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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ GEBE MARTINEZ

Sanchez Is Still Getting Star Treatment

June 24, 1997|GEBE MARTINEZ

"No pictures," a security guard instructed a news photographer as Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez stepped off an elevator in a Seattle hotel.

Not that she minded. Just a couple of hours earlier, the freshman Democrat from Garden Grove was giddy over the rock star treatment she was getting from organizers of the convention where she was to speak.

Usually, a first-termer in the 435-member House of Representatives is rarely recognized except for the congressional lapel pen that lets Capitol Hill security guards and elevator operators know who is a VIP.

But seven months after her desperately close election, Sanchez still draws special notice, thanks in part to her political foe, former Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan. His continuing challenge to the election results keeps Sanchez's name in the forefront and in the hearts and minds of White House officials and Democratic House members.

That political nectar can be intoxicating, especially for someone who was a relative nobody before her election. The question remains whether Sanchez can balance her celebrity status with the sobering routine of basic congressional work.

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For a high-profile member of Congress, particularly a junior one, there is a strong political danger of being taken in by all the attention and spending too little time on the basic duties of office, warns John Pitney, a congressional affairs specialist at Claremont McKenna College, and a former House GOP staffer.

Pitney is reminded of former Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.), who was coddled by Republicans after his 1990 election made him the first black Republican elected to the House in almost six decades. Franks lost his seat last year in part because he alienated constituents and even some of his Republican colleagues through too much attention to publicity and not enough to constituent service.

"Franks didn't pay attention to the basics of running a congressional office and official constituent service. That's the pitfall Loretta Sanchez is going to have to watch out for," Pitney says.

"It's quite a heady experience to go instantly from being an unknown to being one of the bright lights on the party's horizon," he adds. "What she has to remember is that being a House member is pretty unglamorous work."

It is pretty glamorous for Sanchez right now, though.

Consider the attention paid to her in the last several weeks.

On one recent day, Sanchez's political standing was the subject of an impassioned plea to the Democratic caucus by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland--a leading House Democrat. Hoyer urged colleagues to pay close attention to the representative from Orange County--through financial donations and moral support--as she fights Dornan's election contest now pending before the House.

A few days later, the congresswoman was in the enviable position of being able to decline an invitation from the White House to fly to Southern California aboard Air Force One with President Clinton because she was already scheduled to tour a Santa Ana school with Clinton's education secretary, Richard Riley.

And the day after that, Sanchez was on CNN commenting on the president's speech in San Diego on race relations, along with Jack Kemp, last year's GOP vice presidential nominee; Kweisi Mfume, the head of the NAACP; and actor James Earl Jones.

The gushing over Sanchez has remained constant since her election last November, partly because she comes from Republican-rich Orange County, and because she defeated Dornan, who remains on the Democrats' enemies list because of his charges that noncitizen voters cost him the election.

Soon after she was declared the victor, Vice President Al Gore walked a short distance with Sanchez down the main corridor of the Capitol in a staged "photo op" for waiting photographers.

On more than a few occasions, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), the Hispanic Caucus chairman, has held news conferences with other Democrats on Capitol Hill to criticize the latest alleged misdeed by House Republicans against Sanchez.

And when the Hispanic Caucus met at the White House recently, the Orange County representative was positioned in prime photo position--across from Clinton and next to Gore.

"We were very, very happy that she won and we want to support her as much as we can," says an administration official. "Any time the president or vice president have a chance to help out in a close district, they try to."

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In the House, the focus on Sanchez is more intense because Democrats are determined to hold on to the California seat--the only local legislative office lost by Orange County Republicans in the past election.

"She's very, very high on our list of priorities and very visible on our radar screen," says Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), who also heads the House Democratic Caucus. "The very fact that she is such a heroine for many of us guarantees that she will be a high-profile member for many months to come."

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