Loretta Sanchez

Feisty Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Orange County,whose narrow upset victory last November toppled arch-conservativeRepublican Robert K. Dornan and signaled the growing power of theLatino voter, made her case to the Jewish community last week.

It is a stronger case than you might think.Sanchez, 37, is quick, bright-eyed, intelligent, with a surprisinglynuanced appreciation of Jewish history, not to mention the issuesfacing her poor Garden Grove district and the thousands of thisnation’s legal immigrants whom she considers her “silentconstituents.”

If her 985-vote margin was a fluke, retaining herseat will not be another one: She’ll win on her record, or failtrying. Dornan has pushed for a special election to undo the Sanchezvote, raising funds among House Republicans. But against unprovedassertions that massive voter fraud won her the seat (she concedesperhaps 200 bad votes mostly among those who were enrolled beforethey became citizens), Sanchez has remained focused. The formerbusiness consultant, self-described fiscal conservative and one-timeRepublican has, through key assignments on education and nationalsecurity committees, quickly placed herself in the center of hotissues, from welfare reform to the Middle East controversy.

“She’s been absolutely the best on the Iran-Iraqsituation,” said Howard Welinsky, of Democrats for Israel. “She’sfirst rate.”

Sanchez’s outreach to the Jewish community (formerRep. Mel Levine hosts a fund-raiser for her next week) is based, inpart, on a desperate need for financing, for she is already $500,000in debt trying to beat back Dornan’s allegations, plus faces a $2million re-election campaign next year. But it’s also based on arealpolitik. Foreign aid, the peace process, even the transfer of theIsraeli capital to Jerusalem have all received her support — one ofthe few areas where she and Dornan agree. The least she can expect isthat the Jewish community know who she is.

“I’m a minority,” she told a crowd of activists atthe Jewish Community Relations Committee on Monday evening. “As awoman, as a Democrat representing Orange County, as a Latina, Icouldn’t be more aware of what it’s like to be in the minorityposition. And you,” she said, looking out to the assembly, “are aminority too, whether you think of yourself that way or not.”

It was a revealing turn of phrase. What does”minority” mean today? Does the growing Latino population, looking toelect Los Angeles’ first Hispanic mayor, in 2000, still consideritself a “minority”? Other than Israel, do Jews have any politicalinterests that distinguish them from the rest of the Anglopopulation? Now that state Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa hastraveled to Israel with the Jewish Federation, how might Jews seek tounderstand Latinos in return?

Sanchez’s answer to these questions can be summedup as enlightened universalism, a policy she thinks both Latinos andJews implicitly understand. The second oldest of seven children,Sanchez said her first legislative victory was the passage of a billfunding a family-planning program in India.

“There’s a population that exists beyond my OrangeCounty district,” she said. “I’m speaking for them too.”

But for how long? Dornan’s fund-raising letterlast week attacked Sanchez as part of the “huge liberal juggernautmoney machine.” On Monday, she made the connection to the liberalagenda explicit. She alone among Orange County representatives votedto fund the National Endowment for the Arts (it lost in the House byone vote but passed in the Senate) even though letters to her officeindicated that her district was against it. On immigration issues andwelfare reform, she battles colleagues like Dana Rohrabacher, whocalls a bill for family reunification — in which a financiallyresponsible legal resident vouches for an immigrant relative — alicense for “illegal immigration.”

“Family reunification is a matter of concern tothe Jewish community as long as there is religious persecutionanywhere in the world,” she said, recalling Soviet Jewry.

Clearly, Sanchez hopes for, if not completeagreement, then at least open-mindedness from the Jewish community.She urges Jews to fund voter-education drives on the bilingualinitiative.

“I’d hate to see us go back to the way it was 40or 50 years ago,” she said, “when a student who didn’t know Englishwas regarded as mentally retarded. I’m afraid that voters will feelintimidated; they’ll be afraid their children won’t learn English atall, so they’ll vote against a program they need.” Although Sanchezbelieves that the Jewish voter could help retain bilingual education,I doubt that on this issue she’ll have many Jews on her side.

Loretta Sanchez’s parents were legal immigrantsfor 40 years before they became citizens.

“The reason I ran for office is because peoplelike my parents have not received enough credit,” she said. “Theyheld the community together. They worked hard. They raised theirchildren. They haven’t received the respect they deserve.”

Can the Jewish community be counted on to grantthem that respect? Sanchez speculated frequently about the strengthand character of the Latino-Jewish political coalition.

“Usually, the Latino-Jewish coalition is describedas a very calculating maneuver,” she said. “Jews with money meetLatinos with votes. I think a Latino-Jewish coalition could be built,not out of mathematics, but out of the principles that unite bothgroups. Love of family, love of religion or God, love of educationand hard work.

“But no coalition is natural. It takes effort.”

Marlene Adler Marks is editor at large of TheJewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wvoice@aol.com

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