clash with Dornan provided the new Congresswoman with national exposure, making her one of the Democratic Party’s primary congressional conduits for appealing to Latinos, women, and young voters. She was appointed the general co-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and made the honorary chair of 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore’s political action committee. In her seven subsequent re-election bids she usually won with comfortable margins, garnering 60 percent of the vote or more on all but one occasion.11
When Congresswoman Sanchez took her seat in the House at the opening of the 105th Congress (1997–1999), she received assignments on the Education and Workforce Committee and the National Security Committee (later renamed Armed Services). She served on Education and Workforce through the conclusion of the 108th Congress (2003–2005), but remained on Armed Services for her entire career. Additionally, in the 109th Congress (2005–2007), she won a seat on the newly created Homeland Security Committee. She remained there for the duration of her time in the House, rising to the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border, Maritime, and Global Counterterrorism when Democrats won the House majority in the 2006 elections. She held the gavel for the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011).
After the wave elections of 2010 that toppled the leading Democrats on Armed Services, Sanchez angled for the ranking Democratic spot on the committee. When the full caucus voted to assign seniority in the committee she tied Adam Smith of Washington on the first ballot but eventually lost 97–86 in the second round of balloting.12 By her final term in office, Sanchez had risen to the post of number two Democrat on both Homeland Security and Armed Services. Among some of her more significant votes during her tenure on those panels was her opposition to the October 2002 resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq (Sanchez was one of about 130 Members who opposed it), as well as her vote against the USA PATRIOT Act in the fall of 2001. She opposed the later bill because she was skeptical of handing too much power to intelligence agencies tracking suspected terrorists.13
From her seat on the Armed Forces Committee, Sanchez was a leading advocate for women in the military, and a co-founder of the congressional Women in the Military Caucus. For years she lobbied to repeal the prohibition against women serving in combat roles. While she introduced unsuccessful bills to achieve that goal in the 112th and 113th Congresses, the Defense Department eventually opened all combat roles to women in December 2015. Sanchez also repeatedly pressed for changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice so that sexual assault crimes would be handled in a manner similar as those tried in the federal courts.14 She also cosponsored a bill in 2013 with Republican Jackie Walorski of Indiana, H.R. 1864, which extended federal whistleblower protections to servicemen and women who reported sexual assaults. The measure passed the House and was eventually folded into a separate defense bill. That same year, Sanchez authored a bill (later added to the annual defense appropriations act), that required unit commanders to report incidents of sexual harassment in annual performance evaluations and increased their accountability for incidents that occurred in their units.15
Sanchez often emphasized her fiscally conservative roots. She joined the Democratic Blue Dog Caucus, pushed for a major overhaul of the Internal Revenue Service, and supported pay-as-you-go requirements and other budget deficit reductions. She was also one of roughly 60 Democrats who opposed the taxpayer funded TARP bank bailout during the economic meltdown in the late summer of 2008.
Nevertheless, Sanchez believed the federal government had a beneficial role to play in everyday life, particularly in education. As a former student in the Head Start program, Sanchez vowed to make federally funded education programs available to low-income children. She also authored legislation to encourage tax-free bonds to spur funding of school construction.16
With a growing immigrant population in her district, Sanchez took a keen interest in Vietnamese-U.S. relations. In 2000, she accompanied President Clinton on his historic trip to Vietnam—the first by a sitting U.S. President since Richard M. Nixon in 1969. Sanchez used the opportunity to discuss human rights with political dissidents. That led the Hanoi government to deny her subsequent three requests for entry into the country. In 2007, when she obtained a visa and visited the country again, she criticized the government’s lack of transparency and sought to meet with the wives of political prisoners.17 In the 111th Congress, Sanchez introduced H. Res. 672, calling on the Vietnamese government to release bloggers whom it had imprisoned and to respect internet rights. The U.S., she said on the House Floor, “must take a stand against Vietnam’s human rights violations. We are a beacon of freedom, of democracy, and it is our responsibility to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice.”18 In 2011, while proposing to amend a Homeland Security appropriations bill to add money to prevent child exploitation and trafficking, she pointed to the prevalence of these practices in Vietnam.19
Over the course of her career, Sanchez developed what one political almanac termed a “spirited and unconventional style.” In 2000, she stirred controversy prior to the Democratic National Convention by planning a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion, a decision that she reversed only when the quiet complaints of House colleagues and the Gore presidential campaign grew more insistent.20 In early 2007, she quit the Congressional Hispanic Caucus after a public feud with a fellow California Democrat and chairman of the Caucus, Joe Baca. Sanchez claimed that Baca had made comments that demeaned women, including her—a charge which he denied—and that he had acted autocratically as chairman; she never returned to the group.21 Her whimsical Christmas cards, often adorned by her fluffy cat Gretzky, sparked conversation on Capitol Hill and among her constituents.22
In 2002, she helped her younger sister Linda, a labor lawyer, campaign and win election to a U.S. House seat in a neighboring congressional district. When Linda was sworn in at the opening of the 108th Congress in January 2003, she and Loretta became the first sisters ever to serve together in Congress—an event that drew national press attention. The media played up the “House’s first sister act,” profiling them by contrasting everything from their fashion sense to political styles.23
Sanchez had kept an eye on moving to higher office, and considered potential runs for California governor in 2003 and 2009. In 2010, the year Republicans surged back into the majority after four years of Democratic control, she faced the stiffest challenge of her House career. Republican state assemblyman Van Tran—a refugee who had fled Saigon in 1975 with his family—mounted a challenge that drew $1 million in campaign contributions and brought much of the district’s Vietnamese community into his camp. And Sanchez faced a backlash from Asian-Americans when she said in a Spanish-language Univision interview that “the Vietnamese and the Republicans are, with an intensity, (trying) to take this seat.” Complicating matters, an independent candidate, Cecilia Iglesias, jumped into the race, raising the possibility that Sanchez’s base of Latino support might be eroded. But Sanchez managed to right her campaign, outraised Tran by a nearly two-to-one margin, and secured 53 percent of the vote in the three-way race; Tran took 39 percent and Iglesias took 8 percent.24
In 2016 Sanchez opted to not run for an 11th term in the House in order to seek the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Barbara Boxer at the conclusion of the 114th Congress in January 2017. In making her announcement, she stressed her decades of experience in Washington, particularly her work on defense and security issues. “There are two kinds of candidates,” Sanchez said. “Those who want to be something and those who want to do something. I am running for Senate because I am a doer.”25 The race pitted her against the Democratic Party establishment favorite, California attorney general Kamala Harris. In the state’s top-two primary winner format, Sanchez placed second behind Harris, 40 to 19 percent to advance to the general election.26 The rest of the vote was scattered among a large field of more than 30, mostly obscure, GOP contenders. Throughout the general election Harris maintained a significant advantage in fundraising and in the polls. On Election Day, Harris prevailed by a 62 to 38 percent margin of victory.27
Sanchez retired from the House at the conclusion of the 114th Congress in early 2017.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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