The other Sanchez sister

Politics in America has always been a family business. The history of kinship ties in government — and in Congress in particular — is rich and colorful.

It has seen just about everything, including the near-fatal beating that Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina laid upon Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor in 1856 for insulting the honor of Brooks’s uncle Sen. Andrew Butler.

The improbable journey of Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) to Capitol Hill adds a new and unprecedented chapter to the history. And not simply because Sanchez and her older sister Loretta (D-Calif.) are the first pair of sisters to serve in the House — though reporters never tire of bringing up that distinction.

“I really don’t get that question enough,” a grinning Sanchez, 36, says warmly, reclining on a couch in her comfortable Longworth office, when asked what it’s like to serve with big sis.

The sisters got their start in politics at the same time. While Linda was in high school and Loretta was in college, they both walked precincts for a candidate unsuccessfully challenging then-Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) — who, coincidentally, held his seat until Loretta defeated him in 1996 by 979 votes. She beat him by a wider margin in 1998, when Linda directed her sister’s field operations. (So much for sibling rivalry.) They even considered living with each other when Linda was elected in 2002 but decided against it for a variety of reasons.

Compared to her older sister, Sanchez has a reputation for being more of a night owl and less of a neat freak. And Loretta is 3 inches taller than Linda, who stands 5-foot-1.

Divorced last year, Linda Sanchez lives alone near Stanton Park and returns to California almost every weekend. She has no children but has two dogs, Baloo and Pip, “that she loves like her children,” says her spokeswoman, Stephanie Valencia.

Sanchez’s story is not just a human-interest piece about a congressional sister act. It says something fundamental about the evolution of American politics, even the American dream itself.

Sanchez’s parents were immigrants from Mexico. Though not politically active in the traditional sense, they discussed current events with Sanchez and her six siblings every night at dinner — which the family ate in shifts, Sanchez says, “because the table was small and we were many.”

Sanchez’s mother, in addition to working part time cleaning houses, set a model for neighborhood-level engagement that the two sisters would follow all the way to Capitol Hill.

“She was a real community activist, an organizer,” Sanchez recalls. After getting a job as a bilingual-education aide in an elementary school near the family’s Anaheim home, Sanchez’s mother saw firsthand the problems that non-English-speaking children faced in the classroom.

“I would often accompany her to meetings of teachers and administrators and parents to help these kids. So I sort of saw her being political in an activist sense, and that really rubbed off on me,” Sanchez says.

Sanchez’s early career followed a similar grassroots path. She worked her way through college at Berkeley by serving as a bilingual aide, like her mother. After graduating from UCLA Law School, she practiced law as a civil-rights and employment attorney, then as a union lawyer. Soon she became the secretary-treasurer for the Orange County AFL-CIO.

Thirty years ago, that would not have been a strange career path for a young Democratic politician. Sanchez’s story may have more of a Latin flavor than, say, former Rep. Dick Gephardt’s (D-Mo.), but the basic plot and blue-collar undertones are identical, whether the setting is the industrial Midwest in the 1960s or Southern California in the 1990s.

As the power of unions slowly declines and more working-class voters drift toward the GOP, Sanchez admits that over those decades the Democratic Party may have lost its way, as it spent more time courting wealthy and influential donors.

“Look, I was a community organizer and a labor organizer,” she says. “The Democrats need to return to their strong suit, which is organizing communities and getting them to participate. Once we do that, we’re going to start to see some real changes.

“We’re beginning to understand that it’s not just about the money. Raising money is not a guarantee that you’re going to win an election.”

Sanchez’s personal history strongly colors not just her vision of the party’s future but her legislative priorities in the House and on the Judiciary Committee. Asked what issue tops her agenda, she answers without flinching: “Immigration reform.”

There may be no issue more easily capable of eliciting raw emotional responses from more Americans. For Sanchez, it hits close to home.

“ I’m the daughter of immigrants, who came to this country with very little, and I saw them struggle and sacrifice,” she says, and then hesitates. “When I think about immigration, I think about those two words, struggle and sacrifice.”

She talks about immigration for almost three minutes without using the word “illegal” or any of the euphemisms used by other politicians.

“If you are not very far removed from the immigrant experience of your ancestors, you understand and you see the dedication and the sacrifice,” she argues quietly, her voice in a pleading tone as she clasps her hands together, searching for the right words. “The more removed you become from that experience, the easier it is to — I don’t want to say demonize, but at least to criticize those who are contributing to this country with their toil and their sweat.”

Sanchez’s background pushes her to see illegal immigrants in a different light than those who harp on their undocumented status. She likens their crime to jaywalking, since they break laws that politicians and business leaders, recognizing the vital role undocumented immigrants play in the economy, never intended to be enforced.

“If more people understood that or saw that analogy, there wouldn’t be this sense of, ‘Hey, they’re lawbreakers and criminals,’” she reasons.

What concerns Sanchez is that the children of immigrants may not have the same opportunities that she did. For her, government is not just an abstract academic exercise.

“Government programs benefited me,” she says. “I would not have had the opportunity to go to college and law school if student loans and Pell Grants didn’t exist.”

She points out a recent story in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune noting that she still owes $45,000 in student loans and is easily the least wealthy member of Los Angeles’s congressional delegation. Sanchez fears that children growing up in her working-class district southeast of Los Angeles “are becoming cynical as to whether those opportunities exist for them,” as tuition increases at colleges and universities far outpace inflation and financial aid struggles to keep pace.

“For my sister and I, these opportunities really helped us achieve what I think is the American dream, which is that your children will be able to have a better life than you do,” she says. “Without those programs, the picture is very bleak for the communities that I represent.”

But let’s forget about the weighty subject of immigration for a moment. For the third straight year, Sanchez was the only Democratic woman to play in June’s congressional baseball game, recording two hits while donning the jersey of her hometown Long Beach State Dirtbags.

So where does she stand on Los Angeles’s real red-blue divide: Angels or Dodgers?

“We grew up as Angel fans, and I supported the Angels through every losing season that they had. But when Nolan Ryan left the Angels to pitch for the Astros, I became a Dodger fan, and I’ve never looked back.”