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For Sanchez, It's Bend but Don't Break

August 17, 2000|SHAWN HUBLER

It was 2 a.m., last call, and her French twist was unraveling. Her mascara had been smudged since around midnight when, overwhelmed, she'd finally burst into tears. On the patio that was famously not at the Playboy Mansion, Loretta Sanchez had gripped and grinned and greeted for three hours in two languages and still the faithful kept coming. They wouldn't leave. They wouldn't drink. They wouldn't go inside and salsa. Not as long as the life of the party was out there.

This was Tuesday night--or rather, Wednesday morning--at "the most famous party in American history that's not at a Buddhist temple," as one politician kept quipping. Sanchez had at last backed down. To the relief of her party bosses--and at a cost of about $100,000--she had moved her bash to non-randy quarters.

Bunnygate was officially over. A big "Budweiser--Proud Sponsor" banner hung over the dance floor, but no one seemed to care about that vice. The big deal had been settled. CityWalk had replaced Hef's House O' Bodacious Ta-Tas. Scary faux sex had been replaced with sterile faux neon. The faux-prude wing of the Democratic party had triumphed.

Sanchez tried to be faux, too. And failed.


Being yourself is not a hallowed tradition in politics. The idea is to remain remarkably lifelike while following the script. As the cameras rolled at the evening's start, Sanchez was knocking herself out trying to go with the program. She'd stood in her black halter gown, smiling like a pageant contestant and declaring this "distraction" to be a mere "family disagreement." Onward and upward. Could we all just talk about the fund-raiser now?

No, we couldn't.

"This just makes you stronger," a short woman hissed as the news crews departed. "I've been reading about you," a bespectacled guy gushed. When Donna Shalala arrived around midnight--the only Cabinet member to show up--the congresswoman's eyes welled with emotion.

"Tears of joy," Sanchez explained, daubing her face with a wadded tissue. A friend rushed up with fresh eye shadow.

"I've been a friend of Loretta for a long time, and I don't think her friends should abandon her," the secretary of Health and Human Services announced firmly. "I don't like the way she was treated, and that's why I'm here."

By 1 a.m., Sanchez had quit feigning sweetness. When the umpteenth guest exhorted her with another version of "You go, girl," Sanchez didn't even lower her voice when she replied. "Some newspaper reporter told me, 'I've spent all day talking to your constituents and they are so hot for you,' " Sanchez said, her small fists clenching. "I'm like, 'Yessss! I am woman!' I just feel like, 'Take a look! This is how we fight!' "


For those familiar with Sanchez's Orange County district, there was some deja vu there. The congressman before Sanchez liked fighting too. His party, too, carped that he was a loose cannon. He, too, got called on the carpet. He, too, went down kicking like a mule.

Yes, even with the nice updo and the shiny lipstick, there was something about Loretta that smacked of Bob Dornan. And not the least of it was the number of true believers--and money--she'd managed to draw. Even with the costly hassle, the event had raised an estimated $500,000. There were 700 people there. Some had stood in line for hours to see the woman whose recalcitrance had caused such a fuss.

The political types noted that, like Dornan, she had never turned down a colleague or constituent when asked to act as a party symbol. Give her an event, she would be there. And she wouldn't ask what was in it for her. This, they said, was one reason why the party couldn't afford to be too mean. They need her too much.

"She's always been this way," a veteran political consultant said of her stubborn side earlier in the evening. "She just got caught this time. Somebody should have given her a good shake and told her to snap out of it."

"Believe me," sighed a Sanchez backer. "We tried."

And so had she. She'd tried to gloss things over. She'd stood until her legs ached, reiterating the party line. Could she help it if being Loretta Sanchez kept getting in the way of her party? "Politics is a tough, tough business," she sighed at night's end. Then she planted her hands on her hips--and smiled.

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