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Entering the Washington Whirlwind

Congress: Loretta Sanchez, who is leading Rep. Robert Dornan, draws the attention of news crews and politicians as she goes through freshman orientation.


WASHINGTON — Loretta Sanchez climbed the steps of the Capitol on Friday as the most talked-about freshman--Democrat or Republican--in the new 105th Congress.

Sanchez is so new to the center of political power that the 36-year-old financial analyst from central Orange County was taking direction from, of all people, a New York tabloid photographer.

"Like this?" she giggled, thrusting her arms into a brilliant autumn sky as she flashed a victory smile.

What Sanchez didn't know was that she was posing just outside the office windows of her election opponent, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove).

As members of the newly elected Congress arrived on Capitol Hill to learn the ways of Washington, all eyes were on Sanchez, whose apparent victory in the heart of Republican country has made her a national celebrity. She still clung to a 665-vote lead over Dornan after about 1,200 mail-in absentee ballots were counted Friday.

The incoming class of 73 Republicans and Democrats is filled with stories of individual accomplishment--among them the election victory of Democrat Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son was critically injured in the Long Island Railroad massacre in 1993.

But it was Sanchez's arrival for the 10-day freshman orientation that drew the most attention. Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich noticed.

"I certainly was happy to meet Ms. Sanchez," Gingrich said after a bipartisan opening reception. "I thought she was a very attractive person. . . . She has a nice personality and she's a person who seemed very interested in working and getting things done."

Although news cameras were pointed in Sanchez's direction, a few other incoming Congress members received some attention: McCarthy, the New York Democrat, was followed by five television crews; Ellen O. Tauscher, the wealthy Democrat who defeated Rep. Bill Baker (R-Walnut Creek), was seen arriving at the Capitol on Friday in a limousine instead of the chartered buses that transported most of the freshmen.

In contrast to the situation two years ago, when Republicans swaggered into town as the new majority party in the House for the first time in 40 years, members of both parties spoke optimistically of "working together" and of "moderation" in politics.

"Coming from the [state] Assembly in the last few years in California, where we have had some very bitter partisan divisions, the one lesson I've learned during that experience is that if Democrats and Republicans are able to reach across the canyon and work together, you get the job done much easier, and for people," said Rep.-elect Jim Rogan (R-Glendale).

Democrats, including Sanchez, an independent-minded former Republican, viewed the talk as the GOP coming to terms with the fact that its margin over Democrats in Congress had been narrowed by the Nov. 5 election.

"I keep hearing the words 'bipartisan' and 'moderation,' but it will be interesting to see what happens when we get together [when the session begins in January]," Sanchez said during one of many interviews that interrupted her first day of learning the inner workings of Congress.

There seemed to be no limits, however, to the talk spilling out of the closed-door, get-acquainted sessions about the expected election loss by Dornan, who was seeking his 10th term.

"Bob Dornan has filled up hours and hours on C-SPAN for years and years," said Rep.-elect Brad Sherman, a Democrat from the San Fernando Valley. "Not having him around is like taking 'Baywatch' off the air."

Although Dornan's presence in Washington was mostly limited to television interviews from California during which he reiterated his allegations of voter fraud, Sanchez maintained her right to attend the orientation.

Hers was only one of several races still unofficially declared, but the House Oversight Committee invited all possible winners to attend the federally funded sessions.

Among those taking notes was Brian Baird, the Democrat from Washington state who thought he had defeated incumbent Rep. Linda Smith on election night, only to now find himself more than 1,000 votes behind.

"I'm still optimistic we have a good shot at this, so I want to make sure I hit the ground running," Baird said.

The possibility that Sanchez might still lose was never far from her mind--mostly because the ever-present Washington press corps kept reminding her that they were interested in her because of the person she presumably has defeated.

"Have you talked to Mr. Dornan at all?" she was asked.

"Not at all," she responded.

What about a recount?

"There's really no controversy. Only in Mr. Dornan's mind," Sanchez told another questioner.

What will she do for the Latino community that was instrumental in her lead? asked reporters for Spanish-language television networks.

The community, she said, needs "help with jobs, with businesses, with opportunities for education. Those themes are not just themes of Hispanics."

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