Pacing next to the desk and U.S. flag in her district office in Garden Grove, the paradox that is Rep. Loretta Sanchez was on full display.
The congresswoman ticked off a meaty legislative to-do list: immigration reform, port safety, stopping sex trafficking, revamping "terrible management" at the Department of Homeland Security. She was articulate and sharp, even magnetic.
At the same time, she was shedding a red St. John Knits suit and shimmying into an ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese tunic and pants, for her next event. Meaning that she was telling a female reporter about her chairmanship of the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism while wearing only pants and a black bra.
Was this a glimpse of Loretta Sanchez, siren, a politician known for her strenuous workout regimen and fondness for come-hither heels? Or was this Loretta Sanchez, harried congresswoman, too wrapped up in important national issues to take a break in the name of modesty?
Few members of Congress, if any, are such a walking Rorschach test. In the decade that Sanchez has represented central Orange County, the Democrat has been viewed alternately as a masterful fundraiser, legislative lightweight, political mentor, headstrong politician, leading Latina voice and one of Congress' "babes."
Her latest headline-maker, quitting the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, mixes two familiar elements in Sanchez's career: politics and the risque.
Sanchez had told Politico, a new website covering Capitol Hill, that her departure was due in part to Rep. Joe Baca's demeaning manner toward women and his gossiping that she was a "whore," both of which he has denied.
Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert then devoted an entire "Colbert Report" segment to pondering, "Is Loretta Sanchez a whore?" (No, the comedian decided.) Last week, several caucus members unsuccessfully tried to oust Baca, a Democrat from Rialto, as the group's chairman, the Hill newspaper reported.
In the coming months, Sanchez will be tested on whether her reputation will be more coquette or congresswoman. Entrenched in the House majority for the first time, she is allied with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and sits on two of the most prominent committees: Armed Services and Homeland Security, being the second-ranking Democrat on the latter.
Sanchez, 47, has also recently considered a gubernatorial run, creating a committee, People for Loretta 2010, that allows her to raise money. Among her biggest hurdles to a statewide win, she said while rushing from her office to Little Saigon's Tet Festival: "I don't sit on the fence and nuance things, and sometimes voters don't like that." The plain-speaking Sanchez is an intriguing study at a time when female politicians have reached new heights -- House speaker and viable presidential contender, to name but two -- but she still gets criticized for a flirtatious nature.
"I think that traditionally what the public has seen as far as a woman in politics is someone that dresses a certain way and has a certain demeanor and is always very serious, because that's what it took to break through," Sanchez said. "I think you're seeing a whole new set of women ... feeling much more comfortable about being themselves versus being some blob that will blend in."
Fred Smoller, a Chapman University political scientist who backed the appointment of Sanchez to the school's Board of Trustees in 2001, said that if the congresswoman were male, she would be described as "feisty and independent" and be taken more seriously.
"My God, if we can have a former action hero as governor, why not someone who served 10 years in Congress?"
Sanchez sauntered onto the national stage in 1996 with the nickname "Dragon Slayer" after ousting longtime incumbent Republican Rep. Robert Dornan. Her victory coincided with the national emergence of Latinos as a voting power -- within once-homogenous Orange County, as well -- and gave her a prominent platform.
She trumpeted a rousing personal narrative: shy second child of seven born to Mexican immigrants who won a scholarship to Chapman University in Orange, earned an MBA from American University in Washington, D.C., and became a financial consultant. (Sanchez's husband of 14 years, Stephen Brixey, filed for divorce in 2004, citing irreconcilable differences.)
After taking office, she expressed a disappointment in an interview with the New York Times: "The news stories tend to say I won because I'm Latina or because Bob Dornan was extreme -- not because I was strategic or smart."
That disappointment lingered, even as Sanchez pummeled a new GOP challenger every two years in a district where Democrats hold a slight registration edge, but which President Bush won in 2004 and which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took last year, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan California Target Book.