Harris, Sanchez Duel At Center of California Democratic Convention

Kamala Harris speaks at the California Democratic Convention May 16, 2015. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

It was milk and cookies versus margaritas and mambo.

The contest for the U.S. Senate is only days old, but already the stark stylistic differences between the two Democratic women vying to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer were on full display at this weekend’s California Democratic Party convention in Anaheim.

Supporters of Attorney General Kamala Harris —  known for her cautious and measured political style — lined up to take pictures and munch on cookies across the plaza from backers of the energetic and somewhat unpredictable U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana). Sanchez’s party featured pumping Latin music, and a throng of supporters and reporters crowded around her, asking questions and asking her to pose for pictures.

The two women didn’t exchange a word, but the burgeoning Senate race was on everyone’s mind.

And while Sanchez has already thrown some barbs at her opponent, questioning Harris’ lack of foreign policy experience, the issues outlined by both women this weekend were remarkably similar: Economic security. Jobs. Equality.

They’re both Democrats, after all.

But their stylistic differences were apparent. Harris’ media access was closely controlled, including a news conference at a podium where she took just a handful of questions.  Sanchez flitted in and out of caucuses, answering questions throughout the day. She also  ignited some controversy when she made a war cry sound with her hand and mouth when talking about Native Americans — a gesture widely criticized as offensive, and one Sanchez apologized for Sunday.

Whether voters will have serious policy differences to choose between, however, remains to be seen.

When asked about the race at her “Margaritas & Mambo!” reception, hosted by the Young Latino Democrats, Sanchez focused squarely inside our borders.

“It’s always about jobs,” she said. “For so many of our families, California is just a beautiful place, we have been lucky, we are leading the United States out of the recession. But I have got to tell you, there are a still a lot of people who have lost their homes, who are troubled, who are underemployed. And so we are going to show how we work with the business community to get those good-paying jobs into California.”

In her Sunday speech to the convention, Sanchez framed herself as someone from humble beginnings who has not forgotten her roots. She touted her years working on behalf of victims of sexual assault, against human trafficking and her vote against invading Iraq.

And while she apologized for Saturday’s stumble, she used the apology to launch a subtle dig at Harris.

“Those of you who don’t hide behind the handlers, you know how hard it can be to put yourself out there day in and day out. Sooner or later we make mistakes, we are all human,” she said. “I believe Ms. Harris also has an inspirational story, and I look forward to a good, clean, hard campaign.”

Harris hit similar policy themes as Sanchez in a 15-minute speech to the convention, focusing on her work as a career prosecutor helping the state’s most vulnerable citizens, and framing criminal justice issues as part of a larger fight for equality.

Supporters of Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez were busy at the California Democratic Convention.
Supporters of Rep. Loretta Sanchez were busy at the California Democratic Convention. (Marisa Lagos/KQED News)

“I’ll tell you, when we were growing up, we talked about opportunity as a ladder, and that ladder of opportunity described America as a place where anyone could lift themselves up, anyone could reach higher, and everyone has a right to the American dream,” she said to cheers.

“And of course, we know what the rungs are on that ladder — universal public education. Meaningful access to college or a trade. A job that can support a family, the dream of home ownership and the dignity that comes with a secure retirement.”

There are two Republicans in the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer — Assemblyman Rocky Chávez (R-Oceanside) and former state GOP chairman Tom Del Beccaro. But with Democrats’ 15-point voter registration advantage in this deep-blue state, observers expect the real fight to be between the Democratic candidates.

Until last week, the race looked like Harris’ to lose. The former prosecutor lost no time announcing her candidacy within days of Boxer’s announcement she would step down after 2016, and one by one, potential challengers — from billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antiono Villaraigosa — all stepped aside.

But Latino leaders made clear from the beginning that they would like to see a Latino in the race, and Harris’ supporters caught heat for what some Democrats saw as an attempted coronation as she furiously raised cash and locked up key endorsements.

Sanchez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, started her political career in 1996, unseating Rep. Bob Dornan. Since then, the former financial analyst, 55, has made a name for herself as an outspoken and sometimes controversial politician who isn’t afraid to tackle tough issues, including sexual assault in the armed services.

Sanchez knows that one major area setting her apart from Harris is her foreign policy experience — she’s a senior member of both the House Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee.

Harris, by contrast, is a career prosecutor who served as San Francisco’s district attorney before winning a tough battle to become state attorney general in 2010. No stranger to controversy herself, the 50-year-old daughter of an Indian-American mother and African-American father has sought to set herself apart from the traditional law-and-order prosecutor. She authored a book called “Smart on Crime” and as the state’s top cop has focused on broader issues, including school truancy and holding banks accountable for the mortgage crisis. A prolific fundraiser, she’s also known as a cautious politician loath to wade into controversial areas that could mark the Senate race.

An early poll showed Harris with decent support, but indicated there are big openings for other candidates.

Harris, Sanchez Duel At Center of California Democratic Convention 22 May,2015Marisa Lagos


Marisa Lagos

Marisa Lagos reports on state politics for KQED’s California Politics and Government Desk, which uses radio, television and online mediums to explore the latest news in California’s Capitol and dig deeper into political influence in the Golden State. Marisa also appears on a weekly podcast analyzing the week’s political news.

Before joining KQED, Marisa worked  at the San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Times, and, most recently, for nine years at the San Francisco Chronicle where she covered San Francisco City Hall and state politics, focusing on the California legislature, governor, budget and criminal justice. In 2011, she won a special award for extensive and excellent work in covering California justice issues from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and also helped lead the Chronicle’s award-winning breaking news coverage of the 2010 San Bruno Pacific Gas & Electric explosion. She has also been awarded a number of fellowships from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Marisa has a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She and lives in San Francisco with her two sons and husband. Email: mlagos@kqed.org Twitter @mlagos Facebook facebook.com/marisalagosnews

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